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Central American University - UCA  
  Number 239 | Junio 2001



Vital Democracy: A Feminist Proposal

The time has come to give democracy a new first name. Democracy’s current challenge is to ensure that women and men equitably share rights and responsibilities in both the public and private realms.

María Elena Simón Rodríguez

The coexistence and cohabitation of women and men is universal in time and place, but it has not been nor is it now the most civic or peaceful. Although nature has designed and prepared us as males and females of the most highly evolved species, it has not led to the accumulation of much fruitful experience in pursuit of advanced and effective ways of dealing with conflicts. We have not learned how to negotiate to arrive at a mutually agreeable pact.

An ancestral, perverse and universal prejudice

The sexual dimorphism between women and men appears to have dictated most of the postulates and the legal and social norms that humanity has known. In all times and places, women as a whole have held a political and social status inferior to that of men as a whole, despite their physical superiority with respect to human reproduction. Only very recently, in certain countries and to a limited extent, have women had access to systems that recognize their individuality as persons, categorizing them as equal in rank to men of the same class and condition.

An ancient prejudice has thus been broken, one that has been extremely prejudicial to women and helps explain centuries of oppression. Patriarchal mechanisms solidly established over the centuries gave birth to the prejudice that women’s nature prepares them exclusively for the tasks of reproduction—gestating, giving birth and nursing. This idea, which thus puts women in an inferior category for the tasks of culture, which belong exclusively to men, was sustained, grew, reproduced and spread everywhere. We still hear and read that women, "by nature," are careful, orderly, submissive, tender, fickle, weak and emotional, although the evidence proves that many women are firm, disorderly, rebellious, resistant and rational. Conceptualizing women like this and men as their antonyms, their natural opposites, has led socially and historically to an unsustainable conflict between the sexes/genders.

Depending on the era in question and the nature of the regime that governs community coexistence, it has often been impossible to bring these conflicts to the surface or name them, much less try to resolve them. The definition of men and women as beings that complement each other as superior-inferior leaves no room to protest. It is enough to cast a glance at countries and families where fundamentalist patriarchal norms rule in their pure state. The conflict doesn’t exist there because all members adopt the gender position previously assigned to them, under pain of losing their home, their name and even their life.

When the conflict wasn’t even felt

Gender conflicts defined as such belong to the most recent periods of modern history and derive from the extension of citizens’ rights, through which the principle of equality has become politically obligatory in all legal texts.

We sometimes think that women and men got along better, loved each other more, put up with each other willingly and gave each other due respect "before all this," because women accepted the division of labor and did not protest or demand that "the other" act as a complete and responsible person in all actions and spheres of his life: in what is known as the domestic (or reproductive) sphere and the public (or productive) sphere. The fact is that "before all this," we women didn’t know, or not very many did. Unfortunately, when a community’s conventional ideas define us as inferior or superior "by nature," it disarms us and prevents us from reacting to the conflict. We don’t even perceive it as a real conflict.

Conflicts, like crises, are not in themselves negative. They make for growth, innovation, progress, evolution, improvement… or for the opposite. In any case, they are inevitable in human relations as a consequence of a clash of interests, desires and needs. Conflicts cannot be denied, covered over or put out, because they will flare up again even worse. When they smolder in the dark the consequences are incalculable and usually ominous.

Building a new house out of rubble

There are various strategies for resolving conflicts: resisting, accommodating oneself either willingly or not, fleeing, confronting them or cutting a deal. These strategies lead to various results and can turn out well or badly. Even the most evolved of the strategies and the one we opt for here—negotiation—does not necessarily lead to a successful pact, but may result in an incomplete or unfulfilled one. In these cases, one must start over or resort to other strategies.

