Feminism and Politics: A Comparative Perspective

Feminism and Politics: A Comparative Perspective

by Joyce Gelb

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This incisive work provides a comparative political analysis of the women's movement in England, the United States, and Sweden from the 1960s to the present. Based on extensive interviews in each of the three countries, Feminism and Politics focuses not only on the internal dynamics of the movements themselves, but also on the relationship of feminist politics to the political process as a whole and to the economic and ideological context.

Joyce Gelb finds that differences in the feminist movements in each country relate to systemic and cultural differences. In Britain the closed nature of the political system has greatly narrowed opportunities for feminist political activities. By contrast, the feminist movement in the United States has enjoyed relative autonomy and success, primarily because it has been unconstrained by the necessity of working through existing groups such as unions and political parties. In Sweden Gelb finds a situation in which the state has implemented many feminist policies but has allowed little ideological or political space for an autonomous movement.

In its scope and analysis, Feminism and Politics offers a valuable perspective on women's political activities.
This title is part of UC Press's Voices Revived program, which commemorates University of California Press’s mission to seek out and cultivate the brightest minds and give them voice, reach, and impact. Drawing on a backlist dating to 1893, Voices Revived makes high-quality, peer-reviewed scholarship accessible once again using print-on-demand technology. This title was originally published in 1989.

Product Details

ISBN-13: 9780520303324
Publisher: University of California Press
Publication date: 09/04/2018
Edition description: First Edition
Pages: 286
Product dimensions: 6.00(w) x 9.00(h) x 0.60(d)

About the Author

Joyce Gelb is Professor Emerita of Political Science at the City College of New York and the Graduate Center, City University of New York.

Read an Excerpt

Feminism and Politics

A Comparative Perspective
By Joyce Gelb

University of California Press

Copyright © 1989 Joyce Gelb
All right reserved.

ISBN: 0-520-06307-4

Chapter One


The 1960s and 1970s saw the resurgence of feminism as a social movement in virtually every Western nation. In each, the movement adapted to the history, culture, and politics of the society (Bouchier 1984). This book focuses on how cultural traits and political institutions have shaped feminist movements in Britain, the United States, and Sweden. As Helga Hernes (1983:33) has pointed out, women in the state occupy similar roles regardless of national boundaries: they are citizens, consumers, clients, and employees. But they are also claimants in the arena of public policy, seeking to gain economic and political rewards and contesting for power and access. This study examines the mechanisms and impact of their role as political claimants helping to identify and influence policies that affect their lives as women.

The purpose of this inquiry is to demonstrate how differences in British, American, and Swedish feminism relate to systemic and cultural differences. A major hypothesis of this analysis is that such differences, in the respective "political opportunity structures" (that is, institutions, alignments, and ideology), have patterned the development, goals, and values of feminist activists in each nation. In turn, it will be argued, movement structure and systemic differences have affected and constrained opportunities for movement impact within each nation. While the feminist activists in the United States, the United Kingdom, and Sweden share many objectives, they differ significantly in their style of political activism, leadership orientation, and organizational values (Jenson 1983). These differences interact with contrasting political opportunities to shape the success of feminist claims. The analysis defines alternate meanings for the concept of movement success. How the role of women activists themselves shapes political alternatives is a central question of this study.

Other political scientists have questioned the view that autonomous women's groups organized to fight for political power and policy gains are more likely to succeed than groups integrated into prevailing institutions (Adams and Winston 1980). This study will argue, based on the British and American experience and with a briefer look at Sweden, that gender-based women's groups that are separate from institutionalized interests such as parties and unions are more likely to develop independent strategies and political agendas of their own choosing, thus permitting greater political impact. This analysis seeks to demonstrate that autonomous feminist movements play a major role in the achievement of significant social change. Otherwise, women are acted upon as objects of social policy but are not participants in their own destinies (Siim 1982:34).

The three countries studied here were selected because they are all postindustrial Western democracies, with policies that are superficially similar regarding women's rights. Each has legislation on abortion rights and labor force equality (Sweden was the last to adopt the latter), and each has set up an administrative commission on equal opportunities to monitor sex discrimination laws, albeit with very different powers. Although all three societies have experienced similar trends, their significance for feminist politics differs. For example, while in all three nations women have simultaneously been mobilized and incorporated as new participants into the political process and into the expanding tasks of the modern state, particularly as these relate to women, these developments have proceeded in different ways and with different impacts in each nation (Hernes 1982:7).

