Women up Front

28 Mar 2019

Politics should take advantage of women’s experience in solving social conflicts and in mediation work, where they are more active than are men, suggests philosopher Ana Marta González in this opinion piece.

Hanna Arendt thought of politics as the arena in which,  through their actions and words, individuals make their presence felt and shine precisely as such: as free agents able to set new things in motion, and not simply as the subjects of more or less general necessities. I’m unsure how much, in a world like ours – progressively colonized by anonymous processes and marketing strategies – there is still room for that innovative exercise of individual liberty. 

But what I’d like to touch on here is the old prejudice according to which politics – as a presumably privileged manifestation of personal individuality - are above all a men’s rather than a women’s thing in which the latter always sacrifice their individuality to the demands of their gender when carrying out any public charge. This is why, at best, one could speak of a generic “feminine culture,” as Georg Simmel did at the beginning of the 20th Century, while the primary lines of general culture were defined by masculine individualities. 

More than a century has passed since Simmel penned his reflections on the subject. Since then we’ve had ample proof of the existence of both feminine individualities that have led the way in the vast general culture, and also of social havens inclined to configure masculine cultural spaces on the basis of generally masculine attributes rather than on any particular individual creativity. In this context, nonetheless, what I find important is to remember the universal value of culture itself – in which each of us makes his or herself present at an individual level by his or her own merits, insofar as these are recognized as representing what is universally human. Culture, then, as a shared symbolic space, is simply human.

For this very reason, it should welcome equally masculine and feminine contributions, not in order to define masculine spaces on one side and feminine ones on the other, nor accepting the identification of the feminine with the private sphere and the masculine with the public realm, but rather by creating the conditions under which each - man or woman - can offer his or her best. Whether or not we believe that some attributes are generically masculine or feminine and should stake their claim on culture as such, what is certain is that those who embody them are always particular individuals, with fist and last names, men or women. What each one of them contributes to society is first and foremost the efficacy of his or her active presence. 

It follows then, that in the political realm – which because of its very visibility sets the bar for many other areas – it is noteworthy that the number of women in top-ranking positions can be counted on one hand. In Spain’s case, women have generally been more present in second-tier positions. We might ask ourselves why. A plausible explanation is that competitive dynamics between the first and second in command are more easily neutralized between different genders. 

Be that as it may, leadership is not a masculine privilege. Undoubtedly a leader should inspire security and confidence. But it is important not to confuse different realms. While it may have been reasonable in the distant past to entrust one’s safety to those who served as warriors, in societies like ours – diverse and changing – qualities required to govern effectively and intelligently are those that inspire confidence. That’s why ambition and bravery – which go hand-in-hand with political life – must be able to blend with the flexibility and intelligence needed to understand the cultural and social complexity of our time. 

It’s not at all easy to find this combination of qualities in the leaders at the helm of Spanish politics today.

What we see instead is more of a tension that lends itself to a not very subtle reading in terms of gender. If zoological comparisons were not so offensive, they could be applied here. Nonetheless, considering the shameful spectacle of some political leaders caught up more in disqualifying one another than in coming up with proposals of any substance, it’s only natural to wonder if the presence of women could modify somewhat the rules of the political game: if it would bring something new with it that could compensate so much stupidity, or if it would only copy or multiply the prevailing mediocrity and tensions.

What’s certain is that looking at the women who’ve had some prominence in Spanish political life, we could find both cases: of expertise and the capacity for work and dialogue, but also of flippancy and small-mindedness; of eloquence and of linguistic stumbles… In and of itself, the presence of women doesn’t solve anything more than does the mere presence of men, yet this could be due to the fact that women have generally had to adapt to rules that preceded them that favor confrontation over collaboration, and competition over constructive dialogue. Whatever the reason, we in fact find more women than men dedicated to solving social problems, or carrying out work in mediation and communication – something of which diverse and pluralistic societies like ours are especially in need. We might ask ourselves why this is.

It is said that it takes two to tumble, but the opposite is also true: it takes two to cooperate. I wonder what would happen if our parties and governments were led by women uncontaminated and unburdened by outdated political practices; if we had women able to understand and translate for society the complexity of the problems we face, and lead collaboration between the sexes, between teams, between territories. I wonder if Spanish society is ready for that kind of leadership. 

Ana Marta González is professor of philosophy and scientific leader of the Institute of Culture and Society at the University of Navarra. 

The original opinion column was published in Spanish by El Español on March 14, 2019.