Jan 31, 2014

A Little Chat on Feminism and Democracy by Sandra Turner

Democracy started in ancient Greece where it was able to thrive due to a homogeneous voting public and a small population. In modern times, with larger populations, democracy as it is traditionally known – that is, the rule of the people – needs to be redefined. Direct rule is not possible in large populations so representative governments have been designed.  A representative government seeks to allow every person voting rights. The people rule not by gathering and devising policies but by electing a controlling policy. What representative government really is is hard to pin-point. Many philosophers have different interpretations of it. What decision criteria one must use when voting is also hard to agree on, and it can be assumed that in practice different people use different criteria. However, even in theory its hard to elect a governing principle. Many of the varying opinions on the subject of feminism may stem from differing views on the function of government. In my opinion, government should be put in place to benefit society in general.

There are also disputes on why democracy is even the standard political framework at all. Typical justification theories point to the fact that democracy helps to distribute political power and maximizes the satisfaction of the voters’ desire. This theory leaves out a critical question though, namely, how desirable are these goals? Susan Mendus, a feminist philosopher, does not believe that it concludes in just laws and policies for everyone, especially not for women. A good system would allow each different class to have equal voting power. Representative states should not allow various sectional interests to become influential enough to defeat truth and justice and other sectional interests. There is a fear that the “rulers” will try to benefit a certain class due to the ruler’s own selfish interests. In the original democracy the voting population was mostly male and similar in biological factors. In the modern conception of democracy the voting public has much more heterogeneity. Some contemporary philosophers see no trouble with this heterogeneity. This is because they believe that democracy sways in the favor of popular rule and that can be held even if a portion of the population differs from the representatives.

Susan Mendus is saying that equality should not be about removing the differences among people but rather to embrace the differences. She is also saying that differences should not be perceived as disadvantages. One of the issues present is that the democracy of the past, the rule of the people of the past, has been dominated by men. Legislation, building on itself, has left woman at a natural disadvantage. The enacted functioning of society is created by legislation passed and culture built on the past. Mendus fears that ignoring differences at the inclusion level may lead to minimizing differences when forming social policies. The world is predisposed to male needs and male capabilities. Women are at a disadvantage due to some of the gender’s biological differences from men. Woman are being held to a standard that is male-orientated. Differences in individuals are typically explained in terms of differences in social and economic power. Feminists argue that women are different in more ways than just that; they are different because they have been excluded historically from being citizens.

Mendus points out that some differences can never be removed. Some differences, such as the lack of social and economic power can be but differences such as the differences that arise from the biological differences inherent in gender can never be removed. So even if there is a desire for society to have a homogeneous population it is not possible under the modern conception of democracy. Mendus seeks to render these differences to make them compatible with equality. Mendus does not seek a world where woman are considered equal because they are no longer different. Woman should not need to accept and adopt masculine values. The second part of Mendus’ statement concerns the assimilation of females into male values. She does not like the idea that society should ‘assist’ women.

Many ideologies of perfect states presented in the past, in the form of hypothetical “utopias” such as Moore’s Utopia and Plato’s Republic have missed a key point; that is, society needs to accept and embrace diversity (also, they all seem very dull to live in). The ruling theory must also be designed to progress and not be a static state. Society is not made up of indistinguishable individuals. I believe that there is an intrinsic value to differences. One fear (of many) that I had with Plato’s utopia was that it allowed no room for creativity, no room for individual expression, no room for progress. Diversity, I believe, helps create progress and progress leads to a better world.

Democracy, if it does in fact discriminate negatively against differences, will eventually cause assimilation and reduce diversity. One of the key ways that business people get ideas for products is to hold focus groups and conduct interviews in that manner. The key benefit of this process is that numerous ideas come up and participants can bounce ideas off of each other. The main concern that focus group conductors have is a concept known as “group-think”, wherein the participants cling to the loudest member of the group or contrasting viewpoints are not brought up as outside participants assimilate to the majority. Democracy could potentially run the risk of causing a similar thing to happen on a grand scale.