The participation of women in the labor force has increased dramatically in each society, as have family "pathologies," such as divorce and female-headed families (although these are not viewed as "pathologies" in Sweden). Paradoxically, Sweden, which is noted world-wide for the equality in its progressive social policies, has the highest level of sex segregation in the labor force as well as the highest percentage of part-time workers who are women. In all three societies women and men are concentrated in specific occupations. Women are further segregated into a far smaller number of occupations than are men. These occupations are lower-paying; many are in the public sector service area. In one study (Jonung 1984:54) an index of sex-based dissimilarity in employment reveals 70.7 for Sweden (282 occupations), 66.1 for Britain (223 occupations), and 65.1 for the United States (441 occupations). Another study has found Sweden to have a score of 60 percent, the United States 46.8 percent, and Britain 31.1 percent (apparently reflecting at least in part the fact that British men are less concentrated in a few occupations) (ibid.).

This study will focus on 1) the sociopolitical context in which each movement operates, 2) the organization and strategies utilized by each movement, and 3) the impact of each movement on the political process, public attitudes, and public policy. Within the context suggested, the study examines three Western countries that provide three different political models and therefore three different approaches to feminist politics.

To analyze the impact of women's movements on the political process and in helping to structure policy alternatives and outcomes, we will contrast three different models of women's participation and activism: 1) interest group feminism in the United States; 2) left-wing/ ideological feminism in the United Kingdom; and 3) state equality in Sweden.

Interest group feminism is characterized by a relatively open political system, a focus on equal rights and legal equality (although many demands may go beyond mere reformism), and the creation of lobbying groups that may have a mass membership or be staff dominated. Networking and inclusiveness typify the approach to different political orientations within the women's movement.

Ideological, or left-wing, feminism is characterized by insistence on ideological purity and a reluctance to work with groups espousing different viewpoints. This type of feminist politics is decentralized and locally based, largely lacking a national political presence and impact. Fragmentation as well as enthusiastic commitment to sectarian (feminist) views typify this model.

State equality is characterized by the absence of a visible and influential feminist movement. Instead, women are active via political parties and, to a lesser degree, trade unions (as is true to some extent in left-wing feminism, as an alternative to local political action). The state has tended to anticipate or co-opt women's concerns into public policy, even without significant pressure from women's groups. Policies related to women are generally discussed within the framework of "equality" or "family" policy.

In this analysis, movement development, effectiveness, and impact are seen as largely dependent on external factors such as political environment and available resources. Among the environmental variables that appear to be particularly significant are the current political complexion of government, the structure of the central administrative process, and the state of the economy (Whitely and Winyard 1983:10-11). Examination of the structure of British politics, economics, and social life suggests a society highly traditional in its structure and values, a stagnant economy, and a centralized, secretive, and bureaucratically dominated system. These factors contribute to a political setting in which feminists tend to be isolated from the formal political system, from feminists with different perspectives and women in general, and from potential allies. Ideological divisions, rooted in class and other conflicts, inhibit the formation of coalitions dedicated to resolving women's political and economic needs.

We focus on the role and structure of feminism in the nations studied by examining two wings of feminism. The first is the women's liberation movement, often characterized as the more radical, or "younger," branch of the movement. Such groups in both the United States and Britain are distinguished by their emphasis on lifestyle change, provision of alternative services, and decentralization and anti-elitist values (Stacey and Price 1980:180). The second wing of feminism is that segment of the movement operating within the traditional policymaking structure. In the case of Britain, this segment participates in parties and unions that play a dominant role in the political system. In the United States, women tend to be effective primarily as interest group activists, given the primacy of pressure groups in the American political arena (although we will examine the role of women in parties and unions for comparative purposes). These two sets of feminist activists are roughly analogous to "militant" and "reformist" branches of contemporary feminism, although many British feminists would decline the honor of inclusion in the reformist camp. In Sweden, there is only one manifest face of feminism: that represented by women in parties and unions; the minute feminist movement is almost subterranean in character and visibility.

