When east European intellectuals such as Václav Havel and Adam Michnik seized upon the vocabulary of civil society to articulate their dissent from overbearing Leninist regimes, they could not have known how much political and intellectual interest in the notion of non-governmental public action their choice of concept would generate. Appropriated for diverse and often discordant ideological ends, and used empirically to refer to an array of referents, the concept of civil society has been subject to ongoing assault, with criticisms ranging from its apparent vagueness to its historico-cultural specificity. Nevertheless, politicians, activists, government bureaucrats, and intellectuals across the globe continue to embrace the discourse of civil society to explain and justify their differing visions of the world and their courses of action.
The revival of the concept of civil society has promoted further study in the fields of political science and sociology of the changing forms of collective action, the politics of the non-governmental, the emergence of new democracies and the changing contours of state-society relations. In social policy the term has provided a lens through which to analyse welfare services provision, social exclusion and volunteerism. In development theory, policy and practice, the resurgence of interest in civil society has contributed to a paradigmatic shift in thinking away from a dualistic, ideologically informed fixation with the state versus the market towards a new triadic paradigm embracing civil society, state and the market (Howell and Pearce 2001). This triadic model in turn has not only informed debate around governance, poverty reduction, participation, and policy influence but has also led to the creation of specific programmes aimed at fostering civil society in aid-recipient contexts, with the effect of gradually depoliticising the term. For law academics and practitioners the resurgence of interest in civil society has focussed attention on the legal and regulatory regimes shaping state relations with non-governmental actors. In international relations the arrival of the idea of civil society and the growing presence of global non-governmental actors have undermined the dominant focus on nation-states, multilateral institutions and international regimes, and prised open the concept of global governance (Kaldor 2003).
Nevertheless, it is curious that there has been so little interrogation of the relationship between gender and civil society, within either feminist or civil society theories. This is surprising not only because each set of theories would have much to gain from the other in terms of theorisation and practical knowledge but also because organising around gender relations can constitute in different historical and cultural contexts a significant part of actually existing civil societies. This chapter addresses this lacuna. It begins by laying out the reasons for promoting a closer encounter between gender and civil society theory. It then explores what this would mean for the way in which civil society and gender are theorised and conceptualised. In particular, it develops a framework for conceptualising gender and civil society that highlights the interconnectedness of sites of power and the constant flow of socially constructed male and female bodies through a circuit of gender relations. Finally, we map out the practical and theoretical issues that deserve further investigation and action.
Time for gender and civil society theorists to tango
There are many reasons why it is time to interrogate more closely the relationship between gender and civil society. The first and perhaps most obvious reason for feminist theorists and practitioners is that women have been significant actors in the theatres of civil societies across the world. Often excluded from state institutions and male-dominated politics, women in different historical and cultural contexts have found it easier to become active at the local level through, for example, community organisations, self-help groups, traders’ associations, faith-based organisations, mothers’ groups, or campaigning. It is on this terrain that women activists, including feminists, have articulated their demands, mobilised around issues such as the right to vote, dowry, land rights and domestic violence, and created networks of solidarity. The spaces and institutions within civil society can exclude women, but they also have an emancipatory potential, which feminists can and do make use of.
Given the centrality of civil society to feminists as a space for association, for the articulation of interests, and for ideological contestation, it is important that we theorise these spaces from a feminist perspective, and the language of civil society can be useful in this endeavour. In the past feminist theorists have used the diverse languages of social movements, struggle, rights, equality and emancipation to frame their understanding of women’s activism. As a result there is a rich, empirical treasury of historical, structural and analytic accounts of the rise of women’s movements in a diversity of contexts. Feminist researchers focused on women’s movements apart from the broader context of civil society, while civil society theorists referred to women’s activism to illustrate the dynamism and vibrancy of actual civil societies. Yet there are surprisingly few studies of how such movements and forms of collective action impinge more generally upon the spaces, organisations and regulatory frameworks governing civil society, nor of how the regulatory frameworks governing civil society, the organisational composition and forms of civil society, and the range of issues and values espoused by civil society actors in turn affect the way women organise. In what ways, if at all, do women organise differently from men in civil society? As civil society is a broader concept than social movements, it allows for the possibility of exploring these larger questions about how spaces for collective action are used, how they become politicised, and how they are gendered.
