Women’s Liberation Beyond the Limitations of the State


The following is an essay (of unknown quality, I don’t know) written for a university course on gender and politics.

Representation has become an extremely important facet of modern liberal democracies. From the political sphere to entertainment media and the workforce, great effort has been exerted from countless groups to ensure not just that diversity becomes the norm, but that it is visible and seen as a strength that benefits everyone. In a representative democracy, this diversity of people is meant to reflect not only the demographics of a particular nation, but bring the views, experiences, and perspectives of them to the public eye for consideration. Women, who make approximately half the global population, are one such group that has fought for centuries to achieve equal standing with men who have held the reins of power in almost all institutions of all societies in history, with few exceptions.

In recent years, various mechanisms have been implemented across the globe to increase women’s involvement and power in the political system, with quotas being a fairly ubiquitous example (Franceschet & Piscopo, 2013; O’Brien & Rickne, 2016; Baker, 2019), with uncertain results. What this essay intends to argue is that state mechanisms like quotas are not adequate to achieving gender equality, let alone women’s (and queer) liberation, but not that quotas should therefore be scrapped or dismissed entirely. Rather, quotas and other methods are useful but extremely limited tools within patriarchal systems and institutions, such as politics or the corporate world. The benefits are worth arguing for against those who would deny women access entirely, which is a very real danger (Mansbridge, 2005). On the other hand, their glaring pitfalls and omissions must be explored to ensure this political and social liberation applies to all women, not just those who “make it in a man’s world”. A more anarchic and grassroots alternative that can learn and adjust on a path to uplift all women is needed.

One of the major reasons for promoting and implementing quotas is that the political system, embodied by the state and its various institutions, is inherently patriarchal. Around the world, men make up the majority of elected (and unelected) officials, leaving women with few opportunities to reach positions of power. The contradiction of the state correcting for biases within the state will be explored below, but by including more women within these institutions it can provide gradual, if slow, increases in material outcomes and the presence of women in political office and elsewhere (Franceschet & Piscopo, 2013). While the political arena is extremely powerful and influential, there are other forces such as corporate and religious systems that hold similar sway. If the state can be wielded to enable progress in these areas, there is little reason not to take advantage of it.

It also provides an avenue to tackle the problem of merit. Ideally, any political candidate would be proficient and qualified for their role as a representative, and this is often used as an argument against “quota women” who are perceived to have been given, rather than having earned, their position (O’Brien & Rickne, 2016). But discrimination and inherent biases can result in certain demographics being under-represented, and some, such as Murray (2014), have suggested reframing our approach to gender quotas. Rather than focus on the under-representation of certain groups, like women, we ought to handle the problem of men’s over-representation. While this is a purely semantic difference, how something is framed can have significant impact on how it is received by the general public. This would also equalise the merit argument as men, rather than women, would have to “prove” their worth to be considered against their colleagues.

A related concern brought up by Mansbridge (2005) is that of combatting essentialism. She argues that in a world of flexible and fluid definitions and identities, setting quotas for women seems to enforce a sense of rigidity, whereby only women can represent women and that they cannot represent men or vice versa. But women themselves are not a monolith (as will be discussed below in detail), nor are they entirely disconnected or opposed to men and men’s concerns. Quotas in this context, according to Mansbridge, appear to focus almost entirely on differences, rather than the diversity in each category and the similarities between them. This is, in my view, a relatively trivial point, but it is worth pointing out because Mansbridge (2005) does provide the more nuanced argument that makes it so trivial. That is, we ought to set quotas, but do so in a way that takes into account the historical, cultural, social and structural biases. There should be quotas for women, so long as the word “woman” is understood to include black women, the LGBT+ community, disabled women, etc. (Mansbridge, 2005).

Introducing quotas also, as one would expect, accelerates women’s involvement and electability. In the short-term, this is a sort of “supply and demand” effect whereby the number of women gaining access grows as the demand for women in leadership roles increases (Franceschet & Piscopo, 2013). To complement the framing concern by Murray (2014), Franceschet and Piscopo (2013) note that women elected through such mechanisms are generally as qualified (or more so) than their male counterparts, placing the merit debate squarely on handling the over-representation of men. There are a couple of detrimental long-term effects, however, that highlight some limitations of quotas regardless of how they are framed.

