Let us reimagine politics as the work of women

Two people holding up a roof, a woman holding up a heart with a thriving society inside, a woman crossing a bridge to a better future

Let us reimagine politics as the work of women

It is our responsibility to reimagine the political system designed around men and gendered ideas of leadership, argues WFD's Cecillia Makonyola. If we cannot imagine it, we will never have a system that values women’s labour in all its forms. Beginning on International Women’s Day, let's reimagine politics as it should be; the work of women.

I often associate International Women’s Day (IWD) with women’s suffrage. But this view overlooks its origins in the labour movement and the actors within it who sought to recognise the undervalued labour women undertake. It also masks the connection between women’s work and political participation.

When Jacinda Ardern announced her resignation as Prime Minister of New Zealand, the latent sexism to which we are often numb was palpable. Papers of record, and well-respected news organisations were quick to suggest that this was a reflection of women not being able “to have it all”. They essentially suggested that leaving high office is at once both a personal failing and an indictment of the concept that women can live full lives across the public and private spheres.

Why it is that when women leave high office citing exhaustion or violence, we do not critique the institutions, practices, and culture that define a system in which only a few men can sustain long-term, nurturing environments and enjoy a career in service, without costing them the experience of family life. This reality makes many of our democratic institutions hostile to women, non-binary people, and men whose identities defy culturally held leadership norms. This is unsurprising perhaps, given that most of our laws, policies, and institutions were designed by establishment men for establishment men. And, their careful architecture almost ensures it fails everyone else while continuing to benefit them.  

The need to diversify our politics not only along gender lines but class, ethnicity, age, ability, and locality is paramount. But it is also clear that the exclusion of people who have been othered is critical to the success of the political status quo.

A central tactic here is upholding the myth that the qualities we associate with maleness are inextricable from politics. This positions women in what Carroll calls a “double bind” from which they are destined to ‘fail’ because they are conditioned not to exhibit these ‘masculine’ qualities, even if they naturally would do so. We then weaponize expectations of women as compassionate, caring, and collaborative to keep them solely in the private sphere.

At the same time, we allow the toxic masculinity of men who exhibit authoritarian tendencies, discursive violence, and self-promotion to plunge us into elitism, militarism, and populism.

Not only is this unjust and dangerous, but there are also two significant implications.

The first is the failure to critique the problematic behaviours that uphold the system. Instead, we critique the people who reflect the system’s weaknesses to us; further positioning them as outliers and reinforcing norms that women cannot lead and do not belong in the public sphere.

Secondly, we do not value pluralism in the perspectives, leadership styles, and behaviours within political institutions. The latter point speaks to a critical failure of imagination, negating how women lead as irrelevant.

In fact, the qualities disproportionately conferred upon women and their leadership style, to the detriment of all genders, have proven valuable to the public sphere. The compassionate and decisive leadership Ardern demonstrated in response to the Islamophobic Christchurch shooting, and her refusal to lean into the anti-Muslim sentiment was a masterclass in effective policymaking and politicking. Women's leadership globally and at multiple levels – despite their marginalisation during the COVID-19 pandemic – showcased a range of qualities and skills often linked to feminised labour.

It is not a sign of weakness inherent to our gender that women leave politics when it no longer serves their ambition, purpose, or life circumstances. It is a mark of strength when they go to preserve the integrity of democratic systems. It demonstrates professional maturity to state clearly why the role is now better suited to someone else.

That we see these qualities as weaknesses only shows how deeply we have internalised the toxic masculinity that pervades and increasingly defines our politics.

That we find it strange – or worse, a failure – when women choose to step aside but are comfortable with men holding onto power at the cost of the integrity of the office, the quality of politics, their own legacy, the sanctity of cherished institutions, and our very peace and security – is wild.

It is not enough for us to defend Ardern or any woman who leaves public life on her terms. It should never be perceived as a failure; it should spark our imagination for our politics.

It is our responsibility as citizens, political leaders, and democracy support actors to reimagine this system altogether. If we cannot imagine it, we will never have a system that not only recognises but values women’s labour in all its forms. Beginning on International Women’s Day, let's reimagine politics as it should be; the work of women.