Democracy and Gender: The Legitimation of Power in Modern Societies

Democracy and Gender: The Legitimation of Power in Modern Societies

Hedwig Richter, Universität der Bundeswehr München; Clara Maier, Humboldt Universität zu Berlin
Vom - Bis
26.05.2021 - 28.05.2021
Url der Konferenzwebsite
Jonas Anderson, Historisches Institut, Universität der Bundeswehr München

The emergence of democracy in the nineteenth and twentieth centuries was entangled with radical changes in gender relations in a multitude of complex ways. Yet, the study of the concrete connections between these two phenomena remains marginalized in the historiography of democracy. There is nonetheless a wide-ranging theoretical debate on gender, the role of concepts of masculinity for the definition and legitimation of politics, as well as expansive literature on women’s exclusion from politics, but this literature exists in isolation from a mostly social and cultural history of women’s political participation. The conference aimed to combine these political-theoretical and historical perspectives in a new way, and to expand the scope of research on gender and democracy in the fields of the history of political thought and political history.

The conference was opened with BARBARA STOLLBERG-RILINGER’s (Berlin) keynote address. She explored how the gender order and systems of rule were interrelated in early modern Europe. While juxtaposing the general problem of the legitimacy of female rule (topos of gynaecocracy) and the socially inferior status of women with the reality of various forms of female access to power in early modern monarchies, Stollberg-Rilinger developed the hypothesis that rank constituted a stronger exclusion criterion than gender. When it served the interests of a dynasty (most notably with regard to succession) the established gender order could be suspended and women could become rulers. Drawing on the example of Austrian sovereign Maria Theresia, who was crowned king and not queen of Hungary, she underscored how gender identity in the early modern period was much more flexible than in the later revolutionary era and bourgeois societies where women were rigorously excluded from political participation and power.

In their opening remarks, the conference co-organizers pointed to the role of gender in historical and recent analyses of democracy. HEDWIG RICHTER (Munich) explained that while ideas of universality were important roots of modern democracy, notions of equality shared conceptions of exclusivities. This becomes very clear in the case of gender. In the 18th and 19th centuries, links between power and gender exclusion can be found in crucial developments, such as the subject formation, the genesis of state and nation, and the processes of differentiation. CLARA MAIER (Berlin) looked at the more recently proclaimed crisis of western democracy and ascertained that gender in this context is not at the forefront of political analysis which mostly focusses on socioeconomic explanations. With a view to the 20th century, she noted that in the nexus of critiques of democracy, femininity was linked to the hysterical downsides of democracy, leading to the conviction that it has to be tamed.

The first panel drew on those topics and dealt with the crisis of democracy’s legitimacy. BIRGIT SAUER (Vienna) explored right-wing populism as male identity politics. She observed right-wing actors’ obsession with the concept of gender since the turn of the century and took anti-gender mobilization as a sign of a pursuit of an anti-democratic project. While right-wing populists proclaim a “crisis of masculinity,” the transformation of gender regimes with increasing equality offers an explanation for the rise of the authoritarian right. To the construed crisis, the right reacts with a program of masculinist identity politics that emphasizes reestablishing the social order along a gendered binary with the nuclear family at its core. The binary gender image divides society into two distinct groups that are conceived as being naturally unequal. This inequality makes the sovereignty of the people impossible and justifies the need for strong, and thus masculine, leadership. By prohibiting the deconstruction of the people, the populist right-wing project has accordingly become anti-democratic and not simply illiberal.

RUDOLF STICHWEH (Bonn) examined the relevance of gender in the rise of modern political systems. While early modern states were characterized by a hierarchical order in which the highest stratum, consisting of extended families, dominated society, modern states differ significantly from this structure. Functionally differentiated spheres of society are defined by a collection of institutions and roles, while the state takes on collectively binding decision-making functions and switches dominating subjects to deriving legitimacy from citizens. In functionally differentiated societies, women are primarily members of families but have been included in the other systems over time. Thus, as both men and women are required components of functional systems, such systems advance gender equality.

