When democratic systems and states first evolved in ancient Greece, women were not considered as part of the politically active demos, just as they were publicly insignificant under previous hierarchical ruling systems. Despite the rapid industrialization and revolutions of the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries, women’s role in democratic governments did not significantly improve until the turn of the twentieth century, when, generally, women finally attained the right to formally participate in the voting process, even though in some countries, such as Switzerland, the right to vote had only been attained by women as late as the 1980s (Dunn, 1992).
Although democracy, as a system of government, has continually evolved to better enhance its core concepts of public participation and equality, such as in the birth of liberal democracy, where the liberalist concepts of freedom and individualism are combined with the equality of democracy, the fate and condition of women have not significantly changed. Issues like wage differences between male and females, differential public representation and the fundamental patriarchal structure of the society still ensures that women experience grave inequalities even under liberal democratic governments. For instance, in terms of wage difference, it is reported that women’s average hourly pay for full time work represents just about 88 percent of her male counterpart; compared to the most males working full time, only about 41 percent of women work full time, while about two-thirds of the poorest pensioners are women in Britain. Also, in public representation, it is estimated that at the current rate of progress, it would take 200 years for women to gain a fair share of power in Britain (Equal Opportunities, 2007).Liberal Democracy and FeminismLiberal democracy developed at about the same time as feminism, and is now accepted as the status quo in several western nations, though the issues that gave birth to the feminist movements still remain in contention.
Liberal democracy sought to further extend the reach of democracy; while the latter encouraged and ensured public participation in governance, it is further strengthened by the liberalist concepts of ‘freedom’, the right of every individual to define his/her live (Beetham, 1993).Feminism, as it is presently envisioned was borne out of the French Revolution of the eighteenth century. The call of Olympe de Gouges in the Paris Commune of 1793 that “if a woman has the right to ascend the scaffold, she must also have the right to ascend the rostrum” gave rise to the first feminist movement. This was significantly followed by Elisabeth Cady Stanton and her colleagues’ call for women’s right during the anti-slavery movements of the nineteenth century United States (Wilford, 1994). Although the feminist movements proffer different reasons for the continued subordinate role of the women in the society and have all offered several varying solutions to these problems, all feminists movement have fundamentally accepted that women are oppressed in the society and that the current societal structure and ruling systems must be modified or completely changed, depending on the perspective taken, to better the condition of women in the world.
However, liberal democracy has come under severe criticisms from the women movements because of its separation of the public from the private. The family structure is generally excluded from consideration under liberal democratic government, because it is considered as private. In contrasts, feminists have argued that the patriarchal structure of the family, where the women is as subordinate to the male head of the family, has not only been the most fundamental source of inequality in the society, it has also helped to foster this unequal structure irrespective of the government system adopted. Feminists believe that such unequal arrangement of the family structure opposes the intent and concept of democracy. Furthering this argument, Pateman (1989) stated that before liberal democracy evolved to distinguish between the public and private, the relationship between men and women was defined by their natural relationship in the society.
The author argued that while men gradually became equal, women continued in their subordinate roles as inferiors and subordinates to man with their roles secluded to the private part f the society. The author contend that for feminists, “democracy has never existed; women never have been and still are not admitted as full and equal members in any country known as a democracy” thus with the separation of the public and private in liberal democracy, the liberal society exists merely “as a series of male clubs” (Pateman, 1989 p210).From the foregoing, it is apparent that the continued inequality experienced by women in societies where liberal democracy is the status quo, is the result of deeply ingrained social and cultural factors. There is no contention that the right to vote and participate in the democratic process has been formally and legally attained by women for several decades, and as a result, they are supposed to be constitutionally equal with their male counterparts, however, social, cultural and economic conditions still pose serious barriers to the active participation of women in governance besides just ticking the ballot paper during elections.
The social and cultural barriers lies in the cultural conception of the differential roles the two sexes are expected to play in the society, while economic factors involve the differences in wages and earnings accruable to male and females of the same qualification and status in the society.Culturally, women are seen as fragile and easily corruptible. Several men writers and even some female writers have argued that the natural position of the female in the private is for her own benefits. It is argued that men, in their pursuits of fame and power become susceptible to ‘fads and fashions’, women can stay pure and uncorrupted in the private sphere of the society (Elshtain, 1997). Some also contend that women lack the capacity to be both a good private person and a good public person, that by entering into the public sphere of the society, women lose their essence and purity. This inherently patriarchal structure lies at the very foundation of liberal democracy, it should be expected therefore, that the system cannot grant more liberty to women than it has already done. This probably explains why some feminist movements call for a complete and radical change of the social, economic and political structure as the only way to ensure ‘real’ equality in the world.Economic inequality has also helped to strengthen the status quo.
Women, as a result of their cultural roles, are more exposed to part time jobs than full time jobs. Part time workers are known to earn far less compared to their full time counterparts, even for the same job. Besides, women in part time jobs earn less compared to men working part time, while men working full time also earn more than women working full time. This economic structure is sometimes precipitated on the cultural belief that men are more effective than women at any type of jobs, even if they have they same qualification. These huge differences between the types of jobs and earnings available to women also help foster the patriarchal structure of the society. For example, women often find it difficult to confidently claim a position in the public, since she have to choose between her private roles in the society and a public role that pays less her less than an average male of the same qualification is paid. Consequently, women discouraged from working return to their private roles, thus increasing the economic inequality between the two sexes (Elshtain, 1997).While the various causes of inequality are sometimes easy to appreciate, proffering solutions have been more difficult.
Several feminist movements have different ideas of how to improve equality in the world. Conservative feminist groups believe that women’s position in the society can be improved without completely changing the status quo. These women argue that equality in the world would be improved if women are granted more economic and social rights.
For instance, by ensuring that women are equally paid for jobs done, relative to their male counterpart, and by ensuring equal/fair representation women in the various government levels, the condition of women would significantly improve without changing the present government structures.However, for more radical groups like the socialist and Marxist feminists, the patriarchal and hierarchical nature of the present government system is the fundamental cause of the problem. This group contends that a complete overhaul of the liberal democratic system is required to improve the lots of women.
Some other groups contend that the problem with liberal democracy is the separation between public and private and the consequential inferiority of the female private roles. This group believes that the condition of women in the society can be improved if women’s roles and experiences are considered equally important as that of their men counterpart and thus are equally rewarded without discrimination. In sum, it is apparent that the one fact that all feminists will agree upon is that the condition of women would be considerably improved if their roles and experiences are not discriminated against, if they are considered, at least, as important as their male counterpart in the society and if they are allowed the liberty to define their lives without cultural and social limitations (Phillips, 1993).ConclusionDemocracy has been proclaimed as the best system of government that ensures public participation and equality for all.
However, even with its combination with concepts of liberty in liberal democracy, as is practiced in several modern societies, the rights of women to equal treatment are still largely an illusion. Feminists have identified the primary cause of this long standing inequality as the patriarchal structure of the society, where the woman is relegated to the private and the man is considered the head and public figure. The further separation of the public and private spheres under liberal democracy somewhat aggravated this problem. Feminist have argued that inequality for all would only be achieved if the roles and experiences of the woman is considered as important as that of the man and rewarded as such.