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date: 23 February 2018

Democracy, Democratization, and Gender

Summary and Keywords

Democracies and the processes surrounding recent transitions to democracy are gendered in a variety of ways. Recently, feminist scholars have questioned the exclusionary ways in which democracy is both theorized and operationalized and how these have resulted in women and men being incorporated into democratic polities. They have demonstrated how processes of democratization, particularly the third wave of democratization that has taken place over the last three decades, are gendered. They have also shown that women’s movements were key actors in the broad opposition coalitions against many nondemocratic regimes. In order both to understand the differing role of organized women in the subsequent transitions to democracy and the ways in which transition paths affect gender outcomes, feminist scholars have begun to focus on the complex and sometimes contradictory interaction of four variables: the transition; women activists; political parties and politicians involved in the transition; and the institutional legacy of the nondemocratic regime. Two main areas that have been explored in relation to the political outcomes of transitions to democracy are women’s participation in competitive electoral politics and major changes in gender policy. In order to expand one important emerging area of research that is looking at how attempts to establish democracy in post-conflict settings are gendered, feminist scholars with expertise in third wave transitions to democracy need to analyze not only women’s roles in post-conflict institution building but also the ways that the outcomes have gendered implications more systematically.

Keywords: transitions to democracy, gender, democracy, democratization, women’s movements, nondemocratic regimes, women activists, political parties, electoral politics, gender policy


This essay focuses on some of the ways in which democracies and the processes surrounding recent transitions to democracy are gendered and, in so doing, it traverses a number of subdisciplines, including feminist political theory and feminist comparative politics that are not generally linked in the scholarship. Despite the long-standing gender blindness of political science and political theory that has meant that democratic theory and practice has ignored women in its scholarship, feminist scholars in a range of fields have recently drawn attention to the exclusionary ways in which democracy is both theorized and operationalized and how these have resulted in women and men being incorporated into democratic polities in different ways. Scholars have also begun to think through ways in which democracies can be made more inclusive in gender terms.

This essay will begin with a brief overview of some of the debates about democracy, looking at both the conceptual and operational definitions of democracy before examining the theoretical underpinnings of different variants of democracy and how they act to include or exclude women. The rest of the essay will focus on the ways in which feminist scholars have demonstrated how processes of democratization, particularly the third wave of democratization that has taken place over the last 30 years, are gendered. The analysis will be divided into different periods and look at the roles played by women actors as well as the institutional context within which they are operating. The essay will end with some reflections about the how the field has changed and the directions for future research.


As one of the most contested concepts within politics and political theory, democracy has many meanings. Indeed many subdivisions of different types of democracy – so-called “democracy with adjectives” – now exist (Collier and Levitsky 1997). This essay will focus on the most common uses of the concept among political scientists and theorists relevant to a gendered analysis. Much of the discussion of democracy within political science has focused on its definition and measurement and has concentrated primarily on the analysis of the longer-standing or “first wave” democracies (Paxton 2008). Huntington (1991) argued that, over the previous 150 years, there have been a number of “waves” and “reverse waves” of democracy. During a wave, many nondemocracies make a transition to democracy with a particular time period, while at the same time few democracies become nondemocracies. And the opposite is the case during a “reverse wave.” Huntington delineated three distinct waves. The first took place between 1828 and 1926 and included many European and first world countries, the second occurred between 1943 and 1962 as many ex-colonies adopted competitive electoral systems, and the third wave began in 1974.

Explicitly and implicitly, much of the literature concentrates on democracy as a form of political organization counterposed to other forms of nondemocratic rule such as dictatorship, authoritarianism, and state socialism. The different conceptions of democracy are often expressed in terms of two main components: contestation and representation (often with an added emphasis on the importance of civil liberties). At one end of the continuum, a narrow Schumpeterian approach uses a minimal institutional definition of democracy that a competitive political system is enough. Under these one-dimensional procedural definitions that are primarily concerned with contestation, many polities will count as democracies. These narrow procedural definitions tend to be elitist and, as such, are not very generally concerned whether women can participate within democracies. Women’s suffrage, therefore, is not absolutely essential to a narrow definition.

Mid-range definitions based on Dahl’s polyarchy are two-dimensional, as participation and the right of all adults to take part in democratic processes have to accompany electoral procedures and contestation. Polities will also not meet the criteria for a democracy if they lack civil rights, freedom of expression and the press, and other characteristics associated with freedom and pluralism (Diamond 1999). And it is this definition that corresponds most closely to a liberal democracy. Mid-range definitions therefore implicitly, if not explicitly, include civil and political rights for women. As a result the literature that uses mid-range definitions is more likely to be aware that the opportunity for women to participate is a condition for a country to be termed democratic. At the other end of the continuum, there are the more utopian definitions of democracy – in which citizens not only have the right but also the ability to participate, unhindered by social and economic inequalities, for example on grounds of class, race, or gender (Grugel 2002). Citizenship is therefore defined in the broadest sense to include social and economic as well as civil and political rights. Under this more exacting definition, women’s social and economic as well as their civil and political rights are integral, and few, if any, countries count as democracies. Recently, the greater concern with the “quality” of democracy even among mainstream political scientists – that elections and formal institutions are not enough, as a range of other factors, including equality and the ability to participate, have also to be considered – has led some to argue that previously excluded groups, including women, need to be incorporated for a polity to be considered democratic (Diamond and Morlino 2004:20).

However according to Paxton (2000), there is often a mismatch between the conceptual and operational definitions adopted in much of the literature, particularly in the scholarship that uses mid-range definitions, and that this has important gendered implications. Although the conceptual definitions, in the main, do stress the importance of the representation of all significant adult groups, which clearly includes women, as Paxton demonstrates, when a number of mid-range scholars operationalize their definitions, the requirement that women should be enfranchised for a polity to count as democratic somehow disappears from view. As a result polities that formally excluded women are often defined as democratic even though at least 50 percent of the adult population could not participate. For example, Rueschemeyer et al. (1992) consider that Switzerland became democratic in 1848 and France in 1877, when women could only vote from 1971 and 1944, respectively. Paxton then goes on to demonstrate that if the incorporation of women as equals into a political system was made a fundamental criterion, the commonly accepted league tables of when countries became democratic would look very different. Huntington’s (1991) three waves of democratization, for example, would have to be reconfigured. Women are therefore often excluded from the measurement of democracies even if they are implicitly included in the ostensible criteria used to judge whether a country is democratic or not.