The second panel addressed the role of women as voters and in processes of political change. FRANK BÖSCH (Potsdam) analyzed female voting behavior in Germany since 1949 and assessed that women strongly preferred conservative parties up to the 1970s. As the party of the religious milieu, the CDU attracted women who were more strongly connected to religious networks than men and described themselves as politically centrist, which meant that women often did not vote like their husbands. With the decreasing social importance of the church, younger women turned towards the left in the 1970s. The gender gap nonetheless remained effective. Neither the radicalism of the Green Party nor that of far-right parties appealed to women who stuck to voting for parties conceived as being at the “center.” Recently, with the Green Party’s deradicalization, “green conservatism” has become the preferred option among women.

JESSICA BOCK (Berlin) shared her work on the entanglements between the women’s movement and the 1989 peaceful revolution in East Germany. Women who were active in these political movements linked the fight for democracy to a feminist reform project and put themselves in the tradition of the bourgeois German women’s movement of the 19th century. Civil-rights activists like Petra Lux of the Neues Forum encouraged women to engage in politics and to seek access to centers of power. In times of political change, women’s rights became an important issue: While female activists gained democratic experiences as in the occupation of the Ministry for State Security (Stasi; Ministerium für Staatssicherheit) or the round tables, they were anxious not to be relegated to the private sphere after the revolution and lobbied for a quota system to keep women visible in the new system.

The third panel explored the legitimating power of masculinity. With a focus on gendered characteristics of speech, JOSEPHINE HOEGAERTS (Helsinki) gave an insight into the tension between representational and monarchical political practices in 19th-century Britain and showed how closely imaginations of political representations were connected to constructions of masculinity. With speech being the most important form of political communication in the 19th century, the particular sounds of the queen and of members of parliament (MP) were contrasted, leading to the co-construction of a political sphere that was coded “masculine” in new, modern ways. The “musicality”, charm, and enunciation of Queen Victoria’s voice provided a contrast to the increasingly normative view of the MP as rational, straightforward, and monotonous. The uniformity of men’s sound, dress and behavior served to create a distinct “class” of people who could be politically active and part of the public sphere.

GUNDULA LUDWIG (Bremen) discussed how social hygiene regimes of knowledge served as technologies of democratization in the Weimar Republic. The Transformation from the German Empire to democracy was not firmly established with the proclamation of the republic in 1918 but the question of the nature of democracy was negotiated during the entire existence of the Weimar Republic. In this context, discourses of social hygiene transported a certain interpretation of democracy as a system of personal responsibility. Like in questions of personal hygiene, in a democracy people should be taught to act responsibly. They were no longer subjects but citizens, and thus responsible for the functioning of the political system as they were for the health of their bodies and their reproduction. This brought with it a technocratic understanding of politics that, while fostering self-responsibility, also had repercussions for National Socialism.

DANIEL GERSTER (Hamburg) presented his research on the nexus of gender and power in British and German boarding schools in the late 19th and early 20th centuries. Middle- and upper-class families in both countries sent their sons to boarding schools to empower them as men, which involved acquiring knowledge and morality, strengthening their personal skills and their bodies, and learning how to interact socially. The underlying concepts of masculinity in boarding school education were quite similar and differed only in the more authoritarian relationship of German teachers to their pupils and the body-centered masculinity in British schools that could be seen in games and athleticism. While progressive educators founded new boarding schools around 1900 and claimed to overcome traditional structures, the issues of co-education and student’s self-governing underscore how this did not happen until the First World War.

The fourth panel addressed the representation of gendered orders. IMKE HABERS (Amsterdam) and JENNIFER PISCOPO (Los Angeles) dealt with the issue of birth registration and patterns of political inclusion in Mexico. Birth registration can be, especially for parents living in remote areas of the country, a costly and time-consuming undertaking, which is why they make a cost-benefit calculation before deciding to register their children. This calculation yields a negative for female babies, as women are less likely to be enrolled in school, own property, or enter the formal labor market and are thus registered less often than boys. This “gender penalty” does not correlate with political variables but with women’s social and economic marginalization. As such, a timely legal identity for girls hinges on addressing the structural gender inequality.

HARM KAAL (Nijmegen) shared his preliminary work on gender, diversity, and parliamentary culture in the Netherlands and explored the complicated situation that female members of parliament faced in the early 20th century. Women like the first female Dutch MP Suze Groeneweg had to deal with expectations placed on them by both suffragettes and male MPs. They thus stood before the task to be visible as fighters for women’s rights but also had to adapt to a parliamentary culture that was constructed as “masculine.”

