A Feminist Approach to Quotas and Comparative Politics
Denise Walsh, University of Virginia
Mainstream comparative politics (CP) rarely attends to gender scholarship.
Conventional wisdom urges gender scholars to speak to the broader
concerns of CP to avoid this marginalization. But feminist concerns are
broader than those of CP. Feminism promotes changes in power
relations to advance “justice for women and everyone” and offers tools
for assessing injustice (Weldon 2011, 443). In contrast, CP promotes
stability and order that benefits elites; it values predictive models over
usefulness (Clarke and Primo 2012). How can feminist quota scholars
address their broader concerns and speak to CP? I argue that we need to
lead with feminism. Doing so not only ensures that our work will address
broader concerns, but also ensures that we will have insights to offer CP
that demonstrate the value of feminist analysis. Leading with feminism, I
evaluate whether legislative quotas for women change the political
dynamics sustaining gender injustice. I find that they rarely do so. I then
draw on feminist quota scholarship to highlight the limits of CP toward
democracy and institutional change to demonstrate the value of feminist
analysis. I conclude with suggestions on how to advance a feminist
agenda in the discipline.
“I propose that it is ontologically impossible not to have a gender
perspective: It is implicit in all domains of academic inquiry.” So Htun
argued in the first issue of Politics & Gender (2005, 162; italics in
original). Yet political scientists have not embraced this claim. Tripp, for
example, points to the invisibility of gender in the APSA Task Force on
Difference and Inequality in the Developing World, a telling oversight,
given the gendered nature of global poverty (2010, 194). Although
prominent women were on that committee, their presence did not
ensure a gender perspective.
Integrating feminism in the discipline is an even greater challenge than
integrating gender. Feminism endorses an emancipatory agenda and offers
I would like to thank the editors, Jennifer Petersen, Allison Pugh, and Jennifer Rubenstein for their
322 POLITICS & GENDER, 9(3) 2013
valuable analytical tools, such as knowledge is situated, politics is
everywhere, and context is critical. Driscoll and Krook argue that a
feminist perspective is “essential for devising accurate empirical accounts
of gender quota reform” (2012, 16). Nonetheless, mainstream political
science does not value feminism: It creates a false trade-off between
rigorous research and feminism, pressuring scholars to downplay the
latter. This pressure is mounting as mainstream scholars enter the field,
bringing new methodological tools but not a feminist perspective.
Feminist quota scholars thus need to maintain their broader concerns,
resist false trade-offs, and speak to CP. We can do all three by leading
QUOTAS AND GENDER JUSTICE
Quota scholars can pursue broader concerns by investigating whether
quotas advance gender justice. Gender refers to how individual attitudes
and behaviors, institutions, and structures produce and reproduce
inequalities of power based on mainstream understandings of sex.
Gendered processes target “women and everyone” who deviate from
hegemonic man, limiting their participation in making the rules that
govern their lives, undervaluing their labor, and constraining their
autonomy (Young 1990). Do quotas alter the political dynamics that
produce and reproduce gender injustice?
Quotas have the potential to advance gender justice by improving
women’s representation. Yet research does not confirm that quotas do so
consistently. Occasionally, quotas reduce women’s domination through
their symbolic effects. Some scholars find that quotas undermine
stereotypes justifying women’s exclusion from leadership and encourage
their political participation (Beaman et al. 2009; Kittilson and Schwindt-
Bayer 2010). Where quotas are perceived as attacking merit, however, they
can fuel a backlash (Meir 2012). Across a range of countries, researchers
have found that quotas sometimes encourage women’s political
participation (Kittelson and Schwindt-Bayer 2012), and sometimes they do
not (Zetterberg 2012). Discriminatory attitudes toward women in politics
and toward gender issues persist (Franceschet, Krook, and Piscopo 2012).
Although quotas sometimes advance gender justice by undermining sexist
attitudes, more research is needed to confirm when and why.
Quotas appear better positioned to undermine women’s domination in
political parties and the legislature, as they directly alter electoral
CRITICAL PERSPECTIVES 323
procedures. When quotas increase women’s descriptive representation,
they expand the political opportunities of party loyalists (Baldez 2006;
O’Brien 2012). By this measure, quotas diminish domination by
bringing a few women into the halls of power. This limited effect
sometimes facilitates substantive representation in policy making. Quotas
have the potential to reduce domination indirectly in the legislature by
providing sufficient numbers of women for a caucus. Women who want
to increase their effectiveness can rally others on the basis of their shared
priorities (Weldon 2011, 442), for example, by requesting an end to
meetings that extend into the dinner hour or by establishing gender
Altered institutional practices make it easier for women to put new issues
on the legislative agenda and to involve new actors from civil society (Goetz
and Hassim 2002; Walsh 2012). Quotas do not guarantee that these
challenges will succeed, but they can facilitate them. Yet these reforms
often have limits and are short lived. Party divisions among women
stymie their sustained activism; powerful political bosses co-opt or reverse
practices that threaten their control (Paxton and Hughes 2007; Walsh
2012). Moreover, although women are more likely to introduce and
sponsor bills associated with women’s issues (Schwindt-Bayer 2006;
Swers 2002), one or two legislators usually become “critical actors”
advancing these issues. Indeed, even where institutional obstacles are
high and quotas absent, one or two critical actors can alter policymaking
dynamics (Childs and Krook 2009). Thus, quotas are not necessary for
substantive representation in policymaking.