The ruling patriarchal system has always prevented the channeling of gender conflicts caused precisely by that system itself. The theoretical thinking that deals with these conflicts is very recent, as is the rise and proliferation of a multitude of voices that have brought us close to various solutions. These voices come to us from feminism and its critical theories. It could be no other way. Nonetheless, despite so much evidence and so many voices, the symbolic, uncritical belief remains that there is no conflict at all, that all traces of discrimination and gender branding have disappeared with the establishment of laws and norms that consecrate equality—of treatment, of opportunity, etc. Verily as this is being affirmed, sexist roles, customs, manners and stereotypes of all kinds are universally being sustained. Since everyone either practices or suffers from them, the general impression is that they no longer act or are in effect. Because we are in an age of transition, both realities coexist: one persists as the other is just being born. Manifestations of the "old sexist regime" and the "new regime of equity" can be seen all around. This fills our epoch with interesting possibilities, but also makes it an extremely delicate time. It is our task to build a new house out of rubble and with hand-me-down techniques. Alternative tactics will have to come from the persistent attempt to visualize what is hidden, stubbornly critiquing everything that persists—whether manifest or not—and from innovative and creative thinking to spark a continuous battery of possibilities that will put an end to and gradually replace the old regime.

The patriarchy remains,
rotting the foundation of the new house

Women have massively entered the education system and the job market, although with some reticence and more than a few obstacles. This has substantially changed the patriarchal beliefs that women had inferior cerebral capacity, were incapable of speculative reasoning, lacked an ethical spirit, could not be impartial, and could not keep their word in business or administer justice.

Fortunately, many relational mechanisms and norms of coexistence have already been adapted to basic equality between women and men. At least in definition. Nonetheless, a symbolic system with very strong roots remains deeply grounded and rots away the underpinnings of the new house each time we try to build it.

Let’s go down into the basement to look for some examples. When young women leave the education system in which, all things considered, they faced less discrimination than women before them, they find that to begin an active adult life, they have to enter into the relational-familial sphere and the civic-occupational sphere. These two spheres—commonly called marriage and work—are much more discriminatory and contain factors within them that divide the interests, desires, skills and needs of men and women as if by natural mandate.

All over the world, women continue to represent the majority of victims of domestic violence, sexual abuse and poverty. They are the majority of those involved in domestic work and sex work. They are the majority of those who head one-parent households. They make up the bulk of those who are employed part-time, who receive the minimum wage and who live in housing for the elderly. These world records convey no honor or pride of gender. They are signs of something obvious: patriarchy still resides in the social construct—and not always undercover.

Young women face all of this when they leave the education system and enter a world dominated by patriarchal adults. They had believed that all doors were open to them, that they would be enthusiastically received and had nothing to fear because through all their years of schooling they had obtained the expected, required results. But this is not the case.

Three immutable pillars of gender inequality

There is an alarming disproportion between the numbers of unemployed men and women all over the world. The various job sectors are still overwhelmingly biased towards men or women. Women earn less, rarely occupy positions of power, are involved mainly in "domestic" work and taking care of people, are largely interested in beauty, are not much involved in sports, tend not to be joiners or dare run for representative posts, accept unfavorable working conditions and put up with sexual abuse or mistreatment. This whole heap of inequalities and disadvantages still puts us in a subordinated position, despite the tangible material achievements and progress we have collectively been able to make, especially in the 20th century.

In this panorama, challenged little if at all, young women continue to project their lives according to gender expectations, even without realizing it. Now they are no longer influenced either by prohibition or by express commands, but rather by the symbolic belief that nature has designed our tastes, qualities and skills. "I don’t like to, I can’t, I don’t know how to": to a large extent, this teaching guides the life projects of young women and conditions the future relations of equity that could and should exist between men and women, in the relational-familial and the civic-occupational spheres, in marriage and at work.

How are these symbolic beliefs transmitted? How are women’s wills and desires tamed so they continue to adapt to this? How are stereotyped modes and manners injected in a way that makes them appear to be natural? There are still many asymmetrical elements in the process of socialization. Inequality is acquired rather than demonstrated or taught. But it is founded on three pillars that remain virtually immutable despite all the non-sexist speeches and customs: emotional education, the symbolic universe and androcentric consciousness. Any young individual, man or women, constantly receives messages, commands, expectations and gender models established on these three pillars, to which they try to adapt, projecting their lives accordingly. There are still very few young people who consciously work to construct a subjectivity free of gender prejudices. Most people’s identities are derived to a great extent from their adapting to the social expectations held about them because of their gender.