At the same time, feminist political theorists have explored the theoretical underpinnings of different variants of democracy (including radical and participatory as well as liberal democratic models), and how they act to include or exclude women, together with the measures that can make each model more women-friendly. However, their work on liberal democracy is best known and has helped us to understand how it was that, even when women had formal equality within liberal democracies, these polities could still exclude women in practice. Early pioneering work undertaken in the 1980s interrogated how the founding principles of liberal democracy were fundamentally masculinist and exclusionary for women (Elshtain 1981; Pateman 1983; 1989). It showed that, as a consequence of its theoretical roots, the ways in which democracies operated in practice were unlikely to offer women political equality and found dealing with notions of difference difficult. Feminist scholars have focused on three interlinked themes running through various conceptions of liberal democracy: the relationship between the public and private spheres; the notion of the individual; and the construction of citizenship. We will look at each in turn.

The theoretical underpinnings of liberal democracy have for a long time depended on a separation of the public and private spheres. The assumptions underlying this separation are hugely gendered. As a result, liberal political theory, while appearing gender neutral, by maintaining a division between the public and the private as central to liberal democracy, maintains a division between men and women, where only men can be abstract individuals in the public sphere (Pateman 1983; 1989; Okin 1989). Feminist political theorists like Carole Pateman demonstrated the crucial role that seventeenth-century social contract theorists such as Locke played in creating this situation. She and others such as Susan Okin highlighted and challenged the notion, dominant within much liberal political theory, of the public sphere as a sphere of male citizens enjoying rights from which women were excluded, and exposed the ways in which women were analytically relegated to the private sphere lying outside the domain of the political (Pateman 1983; Okin 1989). In liberal democratic theory the political is therefore defined as masculine in a very profound sense that makes it hard to incorporate women on the same terms as men and excludes many activities in which women are involved as not being political.

Feminist political theorists have also highlighted how the public and private have never been completely separate and distinct; nor has the boundary between the two been fixed. Women have never been entirely outside the public sphere even though they have been analytically excluded from it. But the roles ascribed to women in the private sphere affected and still affect their roles in the public sphere (Elshtain 1981). For example, the sexual division of labor in the private sphere and the household affects the sexual division of labor in the public sphere, where women and men often undertake different forms of employment with “women’s jobs” often based on women’s supposed caring capabilities and roles in the private sphere. As the private sphere is seen as lying outside the jurisdiction of the state in liberal theory, feminists have highlighted the need to politicize “private” issues such as marital rape and domestic violence. And as part of the challenge to dominant understandings of what constitutes the public sphere, they have also tried to widen definitions of what counts as “political” and get women seen as political beings.

Moreover, and linked to this, feminist political theory has exposed and challenged the dominant conceptualization of the individual contained within liberal political theory and liberal democracy. The liberal notion of the individual is an implicitly masculine one. It is a “he” who is the head of household and enters the public sphere to enjoy its rights and privileges. Women are therefore not individuals and relegated to their roles in the private sphere. This liberal democratic notion of the individual is also contained in the “rational autonomous individual,” who enters the market that underlies much liberal economic theory (and more recently game theory). Feminist economists (among others) have critiqued the rational economic actor, arguing that individuals do not act in the ways predicted by liberal theory.

Finally, one of the main ways in which the relationship between individuals and the state and polity has been theorized is through the concept of citizenship. Although in recent years citizenship, couched as it is in terms of the individual, has been seen as gender neutral, feminists have advocated very trenchantly that citizenship is and always has been gendered (Lister 1997; Narayan 1997). At worst, women are excluded from full citizenship and at best incorporated into citizenship in different ways to men. Initially citizenship was restricted to men (for long periods excluding working class men and men of different races such as black slaves in the United States); men were incorporated as soldiers and then as wage earners, namely through their activities in the public sphere. Only later were women incorporated as citizens, often on the basis of their activities in the private sphere as mothers rather than as workers or soldiers. The legacy of this differential incorporation affected a range of spheres and its impact remains today (Lister 1997). Welfare states, for example, were often created using a model of social rights and citizenship that saw men as breadwinners responsible for a dependent wife and children and, as such, women experience social rights very differently to men (Waylen 1998:13).

Feminist political theorists such as Ann Phillips (1991; 1992; 1993) have detailed the impact that these factors have on the operation of liberal democracies in practice. For example, the roles played by women in the public and private spheres as well as the ways in which they are incorporated into citizenship result in significantly lower rates of participation by women in many democratic processes. Feminist political scientists have detailed empirically both levels of women’s representation at all echelons of political institutions and processes, and explored the potential of measures such as quotas to remedy women’s underrepresentation. But as feminist theorists like Ann Phillips and Iris Marion Young (1990) point out – Phillips from a perspective with some affinity to civic republicanism and Young from a perspective that is somewhat closer to deliberative democracy – one of the things that liberal democracy has found very difficult to accommodate within its frameworks, because of its emphasis on the individual as the basic unit in political life, is the empowerment of disadvantaged groups. Yet at the same time feminist theorists like Phillips (1992:82) are loath to give up on liberal democracy, arguing that feminism can be used to inspire a more substantial version of it.

Having outlined some of the conceptual underpinnings of democracy and how they are gendered, we can explore some of these themes in third wave transitions to democracy – examining the scholarship on how these processes are gendered and the roles that women play in them.


The “third wave” of transitions from nondemocratic rule has been one of the most important global political developments to take place since the 1970s (Huntington 1991). While not all conform to the definition of a liberal democracy given above, some 119 polities were recognized as electoral democracies in 2005, up from 39 in 1974 (Freedom House; at In response to the varied processes of transition, the study of democratization has dominated comparative politics for nearly 25 years. However, despite the long-standing critiques of feminist scholars, the majority of the mainstream democratization literature has remained gender blind, with very little to say about the participation of women in transitions to democracy, the gendered nature of those processes or, as we have seen, even acknowledging that the inclusion of women is a necessary condition for a country to be considered democratic (Waylen 1994). Beyond the mainstream, the literature on gender and political transitions has grown significantly since the late 1980s and is now extensive and varied. Increasingly, much of this work sees itself as lying directly within the fields of politics/international studies and the subdiscipline of comparative politics in particular.

