POLITICS, GENDER (Social Science)

Gender politics is a multifaceted concept in the social sciences. As a term it is used to refer to a wide range of phenomena, stemming from multiple and even competing meanings of gender and politics. Its definition is further complicated by the emergence of similar and related phrases like women and politics, gender and politics, and the politics of gender. This complexity indicates ongoing conceptual debates within research on gender and politics. At the same time, it reflects theoretical and empirical developments as the study of gender politics has evolved and grown to encompass a broad and heterogeneous set of topics.


Several definitions are necessary in order to grasp the scope and content of gender politics as a concept and a field of study. At the most basic level, it is crucial to distinguish between sex, gender, and sexuality. In their most common usages, sex denotes biological differences between men and women as male and female, gender describes the social meanings given to sexual differences through notions of masculine and feminine, and sexuality refers to sexual relations and questions of sexual orientation. However, definitions of all three of these terms, as well as the connections between them, are subject to a great deal of confusion and debate.

First, there is a tendency to identify all three terms with only one side of the dichotomies they represent: sex is often equated with female, gender with feminine, and sexuality with homosexuality. The result is that sex and gender are often treated as synonymous with women, while sexuality is considered only in relation to gays, lesbians, bisexuals, transsexuals, and transgendered individuals. Second, there are important disagreements on the ways in which sex, gender, and sexuality inform and are linked to one another. Although the binaries of sex and gender assume heterosexuality, for example, other sexual orientations raise questions about the necessary connections between male and masculine and female and feminine. These patterns intersect with debates about the causal relations between these terms: Although some argue that sex produces gender which leads to sexuality, others suggest that gender and compulsory heterosexual-ity give rise to distinctions on the basis of sex.

Parallel to these discussions, feminists and others have pioneered new uses for the term politics. Although many people employ this word to refer to formal political processes, like government and elections, politics has assumed at least two additional meanings in the last several decades. On the one hand, women’s movement activists have expanded its range to encompass informal politics and the dynamics of everyday life. They insist that social movements are a form of political participation on a par with engagement inside the state. At the same time, they draw attention to the power relations that permeate all levels of social life, including relations within the private sphere of home and family. For them, "the personal is political." On the other hand, feminist and postmodern theorists have adopted a broader notion of politics as any instance or manifestation of power relations. They are thus interested not only in the politics of the state and the politics of social movements, but also in the politics of language, the politics of exchange, and the politics of representation, to give but a few examples.

These debates, in turn, lead to a range of different understandings of the term gender politics and cause it to be confused with related terms like women and politics, gender and politics, and the politics of gender. Although many people use these phrases interchangeably, it is possible—on the basis of the theoretical distinctions outlined above—to carve out some general differences between them. Women and politics involves the study of various aspects of women’s political activity, whether this entails engagement in social movements, political parties, elected assemblies, or the state. Gender and politics covers many of these same topics, but in addition, implies attention to masculinities and femininities, as well as relations between men and women, as they operate in various political arenas. The politics of gender, finally, comprises a closer look at the power relations behind definitions of—and presumed causal relations between—sex, gender, and sexuality. In comparison, gender politics may refer to any and all of these distinct foci of investigation.

Individual disciplines take up the study of gender politics in various ways, depending on their core research interests and theoretical frameworks. Because various currents in sociology, anthropology, and philosophy embrace broad definitions of politics, scholars in these fields use the term gender politics in many different ways to refer to the study of women and politics, gender and politics, and the politics of gender. Ironically, political scientists tend to adopt a much narrower definition of gender politics to refer only to the study of women and politics and gender and politics, where the term politics encompasses only formal and informal political processes, to the exclusion of questions about broader power relations. Even this more restricted focus, however, has produced a wide range of literature that over time has expanded and evolved in terms of theoretical approaches and fields of empirical research.


As feminist theorists have developed sex and gender as analytical categories, scholars in political science have elaborated a series of approaches for analyzing the sexed and gendered nature of political life. The first phase of research on gender politics involved highlighting women’s exclusion from formal politics and then incorporating women into existing political frameworks. It was thus guided by an "add women and stir" approach: Using sex and gender as synonyms for women, it sought to include women but did not question the male norm implicit in reigning understandings of political processes.

Recognizing the limits of this approach, the second phase shifted its attention to the activities of women as women and analyzed their participation in formal and informal politics. Although many scholars continued to employ the term gender when they discussed only women, a growing number also began to use it to refer to relations between men and women in order to study how the form and content of politics reflect and shape inequalities. The third and current phase extends these insights to explore how ideas about sex and gender permeate all aspects of political life, sometimes—but not always—with the intent to break down these dichotomies. This work introduces, for the first time, the importance of studying masculinities as well as femininities in politics. It also investigates how political science itself may be gendered in terms of its concepts, definitions, theories, and methods.

The main theoretical innovation that emerges over the course of these stages is a multifaceted shift in focus from sex to gender. In light of the different definitions attributed to these terms, analysts ascribe at least three distinct meanings to this shift. The first is a move away from biological sex, or the notion that men and women are binary opposites, toward socially constructed gender identities, or the idea that masculinity and femininity constitute features that exist along a continuum. The second is a move away from exclusive concern with women in politics and public policy toward greater attention to the impact of masculinities and femininities, as well as relations between men and women, on political inputs and outcomes. The third is a move away from sex as one of many possible variables in political science toward gender as a concept that forces a fundamental reexamination of core features of political life.

All three aspects of the shift from sex to gender, nonetheless, are in some sense incomplete. For one, mainstream and feminist researchers find that while indicators for sex are relatively straightforward to incorporate into political analysis, those for gender are much more complicated. This is partly because sex refers to biological markers that are relatively unambiguous, while gender denotes social meanings that may vary a great deal within and across particular contexts. However, this is also due to difficulties that many people experience in grasping that the relationship between sex and gender is not a perfect one. Secondly, many feminists are hesitant to abandon sex in favor of gender. As the two concepts are not equivalent, these scholars argue that both are crucial to good research design, whether the purpose is to analyze men and women or masculinities and femininities as these play out in various kinds of political arenas.


Attempts to expand the scope of politics to include formal and informal political processes are reflected in the areas of empirical research on gender politics in political science. Seeking to break down dichotomies of public versus private spheres and formal versus informal politics, these scholars have explored the effects of sex and gender on a broad range of political activities. Focused on women specifically, they have examined women and voting, in terms of the right to vote, the implications of delayed suffrage, and gender gaps in voting support; women and social movements, in terms of participation in social movements, women’s movements, and feminist movements; women and political parties, in terms of candidate selection and other aspects of party politics; and women and parliaments, in terms of access to political office, behavior in political office, and impact on public policy.

Turning to the products of political processes, gender politics researchers have theorized the role of the state in reflecting and shaping gender relations. They analyze how states contribute to the reproduction of gender hierarchies, or alternatively, lead to changes in patterns of inequality through different kinds of public policies. Attentive to variations across countries, they note the ways in which such policies make implicit or explicit assumptions about men and women and identify—or ignore— certain questions as women’s issues. The possibilities of exploring other definitions of politics and incorporating interactions with other identities, combined with the already multifaceted nature of sex and gender, ensure that all six of these areas will remain vibrant areas for future research.

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