Care-giving: Ideas for girls

At first glance, the sexist symbolic universe, androcentric understanding of the world and gendered emotional education are not visible. They systematically act through inertia, live in and from tradition and adapt themselves to the times, putting on various faces and triggering enormous contradictions. Young women are given messages such as these: Exercise your rights, be independent, don’t let yourself be subjugated or fooled, earn your living, but at the same time are expected to put themselves in other people’s places, empathize with other people’s intimate feelings, be mindful of the cannons of beauty, remain in the background so that men might feel more at ease, hide their knowledge, collaborate without making visible initiatives, maintain the quality of life of those around them, help others, put up no resistance, smooth out problems. Meanwhile, the androcentric understanding and description of the world makes them invisible in many spheres of speculative and practical knowledge. Language hides or undervalues them and the messages aimed at them are ambiguous.

All of these socializing, discriminatory and differentiating mechanisms are part of something quite hidden and thus very hard to challenge or change. They all continue to lead most young women to develop the caretaker ethic. A few break away from this expected gender model, often without knowing why they are being pioneers, and help improve the personal conditions of other women, who then have greater possibilities of self-realization.

The sphere of care is a very solidly established patriarchal subsystem, with its own series of characteristics that give it its familiar shape. These characteristics make it seem a needed and desirable aspiration but at the same time rob it of a high rank in the social scale of values. The sphere of care is based on a quality called implication, without which it does not function adequately. It has to do with various ideas: the "specific other," giving, practical reasoning, empathy, mediation, responsibility, circular time management, affection, an eye for detail, auditory communication, talking. These ideas are all socialized in girls in a veiled way, preparing them and announcing to them that the sphere of care is what awaits them and that to obtain consideration, support and social and personal recognition they must measure up in it.

The sphere of care extends over what is known as "private life." It is an absorbing sphere and cannot be planned; it overrides other interests and needs, stifles one’s own desires and makes the formation of the person-subject difficult. Despite all this, everyone aspires to enjoy it: especially men but also women, particularly young women. They see a path to happiness in this sphere, and a guarantee that their human needs for support, affection, health and well-being will be met.

Young women today are subjected to double messages, a double morality and double punishments. They have an interesting world before them in which to develop their human qualities and invent the ways to do it. But they are not ready to explain the way in which all this implies a discriminatory inequality from which it is difficult to escape, precisely because they do not yet understand these implicitly gendered notions that they are taught and that operate under cover.

Justice: Ideas for boys

Men are not in a similar position for two reasons. First, they have not had to go through a period of fighting for equal rights with women. Second, they come from a gender conceptualized as superior and dominating that has placed them in a better position and given them the automatic privilege of being taken care of by the women in their lives. They even feel the right to exercise violence against these women when they do not fulfill their caretaker mandates or otherwise satisfy them.

This phenomenon is universal and cuts across class lines. Only in the world of formal democracies is it beginning to weaken due to acceptance of the principles of equality and justice for all, women and men. But their symbolic universe, emotional education and androcentric understanding of the world make men think they still have the right to the privilege of care. By the same token it makes them think they are obliged to develop their own lives following the justice ethic above all, and that its practice is what makes them merit the service and attention of the women they relate to—solely because they are men.

The basis of the sphere of justice is the virtue of impartiality. It has to do with the "generalized other," contracts, remuneration, lineal time management, visual communication, rule-governed imaginative games, the vision of the whole, theoretical reasoning, obligation.