Feminists most prize substantive representation that results in policy
change, as it has the greatest potential to redress injustice throughout
Yet as Franceschet, Krook, and Piscopo admit, quotas “have
rarely altered policy outcomes” (2012, 12). Further, quotas rarely alter
the political dynamics that do enhance policy passage, such as strong
women’s movements, open and inclusive debate, effective women’s
policy agencies, or international pressure (Walsh 2011; Waylen 2007).
Where quotas have been associated with substantive representation as
policy change, democratic institutions are weak (Hassim 2009). In South
Africa, quotas ensured women’s participation in negotiations over the
constitution and in the first parliament that helped secure a gender
equality clause and women’s rights legislation. But party elites soon used
1. Implemented laws may not advance gender justice, but they do advance knowledge about how to
do so. If passed but not implemented, then they offer a strong basis for claims-making.
324 POLITICS & GENDER, 9(3) 2013
the quota to pack parliament with loyalists, co-opt the gender agenda, and
stymie advances in women’s rights (Walsh 2012). A similar pattern
emerged in Uganda (Goetz and Hassim 2002). In Peru and Rwanda,
“quota women” supported authoritarian rulers who used women’s rights
to distract international attention from civil and political rights violations
(Blondet 2002; Longman 2005). In these cases, political elites used
quotas to signal a commitment to inclusionary democracy that did not
exist. Hence, quotas rarely disrupt the political dynamics that produce
and reproduce gender injustice.
Moreover, as Chappell observes, “the rewards ... have been
incommensurate with the effort needed to enter Parliament” (2002,
173). These are important findings for advocates of gender justice.
Quotas may be cheap politics for elites projecting the illusion of
inclusion, but they are not cheap for feminists with scarce time and
resources. Activists would do better to focus on building strong,
autonomous women’s movements within and across institutions that can
support women’s policy agencies, broaden the content of public debate,
and pressure political elites to comply with international standards.
Feminist scholarship can assist this effort by analyzing the passage and
implementation of policies that undermine injustice.
SPEAKING TO CP
By leading with feminism, quota scholars also can expose the narrowness of
CP and convey the value of feminist tools. Feminist quota scholarship
reveals the low quality of democracy within democratic institutions and
how those institutions thwart efforts to become inclusive. Indeed, CP
scholars rarely investigate how parties or legislatures sustain “oligarchy”
CP scholars define democracy as free and fair competitive elections
accompanied by individual civil rights (Diamond and Gunther 2001).
To prevent a slide into authoritarianism, they insist that political parties
guard “the interests of socioeconomic elites,” discipline legislatures, and
“provide the foundation for a democratic political class” that excludes
“amateur or ‘outsider’ politicians” (Levitsky and Cameron 2003, 3–4). In
contrast, feminist quota scholars highlight how these functions obstruct
women’s entry, constrain their effectiveness, and block legislation that
attacks injustice. Feminist research thus reveals the exclusionary limits
supported by CP.
CRITICAL PERSPECTIVES 325
Those limits may explain why political parties are declining in popular
support, why new democracies have meager levels of legitimacy, and why
established democracies face citizen apathy (Diamond and Gunther 2001)
and — more recently — protest. Indeed, CP scholars increasingly address
the quality of democracy: They add participation to their definition and
recommend that citizens join competitive political parties (Roberts
2010). Yet political parties are not internally participatory. On the
contrary, feminist quota scholarship details how political parties subvert
efforts to reform them. As Baldez quips, quotas “introduce new players to
the political arena but make them play according to old rules” (2006, 106).
Although informal “old rules” have been at the “margins” of political
science (Helmke and Levitsky 2004, 725), they have long been at the
center of feminist analysis (Acker 1992). By attending to how knowledge
is situated, to context, and by expanding the definition of the political,
feminist scholars identify “what drives political behavior” and “explain
important political phenomena” (Hawkesworth 2003, 546). For example,
Hawkesworth’s work on U.S. Congresswomen of color details how
colleagues dominate them through “silencing, stereotyping, enforced
invisibility, exclusion [and] marginalization,” blocking their input on
welfare policy reform (2003, 546). Feminist research thus confirms that
informal rules limit democratic quality and that presence is not enough
to challenge gender injustice.
Informal rules operate in political science as well. Research suggests that
to challenge our marginalization, we will need to do more than attend to
our scholarship. We will need to build strong, autonomous women’s
organizations within the profession, our departments, and home
institutions that can support women’s policy agencies, broaden the
content of debate, and pressure our colleagues to comply with best
practices. In short, we will need to lead with feminism in word and deed.
Denise Walsh is Associate Professor of Politics and Women, Gender, and
Sexuality at the University of Virginia, Charlottesville, VA: denise@
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