Second, drawing attention to how women and gender relations have been absent in the work of many civil society researchers is important for enriching empirical analysis. However, it is also of interest how, why and when men organise in the spaces of civil society, and how such action in turn shapes the possibilities for women’s participation. In this way we can begin to ask whether men and women organise differently, whether the styles of leadership and mobilisation are different, whether the organisational forms are distinct, whether the issues addressed, the language expressed and the type of activities engaged in differ between male and female bodies. Although much discussion of civil society ignores the gendered nature of organising, the emergence of a field of study around men and masculinities has much to offer in understanding men’s engagement in civil society. Moreover, this would provide an opening to develop a more nuanced approach to men’s organising that takes on board competing notions of masculinity and diverse identities and solidarities. The differences between various types of men’s organising such as the military, working men’s clubs, gay movements, anti-feminist men’s groups, and Fathers For Justice could then be explored and comparisons drawn with women’s organising.
Third, civil society is a double-edged sword for feminists. It can provide a site for organising around feminist issues, for articulating counter-hegemonic discourses, for experimenting with alternative lifestyles and for envisioning other less sexist and more just worlds. With its organisations of self-support, community action, and voluntary care, it can foster solidarity, promote mutual support and prioritise values of care, respect and equality. Yet it can also be an arena where gendered behaviours, norms and practices are acted out and reproduced. As Anne Phillips (2002: 80) warns, the associations of civil society are relatively unregulated when compared with the state and therefore vulnerable to sexist and other discriminatory practices. Civil society can be the terrain of conservative ideologies that foster women’s dependency in the constricted space of the family as well as of emancipatory ideologies that aspire to gender equality. It offers fertile soil not only to liberal, socialist and radical feminists, gay and lesbian movements, and progressive men’s groups, but also to conservative women activists, anti-gay lobbies and patriarchal and misogynistic male groups.
We need therefore to interrogate the positioning of women in civil society. Why is it that women form the mainstay of volunteers in many countries? Why are they more visible in community and neighbourhood organisations than in political parties, trade unions and state institutions? What are the barriers of entry to women in civil society? In what ways does civil society exclude women along the lines of gender, class and ethnicity? Why is it that some associations are dominated by one or another sex? Through what discourses, ideologies and practices are women excluded from certain activities and organising?
Fourth, the discourse of civil society has been appropriated across the ideological spectrum to propel particular political agendas and positions. Feminists need to be particularly cautious when the language of civil society is used in debates about state deregulation, user choice and community provision of welfare services. There is the danger that the language of civil society and related concepts of community and social capital becomes an ideological device for justifying a particular vision of the state, which entails the return of welfare services to the family, and in practice to the unpaid and undervalued female carer.
Finally, because of their own experiences and their analytic emphasis on issues of oppression and emancipation, feminists are well placed to take up issues of subordination, domination and power in civil society and to problematise the notion of civil society as a harmonious unity or as a comfortable and benign field of diversity and plurality or as the site of peace and justice. Through their past focus on exposing the complex ways in which the gendered relations of the family become reproduced in the economy and state, feminist thinkers have developed conceptual and theoretical frameworks and methodological approaches which can be readily deployed in interrogating the gendered interconnections between the family and civil society. Similarly, researchers and male activists working in the fields of men and masculinities, queer theory and sexuality possess analytic frameworks and tools for addressing the gender contours of civil society.
After this outline of several reasons for fostering a closer and livelier engagement between civil society and gender research, the next section traces the way each of these fields has dealt with the other and explores the theoretical and conceptual implications of closer engagement.
The uneasy encounter between gender and civil society theories
Civil society theories and the family
Civil society theorists have taken but a cursory interest in the relationship between gender and civil society. The main axis of engagement around gender and civil society has centred on whether the family or household is part of civil society, though this is not an issue that has aroused great passion. While some theorists conceptualise the family or household as outside of and separate from civil society and the state, others include the family within civil society.