What is known as "public life" takes place in this sphere. One can plan things in this sphere, enter and leave it, recover one’s strength before returning, learn, reform, harmonize things, turn a profit, make progress. It has, as we know, contractual recognition and is considered to be of a higher rank. It grants name, category and pedigree. Men grow up in it, and may be considered equal or unequal, but never identical, nameless. Their tasks have been classified, their positions categorized, their work remunerated or rewarded with wealth. This world is the one that invented classes and estates, torture, war, pillage, exile. It is also where human progress—science, culture, politics, technology, commerce and art—has gelled.

Women and men are neither
equivalent nor equally powerful

Given all the activities that the sphere of justice assigns them, most men have not felt called upon to take an interest in the care-giving world. Perhaps it doesn’t interest the patriarchy; perhaps men need a lot of incentives to make them realize that life takes place in both spheres and that, for better and worse, both belong to them. Women have already discovered the advantages and disadvantages of entering the sphere of justice. They have fought to enter, demanding their massive entry under equal conditions. Is this perhaps because they left a private world based only on maternal caring nature that deprived them of rights, and want to enter a public world where they can obtain a name, remuneration, even wealth and personal power, finally be subjects and even aspire to the benefits of care-giving?
The fact is that here at the start of the third millennium, men and women are still not on an equal footing as equivalent and equally powerful people, and this causes a vague and poorly defined uneasiness among a large number of human beings, both women and men. This, plus the ample evidence we have seen of the gulf between the visible, accepted, correct discourse and practice, and our belief that there is an enormous amount of avoidable human suffering and an unexplored territory where equitable, fruitful encounters might take place are why we are so interested in analyzing sexist reality and proposing to improve the conditions of personal life and human relations.

We lack voice, representation and power

Faith in immutable models of suitable behavior is considerably weakened, as is submissive acceptance of the idea that people are superior or inferior by birth. This change can also be seen in other differential human variables such as race, physical complexion, nationality, language and geographic origin.

This progress is the result of democratic principles, of the belief—which has taken two centuries to work its way into the consciousness of the world’s peoples—that all human beings are born free and equal. As a reaction against this, we are now witnessing the revival of sacred texts that consecrate inequality as a divine mandate, for example.

Some would like us to believe that everything is a question of customs and rites. At the same time, however, legal documents strive to ensure equality, newspapers articles have taken up the term politically correct to describe the appropriateness or inappropriateness of certain actions, and the public powers have created organizations and institutions where one can denounce abuse or solicit compensatory benefits. We have made a qualitative leap—with many ups and downs—on the path to equality and equivalence between the sexes and the simple declaration of equal rights is beginning to have practical manifestations.

Women and feminism have played a fundamental role in this whole process, mainly because we have had to implant and demand from outside what was all sewn up within. Without a vote, we had to obtain the vote. Now, without a voice, we have to obtain a voice. I say without a voice because women still lack symbolic representation and the investiture of power. We still represent all of our gender when we carry out any action: All women are…, all women drivers do…, all women ministers say… This position reminds us that we come from a gender conceptualized as submissive, whose components—all individual women—are considered identical and thus exchangeable regarding what is expected and required of them.

Many young women do not anticipate this. They are prepared only as "little men" to interpret the public world, what is evident and visible, what belongs to the civic sphere, the occupational sphere, the sphere of justice, which the patriarchy still reserves for men and in which women are tolerated only to a certain extent.

I raise my voice with a proposal

We women have to implant and make our voices heard even without a voice, with our voices negated, stifled or assimilated to the dominant discourse. We have to listen to our varied and diverse voices, which reflect both what we have managed to invent, thanks to feminism, but also what we have learned in the patriarchy—which is already somewhat weakened by emancipating theories and practice.

I raise my voice in this case to propose a vital democracy. The main idea behind this proposal grows out of the desire to fuse together everything that democratic culture has invented, made possible and extended, with everything that life demands. This proposal is also a product of the desire to give form to the slogan "the personal is political." It aims to rehabilitate everything that is related to life and has been the domain and heritage of women—even if by hetero-designation—to raise it to a self-designated political category.