In conclusion, equality should not mean to remove the differences among individuals. A difference should not be considered a disadvantage, as people should not be held up to standards that do not reflect their own capabilities. A pregnant woman should not be seen in the same light as a sick man. Women, and other groups that are different from the “norm”, should not be compared to the “norm”. Society should be shaped in such a way that differences are not disadvantages. Historical progress has shaped modern democratic society into one with a male-centric atmosphere, and current democratic theory will not allow this to change with the simple inclusion of women as full-fledged citizens. More drastic and pro-active measures may be needed in order to change society to one that embraces differences and diversity.

However, and this is a big 'however', it escapes me why Mendus decides on the bi-gender split and only shoe-horns in other groups that are not in the norm (males, in her opinion). Even considering the dominant group there exists numerous critical divergences in opinion as to social choices - not all men want the same thing. First-wave feminism fought for the right to vote, a noble cause, and second-wave feminism fought for equal opportunity in the work force and the end to legal sexual discrimination. Modern feminism has no unifying goal, unless the goal is to bring these measures to countries that do not yet have them. It runs the risk of swinging the pendulum in favour of females. For example, one of the goals that has been brought forward for feminism is to reclaim certain words, such as bitch. I guess my husband can start calling himself an asshole, or a dickhead when he's being stubborn or mean, and its fine because he's 'reclaimed' the word to empower himself. A new protest popped up recently called the "SlutWalk" in response to a comment a police officer in Toronto made, "women should avoid dressing like sluts in order not to be victimized." Apparently its a world-wide phenomenon for women to dress up as "sluts" and go for a walk to reclaim the ability to wear what ever they want. It is my interpretation that the police officer made a fatal mistake of terminology, but he may have been giving sensible advice: Don't dress seductively while walking in a dangerous area. Once again, that's not the final solution it is a preventative measure to be used while society attempts to reduce rape.

I feel that, ultimately, it all falls flat, and the assistance that Mendus wants to not need will have to remain for many of the demographics that fall out of the norm. I created the analogy that women are like cars, and men are like trucks, with society being the rules of the road. Currently, the rules favor trucks, and the pavement is designed for trucks. But even after we make roads that are suitable for both vehicle types we still have to consider whether the road we go down, the destination, is even desirable. Whether society is able to provide us with a meaningful existence or not is a topic for another, broader, and longer discussion.

Sandra Turner
Assimilating bras in Penticton, BC
March, 2014



  1. Thank you Sandra for your wonderful essay. It's going to take me awhile to fully digest it, as I'm sure will be the case for many of our readers. I think you pointed out many of the flaws of feminism, but also gave support to the ongoing, and important reasons for the continued existence of feminism.

  2. "Society should be shaped in such a way that differences are not disadvantages." I think that statement summarizes the futility of feminism, namely: is this even possible?

  3. Sandra, you have raised kids in BC, what has been your personal experiences being a woman? I almost think you should have given us a more personal account of your struggles. You're a pretty 'different' person, and so is your husband. Would you consider the challenges you face to be significantly different than those of your husband?

  4. Hello everyone, thank for for reading - and thankyou Mr. Anson for inviting me to be apart of your blog (is that what this is?). I would like to answer Isaac's question: I don't know if I have faced any additional challenges that a man would not face. There are a few obvious differences, but I feel like everyone faces challenges in our society. I was lucky to have such an amazing husband to help me raise my two children.

  5. Democracy 'thrived' in Ancient Greece? Really?? Only adult, male, non slaves were allowed to vote.

  6. Democracy is defined as "a system of government by the whole population or all the eligible members of a state". In ancient Greece, the eligible members of the state were males. This fact does not mean that democracy did not thrive, it just was not in accord with how we feel it should be. The point I was trying to raise was: Does democracy work when the voting population is not similar? Its unfair to say democracy did not work well in Greece simply because they had a different notion of who the "people" are.

  7. I refute your conclusion. That is all.