Professor Mary Evans, Centennial Professor at LSE’s Gender Institute, reviews the past few months of global politics and argues for a continued need for a gendered analysis of world events.
Where’s Wally ? is an illustrated children’s book in which children are invited to find, amidst the hundreds of other characters on each page, the elusive Wally. Watching newsreels and reading newspapers about the various political events in the Middle East in recent months it is very tempting to play a version of the same game, except in this case we are not looking for one person but for a whole missing part of humanity…women. The people on the tanks and the streets are more or less exclusively male and the most visible presence of women that I have seen was that point when central Cairo needed clearing up.
So should we mind? Does it matter? Is the struggle for different forms of politics any worse because it would seem to be conducted by a somewhat exclusive biological group? Does a visual impression actually convey the reality of the political changes taking place? Perhaps there are far too many questions (and far too many different contexts) for there to be any one answer. But one thing that is striking is that there is very little comment about the visual absence of women and that this is accompanied by that ancient slippage of language in which ‘the people’ are taken for granted as male people. So commentators speak in gender neutral categories (‘the insurgents’, ‘the protesters’ and so on) but what never emerges as a question (let alone something that might be discussed) is how and why these categories are so rigidly gendered.
But this question is surely an important one, not least because it might push us beyond those perceptions of countries ‘not like us’ to ask about our own political perceptions and the ways in which our expectations of social and political change are so often and so irrevocably linked to the expectation of male political agency. Thus we might want to consider not just the explicit patterns of the exclusion of women from politics (be they formal or informal) that exist but the ways in which our own assumptions about women and politics links women with politics about women, within a general framework established by men. In this assumptive world we do not then have to question the gender of politics but can rest with both conservative and radical expectations. In the former case women are simply (or not so simply) kept out of politics by various means, in the latter it is assumed that political values and aspirations are sufficiently transcendent to involve no questions about gender or biology. At the present moment, when – at least in the UK and the USA – it would appear that any interests other than those of groups most likely to benefit from global finance capital are to be marginalised, it is crucial, I would suggest, to continue to record that poverty, privilege and power are all gendered. We need to continue to recognise the connection between those famous spheres of the private and the public and the complex relations of politics to gender. It matters that women do not appear as a literal, visual presence in political events not just because this absence matters in itself, but because of what we do not ask about it.