73 years ago, in 1948, women in Belgium gained full voting rights. In the following decades, several laws were introduced to advance the equality of women and men in politics. As the cherry on the cake, an article was added to the constitution in 2002 that “promotes their equal access to elective and public mandates”. On paper thus, the equality between women’s and men’s political citizenship, defined by T. H. Marshall as “the right to participate in the exercise of political power” be it as a voter or a politician, is guaranteed. In practice however, I argue, this equality is not always lived up to, especially regarding political mandates.
by Anne Van Bavel
It was a first in Belgium, when after the most recent elections in 2019, a federal government was formed that consisted of an equal number of female and male ministers. This was a big step forward, considering that in previous decades, only 30% at most of the members of the government were female. In the Federal Parliament, full equality is not reached. From the 1990s onward, there has been a clear increase in the number of female representatives, but over the last few elections, that upward trend has stagnated at about forty percent. Even though there thus is a positive development, men are still overrepresented in politics.
Politics is not only a man’s world in numbers, but also in its mentality. Because men have, historically, always dominated politics, the institutions and its practices, norms, values, behaviours and discourse are all modelled after the male norm. Consider for instance, the terminology. The male forms, like chairman (instead of chairwoman), are still prevailing. Our image of politics thus is masculine. To make this more clear, a comparison can be made with football. When I say football, you probably envision two male teams playing against each other, rather than females. The same goes for politics. “The politician” is seen as male and the predominant image of politics is that it is a game played by men.
“The politician” is seen as male and the predominant image of politics is that it is a game played by men.
This male dominance of politics, both in number and mentality, hinders women in practicing their political citizenship to the fullest. A major problem of this masculine image of politics is that, because of it, female politicians face more resistance than their male colleagues. A woman holding a political mandate is still (unconsciously) seen as remarkable, therefore attracting more criticism. To explain it in football terms again, when women play football, we feel the need to explicitly call it women’s football, because their gender stands out in that sector. The same applies to politics. Because female politicians are at work in what is seen as a male domain, they face more commentary and resistance based on their gender than male politicians, coming both from citizens and colleagues.
A study in the Netherlands for instance pointed out that, in the run-up to the last elections, Sigrid Kaag, party chairman (or should I say chairwoman) of D66, one of the largest Dutch political parties, received one sexist hate message every fifteen minutes. Also in Belgium, Meyrem Almaci, Member of the Flemish Parliament and party chair(wo)man of Groen, revealed that she is confronted with insults like "fat stupid calf" or "backstabbing bitch" on a daily basis on her social media. The consequences of this should not be underestimated. Research has shown that the constant exposure to these hate comments causes female politicians to become more careful to publicly express their points of view. It also leads some female politicians to consider leaving politics or actually leave politics. Furthermore, it discourages other women from participating in politics. A study in the United Kingdom among young women who aspired a political career, showed that the amount of hate comments female politicians receive online, made the majority of them doubt to go into politics.
All the above indicates that, even though women’s political citizenship is guaranteed in the constitution, it is not always in practice. There thus is a gap between the political citizenship of women in practice and on paper. To eliminate this gap, the male dominance in politics should be tackled. Simply increasing the number of women in politics is not enough. Only a change in mentality as well, where female politicians become normalised and politics is no longer regarded as a male domain, can ensure equal political citizenship in practice for both women and men. This however, will be a long term process and is easier said than done.