This essay will not rehearse the faults and omissions of the mainstream literature, but rather consider some of the main themes that emerge from the broad range of work, both mainstream and feminist, that is relevant to gendering the study of transitions. Fifteen years after the high point of the third wave is a good point to take stock and assess what we know about the study of gender and democratization. Single country case studies and edited collections that look at either one or two regions have predominated in the gendered work on third wave transitions (Jaquette 1989; 1994; Alvarez 1990; Funk and Mueller 1993; Jaquette and Wolchik 1998; Sperling 1999; Friedman 2000; Gal and Kligman 2000; Rai 2000; Hassim 2005; Franceschet 2005). Although articles appear in gender and area studies journals, even now few are found in the major mainstream politics/international studies journals (Gal 1994; Waylen 2000; Franceschet 2001; Jaquette 2001; Tripp 2001; Baldez 2003; Hassim 2003b). Indeed, because of the interdisciplinary nature of gendered analyses, some influential work, often focusing on the nature and identity of particular women’s movements, is not identified with the political science/democratization literature but is more closely allied to a social movement perspective (Schild 1998). There is now a small, yet growing, body of work that engages in hypothesis testing using two or more case studies and the comparative method (Htun 2003; Macaulay 2006; Waylen 2007b). This range raises questions not only about different disciplinary approaches and perspectives but also about comparability and specificity. How far is it possible to draw comparisons and conclusions from the analysis of very different cases that have very different outcomes? This essay concurs with those feminist political scientists who argue that, within certain defined limits, gendered comparisons are not only possible but desirable, and it draws together insights from both existing gender and mainstream democratization literatures to suggest some conclusions about how feminist political scientists can undertake the gendered analysis of political transitions (Beckwith 2000; Mazur 2002).

It is useful to divide the gender and transitions literature into two key areas. First, using a broad definition of what counts as political, analyses of the roles played by organized women in the breakdown of nondemocratic regimes and the subsequent transition to and consolidation of competitive electoral politics have been central. This is now fairly well-worn ground as much early scholarship, particularly on Latin America, focused on the role and internal characteristics of women’s movements. However, it was sometimes overly voluntaristic, tending to privilege the actions of women’s social movements without always giving sufficient consideration to their interaction with different institutions. Women’s movements often use a “wide and adaptable strategic repertoire” of different alliances and actions over multiple political venues that need to be investigated (Beckwith 2000). Increasingly scholars acknowledged that it is necessary to look more broadly at movements’ interaction with the changing political context at the national, regional, and international level.

The second, more recent, area of analysis emerges from the realization that analyzing the interaction between women’s movements and institutions itself is not enough. It is also necessary to examine the relationship between different transitions and differing gender outcomes, focusing, for instance, on the ways in which new democracies are gendered (measured, for example, in terms of numbers of women in representative institutions, gender policies, the role of women activists and political parties); and whether these are linked to factors such as the nature of the nondemocratic regime and the transition path. Until recently this second area had less overt consideration in the literature but it has raised some important comparative questions and is now the focus of some explicitly comparative research (Htun 2003; Waylen 2007b).

The mainstream literature on democratization also provides several useful concepts for gendered analyses. First, despite problems with periodization, the notion of stages of transition is a helpful way of breaking up what are now quite long periods of time. Second, the concept of path dependence is useful (Mahoney 2000). Transitions do not occur in a vacuum or begin with a blank slate – what has happened before influences what happens next. The nature and legacy of the preexisting nondemocratic regime, the nature of the transition and roles played by a variety of different actors have an important impact on consolidation. Third, an emphasis on the importance of the interaction between actors and institutions can improve our understanding of outcomes. Institutions shape not only actors’ strategies but their goals as well.

Until recently, much of the women and transitions literature shared with elite-dominated democratization literature a focus on the role of actors. But many feminist scholars now recognize that without sufficient understanding of the wider institutional context, it is not possible to understand why some women’s movements seem to have greater success than others in achieving their goals. Analyses that include both actors and their contexts in their examination of the different types of transitions can help to explain different gendered outcomes that have hitherto appeared somewhat paradoxical (Htun 2003; Waylen 2007b). Although processes of transition infrequently result in positive gender outcomes in the immediate post-transition period, such an approach can allow us to discern the complex combination of factors that may account for variations in outcomes.

The two regions in which the relationship between gender and transitions has been explored most systematically are Latin America and Eastern Europe with some useful analyses also emerging from the study of Africa, particularly South Africa. Consequently, it is most profitable to trace the development of this field by concentrating on the scholarship on those regions, together with South African material where applicable. Inevitably, this means that some other forms of transition, such as those from one-party/hegemonic party rule (e.g. in South Korea, Mexico, and Taiwan) and transitions in post-conflict societies such as Rwanda, as well as some other transitions from military rule (e.g. in Turkey and Ghana), will not be considered. This essay will compare the gendered analyses of: first the differing nondemocratic regimes, primarily the variety of authoritarian regimes in Latin America and state socialist ones in Eastern Europe; second, the differing transition paths, in particular emphasizing the differences between pacted versus non-pacted and quick versus drawn-out transitions; finally, gender outcomes and how they are influenced by different types of political parties, the nature of the electoral systems as well as the policy windows for gender reform that exist in the post-transition context.