Enlightenment and post-Enlightenment thinkers in the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries, such as Rousseau, Ferguson, Paine, and de Tocqueville, counterposed civil society not only to the state but also to the family, though they paid little attention to the latter. In their conceptualisations of individual rights, freedom and civil society, they operated with a gendered notion of the public based on the abstract individual male. For Hegel the (patriarchal) family and the state form the two hierarchical poles between which civil society is located. As economic relations are integral to civil society, civil society is defined as both non-state and non-family. Hegel excludes the family from civil society not only because the family is the first context in which the abstract legal person is situated but also because the family is assumed to be a unity, based on love, without any conflict between its members, and from which its (male) head enters the world of civil society (Cohen and Arato 1995: 628–31, n. 48). Among contemporary writers on civil society the Hegelian distinction between family and civil society is, whether implicit or explicit, commonplace (see, for example, Carothers 1999: 207; Diamond, 1994: 5; White 1994: 379; Hawthorn 2001: 269–86; Van Rooy 1998: 6–30).
One of the few contemporary writers to engage more systematically with the family in relation to civil society, public spheres and the state is Juergen Habermas. In his discussion of the transformation of the eighteenth century bourgeois public sphere Habermas distinguishes the family from civil society (understood as the realm of commodity exchange and social labour) and state. For Habermas (1989: 46–7) the family is both a precursor to civil society and a site of intimacy that maintains the illusion of autonomy, voluntariness and humanity despite its embeddedness in the market economy and its role in reproducing social norms and values and patriarchal authority. In tracing the decline of the bourgeois public sphere through the processes of urbanisation, the rise of the welfare state and mass democracy, Habermas (1989: 154–5) paints a picture of a weakening, income-dependent and consumerist family that loses its functions of social internalisation and welfare protection, and becomes increasingly disengaged from social production.
Although the family forms an important element in Habermas’s account of the transformation of the public sphere, so distinguishing Habermas from many contemporary writers on civil society, feminist thinkers such as Joan Landes, Mary Ryan and Nancy Fraser have challenged the normative ideal of a (bourgeois) public sphere as open and accessible to all. Joan Landes (1988) argues that gender became the main axis of exclusion in the new republican sphere in France through discursive practices that belittled women’s participation in political life. Mary Ryan (1998: 195–222) challenges Habermas’s depiction of a decline of the bourgeois public sphere by documenting the movement of North American women into politics from the early nineteenth century onwards. In doing so she subverts the masculinist, bourgeois concept of a single public sphere and highlights the profusion of counter-publics that were neither liberal, nor bourgeois, nor necessarily male. In defence of the normative concept of public spheres in actually existing democracies, Nancy Fraser (1997:136–7) argues that any adequate conception of the public sphere has not only to bracket social differences such as gender but also to eliminate social inequality.
Some contemporary political theorists view the family as an integral part of civil society. Jean Cohen (1998: 37), for instance, places the family within civil society, which she in turn distinguishes from the economy and state. In their discussion of Hegel’s exclusion of the family from civil society, Cohen and Arato (1995: 631, n. 48) argue that the family should be included in civil society as ‘its first association’. By being conceived of in egalitarian terms, the family then offers a primary experience of the principles of ‘horizontal solidarity, collective identity and equal participation’ that form the basis of other forms of civil society association and, more broadly, political life. Such a portrayal of the family, however, ignores the power relations and hierarchies prevalent within families, often along gender and inter-generational lines, and overlooks the problems of exploitation, violence and abuse within families.
Yet political theorists have not been overly concerned with the conceptual difficulties of marking the divide between family and civil society. The debate about whether the family is part of civil society is conducted at the most superficial level. Once a line is drawn, the theorist enquires no further as to what this might mean for the way civil society is constructed in gender terms. On the contrary, the prime interest has been in defining sharply the boundaries between civil society and other key conceptual categories, in particular the state and market, whereby the family is a defining but uninteresting boundary. Indeed, in many discussions of civil society and the state the family is not even mentioned. By treating the family as of only residual interest in the pursuit of understanding the more important and higher-level relations between state, civil society and market, civil society theorists have failed to grasp the engendering effects of conceptual categories and of civil society in particular.
The lack of interest among political theorists in the family as a variable affecting the nature of civil society leads in turn to a failure to problematise the concept of the family. Writers on civil society often use the terms ‘family’ and ‘household’ interchangeably. However, in gender, women’s and feminist studies, development studies and anthropology the concepts are seen as overlapping but distinct. While ‘household’ refers more specifically to those ‘eating from the same pot’, the term ‘family’ is a much broader notion of a ‘private domain’ that is centred around intimate blood relations and embraces also a broader set of blood-related ties. The boundaries between household and family vary considerably across historical periods and cultural contexts. Feminist writers and anthropologists have explored in depth the cultural specificities of the scope and the social, economic and political significance of the family and household. Given the different forms that families can assume over time and space, we need then also to ask how the gendered identities circulating within families in turn shape the way women and men, boys and girls, participate in civil society, and how such participation in turn reproduces and reaffirms gendered norms and practices within families and households.
