Copyright Sociological Research Online, 1998

Feminism and Politics

Anne Phillips (editor)
Open University Press: Buckingham
0198782055 (pb)
£13.11 (pb)
500 pp.

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In the first of her two featured articles in this book Virginia Sapiro claims that gender politics has not been integrated into mainstream political science and the ideas of feminists working in political science have not been integrated into women's studies. The result is that feminist political scientists occupy the periphery of both subjects. With this book Anne Philips has attempted to show why this situation should be changed.

The book is Anne Phillips' choice of twenty previously published articles which represent the most important works on feminist issues in politics. The articles seem to have been chosen not as the last word in any particular debate but rather as significant works in the development of debates. The themes of the articles progress through the collection from analysis of feminism's (and feminists') place within the discipline of academic science and feminist critique of the canons of mainstream political science to four areas of debate in which feminists have made important contributions:

In fact the boundaries between the above four debates are not always clear cut and many articles raise issues which are relevant for more than one section. This crosscutting demonstrates the interconnectedness of the ideas, theories and debates addressed and should be regarded as one of the strengths of such a collection.

In general, Anne Phillips has selected authors whose writing represents different aspects of a debate, giving the reader the opportunity to consider the issues without being pushed too forcefully in one direction or another. Even so, the reader cannot help noticing a development of ideas through the debates as writers seek theoretical and practical solutions for increasing women's share of power in the public/ private/ domestic spheres (however these are defined; and this is a sub theme which runs through several of the articles throughout the book).

The first two debates start with discussion on whether 'women' can constitute an interest group in the classic sense of the term and whether it is possible to have an active politics of identity based on the category 'woman' (Sapiro; Diamond and Hartsock; Pringle and Watson) . In addition, we are asked by Judith Butler to consider whether 'women' can ever be effectively represented politically when a masculine discourse, within which 'woman' can never be represented, is dominant. The consensus which seems to emerge from the debate is that we need a new politics of difference which can accommodate the many identities of women rather than searching for a unifying position (Talpade Mohanty). The new politics also requires a revitalized democracy in which coalition is paramount (Johnson Reagon; Phillips).

The third and fourth sections consider some practical issues around political and legal action to achieve equality and to establish women as citizens in a revitalized democracy. From the perspective of the USA it is argued that legal and political action in support of anti-discrimination which is based on either the 'same therefore equal' or 'different therefore special' arguments is flawed. In order to circumvent the issues raised by debates about 'sameness' and 'difference', the underpinning principle for any action should be the relative disadvantage of the person or group bringing the action against a dominant person or group (MacKinnon; Rhode).

The final section on citizenship revisits some of the earlier debates as writers try to locate a position for 'women' in a revitalized democratic state. There are arguments for and against the promotion of values traditionally assigned to women in their role in the private/domestic sphere as a basis for citizenship (Elshtain; Dietz). It is also suggested that, as well as new values, the role of citizens must change. The consultative practices of feminist groups should serve as a model for a participative democracy in which citizens are not merely represented but involved in decision making. The state should take responsibility for encouraging the formation of interest groups and supplying information to individuals and groups in a way that would enable them to make informed decisions about policy (Dietz; Young).

Anne Phillips' selection of articles demonstrates the development of feminist ideas across some vital areas of political science. The case for the inclusion of feminist thinking in the mainstream of political science is made directly through critique of mainstream theories and development of alternative approaches. The collection also illustrates a dual need for women's studies to engage more directly with political science. First, because political scientists can bring to women's studies a practical focus on the ways feminists can influence formation of policy and law. Second, because dialogue between disciplines would help the application of theories across disciplines.

A drawback for any collection in which the original publication dates for articles range over twenty years, is that for the reader familiar with the territory some of the writing will seem dated. This is exacerbated by the structure of the book. In each of the four theoretical debates the older articles precede the more recent ones. This is not to suggest that it is always the ideas and concepts in the older articles which have been superseded. Nevertheless, in some cases the reader is introduced to certain theories in one debate only to have those same (apparently relevant) theories ignored at the start of the next debate.

The authors included in this collection are mainly from, or currently working in, the United States of America. Obviously not a problem in itself but the bias of the book toward analysis based on the North American perspective should at least be acknowledged. It would have been interesting to know what the editor (who is not based in the USA) thinks about the contributions to political science from feminists from other parts of the world.

While the book may bring few new insights into the selected debates themselves, it can give students either in political science or women's studies a new perspective on how these debates are positioned in relation to each other; how the theories of feminism can impact on the practical world of politics; and, finally, it is an important reminder to those feminists who may have forgotten that feminism is intrinsically about politics.

Vanessa Hogbin
University of Manchester

Copyright Sociological Research Online, 1998