Therefore although women’s movements and women in political parties have been key variables in the gendered analysis of transitions, they are not the only ones. Other factors have been increasingly used to explain different outcomes in gender terms. In some ways the development of the gender and transitions literature mirrors “real world” changes. Much of the early feminist scholarship in this area, often taking an actor-focused social movement approach, concentrated on women’s roles in nondemocratic regimes and their breakdown. As more transitions to competitive electoral politics took place, feminist scholars focused more on women’s interaction with the emerging political institutions. In the post-transition phase, as social movement activity appeared to have declined, scholarly attention focused more directly on the institutions themselves and how they are gendered. Increasingly, many feminist political scientists who looked at transitions in the past are now examining debates, such as the role of quotas, women’s policy agencies (WPAs), and women’s representation in “new democracies,” that dominate feminist political science more generally. This essay will therefore focus primarily on the literature on nondemocratic regimes and the breakdown and transition phases of democratization as providing the most distinctive contribution to feminist scholarship.

Nondemocratic Regimes

Not only is the preceding nondemocratic regime the starting point in mainstream analyses of democratization, it has also been a key component of gendered analyses. In addition to the roles played by women and women’s movements, the varying gender ideologies and gender policies implemented by different nondemocratic regimes have all been explored. Scholars have shown that although the military regimes in power in Latin America in the 1960s, 1970s, and 1980s did not share a common or overarching ideology, they tended to be right-wing, with fairly traditional notions about women’s roles that were more (as in Chile) or less (as in Brazil) explicitly adhered to. The military regimes inherited discriminatory civil and legal codes (such as Patria Potestad) on taking power. But some significant differences between the regimes have also been explored. Some measures, such as more equal marriage and property laws, were introduced as part of a process of technocratic modernization by bureaucratic authoritarian regimes in Brazil and Argentina, but blocked by an alliance of opposition from within the regime and from outside it in Chile (Htun 2003). And although few women held office in any authoritarian regimes and some right-wing women had organized autonomously in support of the military before and just after the takeover, only the Chilean regime made serious attempts to mobilize women (primarily as wives and mothers) when it was in power (Valenzuela 1991).

Mainstream scholars have explored how authoritarian regimes suppressed the conventional political sphere to varying degrees, often banning the activities of trade unions and political parties, and closing congresses (although the Brazilian regimes did allow some carefully controlled political activity and in South Africa, although the vast majority was excluded from power on racial grounds, the white minority (including white women in its later stages) was enfranchised under the apartheid regime (Seidman 1993)). Despite the varying degrees of repression, some aspects of civil society, such as the church, could often still function as, although there was little political pluralism, more social and economic pluralism was tolerated.

Early gendered work examined how the social movements, whose emergence was prompted by repression and the often dire economic circumstances of military rule, included a wide variety of women’s organizations. Scholars often divided these organizations into three types. First they showed that women predominated in the human rights organizations such as the Argentine Madres de Plaza de Mayo and Chilean AFDD (Agrupaciones de Familiares de Detenidos-Desaparacidos) that protested against the disappearance of their relatives and demanded their return (Schirmer 1989). Second, they showed that women formed the majority of the large number of popular urban community based organizations, focused on strategies for economic survival in the context of recession and structural adjustment such as communal kitchens, consumption, and service issues such as daycare (Corcoran-Nantes 1990). Finally, feminist groups, often made up of middle-class women, engaged in consciousness raising and campaigns around gender inequality and women’s subordination, (re)emerged (Sternbach et al. 1992). These different organizations also overlapped and Jaquette (2001) claims that disparate women’s groups could come together to form important women’s movements that were united by the possibility of creating the opportunity to conduct new kinds of politics based on solidarity and self-help.

Feminist scholars went on to demonstrate that these women’s movements were significant actors in the broad opposition coalitions against many authoritarian regimes. The absence of a conventional political arena shifted the locus of activity from the institutional to the community level. They showed that, paradoxically, authoritarianism could afford women some political space and gave their activities greater prominence, often enabling them to seize the political initiative (Alvarez 1990). For example, the weekly protests of the Madres, which capitalized on the military regime’s relative reluctance to persecute women acting as mothers, helped to bring about the “end of fear” (Feijoó and Nari 1994). The celebrations held to mark international women’s day in Chile in 1978 were one of the first mass protests against the Pinochet regime (Chuckyrk 1989). Women’s organizations were key actors against the apartheid regime inside South Africa as well as within the main opposition organization, the African National Congress (ANC) in exile (Walker 1982; Gaitskell and Unterhalter 1989; Kemp et al. 1995). Gendered scholarship therefore demonstrated that women’s movements played an important role in the opposition to authoritarianism and that their actions positioned women as political actors associated within the broader concerns of citizenship, rights, and democracy.

In contrast, because of the very different context of state socialism, feminist scholarship took a different focus. All state socialist countries claimed to be committed to women’s equality and even declared the “woman question” to be solved. But feminist – often socialist feminist – scholars demonstrated that the notions of what this meant were limited as they were based on “a selective canonization” of the works of Marx and Lenin. In the official, economistic analysis, women were to be emancipated primarily through their participation in the labor market and their liberation from the constraints of the traditional social order (Molyneux 1981). Sweeping legal reforms, for example in terms of access to divorce and even abortion, were introduced at the same time as women entered the labor force in large numbers (Molyneux 1985). However, despite an ideology that gave women high levels of (symbolic) representation in the powerless state soviets through quotas, few if any women reached the politburos – the decision-making bodies. In addition, the rights granted from above could not always be accessed, and although women made up about 50 per cent of the workforce in East Central Europe by 1980, they congregated in low-paid, often low-status, gender-segregated employment in the public sphere and, with the exception of the state provision of childcare, little was done by the state to reduce domestic labor in the private sphere (Einhorn 1993). At the same time scant emphasis was placed on men changing their roles in the household. Feminist scholars therefore highlighted the fact that women faced a double (if not a triple) burden in the public and private sphere.

But feminist scholars could say little about women’s movements as the control that the communist parties exercised over the political systems extended into civil society. And although Einhorn and Sever (2003) warn us to beware one of the “myths of transition” that women were politically inactive, apart from some informal networks in the private sphere, few autonomous organizations, including women’s organizations, were permitted outside the wide range of communist sponsored organizations. Other institutions such as churches were largely highly constrained in the activities they were allowed to undertake. The only women’s organizations that existed were essentially part of the communist party apparatus. However, by the 1980s there was a growing perception that state socialist societies were in crisis and feminist scholars pointed out how this crisis was gendered. Economies were stagnating and social problems, reflected in high rates of divorce, alcoholism, and abortion, were growing. It was in this context that the “woman question” was reopened in the Soviet Union (Buckley 1989). However, despite measures to make it easier for women to spend time at home with small children, women continued with a “birth rate strike” as the number of children born continued to fall. For example, live births in Czechoslovakia had fallen from 23.3 per thousand population in 1950 to a low of 13.3 per thousand in 1989 (Wolchik 2000).