One reason, perhaps, for the failure to problematise the notion of family and to keep the family out of the definition of civil society relates to its conceptualisation as a ‘modern’ phenomenon. Many writers, including Hegel, Gellner, de Tocqueville, and Marx argued that the space and organisational forms of civil society emerged in the context of capitalist industrialisation. Relationships that are bound by place, blood and ethnicity are thereby viewed as ‘traditional’ and destined to weaken as societies modernise. By characterising civil society as a modern category beyond the intimate ties of family civil society, theorists not only contribute to the reification of the particular spheres of state, civil society and family but also fail to investigate the way these spheres are intertwined through blood-bound social relations, cultural norms and values.
Feminist political theory and civil society
Although in feminist theory the public-private divide is a significant organising category, there are as diverse a range of positions on whether the family is or is not part of civil society as amongst civil society theorists. For some feminists the public world of civil society is as excluding to women as the concept and institutions of the state. The dominant framing of civil society as in opposition to the state and the subsequent discussions around the definitional boundaries between civil society, state and market appear irrelevant and uninteresting to many feminists, for whom the family figures larger in importance than the public (state, civil society and market). Moreover, for many feminists it is not the demarcation of boundaries that is analytically important or interesting, but understanding how the relations between males and females in the family shape the norms, practices and behaviours in the public realm, that is, in state, civil society and market institutions (Phillips 2002:73¬–5).
For others, though, the family does form an integral part of civil society. Carole Pateman (1989: 132–3, quoted in Phillips 2002: 88), for example, views the sphere of domestic life as ‘at the heart of civil society rather than apart or separate from it’. Drude Dahlerup (1994) likewise includes the family within civil society, but gives no justification for her position. However, whether the family constitutes part of civil society has not been a prime focus of analytic interest within feminist theory.
Though feminist theorists have not paid much attention to the relationship between civil society and the family, it can be argued that conceptualising the family as inside or outside of civil society has consequences for the way we theorise civil society and gender, and indeed for practical strategies around gender emancipation. Arguing, as Pateman does, that the family is ‘at the heart of civil society’ challenges modernist and voluntarist views of civil society, which posit civil society-type organisations as free of clan and familial ties and obligations. Taking the family as crucial calls for a gender analysis of civil society and state institutions. It thus strengthens the idea that civil society discourses, spaces and organisations as well as state organisations and practices are shaped by, and in turn reproduce, particular configurations of gender relations. Moreover, it places organisations based on ethnicity or blood ties within the scope of analysis by civil society researchers, a dilemma that has been captured in the works of researchers in Africa.
Keeping the family out of civil society, however, reifies the family as a distinct sphere with clear boundaries between the state and civil society. By implying that the family is independent from state and civil society, it removes the question of how the engendering of male and female bodies shapes these other spheres and contributes to the false impression that state and civil society are free of gender relations. However, whether the family is conceptualised as within or outside civil society will not alone determine whether the gendered nature of civil society is problematised. This depends much more on power relations within society that find their expression in academic, political and practical discourses.
Developing a conceptual framework
In her insightful and novel analysis of the organisation of production, Diane Elson (1998: 5–6) argues cogently for a model of political economy that includes the domestic. Using a tripartite model of the private, public and domestic sectors, she demonstrates how the circuits of the market (through which goods, services, money and labour flow), of taxes and benefits (through which income transfers and public goods flow) and of communications (through which information, rumours, ideas, values and meanings flow) connect these sectors and channel the flows between them. At the same time the sectors feed into these channels. To illustrate, the market feeds commercial values through the communications network, the state transmits regulatory values, and the domestic feeds provisioning values. These values in turn can have positive as well as negative dimensions. Thus, the domestic sector may feed in values of caring and giving as well as of patriarchy (Elson 1998: 6).