Franceschet and Piscopo (2013) go on to discuss how this immediate success does not translate into long-term survival in the political arena, nor is it likely for many women to reach positions of leadership within a party for long, if at all. One example is Julia Gillard, Australia’s first female Prime Minister, who faced an uphill battle against her own party and the conservative Coalition parties led by Tony Abbott. After ousting Kevin Rudd in 2010, she narrowly won a minority election and never lasted a full term. One major (albeit difficult to quantify) aspect of her downfall was the discourse surrounding not just her gender, but how she performed her gender as a political leader (Johnson, 2015). Most of this was led by hostility from the Coalition in Parliament and from the media, with commentary on her clothing and marital status, and violent and sexualising harassment that smeared her image as a woman in power (Connell, 2021: 76). Alongside other fronts, such as business lobbying and propagandistic slogans on border security and climate change from the Opposition, this contributed to her polls tanking as a woman who cannot be trusted (McAdam & Chong, 2019; Wilkinson, 2020). The Labor Party subsequently reverted to Rudd and lost the 2013 election.

Quotas and inserting women into leadership positions can be good in the short-term for some women, and the arguments against them often come from misinformed and even sexist views that highlight why they are so urgently required. Yet for a variety of more critical and legitimate reasons, they fail to achieve the long-term goals of maintaining their positions and overall women’s liberation. How can working within the state, in its current form or at all, meaningfully contribute to the liberation of all women when it exists as a monolith of patriarchal power? Feminist author Jessa Crispin even calls such self-empowerment within the current system a form of narcissism, bluntly stating “doing well within the patriarchal system is not a political victory.” (Crispin, 2017). For instance, despite growing numbers of women in the Australian Parliament, sexual harassment and assault has been terrifyingly prolific over the past decade in the building that houses our government. That is not to say that women who are elected are in any way at fault for these specific actions – far from it. But can they, let alone men, call it a victory for equality when they feel unsafe or belittled in their workplace despite their position?

There are two glaring questions that arise from Crispin’s statement. The first is, which women? Which women get to benefit from mechanisms like quotas? Which women get to experience real material progress and liberation as a sex/gender as a result of increased women’s participation in the state? The second, assuming the answer to the previous question is “not many”, is what is a suitable alternative to the current system and solutions? To explore the question of which women, we must take an intersectional approach to describe the experiences of different women. While women as a group have all experienced gendered oppression, intersectionality seeks to investigate how different axes of oppression intersect and interact, including race, class, disability, etc.

On the matter of class, Julia Gillard serves as a contrasting example. On the same day she gave her now legendary misogyny speech, her government along with the Opposition passed welfare cuts to single parents, most of whom were and are women, and which was not based on any real evidence – just a bipartisan approach to welfare reform focussed on driving sole carers and parents into the workforce (Cox, 2012). Her government also reopened the Howard-era offshore detention and processing centres in Nauru and Papua New Guinea, holding men, women and children in illegal and unsafe conditions that resulted in harm and trauma for many (McAdam & Chong, 2019). This continued after Labor’s election loss, and included sexual assault and even instances of rape, incidents that, along with many others, events that ultimately led to most of these tortured refugees being brought to Australia anyway (Evershed et. al., 2016).

While Gillard held a powerful voice for women in Parliament and showed how brutal politics was towards women, those in lower socioeconomic positions or with asylum status were left behind in the name of fiscal responsibility and border security. Crispin (2017) uses Hillary Clinton’s record as Senator and Secretary of State to similar effect, noting that her position did not help poor women or women in countries where the United States intervened. In her book The White Possessive, Aileen Moreton-Robinson (2015) provides a particular framework for the settler-colonial countries, describing such nation-states as patriarchal white possessions. As a First Nations’ scholar, her work is mostly focussed on the matter of whiteness, but there is a very clear hegemony within whiteness along gendered and propertied lines. Sovereignty may have been claimed by the colonists, but men, mostly those of a certain social and economic status, are the ones who own, and therefore determine the design of, institutions like the nation-state (Connell, 2000).