The fifth and last panel centered on topics of difference and inclusion. ILSE LENZ (Munich) presented her work on the potential of processual intersectionality. In debates on identity politics, cultural struggles around the legitimacy of demands for inclusion and a polarized political language was evident. While traditional left speakers refuse to reflect on exclusion and see identity politics as a threat to the fight for social justice, queer, feminist, or antiracist speakers construct dualisms and invest an absolute moral symbolical capital. The extreme right on the other hand normalizes populism that draws on racism and sexism. Against those polarized stances, how intersectional political participation is evolving towards more selective participation and a more flexible gendered order can be observed.

BIRTE FÖRSTER (Bielefeld) addressed the history of acquiring citizenship in French colonial Africa. In French West Africa, a complex system of legal categories regularized the statuses of the indigenous population. While the inhabitants of the Quatre Communes, the four oldest colonial towns, could technically enjoy all the rights of native French citizens, very few became so-called Evolués and gained full French citizenship. The granting of citizenship resulted from processes of comparison: Indigenous peoples had to live up to French standards and were evaluated by French colonial officials. Whereas those practices were generally marked by exclusivity and differentiation, they can also be described as gender-related exclusion, as integration was only possible for men.

Following political theorist John Dunn’s description of democracy as a political form of fraternity, ANNA BECKER (Aarhus) explored the gendered connotations of debates on democracy in early modern Europe. Focusing on the Italian city republics, she showed how citizenship and democratic rule was often linked to gendered categories such as brotherhood or marriage. Brothers were understood as being equals and companions who shared mutual love and affection, so the image of fraternity seemed ideal to describe the relationship of equal citizens who shared a love of their city. Nevertheless, it implied the danger of disorder due to a lack of authority, like a household without a father. An answer to this problem lay in the comparison of the civil regime with the shared head of household status by a wife and a husband who were conceived as equals, although they held different hierarchical ranks.

The concluding round table brought together the conference’s central topics and lively discussed continuities and discontinuities in the questions of gender and power.

Conference overview:

Merith Niehuss (University President): Welcome

Clara Maier (Berlin) / Hedwig Richter (Munich): Welcome

Barbara Stollberg-Rilinger (Berlin): Monarchie und Geschlecht: Herrschaftslegitimation im frühneuzeitlichen Europa

Democracy’s Legitimacy in Crisis?
Chair: Paula-Irene Villa Braslavsky (Munich)

Birgit Sauer (Vienna): Constructing the people - de(con)structing the demos. Right-wing populism as male identity politics.

Rudolf Stichweh (Bonn): Democracy and Inclusion: The Rise of Modern Political Systems and the Relevance of Gender

Female Rule: A Special Kind of Power?
Chair: Jonas Anderson (Munich)

Frank Bösch (Potsdam): The political center: Female voters in the Federal Republic of Germany since 1949

Jessica Bock (Berlin / Dresden): "Women, get into politics!" - The significance of "1989" in the history of democracy and the women's movement

The Legitimating Power of Masculinity
Chair: Verena Wirtz (Munich)

Josephine Hoegaerts (Helsinki): A ’Queen of Hearts’ and Men of Reason? Creating a sensuous divide between sovereignty and representation in the House of Lords, 1837-1901

Gundula Ludwig (Bremen): Bodypolitics and Democracy. How Social Hygienic Regimes of Knowledge Served as (Undemocratic) Technologies of Democratization in the Weimar Republic

Daniel Gerster (Hamburg): Educating the Ruling Class. Gender and Power in British and German Boarding Schools, 1870 to 1930

Representing Gendered Orders
Chair: Daniel Gerster (Hamburg)

Imke Harbers (Amsterdam) / Jennifer Picscopo (Los Angeles): Uneven Citizenship: Gender Bias, Birth Registration, and Patterns of Political Inclusion in Mexico

Harm Kaal (Nijmegen): Privileged Bodies. Gender, Diversity and Parliamentary Culture in The Netherlands

Difference and Inclusion
Chair: Marc Frey (Munich)

Ilse Lenz (Munich): Democracy and differences - the potential of processual intersec- tionality

Birte Förster (Bielefeld)

Anna Becker (Aarhus): Friendship, fraternity, and female trouble. Debating democracy in early modern Europe

Comment and debate with Paula-Irene Villa Braslavsky, Josephine Hoegaerts, and Rudolf Stichweh