Elson argues that both the sectors and the circuits are gendered. Hence the domestic sector constitutes, and is constituted by, the circuits of the market, of taxes and benefits and of communications. To illustrate, the market relies on a labour force that is reproduced daily and across generations in the domestic sector using unpaid labour. Market transactions are frequently gendered to the disadvantage of women, as reflected in the exclusion of women from contracts or certain marketplaces. The tax and benefit system is often based upon an implicit assumption that women are dependent on men. Essential to the communications network are communicative people, and the primary locus for producing such people is the domestic sector (1998: 6).
Elson’s model provides a useful starting point for conceptualising gender and civil society. We develop this model in two ways. First, we introduce the ‘forgotten site’ of civil society, which receives no mention in Elson’s model. This is partly because Elson’s analysis is concerned with the discourse of macroeconomics rather than politics and partly because, like other feminist theorists, she subsumes civil society within the public. Hence in Elson’s model the domestic stands in contrast to the private (enterprises) and the state. In the discourse of politics, the domestic is presented as the private and contrasted with the public sphere of government, trade unions, factories and clubs, a depiction of the public that blends the governmental and non-governmental. As Elson rightly claims, in both the macroeconomic and political discourses the domestic is taken for granted, and not deemed worthy of further analysis.
Like the public and domestic ‘sites’, civil society, too, is made up of a diversity of associational forms, varying in their size, purpose, duration, values, ideologies, degree of formality, and interconnections with the market and state. These can range from burial societies to single mothers’ groups, trades unions, animal rights’ groups, football clubs, business associations, global social movements, and world social forums. What unites these diverse units is the dynamic of voluntary solidarity. For civil society to sustain itself, people need to be able to associate voluntarily (in contrast to the ascriptive ties of the family) and to have a common reason to associate. We prefer here the concept of ‘sites’ to sectors, as the term allows for more fuzzy, porous and evolving boundaries than the more compartmentalised, legalistic and rigid image that ‘sector’ evokes. Furthermore, we conceptualise these sites as concentrations of power galvanised by distinct dynamics – in the case of the state, the dynamic of coercion and regulation; in the case of the market, the dynamic of profit and accumulation; in the case of the household, the dynamic of material and affective provisioning; and in the case of civil society, the dynamic of voluntary solidarity.
By separating civil society from the state, we can explore the interconnections between civil society and the household. While the communications network provides a channel through which civil society can transmit ideas about solidarity, trust, citizenship and the values of association, it is in the household that people have their first experience of association. It is here that they develop a sense of empathy towards others, trust in ‘strangers’, a sense of citizenship and responsibility towards those beyond their immediate household or family unit. Just as the market depends on the unpaid work of the household in regenerating its labour force, so too civil society depends on the unpaid work of the household, such as the care of dependents, child-rearing, and other household activities, to free its participants to commit time and energy to its causes. Given that in most societies it is women who take the main responsibility for these household activities, participation in civil society that requires at least time becomes a gendered activity.
Second, we put forward a circuit of gender relations, comprising male and female bodies, and culturally specific roles, identities, norms and values that delineate male and female bodies as socially distinct beings. This circuit of gender relations flows between, and connects the sites of, market, state, household and civil society. By conceptualising gender relations as a circuit, we free it from any essentially given location. Thus, it recognises not only that the household is the primary site in which young bodies become impregnated, from the moment of birth, with gendered identities, values, norms and roles that make up the gender order of any particular society, but also that other sites of power such as the market, state, and civil society can also create, reaffirm, usurp and destabilise any gender order. Furthermore, this conceptualisation allows the disaggregation of the household so that the hidden gender relations can surface and be analysed. This avoids the trap that most civil society theorists fall into: that is, after deploying the household as a boundary-marking device, they dispense with it as analytically irrelevant for understanding civil society and the state and fail to interrogate its internal relations, which are constituted in part through gender relations. The circuit of gender relations also allows us to take into account the gendered socialising effects of different institutions such as schools and faith-based organisations.
In Elson’s model the private, public and domestic sectors pass different messages through the circuit of communications, which reflect the organising dynamics of these sectors. If we take the organising dynamic of civil society to be voluntary solidarity, civil society then transmits the values of voluntariness, common cause and solidarity, which contain both positive (generosity, sociability) and negative dimensions (exclusion, prejudice). Similarly, the sites of civil society, state, market and household also transmit through the gender relations circuit different messages reflecting their organisational dynamic. Gendered norms and values distribute male and female bodies across the sites of state, market, civil society and household in different ways. Gendered hierarchies prevail in the state, where male bodies inhabit most positions of leadership and authority, while gendered divisions of labour characterise certain markets (textiles are often dominated by female workers in many countries and the steel industry by male workers, for example). The site of civil society not only is constituted by the gender relations circuit but also shapes this in diverse and sometimes contradictory ways. When nationalist movements deploy the symbol of motherhood to depict the nation, they promote an image of gender relations that draws on women’s reproductive role. Or, when civil society associations exclude women, either implicitly through gendered norms or explicitly through regulations, as with working men’s clubs, then male and female bodies become distributed unevenly across the terrain of civil society.
