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(Re)presenting Women: Retooling Women’s Substantive Representation
Unformatted Document Text:  Christina Xydias p.10 American state legislatures in the 1970s and 1980s and conclude that a critical mass is necessary before women will fulfill their potential to represent women’s interests. Bratton (2005) studies state legislatures in California, Illinois and Maryland also finds evidence of women’s impact, but she reaches very different conclusions from Thomas and Saint-Germain regarding tokenism. Bratton argues, contrary to Kanter’s (1977) finding, that women politicians are actually more extroverted about their gender in contexts of minority status. While Kanter may have been correct about women in a private company setting, Bratton notes that “standing out” amongst other politicians is actually an asset. Unlike women employees of private companies, who are “performing” their job and gender only for other colleagues, women politicians “perform” before voters as well as their colleagues, and extra visibility could potentially be a career boost (100). While many of these studies do an outstanding job of examining whether legislators’ descriptive characteristics, per se, correspond with certain kinds of substantive representation, they nonetheless do not test Mansbridge et al’s contention that “special knowledge” is what gives descriptive representation substantive value. As I have discussed, these research designs begin with the assumption that the origins of women’s substantive representation lie in direct experience as women, 11 but this assumption is never explicitly hypothesized and tested. In my discussion of the extant literature thus far, I have not questioned how researchers have defined and operationalized women’s interests. In the section that follows, I will undertake a critique of how studies have essentialized these interests. What are women’s interests? Here I will claim that previous studies have oversimplified the range and diversity of women’s interests. This oversimplification is an example of essentialism: a discrete set of interests has been described as intrinsic and ascribed to a group of people (women) who are actually extremely diverse. In order to assess how diverse – namely, to “divine” the interests of women – studies can seek external indicators (observing situations or experiences that women share and inferring interests based upon them) or they can ask the people themselves (via surveys or similar direct means). Either way, I argue that there is significant variation among women, such that it is difficult to define women’s interests in a narrow way. In spite of this, much work has conflated women’s interests with feminism, broadly understood. 12 On the one hand, this conflation is understandable. Feminist goals (e.g., to expand women’s reproductive rights) motivate many women’s movements lobbying in the public sphere. However, not all women, including women legislators, share the same stance towards feminism. Progressive and conservative women, alike, may self-identify as advocates of women’s interests. 11 Direct experience as women is only one example of something exclusive to women that might facilitate women’s substantive representation. Another possibility would be that hormonal differences between males and females induce legislators to represent interests in gendered ways. This has not been tested in the political context, either. 12 As in the introduction, I define feminism very broadly to mean the advocacy of women having rights equal to men’s rights, with the goal of undoing traditional gender hierarchies.

Authors: Xydias, Christina.
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background image
Christina Xydias
p.10
American state legislatures in the 1970s and 1980s and conclude that a critical mass is
necessary before women will fulfill their potential to represent women’s interests.
Bratton (2005) studies state legislatures in California, Illinois and Maryland also
finds evidence of women’s impact, but she reaches very different conclusions from
Thomas and Saint-Germain regarding tokenism. Bratton argues, contrary to Kanter’s
(1977) finding, that women politicians are actually more extroverted about their gender in
contexts of minority status. While Kanter may have been correct about women in a
private company setting, Bratton notes that “standing out” amongst other politicians is
actually an asset. Unlike women employees of private companies, who are “performing”
their job and gender only for other colleagues, women politicians “perform” before voters
as well as their colleagues, and extra visibility could potentially be a career boost (100).
While many of these studies do an outstanding job of examining whether
legislators’ descriptive characteristics, per se, correspond with certain kinds of
substantive representation, they nonetheless do not test Mansbridge et al’s contention that
“special knowledge” is what gives descriptive representation substantive value. As I have
discussed, these research designs begin with the assumption that the origins of women’s
substantive representation lie in direct experience as women,
11
but this assumption is
never explicitly hypothesized and tested.
In my discussion of the extant literature thus far, I have not questioned how
researchers have defined and operationalized women’s interests. In the section that
follows, I will undertake a critique of how studies have essentialized these interests.

What are women’s interests?
Here I will claim that previous studies have oversimplified the range and diversity
of women’s interests. This oversimplification is an example of essentialism: a discrete
set of interests has been described as intrinsic and ascribed to a group of people (women)
who are actually extremely diverse. In order to assess how diverse – namely, to “divine”
the interests of women – studies can seek external indicators (observing situations or
experiences that women share and inferring interests based upon them) or they can ask
the people themselves (via surveys or similar direct means). Either way, I argue that there
is significant variation among women, such that it is difficult to define women’s interests
in a narrow way.
In spite of this, much work has conflated women’s interests with feminism,
broadly understood.
12
On the one hand, this conflation is understandable. Feminist goals
(e.g., to expand women’s reproductive rights) motivate many women’s movements
lobbying in the public sphere. However, not all women, including women legislators,
share the same stance towards feminism. Progressive and conservative women, alike,
may self-identify as advocates of women’s interests.
11
Direct experience as women is only one example of something exclusive to women that might
facilitate women’s substantive representation. Another possibility would be that hormonal
differences between males and females induce legislators to represent interests in gendered ways.
This has not been tested in the political context, either.
12
As in the introduction, I define feminism very broadly to mean the advocacy of women having
rights equal to men’s rights, with the goal of undoing traditional gender hierarchies.


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