Breaking the Care-Sound Barrier in Politics

To get more women political leaders, we arguably need models of politics that accommodate care. But where to start – and how? There are no great models of care-sensitive polities, and are we assured of a virtuous circle: more women in politics = more care-sensitivity = more women in politics? I suspect not. When it comes to getting a more care-sensitive politics, part of the problem is a profound deafness to the concerns of unpaid care work.

At first glance it’s obvious that the characteristic carelessness of political institutions and cultures comes from their hyper-masculinity. The mother of all parliaments, the British House of Commons, notoriously has more bars than spaces to breast-feed or change a nappy. Legislative debates resemble less a space for democratic deliberation than a bear-pit in most countries: actual violence is not unheard of. Whenever I read that some woman politician has brought her child to work I think not: ‘what a superb challenge to hyper-masculine politics!’ but: ‘is that safe?’ Little wonder it is hard and unsatisfying for most women to build political careers. Trying to get politics to be care-friendly feels like trying to take the sexism out of strip clubs: unimaginable, a doomed attempt to denature an animal.

If politics are care-less because they are too masculine, the obvious answer is more women, right? Not so fast. One thing we know from our efforts to get care onto development policy agendas is that the political economy of care is as much about class as gender: such efforts often run aground on the indifference – hostility, even – of elite women in high positions to listen to such trivialities. As the new Pathways book tracing the routes to power of women political leaders shows, how women in politics devolve their care responsibilities tends to be the starting point for their success, or otherwise, in public life. It is not surprising, then, that those arrangements are protected at all costs. Nor is it coincidence that whereas your average male politico will feature in a scandal involving sex with interns or chambermaids, scandals involving women politicians more often than not involve the immigration status of their nanny.

What is going on here? A reasonably powerful class interest works against breaking the sound barrier with respect to care. And there are risks associated with being the (woman) politician who speaks of the wiping of bums as a policy issue: where women politicians are rare, who wants to be pigeon-holed and mocked by drawing attention to issues most people think are best left private? As Rosalind Eyben argues in her analysis of why care remains off the development agenda, embarrassment, that formidable emotion, is a sign that power is at work, ensuring silence about care.

I once heard the care-sound barrier being broken to stunning effect. It was at a meeting in which a woman sub-district councillor in rural Bangladesh broke into a folk song about a girl coming of age and starting to menstruate. She sang to a group of women constituents. (They were rapt. I confess I cringed inside). The councillor was making the point, singing from behind her official’s desk, that women’s lives and needs are different to men’s; toilets and sanitary napkins are every bit as vital to girls’ education as textbooks and pencils. In a context where public acknowledgement of women’s bodies is taboo, the effect was electrifying: suddenly the space became one in which awkward ‘private’ matters could be aired as if relevant to public policy. Women spoke about violence, the challenges of making a living when domestic needs went unmet. There was discussion about what might be done.

With her brave challenge to the silences of conventional politics the singing councillor is a rarity: other women councillors I met fell easily into the tracks of conventional politics, treating their women constituents as weak objects of charity, not citizens from whom a mandate for change should come.

Where then is the impetus for a more care-sensitive politics? More women in politics may help, but elite women are unlikely to shout about care unless there is political capital to be made. The best chance seem to be an opportunistic mix of frontline tactics and strategic re-imagining. First, the organisations that ‘grow’ women political leaders need to sort out their own house. Civil society organisations, NGOs and social movements all need to be more serious about care if women are going to cut their political teeth there – a familiar problem with progressive and left organisations. Second, political cultures need to be embarrassed: we need political entrepreneurs brave enough to turn ‘private’ issues into urgent policy matters – turning the tables to loudly ridicule elite politicians who fail to recognise the priority of care in citizens’ lives. And there is a task here for researchers and policy activists to help translate and amplify the problems everyone grumbles about – paid-work/family work balance, safe, nutritious and affordable food, reliable childcare - into policy ‘asks’: a process of ‘naming, framing, claiming and programming’, as Rosalind Eyben puts it. After decades of undermining care through development policies that have commodified everyday life, we see signs that governments in countries like Bangladesh and Indonesia, where our partners have been working, are alert to the costs of neglecting care. But they know neither what to do about it, nor have a strong mandate for action. Time to organise politically – and to start by breaking the care-sound barrier in politics.

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