Despite efforts to prevent any degree of social pluralism through the controls placed on civil society, some opposition groups did emerge in parts of East Central Europe prior to the 1980s and women were active within them. But the gender scholarship showed that while Charter 77 in Czechoslovakia and Solidarity in Poland were very different kinds of opposition movements, women were marginal in both organizational structures (Jancar 1985). Most women involved did not see themselves as feminists or as organizing around gender issues, but as protesting about social and human rights issues. Indeed, scholars demonstrated that notions of women’s emancipation and feminism were associated with the discredited old order (even though state socialism viewed feminist movements as an unnecessary Western bourgeois deviation) and that state socialism meant there was no recent tradition of women’s autonomous organizing (Waylen 1994).

Thus, gender scholars exposed how the nondemocratic regimes in power prior to democratization exhibited considerable variations both in terms of their gender policies and in the roles played by women’s movements, and that this variation was most stark between state socialist and authoritarian regimes, but was also evident both within authoritarian regimes and, to a lesser extent, within state socialist regimes.

Breakdown and Transition

In their analyses of subsequent phases of regime breakdown and (any) transition to democracy, mainstream scholars concentrated on two questions. First, what causes nondemocratic regimes to break down and, second, what forms transitions take, focusing in particular on the kinds of transition paths most likely to end in consolidated democracies. The starting point for most gendered analyses has been the varying roles played by women and women’s movements in the breakdown of nondemocratic regimes. Feminist scholars argued that the lack of already-existing autonomous women’s movements meant that, although women were active participants in the mass demonstrations and broad movements that contributed to the collapse of state socialism, women, organized as women, could not play a key role in the relatively rapid and partly externally catalyzed transitions in East Central Europe (Einhorn 1993). Indeed, they claimed that, in contrast to Latin America and South Africa, where active women’s movements played an important role in the opposition to authoritarianism and made a significant contribution to the “end of fear” and the inauguration of the transition, the association of a “gender agenda” with discredited state socialism also militated against women beginning to organize as women around gender issues (Einhorn 1993; Waylen 1994; Jaquette and Wolchik 1998).

However, some gender scholars have claimed that women’s movements (along with other social movements) can play a more significant role in the breakdown and early stages of transition than in the period after the (re)institution of competitive party politics (Friedman 2000). In order both to understand the differing role of organized women in the subsequent transitions (thereby establishing how far the reinstitution of party politics has a negative effect on women’s movements) and to explore the ways in which transition paths affect gender outcomes, feminist scholars increasingly began to examine the complex and sometimes contradictory interaction of four variables: the transition; women activists; political parties and politicians involved in the transition; and the institutional legacy of the nondemocratic regime. It appears that an analysis of all these variables is necessary as the analysis of any one in isolation will not yield an understanding of gender outcomes in the post-transition phase.

The Nature of the Transition

Mainstream writers have identified several different characteristics that contribute to the emergence of different transition paths (Linz and Stepan 1996). Two major ones relevant to a gendered analysis are the speed of the transition and whether it is negotiated or pacted. Gender scholars have found some evidence to indicate that in order to have some influence over a rapid transition, women activists (within women’s movements, political parties, and opposition groups) need to be organized already. But we have seen that there were very few women in this position in those rapid transitions that took place from state socialism.

Some mainstream scholars claim that pacted and negotiated transitions are more likely to become consolidated democracies, in part because the civilians that take power will enjoy the confidence of some members of the nondemocratic regime, thereby reducing the likelihood of radical change (O’Donnell and Schmitter 1986). But gender scholars have been interested in whether longer drawn-out transitions, often based on gradual liberalization, can also offer opportunities for women activists to develop strategies in response to unfolding events. However, the openness of the institutional context for women activists also depends both on the nature of the negotiations and the participants from the nondemocratic regime and the opposition (Alvarez 1990). And feminist scholars have shown that with the notable exception of South Africa, organized women had minimal involvement in the negotiations that were part of the pacted transitions from authoritarianism; and few women took part in the Roundtable talks that accompanied some of the transitions from state socialism in East Central Europe (Matynia 2001; Hassim 2005).

The Role of Women Activists

Once the transition is under way, political parties and conventional political activity resume, and the political initiative frequently moves away from social movements. Much of the gender scholarship has explored what women activists do in the new institutional context and shown that they adopt different strategies and goals based on their own beliefs as well as the opportunities afforded by different institutional contexts. This can be either from autonomous movements or within political parties and other institutions, mirroring similar feminist debates about autonomy versus integration in other contexts. However, these are not mutually exclusive, and actions in either sphere can often be interlinked and mutually reinforcing. Because of its increasingly institutional focus, the gender and transitions scholarship tended to concentrate on those activists who opted for integration and engaged with political processes.

It demonstrated that in a number of the relatively quick transitions in East Central Europe, although many of the broad opposition movements that played a central role in breakdown and transition, such as Solidarity in Poland, transformed themselves into political parties to participate in electoral processes, on the whole it was not the women activists but the male ones who made the transfer from dissident opposition groups into high-ranking positions in the public sphere. As a result, scholars and activists claimed that Eastern Europe was witnessing the rise of masculinism and the political empowerment of men in the public sphere and civil society (Watson 1993; Szalai 1998).