It should be noted that the circuit of gender relations is concerned with a diversity of gender identities, norms and values, and thereby includes within its analytic vision transsexuality, homosexuality, and diverse masculine and feminine identities. In this way it becomes possible to investigate gender-issue organisational forms in civil society such as global transsexual activism, chauvinistic male organising, feminist men’s groups, or pro-life groups (see Box 1.2). Furthermore, the idea of a circuit of gender relations allows the study not only of gender-issue groups but also of how forms of organising in civil society become gendered, regardless of their ultimate purpose.
This framework for analysing civil society and gender involves some further interrogation of the concepts of global, public, and autonomy.
Civil society as a sphere of articulation and organisation separate from the state, and the study thereof, emerged in the eighteenth century. As such the concept has been rooted in the historical processes of industrialisation and capitalist development in western Europe and North America. Such origins have led critics to question the universality of the concept and its applicability to non-Western concepts. Nevertheless, following the revitalisation of the idea of civil society from the late 1980s onwards in eastern Europe, the concept has been appropriated across the world to articulate a plethora of ideological aspirations and to describe a range of collective forms of action. In addition, the increasing linkages between civil society organisations in different countries and the formation of cross-border networks, alliances, and movements suggest that any conceptualisation of civil society must look beyond national boundaries.
The model posited above applies across the levels of the global, national and local. Markets are increasingly globalised as financial and capital flows pay little heed to national boundaries. Households are consumers and producers of global goods and services, and their savings are invested through various insurance and pension schemes in global operations. The power of nation states is increasingly tempered by the need to negotiate and abide by rules and regulations in international governing institutions. Civil society, too, is increasingly bound up in global networks as local organisations forge international links and campaigns are targeted at international bodies such as the UN.
Any model of gender and civil society has thus to incorporate global networks, institutions, influences and ideas. This then poses the challenge of moving beyond the nation state as the unit of analysis. Comparative work on gender relations and on civil society tends to start from the national context and seeks points of commonality and difference. Trying to understand international organising around gender and the continuities between this and national-local forms of activism calls for a different approach that is less framed, or maybe not at all framed, within the notion of territory. Given the plurality of norms and identities circulating in international contexts, the relative significance of the national is potentially questioned.
However, current analyses of global civil society pay little attention to its gender aspects, and thereby assume away the mediation of global organising through gendered power relations. For global civil society theorists the key boundary markers have been global institutions of governance on the one hand and nation states on the other. In such a framework family, household and gender relations all disappear from view. As a result a range of questions concerning gender, civil society, state, and market are left unaddressed. How are global markets gendered and how are gender values and norms distributed through the circuit of the market across the local, national and global levels? If, as feminist political theorists have shown, the nation state is a highly gendered institution, with complex gender ideologies, male domination of leadership positions and of particular arms of the state such as the military, then how does this impinge upon the gender formation of multilateral institutions?
Revisiting the public and the private
The failure of researchers in the fields of civil society and gender to engage in a serious dialogue with one another, for all the reasons given above, has affected the development of theory, the formation of concepts, the state of empirical knowledge, and the design of practical strategies of emancipation. Much remains to be done. Armed with a sharper set of conceptual tools, we start to identify an agenda for future research, debate and critical reflection.