On the question of quotas then, not only is there the issue of which women can attain a position of power within the system, but which women can even be represented at all. Certainly not First Nations’ women, who despite some bold figures like Greens’ Senator Lidia Thorpe in Parliament, suffer immensely through legislation such as the Northern Territory Intervention and the BasicsCard, and have one of the highest incarceration rates in the world (Moreton-Robinson, 2015; Maddison, 2009; Marks, 2022). Rather, a more direct and participatory form of democracy built upon grassroots community engagement and activism would be a much more suitable approach than a top-down state of distant representatives in striving for liberation (Kioupkiolis, 2017; Scully, 2020). As Bakunin (1990: 23) predicted, “it will scarcely be any easier on the people if the cudgel with which they are beaten is called the people’s cudgel.”

Again, this is not to suggest that mechanisms like quotas are entirely meritless, but simply that they fall far short of genuine liberation for all women. Purely from a pragmatic stance, it is as ridiculous to dismiss the concept of electoral politics and increased representation entirely as it is to isolate it as the only, or even ideal, pathway. What I do posit, however, is that the state is an inadequate framework to make meaningful progress, and that the elevation of individual women, or specific groups of women, to power does little in the long-term. New approaches are required. It is prudent, at this stage (particularly as a man writing on feminist issues), to note that I cannot speak for women nor prescribe to them solutions to their issues or how they should organise (Bey, 2020). Not even they can claim to do so for all women, as discussed above.

White suffragettes in the United States fought for the ballot, yet many stepped away from the concurrent struggle of getting the ballot for black men to win support from the South – where were the black women, one wonders (Davis, 1981). In Australia during the early 1900s, where (white) women had the vote, labour laws were strict and oppressive. Over a century ago, Emma Goldman asked what benefits women gaining the vote could bring that could not be achieved through direct action alongside working men and women (Goldman, 1910). The wisest course of action is to listen to the voices of the oppressed and hear what they have to say.

Whatever the future holds in terms of organisation and approach, there are some ideas we can use to guide these decisions. In her book Feminism Without Borders, Chandra Talpade Mohanty (2003) looks to an internationalist (or transnational) vision of the feminist movement, one in which all women – including “Third World women” who are often spoken about in a paternalistic and monolithic manner by Western and liberal feminists – take part in a global movement. This transcends national borders and electoral politics, highlighting freedom, choice and sustainability in all aspects of life as worthy aspirations. These are built atop a foundation “in which democratic and socialist practices and institutions provide the conditions for public participation and decision making for people regardless of economic and social location.” The work to achieve this must be “on many fronts, in many different kinds of collectivities in order to organise against repressive systems of rule.” (Mohanty, 2003: 2-3).

This is no small task, and one which the state cannot be an active player. Despite lofty promises and romanticised versions of history, the state as an institution will first and foremost act to ensure its own self-preservation. The Russian Revolution heralded a shift toward communism in Russia that remains the greatest inspiration for liberation today, yet Lenin’s vanguardism and the Bolsheviks conflated their success with the ideals of the Revolution and ultimately crushed those who wished to see power delivered to the workers (Berkman, 1929; Mett, 1938). Similarly, the dominance of men has been cemented within the nation-state, and while women have gained some concessions and sway within these institutions, they are just that – mere concessions. The structure still stands, and it knows it must adjust to keep the threat of real women’s liberation at bay lest it be dismantled to make way for a more just system (Crispin, 2017).

Any viable alternative must set its sights beyond engagement with the status quo – it must be revolutionary in nature. Beyond the state, feminism must embrace internationalism to learn and grow from the myriad of cultures and collectives that can shape our understanding of women’s place in the world (Mohanty, 2003). Beyond electoral politics and well-meaning mechanisms such as quotas for women, direct action and participatory democracy initiated and carried out by women (and men) for women are necessary to allow everyone, not just select groups, to reap the benefits of a truly free world.

Pragmatism and opposition to those who would shackle women to traditional and subservient roles in society demand we fight for equality within the system. Here, quotas and diverse representation can help us build a more transcendent consciousness with immediate short-term action. Gender equality in political decision making, if it is to be truly actualised, must ultimately leave pragmatism behind. There are far more productive, fruitful, and fulfilling avenues we can take to grasp liberation.


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