In a number of the longer negotiated transitions in Latin America, scholars documented how some female activists realized that women were being marginalized from transition processes and that, without action from organized women, this would continue. Some women attempted to influence the moderate opposition from broad-based alliances or umbrella movements. For example, there is now a large body of literature on Chile analyzing how, from early on, an umbrella organization, Mujeres por la Vida (campaigning under the slogan “Democracia en el pais y en la casa” (democracy in the country and in the home)), participated in the Asamblea de la Civilidad, a broad and moderate opposition front opposing the dictatorship (Baldez 2002). As a result, a women’s petition was included in the Demanda de Chile, a document submitted to the military government in 1986. But it also showed that some Chilean feminists remained skeptical about the benefits women would gain from a formally democratic government and opted to remain outside (Franceschet 2005). Therefore, a key focus of the literature on this period was the decision of many women activists, for example in Chile and Brazil, and particularly in South Africa, to participate in certain political parties and to come together with other women’s organizations to ensure that any transition would include women (Alvarez 1990; Kemp et al. 1995; Hassim 2002).

The Role of Political Parties

Despite being hampered by both a lack of data on women in political parties during the transition and post-transition phases of democratization, and the less stable and institutionalized nature of those parties and party systems, feminist scholars are beginning to establish that many of the factors that affect the influence of women activists are similar to those in established liberal democracies (Caul 1999). Preliminary studies indicate that women activists have greater success in placing gender issues on party agendas and increasing women’s influence within more institutionalized parties that have relatively transparent and rule-governed structures. They also appear to have more influence in parties identified with the left and center left (including renovated left parties and ex-revolutionary parties in Latin America and ex-communist parties in East Central Europe) (Luciak 2001; Matland and Montgomery 2003; Macaulay 2006). Left-wing parties seem more receptive to gender issues as they often have a greater commitment to equality, and in the transition context are more open to arguments about the need to promote women’s full citizenship as part of creating democracy for all. Parties of the center and left are also more likely to favor the implementation of special policies to promote gender equality. Women activists appear to have more influence if they are present in sufficient numbers, they consider themselves to be feminists, and they have links to women’s movements outside the political parties. Active women’s sections in parties that contain vociferous feminist lobbies also seem to play an important role in getting parties to take gender issues seriously. It also appears that women activists can have more impact if significant numbers of women have reached top party committees (Macaulay 2006). The implementation of quotas for internal party positions has proved to be one effective method for increasing the number of women at the top of party hierarchies (Waylen 2007b).

The feminist scholarship has also shown that for women activists involved in political parties to have an impact on the unfolding transition, the parties they are involved in also have to play an influential role inside the political processes that lead to the (re)institution of competitive electoral politics and not remain marginal or on the outside. Again, much of the work has been done on the Chilean and South African cases. First, scholars have analyzed how in Chile feminists concentrated their activities within the parties that later formed the center-left alliance, the Concertación (in many ways a continuation of the moderate alliance established in the mid-1980s). It went on to win the election held in 1989. Independent Chilean feminists and women from a range of parties involved in the Concertación formed the autonomous Concertación de Mujeres por la Democracia, to try to influence the unfolding electoral process, after women had very little influence in the run-up to the 1988 plebiscite. The women’s Concertación did get much of their program on women included in the manifesto for a future Concertación government. Analysts have concluded that it is highly unlikely that this would have occurred without the direct engagement of parts of the Chilean feminist movement (Rios 2003; Franceschet 2005). Scholars looking at South Africa have shown how women in the ANCWL (ANC Women’s League) joined together with a range of women in a triple alliance of women activists, politicians, and academics culminating in the creation of the Women’s National Coalition (WNC) to influence the negotiations that decided on the form of the transition and the new polity (Cock 1997; Hassim 2003a; 2003b; Goetz and Hassim 2004). Scholars have found few other cases in Latin America and none in East Central Europe where the parties playing a key role in transitions contained significant numbers of women activists who achieved any success in pressing a gender agenda. From the available evidence it appears that, with the exception of the ANC, the parties able to play a key role in determining the nature of a pacted transition are rarely very open to women activists.

The Institutional Legacy of the Nondemocratic Regime

Some mainstream scholars have argued that the institutional legacy left by a nondemocratic regime impacts on the subsequent polity. They have assessed their different characteristics, such as the degree to which elements of the nondemocratic regime and their allies wish to influence subsequent events and its strength (Linz and Stepan 1996). Although most gender scholars have focused less on the institutional legacies of nondemocratic regimes than on the roles of women actors, some have highlighted significant factors that have affected subsequent outcomes. Htun (2003), for example, has shown that although the Brazilian and Chilean militaries both liberalized from a position of strength, the Brazilian military had a less conservative vision of gender relations, had instituted some legal reforms, and was less concerned that a traditional gender order continued after it left power. In contrast, the Chilean military wished to ensure that its vision of the world, including its traditional view of gender relations, was maintained (Htun 2003). The political system it constructed also guaranteed its allies on the right political representation that exceeded their electoral support, thereby severely limiting the possibilities for reform. In contrast Htun (2003) demonstrates that the weakness of the Argentine military meant that it could not ensure that its conservative views on gender relations would triumph in the face of reform efforts. In East Central Europe, although a package of rights such as divorce and abortion rights were in place at the time of transition, more general support for women’s equality was associated with the discredited old order, leaving a negative ideological legacy (Jaquette and Wolchik 1998; Einhorn 2006). Indeed, some influential opposition players such as Solidarity in Poland had close ties to the Catholic Church and were known for their opposition to abortion (Siemienska 2003). In contrast, because women’s activism in Latin America and South Africa had come to be associated with opposition demands for democracy, rights, and citizenship, many women activists wanted to ensure that democracy would bring with it a number of progressive gender reforms.

Post-transition Politics

To complete our review of the scholarship relevant to the gendered analysis of transitions to democracy, we trace how these factors are seen to have played out in the post-transition period. Scholars have focused less attention on women’s movements in the post-transition period – in part because of their decreased levels of activity and significance and in part because of the increased interest of many feminist political scientists in the institutional arena. The literature on the political outcomes of transitions to democracy focuses primarily on two main areas: women’s participation in competitive electoral politics; and major changes in gender policy; with some consideration given to new institutions. We will look briefly at these in turn for the immediate post-transition period (the first 10 to 15 years after the “founding election”).

