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Women and Political Participation: Cultural Change in the Political Arena.

By M. Margaret Conway, Gertrude A. Steuernagel, and David W. Ahem. Washington, DC: CQ Press, 1997. xii, 162p. $22.95 paper.

Susan B. Hansen, University of Pittsburgh

The title of this book does not fully convey the scope of this survey of political behavior by women at both mass and elite levels in the United States. The authors review a broad literature on women's political history, socialization, attitudes, and voting behavior. They analyze the many reasons women's political role has been (and still is) constrained, the increasing political activism of women in recent years, and (to a lesser extent) the effect of that involvement. They also explore trends in the election of women to public office. Overall, the book offers a real benefit, both to students and to the profession, by summarizing the very considerable research in recent years on women's political role.

The volume begins with a serviceable but rather limited definition of political participation: "those activities of citizens that attempt to influence the structure of government, the selection of government authorities, or the policies of government" (p. 4). Not until chapter 6, on women political elites, do the authors consider a broader view of "politics" and "participation" that would include the many actions of women within their families and communities and on behalf of a long list of reform movements. They do note that politics has long been defined in terms of masculine norms of conflict, power, and aggressive leadership, in contrast to women's emphasis on consensus-building, empowerment, and problem solving. Unlike Georgia Duerst-Lahti and Rita Mae Kelly (Gender Power, Leadership, and Governance, 1995), they do not devote much attention to feminist critiques of the gendered nature of power and public institutions. The dilemma, of course, is that even electing more women will not necessarily further women's interests if the structures within which they must work are not transformed. But the book does point to numerous examples of how women have, indeed, made a difference.

Overall, the book is more descriptive than theoretical. The authors attempt to unify their discussion around the theme of cultural change, and they document the sweeping transformations that have occurred in women's lives in terms of education, work outside the home, access to the professions, control of fertility, and the resulting changes in social expectations. Many of these trends have expanded the political roles and opportunities available to women but not in any simple or direct way. Despite gains in education and in the economy, women still exhibit less interest in politics, are less likely to contribute or proselytize, and remain disproportionately underrepresented in public office (especially at the executive level and beyond local government). Left unaddressed are the troubling questions as to why these immense cultural changes have not translated into more political power for women, and why the United States lags so far behind many other democracies in this respect.

The strongest chapters are those on gender differences in political attitudes and trends in participation by gender. Much of this material is drawn from the American National Election Studies, and numerous graphs and tables present the data clearly (although some of the text descriptions of percentage differences can be tedious.) At times, the contrast of male and female viewpoints is essentialist, and the brief chapter on differences among women considers only differences in feminist consciousness. It would have been useful to include more analysis of the wide differences among women of different age, ethnic background, and marital status; other researchers have found that African-American women are particularly supportive of feminism. As Iris Young has pointed out, women form a series or potential group rather than a distinct analytic category, and women's willingness to identify with feminism or with other women may vary over time depending on the issues or the candidates ("Gender as Seriality: Thinking about Women as a Social Collective," Signs 19 [Spring]: 713-38). Changes in ANES question wording make comparisons across time problematic, but Table 4-2 shows considerably higher "feminist consciousness" in the 1992 "Year of the Woman." It will be interesting to compare 1992 with rankings for 1994 and 1996, when the political cues were quite different.

The book could have been strengthened by more detailed consideration of the links among attitudes, policy priorities, and participation. Particularly in this era of single-issue politics, people may become active because of strong opinions on their priority issues (abortion is a likely candidate). The authors do show a connection between political activity and "feminist consciousness": defined as women who identify with women as a group with shared political interests. But without multivariate analysis we cannot conclude that feminist consciousness, by itself, leads to political activity, since better educated women, who also participate more actively, are also more likely to support feminist policy goals. The authors also discuss surveys of women evangelicals, and the results of these might have been highlighted to contrast with women who exhibit feminist consciousness. Due in part to the Christian Coalition, women on the Right and prolife forces have become much more mobilized in recent years.

Since 1980, women have voted in greater numbers than men, but institutional factors such as party, incumbency, and single-member districts mean that women's votes are not easily translated into political clout. More women have been elected, but they still constitute less than 10% of Congress and only 21% of state legislatures. Until quite recently, few women were in a position to be identified as feminists or to stress issues of particular concern to women. This changed somewhat after the pathbreaking 1992 election, but as the authors show, the results of the 1994 election and the Republican control of Congress have pushed much of the feminist agenda to the back burner. They note that the political parties and legislative leadership have not been very willing to advance women into positions of real power. When women do run for office, they can raise money and win at rates approximating those of men. But many well-qualified women are reluctant to run in the current era of negative and costly campaigns, although women's PACs such as Emily's List and WISH are trying to change that.

The authors give a cursory overview of the effect women have had on politics and policy, summarizing studies from the Center for American Women and Politics, and analyze women's voting and agenda-setting activities in Congress, state legislatures, and local government. They provide colorful anecdotes about many individual women who have made a difference (Barbara Jordan, Sandra Day O'Connor, Madeleine Albright, Carolyn McCarthy, Hillary Clinton); these role models have encouraged other women to become more politically active, and the examples enliven the text for undergraduate readers. But other researchers have stressed the importance of having a critical mass of women, or a women's caucus, or women in leadership positions before much can be accomplished in male-dominated and tradition-bound institutions. As Susan Faludi argued in Backlash (1991), the movement of more women into positions of political power could also promote countermobilization; more political activism by women may not necessarily further the feminist agenda.
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Title Annotation:Review
Author:Hansen, Susan B.
Publication:American Political Science Review
Article Type:Book Review
Date:Jun 1, 1999
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