First, there is a huge gap in the literature concerning the gendered composition of civil society, the gendered norms and practices prevailing among civil society organisations, and the barriers to the participation of not only women in civil society but also some men. There is no systematic, comprehensive disaggregated data available on the gendered make-up of civil society. How many male-dominated or female-dominated associations are there, and what kinds of issues, sectors or activities are these associated with? What do we mean by a gender-based organisation? What is the gender distribution of different kinds of formal and informal organisation? What percentage of volunteers and employees are women, and how does this vary across time, country context and sector? How do we explain the predominance of men or women in particular types of groups? What proportion of directors, trustees and managers of civil society organisations are male, and why are women under- or over-represented in different country contexts or at the global level? How has this changed over time? What legal or regulatory mechanisms facilitate the exclusion or inclusion of many women and some men from participating in civil society? Through what gendered norms and practices, such as the lack of childcare facilities or the times of meetings, are women effectively excluded from taking part in different civil society groups? How do gender relations within the household affect the way women participate and organise, be it in women’s organisations or other kinds of civil society groups? Although some of these questions have been broached in relation to state institutions and formal politics, their application to the realm of civil society requires systematic attention and research.
Second, there is a need for further empirical studies and theoretical work to describe and explain the distinctiveness of men and women’s organising. In what ways does women’s organising differ from men’s? How does organising by women around women’s rights differ from that of human rights groups, business associations, trades unions, or professional associations? What unique material, psychological and discursive resources do men and women deploy to promote their agendas? What kinds of organisational forms are best disposed to advance gender issues in state policy? To what extent are the internal ways of organising and leadership different in women’s organisations from men’s organisations and other civil society organisations? Do women do politics differently from men and, if so, in what ways and with what effects? (See Box 1.5.)
Third, there is a need to theorise further the interconnectedness of different spheres and the flow of gendered discourses, practices and norms within and between spheres. Why is it that activism in local civil societies and social movements tends to provide a springboard for men into formal politics but less so for women? How does state policy on gender alter gender relations in civil society, and why is it that the state has proved better than civil society at absorbing demands for and the language of gender equality, as reflected in the UN Millennium Development goals and CEDAW? How do gendered norms and practices within the family reverberate through state institutions and civil society? To what extent do theories of power or gender relations or civil society illuminate these processes?
Fourth, the concept of civil society needs to be disaggregated into not only different types of organisations with divergent ideological and political predilections but also into individuals, structured by societal divisions such as class, gender, and ethnicity. The focus within civil society studies on organisations as well as the tendency to reduce ‘civil society’ to a singular actor and voice has analytically steered the gaze away from the constituent individuals who come together in the spaces of civil society. Similarly, although many feminist theorists cautiously refer to ‘feminisms’, in the plural, there is still a tendency to work with aggregate notions of ‘the women’s movement’, which can mask rather than reveal the ideological nuances among women’s groups.
Fifth, at the theoretical level there is work to be done on reviewing the gendered nature of the concept of civil society as used in Western political thought, and similar concepts used in other traditions, to unmask the gendered assumptions underlying the distinction between family and civil society, and to query the boundedness and autonomy of spheres and concepts.
Sixth, accounts of women’s organising need to take on board the increasingly global set of players engaging with national and local civil societies. In particular there is room for further research into the role of international donor agencies, global networks and international women’s coalitions on the development of women’s organisations in different contexts. To what extent do international donor agencies reproduce ‘Western’ understandings of the public-private divide, of civil society and of gender relations in their support to women’s groups in aid-recipient contexts? What is the impact of major international events such as UN Conferences on Women on discourses, agendas, frameworks and practices in different contexts? In what ways do global women’s coalitions and organisations set gender agendas, contribute to processes of change at global and national levels, and frame debates on issues such as domestic violence and genital mutilation?
Finally, at the practical level a number of challenges need to be addressed in creative and productive ways. How do we evaluate the professionalisation or NGO-isation of women’s organising and gender issues in post-transition contexts? How do we deal with contestation among groups of women with different gender ideologies, values and politics? Who should mediate these struggles and how? How can feminist activists bring men into debates around gender relations, and where should a deeper engagement begin? Where should feminists seek allies among men’s organisations, and how should they analyse these? What kind of global organising by women around gender issues is most effective, and why? How can groups concerned about gender issues persuade other actors in civil society who perceive gender to be marginal to their primary interests to reflect critically upon gender issues both within their organisations and in relation to the issues they are battling for? And how can we reduce the risks to women and to subaltern gender identities of traversing the four interconnected sites of power?
This may be an ambitious agenda. However, the start of a dialogue between civil society and feminist theorists should not only enrich knowledge in both fields but also strengthen the effectiveness of practical feminist strategies to bring about changes in gender relations. For civil society activists, too, there is a need for a moment of reflection and probing if the arena of civil society is to serve as an emancipatory terrain for both men and women.
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