Among this study's major assumptions regarding the distinctions between the American, British, and Swedish systems are the importance in the United Kingdom and Sweden of centralized government and Parliament (called the Riksdag in Sweden) and the primacy of the administrative process.

Crucial variables affecting movement emergence and activism are the degree of corporatism/political centralization and pluralism. Schmitter's (1984) well-known definition characterizes corporatism as interest representation in which constituent units are organized into a limited number of singular, noncompetitive, hierarchically ordered and functionally differentiated categories, recognized or licensed by the state and granted a deliberate representational monopoly within their respective categories. Pluralism, in contrast, characterizes a society in which multiple, voluntary, competitive self-determined groups have access to state power. Table 1 makes the distinctions between the two approaches clearer. The United States, where strong or strongly structured pluralism prevails, is found on the pluralist/dispersed side of the continuum, while Britain and Sweden are placed close to the corporatist/centralist side.

In Table 2 we show how this structure may be supplemented to account for the organizational role of women's groups in the three nations studied.

The administrative process in the United Kingdom emphasizes ministerial responsibility and neutrality and operates behind closed doors, whereas in the United States there is far greater possibility for public scrutiny and intervention. British courts play a much more restricted role than their American counterparts. The American party system is looser and less dominant in the political system; and because power is fragmented-both both in executive/legislative relations and in the federal structure-it is more accessible to interest groups of all types. Swedish politics is usually characterized as a "consensual democracy" in which conflict and confrontation are customarily assiduously avoided. It resembles the British model of executive dominance and corporatism, although the political process incorporates a greater variety of groups.

The scope of government differs as well. In the United Kingdom the role of national government intervention in family and welfare policies (for example, the National Health Service) has been more firmly institutionalized, providing some support for British women in areas their American counterparts lack. Examples are child benefits (which are paid to mothers and were formerly called child tax allowances), maternity grants, and maternity allowances.

Welfare state benefits for women and children are greater in the United Kingdom than in the United States, including the non-means-tested child benefit of £5.25 per week, supplementary benefits, family income supplements, and rent rebates, although they are still far lower than those provided in most of the rest of industrialized Europe (the equivalent of $50 in British sterling, compared, for instance, with $93 in Hungary and $218 in France) (Norris 1984:43; Lewis 1985). After 1983, owing to a directive from the European Economic Community (EEC), married women on unemployment and sickness benefit could claim extra allowances for their children, although the new rights to Family Income Supplement and other benefits were significantly qualified by stringent requirements.

The United Kingdom has lower pay benefits for maternity and stricter eligibility conditions than any other European country (Dex and Shaw 1986:5; Coote and Campbell 1987:90-91). In comparison with the United States, Britain has legislated more extensive maternity benefits, but many women do not meet the benefit conditions. In the United States nearly half of women employees are provided with paid or unpaid maternity leave-large corporations are most likely to provide such benefits (Dex and Shaw 1986:14; Kamerman, Kahn, and Kingston: 1983). Thus, despite the existence of statutory maternity benefits in Britain, more American women appear to get such support (albeit from the private sector) because there are fewer restrictions in the United States (Dex and Shaw 1986:14).

The British have the least day-care space available for children of working mothers (ibid.). American women are more likely to depend on paid and out-of-home child care than are their British sisters. British families tend to rely on family-based child care provided by husbands and grandmothers; few utilize institutional or nonfamily care (Employment Gazette, May 1984:209).

In the United States, antipathy to centralized state power and reluctance to intervene in the family have resulted in a system of categorical grants; policies are fragmented and lack coordination, providing meanstested support only for poor women who are (mainly) single parents. The United States is alone among these three nations (and the democratic West as a whole) in having no national insurance system for childbirth medical expenses, no children's allowances, and no statutory care benefits to cover pregnancy and childbirth. Civil/welfare rights activities in the 1960s did, however, expand the public sector's support of the poor.

In Sweden, a generous policy of support is available to parents (of either sex) for child care, housing, and other benefits to ease the burdens for working family members. In 1971, child allowances were $212 in Sweden, $62 in the United Kingdom, and $0 in the United States; the ratio has not changed much since then (Heidenheimer, Heclo, and Adams 1983:207).


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