Women in Electoral Politics

Many commentators have highlighted that, with the exception of South Africa, the first elections after the (re)institution of competitive electoral politics saw the election of relatively few women representatives. At the founding elections in East Central Europe the numbers of women dropped from an average of about 33 percent of the total in the state soviets to 8.8 percent (Saxonberg 2000). In 1987 women constituted only 5.3 percent of the parliament in Brazil and in 1991 only 5.5 percent in Chile and 6.7 percent in Argentina. In contrast, women formed 28 percent of the first nonracial parliament elected in South Africa in 1994. However, mirroring wider trends, the overall levels of women’s representation increased at subsequent elections, reaching an average of 13.7 percent at the third election in East Central Europe and an average of 14 percent of representatives in Latin America by the late 1990s. But these figures obscure quite a wide variation. In East Central Europe the numbers of women elected in one country can vary significantly between one election and another and the average for a region hides a wide disparity, for example between Argentina and Brazil after 1994. Like feminist political scientists more generally, scholars examining “new democracies” have tried to explain these trends.

Four major factors appear significant. Three of them concern political parties and the role played by women activists within those parties, and the fourth concerns the nature of the electoral system. Certain parties do appear more likely to field women candidates in elections than others. The reasons for this variation are complex. Parties continue to vary considerably, particularly in their levels of institutionalization. Parties in East Central Europe (with the exception of the communist successor parties) tend to be less institutionalized than those in Latin America, for example in terms of party longevity and depth of their roots in the electorate (Lewis 2000). In the mainstream transitions literature, weakly institutionalized political parties and party systems are seen as an important handicap to consolidation as they are volatile, unstable, and lacking in legitimacy (Mainwaring 1998). But feminist commentators are somewhat divided about whether more centralized and institutionalized parties marginalize and demobilize women in the post-transition period (Friedman 2000).

Research shows that the gender picture is complex: some parties are more likely to have higher levels of women representatives than others. First, parties with relatively institutionalized structures (such as communist successor parties) are more likely to have open and transparent procedures for candidate selection rather than informal mechanisms that can often work against women (Matland and Montgomery 2003). But there is also evidence that less institutionalized structures typical of transition politics may sometimes favor certain women, for example those who have connections to party bosses (Macaulay 2006). In Peru, for example, in the mid-1990s women benefited in a “no party” system where existing male politicians were seen as corrupt and clientelistic (Blondet 2002). But a lack of institutionalization can lead to the election of individual women rather than a sustained increase in women’s representation. However, once elected, less institutionalized party structures with relatively lax party discipline can also facilitate cross-party organizing by women of different parties around gender issues (Waylen 2000; Macaulay 2006).

Second, mirroring findings from more long-standing democracies, in all regions parties identified with the left (including some social democratic as well as excommunist parties in East Central Europe) tended to field more women candidates in winnable positions than those identified with the right (Matland and Montgomery 2003; Millard 2004). This is also true of new parties identified with “progressive causes” (rather than new parties per se) such as ecological and humanist parties. Indeed, much of the volatility in the levels of women’s representation seen in parts of East Central Europe can be attributed to the varying fortunes of parties on the left (Siemienska 1998). It is less easy to generalize about populist parties (whether of the left or right) as they display a greater variation in the number of women they field (Matland 2003).

Third, again mirroring findings elsewhere, the role played by women activists, particularly women who identify themselves as feminists, both within autonomous women’s sections and within the mainstream of parties, continues to be central (Fodor 2004; Macaulay 2006). Parties with more feminists, active particularly at higher levels, tend to select more women candidates. In Latin America and South Africa the impact of feminist activists can be seen in some parties of the center and left, including new parties such as the PT in Brazil, the ANC in South Africa, and parts of more long-standing populist parties such as the PJ in Argentina (Franceschet 2001; Hassim 2005; Britton 2006). However, scholars recognize that fewer activists who would call themselves feminists can be found in Eastern European political parties (Saxonberg 2000; Fodor 2004).

Fourth, the research on new democracies reinforces the proposition that the nature of the electoral system matters. Proportional representation appears also to result in higher levels of women’s representation than “first past the post” systems in new democracies. The presence of quotas can also “fast track” increases in levels of women’s representation if they are effectively designed (for example, with a placement mandate) and implemented. After the introduction of national quotas in Argentina in 1991, some 11 other Latin American countries had followed suit by the end of the 1990s and it is claimed that, on average, they increased the levels of women’s representation by 5 percent (Htun and Jones 2002). Jaquette (2001:118) argues that the introduction of quotas can be attributed in part to the association of feminist arguments about the importance of women’s political participation with more general arguments about democracy, modernity, and citizenship. In South Africa the adoption of a party based quota by the ANC had a significant impact on women’s representation (Geisler 2000; Goetz and Hassim 2002). In contrast, in East Central Europe quotas were initially identified with state socialism and rarely advocated at first.

Policy Outcomes

As we have seen, the governments that take power after the first competitive elections inherit a package of laws and civil codes that regulate gender relations and vary considerably between region and country. Scholars have begun to explore the opportunities and the constraints on changes in policies that affect women and gender relations after the (re)institution of competitive electoral politics. In Chile, for example, many feminists had high hopes for the gender reforms that could be achieved with the election of a center-left government with a manifesto commitment for the establishment of a women’s bureau (Franceschet 2001). Few of these hopes were realized in the first 10 years after the transition. In order to understand why some changes are made and yet other attempts fail, we must explore not only key events in the post-transition phase but also the continuing impact of certain preexisting trends.

Several factors have been identified as influencing the size of the policy window for gender rights reform at transition. First, it must be remembered that the gender rights status quo at transition varied considerably. Second, gender rights have to be seen, not as a homogeneous category but as a number of different categories often governed by different legal regimes (Htun 2003). The major ones are: family and property rights, marriage and divorce laws, reproductive rights, sexuality and domestic violence, and equal rights. Changes in some categories will be easier to achieve than others. For example reforming property regimes can be framed simply as modernizing outdated laws, whereas the legalization of abortion conflicts directly with religious principles; and equal rights legislation can be associated negatively with feminism. Attempts to promote the latter two are therefore more likely to be contentious and provoke fierce resistance. Third, as the policy making process becomes relatively more open in the immediate post-transition context, the range of actors involved increases (Blofield and Haas 2005). They, too, must be disaggregated as they have different interests. Different actors will often be more or less active according to the issue involved, for example the Catholic Church is more likely to participate in attempts to alter abortion laws than in less controversial efforts to change the marital property regime (Wolchik 2000; Zielinska 2000; Waylen 2007b).

