|Vicky Randall and Georgina Waylen, editors. Gender, Politics and the State. London: Routledge, 1998, 214 pp., $128.00 cloth, $37.99 paper.
'The state' has been a vexed concept for feminism for some time. Over the last decade, a number of questions have been posed: Why doesn't feminism have a comprehensive theory of the state? Does feminism need a theory of the state? Is it possible to have 'a' theory of the 'state'? How, and to what end, have feminist politics worked with and/or against the state? This collection situates itself within these questions and seeks to problematize all three of the concepts that comprise its title -- gender, politics and the state. As such, it pushes the parameters of the debates beyond the state itself, and makes a contribution to the growing debates about 'gender' as an analytic concept and about just what constitutes 'politics'. Originating in a conference at the London School of Economics, the papers represent a range of theoretical and empirical studies. Happily, unlike many such conference-based collections, this volume has been well edited to present a coherent and structured reflection on the key themes, despite some unevenness in individual contributions.
Georgina Waylen's introductory chapter provides a useful orientation to the issues which each of the contributions, in some way, addresses. Here, she assesses feminist theorizing on the state to date, outlines the key questions that have emerged regarding the 'nature of the state', and reviews the important feminist literature on state policies, citizenship and the public-private divide.
The first three selections address primarily theoretical questions. Especially interesting is Terrell Carver's interrogation of 'gender' in political theory, where he criticizes the tendency to use 'gender' as "...loosely synonymous with 'sex' and lazily synonymous with 'women'" (p.18). Instead, he urges us to think about gender as the manner in which sexual difference becomes political, a stance which exposes the fiction of a 'universal subject' of politics that allows masculinity to masquerade as un-gendered. Carver's succinct and cogent critique poses a real challenge to how 'gender' has been conceptualized. Ursula Vogel examines European marriage laws of the 19th century in order to get at the normative construction of gender embodied in legal discourses. Her aim here is not to review the legal status of women, but the legal status of sexual difference itself, and its political deployment. She provides a complex analysis of 'marriage' as a legal and political institution which has been, historically, the primary site through which the state has constructed and regulated 'gender' as a hierarchy. She argues that subsequent legal reforms, at least in most Western democracies, "...no longer presume and enforce a particular order of gender in the marriage relationship" (pg.41) but that continuing demands on the state to protect marriage as an institution remain "deeply implicated in the hierarchical construction of gender" (Ibid.). In other words, state practices produce historically variable meanings of 'men' and 'women', but these are never authoritative or absolute. Kate Nash explores feminist attempts to re-think the liberal state via a review of some of the most influential feminist theories of democracy, as represented in the work of Iris Marion Young, Anne Phillips and Chantal Mouffe. She takes the tension between universalism and difference as her organizing theme, and provides a useful summary of attempts to think beyond liberalism, while drawing on its emancipatory impulse.
The focus of the volume then shifts to case studies which take up these broader theoretical questions in a diversity of political contexts -- abortion politics in the Republic of Ireland (Barry Gilheany), the policing of prostitution in Birmingham (Barbara Gwinnett), neoliberal economic and political transitions in Latin America (Nikke Craske), land reform in Zimbabwe, Vietnam and India (Susie Jacobs), post-perestoika women's organizing in Russia (Valerie Sperling), and state feminism in China (Jude Howell). It is impossible to do justice to such a rich set of analyses in a brief review, and each paper makes a useful contribution to the aims of the volume. The analyses of abortion and prostitution raise some critical questions about sexuality and the body as they are imbued with political significance, and draw out the complexity of what may be represented as "women's interests". In both cases, both state and non-state agencies are implicated in normative constructions of gender, and women are key actors on both sides of the debates about regulation. The various analyses of states-in-transition problematize the shifting distinctions of state/civil society, public/private and political/social, and seek to make manifest their gendered dimensions. Craske, for example, argues that the reprivitization of reproduction which has accompanied Structural Adjustment Programs in Latin America has effected a 'remasculinization' of politics. Jacob's comparative study draws out the often contradictory implications of land reform politics which do not recognize the intricate links between agricultural and land issues and the gendered politics of marriage and kinship. Implicit in each of these analyses is a dynamic conception of political 'space', in which gendered identities and interests are variously constructed and contested by grass-roots political movements, official state agencies, and supra-national entities such as the United Nations, always in relation to other social divisions (in particular those of class, race/ethnicity and religion). Sperling's study of women's organizing in Russia and Howell's paper on China take up these themes in a more explicit way, although both tend to adopt a fairly conventional understanding of the "political opportunity structure" which does not always do justice to the extra-institutional dimensions of politics that their analyses suggest. There is also a tendency in some of these accounts to slip into using 'gender' as a synonym for 'women' -- a tendency which Carver so effectively criticized in an earlier chapter.
A concluding chapter by Vicky Randall works hard at connecting the specific issues raised by the various contributors to the big theoretical questions raised in the introduction. This is no small feat for a collection which has covered as much ground, both theoretical and empirical, as this one has. Not surprisingly, she offers no facile answers to those questions, but reflects on how the contributions to the volume have deepened them, have given them some urgency and have gestured towards the complexity of the terrain that needs to be explored. There is no doubt that the intricate relations of 'gender', 'politics' and 'the state', however malleable those concepts become in the context of concrete issues, remain critically important to feminist analysis. On the whole, this collection is a welcome contribution to the literature, and will be useful to those working in a variety of disciplines, including sociology, politics and development studies.