“If all men are born equal, how is it that all women are born slaves?” After the local elections on 14 October, that resulted in only one of the nineteen new mayors of the Brussels-Capital region being female, I couldn’t help but think of Mary Astell’s famous words.
Ages have passed and much has changed since Astell denounced the discrimination against women. We can now vote, open our own bank accounts. We are not the possession of our husbands anymore. We have a voice and we can raise it, and, in fact, many of us do. We have indeed come a long way. But even if the majority of Western women are no longer treated as slaves, that does not mean we are all equal and free.
Astell wrote her most important works at the end of the 17th century and is often considered to be the first English feminist. She was an outspoken defender of equality and freedom. That is: freedom conceived of as not merely the formal permission to do something, but as having the actual power to do it. Such freedom requires non-domination; equality, a power balance.
Without equality, freedom is the privilege of the powerful, not the right of all. Nowadays women might have the formal freedom to become a Brussels mayor, but the enormous gender discrepancy suggests the existence of a structural sort of inequality.
Top of the list
Several reasons for the political underrepresentation of women at the highest level of municipal government can be given. It begins with the fact that men dramatically outscore women in list leadership.
In Flanders, only one in four list leaders for the recent elections were women. That in itself is a structural disadvantage. It creates no condition of non-domination, but an unequal power relation that undermines the freedom of women.
A second factor that contributes to the power imbalance between men and women is that many people have become convinced that there is no imbalance at all. Increasingly popular is the belief, especially in highly liberal countries like Belgium and Holland, that the process of emancipation has been completed, and that only the most stubborn of feminists still complain about gender inequality in politics, science, the arts and other domains of our social and professional lives.
Yet, there is so much statistical evidence of this inequality, that only an unemancipated mind can believe the process of emancipation has been completed. What is troublesome with this widespread perspective is of course that you can only deal with a problem when you recognize it exists.
A victory that tastes like defeat
The fact that the underrepresentation of women in charge of the Brussels municipalities sparked little debate, let alone outrage, shows how complacent we’ve become. All is fine, nothing to worry about.
In the meanwhile, we can give ourselves a self-congratulatory pat on the shoulder for the fact that Pierre Kompany, father of the famous football player, is the new mayor of Ganshoren, and as such has become the first black mayor in the Brussels region. This has been hailed as a “victory of diversity”, and rightly so. But if we take gender into account, there is little reason to be triumphant.
Qualities over gender
Some women went into the elections with the conviction that one should vote only for women if one wants to change the position of women in politics. This is a step too far for many, even for certain progressives and feminists. How on earth can you act so discriminatively towards men? Should one not be voting for the best candidate, for the one who made the best promises and the one that will represent us in the best way possible?
Of course we should. But do we also want to say that for each competent woman there are 18 competent men? Does only 1 woman per 19 mayors have those qualities, or should we admit that something is wrong at a deeper level? I don’t know the solution, but I do know that admitting there is a problem and being ashamed of it, not only in Brussels, but in the whole of Belgium, is a first step to be taken.
The curse of motherhood
Another underlying reason for the political underrepresentation of women is that they are born with a womb. For some reason, society still believes that having a womb and having a wonderful career are at odds. It is something all women with very busy professional lives are confronted with.
Whether they have children or not, inevitably they are confronted with the question of whether motherhood and a career can be combined. The answer to that question is still strikingly often no. It is motherhood, or excelling at your work; the one or the other.
A few years ago, Connie Palmen, the leading lady of Dutch literature, wrote an interesting essay in which she explores the lives of four exceptional women, who all paid a huge price for their successful careers. Their successes went hand in hand with troublesome relationships with parents, partners and alcohol, and motherhood too was part of the sacrifice they made to establish a great career.
Creativity and the placenta
Perhaps a pattern can be discerned here, but for each example, there is of course a counterexample. If you examine the position of women in world literature, indeed it is easy to find many great female writers who didn’t bear children. And even if they had children, that didn’t always go quite well; think of Sylvia Plath.
But equally relevant in this regard are authors like Doris Lessing and Alice Monroe – who both had three children – and who show that mothers too can master the art of the written word. The creativity of a woman does not vanish with the placenta. Yet the myth persists that successful careers and motherhood aren’t compatible. As a consequence, women are not being treated as the equals of men.
We still haven’t liberated ourselves from the stereotype of the great artist, political leader, scientist or entrepreneur being by definition, male. It is only when we have freed ourselves from that prejudice that true equality and freedom will be possible. Till then, it is very likely that we will have to wait for a woman to become the first female prime minister of Belgium, and for Brussels to have as many female as male mayors. That might seem to be merely a symbolic matter. But precisely because it is so symbolic, it is actually of the greatest importance.