Women’s movements, where they are active, remain one of the key actors in any attempts to change the legal frameworks governing gender relations. Although commentators have claimed that women’s movements played a less prominent role in the post-transition phase in Latin America, other feminist scholars have explored the new strategies that many organizations adopted (Rios 2003). It clear that some, notably middle class, feminist organizations became more professionalized and “NGOized” (Alvarez 1998). They frequently started delivering more externally funded programs, executing contract research, and advising governments (Schild 1998). Specific conjunctural alliances and networks of organizations also emerged to organize and campaign around particular issues such as domestic violence and reproductive rights. Domestic women’s organizations made links with regional and international women’s networks, for example in the preparatory phase of the 1995 Beijing international women’s conference (Alvarez 1999). These coalitions also liaised with women politicians and activists within political parties as well as women’s policy agencies, in their attempts to influence policy outcomes. However, some organizations, such as human rights and community groups, have rarely been central in the post-transition era. In Eastern Europe, few prominent women’s groups emerged in the immediate post-transition era to attempt to influence policy debates, and those that did were less affected by international feminism (Jaquette and Wolchik 1998; Einhorn 2006).

Third, feminist scholars are increasingly looking at the wider institutional context. They have found that it appears that center or left governments are more likely to try to implement progressive gender reform and to resist attempts to get rights reduced than right wing governments, who may attempt to reduce gender rights (Albertyn et al. 1999). Although the political complexion of the government will influence the kinds of policies it wishes to implement and its openness to particular actors, its ability to change laws is affected by a number of other factors. For example, both the strength of the coalition of supporters of the previous regime and the extent to which they desire to prevent changes to the legal regime inherited at the time of transition can circumscribe the maneuverability of the newly elected governments. There is now a much greater recognition of the extent to which the external environment also influences the institutional context. Feminist scholars have charted how international organizations and international women’s conferences influenced domestic policy agendas by bringing pressure to bear on governments, for example, to establish women’s policy agencies (WPAs) as well as supporting local women’s movements. This was initially more important in Latin America than Eastern Europe (Jaquette and Wolchik 1998). But EU accession also resulted in external pressure to adopt measures such as equal treatment directives associated with the acquis communautaire in the accession countries (Heinen and Portet 2002). Gender policy outcomes therefore vary considerably depending on the issue, the actors, and the context. For example, apart from in South Africa, reproductive rights, particularly abortion rights, have rarely improved, but legislation against domestic violence has been easier to achieve in many contexts.

So far this essay has focused mainly on the constraints rather than opportunities for change that the post-transition phase appears to offer. The gender scholarship has also explored the opportunities for reform offered by the creation of new institutions. WPAs have been one form of institution that has been extensively explored by feminists, and again many of their findings and conclusions mirror those drawn from the long-standing democracies – that WPAs vary considerably in their effectiveness depending on how and why they were set up, their location, resources, and levels of commitment from government (Jezerska 2002; Seidman 2003; Franceschet 2005; Macaulay 2006; Waylen 2007b). A second area that has received more attention recently is constitutional change. When deciding on institutional structures, choices are made whether to continue with the preexisting constitution, as in Chile, to revert to a previous one, or draft a new one. Mirroring similar developments in the study of first world politics, some gender scholars have explored how the redrafting of constitutions might offer opportunities to alter the gender opportunity structure. The Brazilian and South African cases have attracted particular attention. Organized women actively intervened in the processes of constitutional design and in both cases the resulting constitutions contained a range of progressive articles detailing rights for different groups (Pitanguy 2002; Albertyn 2003). In contrast, few women activists were in a position to influence the content of constitutions adopted in East Central Europe whether they were newly drafted, such as in Poland, or modifications of preexisting ones, such as in the Czech Republic.

Conclusion and Directions for Future Research

Feminist scholars continue to demonstrate that democracies, whether new or old, still operate to some degree to deny women full political equality in practice. The gendered scholarship on democratization in Latin America, South Africa, and Eastern Europe has furthered our understanding of transitions and their outcomes. There is now quite a large body of research that shows that the conditions that might help promote positive gender outcomes rarely occur together, and so few transitions have resulted in the election of governments that have been able and willing to make progressive changes to gender policies in the immediate post-transition period. However, the gender scholarship has also demonstrated that processes of democratization have increased women’s access to civil and political rights, even if, for many women, their social and economic ones have remained limited. It may well be that the gender and transitions literature will not develop any further as a separate body of work, because at the same time as the third wave of democratization appears to have ended, many of the feminist scholars who look at the “new democracies” are engaging in the same debates as scholars who analyze the more long-standing democracies. However, there is potential to expand one important emerging area of research that is investigating how attempts to establish democracy in post-conflict settings are gendered. To date, much of the research in this field has come from feminist scholarship on human rights, transitional justice, and international sociolegal scholarship (Chinkin and Charlesworth 2006). But it would be enhanced if feminist scholars with expertise in third wave transitions to democracy were to examine not only women’s roles in post-conflict institution building but how the outcomes have gendered implications more systematically.


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Freedom House. At, accessed Jul. 16, 2009. A US based international NGO conducting research and advocacy on democracy worldwide. Provides country profiles and information on levels of democracy in every country.

IDEA International Institute for Democracy and Electoral Assistance. At, accessed Jul. 16, 2009. Based in Sweden, one of IDEA’s area of expertise is gender and democracy. They have run a project on gender quotas.

IPU, The Interparliamentary Union. At, accessed Jul. 16, 2009. This is an organization of national parliaments. It has a special project on women in national parliaments. The website gives details of numbers of women elected to parliaments worldwide.

UNIFEM, The United Nations Development Fund for Women. At, accessed Jul. 16, 2009. It has a number of special programs on gender and governance, focusing particularly on women and democracy and on particular policy issues such as violence against women.