Rethinking women’s political practices with Luce Irigaray

Belinda Eslick considers how Luce Irigaray’s philosophies can transform the way we think about the radical nature of women’s political history in Australia. This post is based on an article that appears in the 2020 issue of Lilith, available now on open access here.

When I first began researching women’s political practices in contemporary Australia, I was met with statistics showing women’s lower levels of political engagement compared to men. It is a well-known finding in political science studies, for example, that women in western democracies like Australia, and across Europe, have lower levels of knowledge and interest in political news and current affairs than men do. The Australian Election Study, a longitudinal study led by the Australian National University, offers recent data confirming this in Australia. Overall, women typically consume political media less often than men do, talk less often about political current affairs and campaigns than men do, and are less interested in institutional and party politics than men are. Often, these studies accompany a discussion of how we might overcome this gap in political engagement, and they ask what might be impeding women’s access—not only as elected representatives in parliaments but also as regular citizens—to ‘politics’. What these studies typically don’t discuss, however, are what women are doing, and women’s vast political practices and successes outside of male-dominated political institutions and parties.

While it is important for women to have access to institutional positions of power, studies measuring women’s political engagement are, from a feminist perspective, usually quite conservative. This is because, significantly, they typically focus on what women are not doing, omitting the rich and varied examples of what women are doing or have done. In this sense, the relationship between women and ‘politics’ is conceptualised and represented according to a certain lack: a lack of engagement, a lack of participation, a lack of representation, or a lack of women ‘in politics’. This is a problem because it conceptualises or measures women’s experiences of politics and citizenship according to a typically male standard, reinforcing the ‘normativity’ of men’s experiences of politics and citizenship. In other words, the male experience becomes the measure according to which we determine women’s political subjectivity or success, and it’s not possible to make sense of women’s experiences without comparing them to men’s, where they will always be in some way deficient—as less serious, less formal, or less powerful.

Feminist historians in the West have shown, since at least the 1970s, that while women have been systemically excluded from and silenced within institutional sites of politics (and therefore excluded from dominant recorded histories that privilege those sites in their narratives), women do indeed have dynamic political histories. But women’s political histories have typically occurred outside of male-dominated institutions, and through distinct practices. In contemporary Australia, too, women continue to practice politics (and affect great change) outside of male-dominated political institutions and parties. This is often through what might be called ‘semi-formal’ and ‘informal’ kinds of political practice such as in clubs and societies, grassroots movements and campaigns, local community organisations, and in ad hoc groups of women—as well as in less structured ways, through ways of being, relating, and doing. However, these activities are difficult to quantify and often go unacknowledged and unvalued. And so a discourse that emphasises women’s lack of political engagement, or women’s ‘political failure’ (a discourse that Australian feminist historian Marilyn Lake critiqued in her 1996 paper ‘Feminist History as National History: Writing the Political History of Women’) persists in contemporary Australia.

Feminist historians such as Lake have advocated that we draw attention to women’s political histories by valuing women’s political practices wherever they occurred, and not only when they emulated typically male modes of ‘doing’ politics in the privileged institutions and realms of Australian society. In Lake’s historical work, she documented the political actions of ‘citizen politicians’ such as Rose Scott, Jean Daley, Edith Jones, Bessie Rischbieth, Cecilia Downing, Mary Montgomery Bennett, and Jessie Street ‘as key figures in Australian political history’. Lake suggested that these women, and many like them, were developing ‘their own mode of doing politics, eschewing for the most part the traditional male-dominated political parties in favour of mobilising women at the grassroots level’. For example, Australian feminist Rose Scott, in a speech to the Women’s Political Education League in 1904, described how the League had:

issued manifestos urging women to keep away from sectarianism and party politics, and to work for the interests of women and children which have been so long neglected.

She went on to say that:

Many who saw no reason in this warning have since assured me that they are now quite convinced, through bitter experience, of the necessity for women (who desire to work for reform in a whole-hearted manner) to keep apart from the factions and fights of men.

Rose Scott, 1913. Photographer May Moore. State Library of New South Wales.

Importantly, Lake makes the case that women’s political practices throughout the nineteenth and twentieth centuries (and I extend the argument to women’s political practices in the twenty-first century) were distinct, and that women developed political theories and practices in critical response to the political practices of parliament and parties (that is, the politics of men). This is an important feminist distinction to make because it lifts women’s political practices from being merely a deficient mode of men’s practices to being more of a rejection of patriarchal political practices as well as an alternative vision for how ‘politics’ might be practiced in a way that could meaningfully emancipate women.

This has been one of the considerations of French feminist philosopher Luce Irigaray, particularly through the 1970s and 1980s. Irigaray has asked how women might practice politics, and liberate women from patriarchy, without reinscribing patriarchal systems and practices in the process. She has argued that feminist political practices that emulate the ways that men have conventionally practiced politics (in patriarchal institutions, parties, and systems) would be limited in their transformative, or emancipatory, capacity. For women to be able to make ourselves heard, Irigaray argued, ‘a “radical” evolution in our way of conceptualising and managing the political realm is required’. She implored that ‘innovation is necessary: institutions, hierarchy, and authority—that is, the existing forms of politics—are men’s affairs’ and ‘not ours’. She warned that if ‘women allow themselves to be caught in the trap of power, in the game of authority, if they allow themselves to be contaminated in the “paranoid” operations of masculine politics’ then women will ‘have nothing more to say or do as women’. While Irigaray acknowledges the need to organise for women’s social and political rights, and does not radically oppose women entering parliament, she sees equal representation in political institutions as only a means to an end and not the goal of feminism. This is because, she has argued, ‘the questions raised by the exploitation of women’s bodies exceed the stakes, the schemas, and of course the “parties” of the politics known and practiced up to now’.

Irigaray’s thinking on politics, as well as her broader philosophical work on difference and subjectivity, offer ways of thinking about women’s political practices that disrupt the logic that positions women—and our experiences—always only in relation to the male ‘norm’. Rather than conceptualising women’s political practices as merely a deficient version of ‘more serious’ political practices performed in male-dominated institutions and parties, what if women’s political practices represented something different? What if they were, rather than deficient or lacking, considered as disruptions to normative models of citizenship? What if we considered them as radical?

Dr Belinda Eslick is a casual academic in Gender Studies at The University of Queensland in Brisbane, Australia. Her research explores ways of reconceptualising women’s non-institutional and non-party political activity, drawing from contemporary and historical examples of women’s political activity in Australia. She also engages more broadly with perspectives in feminist philosophy and theory, and particularly with the work of French feminist philosopher Luce Irigaray.

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