Copyright Sociological Research Online, 1998

Citizenship: Feminist Perspectives

Ruth Lister
Macmillan: Basingstoke
0 333 53488 3 (pb); 0 333 53487 3 (hb)
£13.99 (pb); £42.50 (hb)
xii + 284 pp.

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Ruth Lister's book represents an ambitious endeavour to explore issues and concepts of citizenship from a feminist viewpoint. Her particular feminist perspective is concerned with the ways in which women are socially included and excluded from public and private spheres of life, by differing ideas about what constitutes political involvement, and within or between nation states. Her analysis is also strongly anchored within a social policy context. At the same time, she does not attempt to evade or ignore more theoretically framed issues about citizenship. Thus Lister's book goes well beyond the arid theoretical debates which have often characterised malestream academic discussions of citizenship.

Concepts of citizenship have been critiqued by a number of feminists - Pateman, Walby, Richardson, Arnot - for their failure to engage with or to include women, and for their omission of lesbian and gay sexuality. However there remain two problems with developing more women-sensitive notions of citizenship. The first problem is whether it is possible to rescue the concept at all if its history has been so male-centred. Lister debates this but concludes that it is both possible and worthwhile. She suggests that if citizenship is conceived of as involving both structure and agency (this is definitely not a book for the post structuralists), as including both statuses and practices and as comprising social and political elements, then citizenship is worth rescuing. She argues that this is especially the case if at the same time some of the other binaries (eg the ethic of justice/equality versus the ethic of care, or public versus private or independence versus interdependence) which have often dominated academic debates about citizenship, can be blurred or dissolved. The second problem about developing more women-sensitive concepts of citizenship is concerned with the extent to which the category of women is any longer a legitimate one to use. Here Lister is quick to point out that she does not wish to talk about women and citizenship as though women were an undifferentiated category. Nevertheless, she argues fairly persuasively that by using a conception of differential universalism, it is possible to pay attention to differences between women whilst at the same time acknowledging their differences. Thus, in a powerful chapter on inclusion, exclusion and nation states, she notes that different groups of women have differential relationships to nation states in respect of citizenship. For example, migrants workers and political refugees are regarded quite differently by a so-called host country as compared with women who were born in that same country. However, in this chapter, and elsewhere in the book, Lister contends that it would be possible to develop frameworks which take account of both the needs and rights of particular women and the needs and rights of women in general. Similarly, her analysis of the public/private dimensions of citizenship suggests that we should not assume, as have some malestream theorists, that the private sphere is irrelevant to citizenship. Instead, we need to use both Plummer's notion of intimate citizenship and to regard time used in the private sphere as a resource which may or may not facilitate citizenship, in such ways that gendered domestic divisions of labour come to be seen as a matter for public as well as private concern. There is also a powerful analysis of how women's participation in voluntary organisations, pressure groups and in more informal groupings should be seen as political acts of citizenship in the same way as activity in a political party or public body.

The most disappointing aspect of Lister's book is that, whilst paying attention to the importance of a social policy framing of concepts of citizenship, Lister largely excludes education from her analysis altogether and neither sees this as an important arena for reshaping and learning about new forms of citizenship nor as a place for exercising citizenship (as for example, in school governorship or via a pressure group for mothers of children with severe learning difficulties). In every other respect, Lister's book is a remarkable piece of work, which is both scholarly and at the same time pays full regard to the lives of women in all their differences. It is also, in many respects, a truly interdisciplinary analysis, a practical application of the capacity of feminisms and feminists to move beyond binaries and rigid boundaries.

Rosemary Deem
Lancaster University

Copyright Sociological Research Online, 1998