Vital democracy is based on the three principles of modernity—liberty, equality and fraternity—but adds to these the feminist principles that have been proposed to improve and extend it—equity, parity and sorority. All of these principles are then combined into three others that I believe are superior: autonomy, equivalence and solidarity. The original, fundamental characteristic of this theory of qualitative change is that it is proposed for both the relational-familial sphere, previously known as private, and the civic-occupational sphere, known as public.

Fewer wars, less pain

Men and women, both of which are necessary for human reproduction, are clearly involved in the most basic power relationships. Ignoring this type of relationship, or rather interpreting it as a product of tradition and even nature without taking it into account for an evolutionary proposal for humanity or any community, thus seems to me one of the biggest of follies, causing no small amount of misery and many human tragedies.

One spectacular example suffices here: if men were to take responsible for directly caring for their children from birth and their elders until death, this change alone would give them a different view of wars and conflicts. They would do everything possible to preserve human life in the best possible conditions and would not dedicate themselves mainly to destroying life to engage in fratricidal territorial expansions like those to which they have accustomed us. This simple, transcendental change would help create masculine models of cooperation and exchange among young men that are more in accord with true human needs for food, protection, affection and security.

Dominant men—the "archetypal virile protagonist of history," in Amparo Moreno’s words—in every culture and community have thought and acted with their back to real life, to the real happiness or suffering of the human beings around them. They have given women the responsibility of maintaining the quality of life, despite all their own efforts to make this virtually impossible. Let us recall all the civil wars, persecutions, torture and exiles and consider the roles that most women and most men played in these tragedies.

A long line of feminist thinkers

Despite all the obstacles, feminist women have made more than a little progress in barely a century, always keeping in mind that principles as generous as liberty, equality and fraternity should extend to us too. We have to recognize that we have much to our credit: today it is rare to find a statement of democratic principles that excludes women.

We have also been able to make our own progress in the field of ideas, founding a new and all-inclusive emancipating school for claiming our rights, where we have learned to speak of equity as a civic value that moderates, extends and delimits liberty to make it compatible with our liberty.
We have learned to speak of parity to remind all the economic and political powers that be that we exist and want to be represented, and want to speak in our own name about any decision that concerns us. We have learned to speak of sorority, since fraternity did not take us into account as sisters or as equivalent beings who had to be considered and in whom one had to trust.

Feminist women are joining our voices together while giving them diverse forms. We are giving rise to a line of thinkers who in their own right are inaugurating a new era. Simply put, the societies of the third millennium cannot function without us; they cannot call us incapable, hide us, deprive us of a name, gag us, put us in golden cages and expect us to keep quiet.

A "feminine touch"
to three modern principles

In the ebb and flow of feminist thought and all the wealth it brings us in this moment of intellectual barrenness dominated by monolithic thinking, discouragement, tedium and blind belief in the inevitable, women have taken giant leaps in a relatively short time, with all the ensuing consequences, both positive and negative.

A large majority of women feel that our living conditions are better, although they could be better still. The majority of free women in democratic societies are very happy to live here and now when we see the things that women in authoritarian societies still have to go through. We see ourselves in them and do not yearn in the least for some of these authoritarian traditions, which we see as gone for good.
Today, more than free we want to be autonomous, more than equal we want to be equivalent, more than fraternal we want to be sororal. We simply believe that these three still valid principles of modernity lack a "feminine touch," which in this case is not only aesthetic but also ethical and political. We are not confident that, if these three principles remain unaltered, we will be unreservedly included in them. They did not include us when they arose and, until very recently, didn’t even try to, so we are prepared to offer ideas for enlarging them. We can sum up these ideas in this simple formula:
Liberty + Equity = Autonomy
Equality + Parity = Equivalence
Fraternity + Sorority = Solidarity
Autonomy + Equivalence + Solidarity =
Vital Democracy
This formula lays out with maximum clarity and in minimum space the ideas contained in my book Democracia vital: mujeres y hombres hacia la plena ciudadanía ("Vital Democracy: Women and Men Moving Towards Full Citizenship"), published by Narcea in 1999.

We prefer autonomy to liberty

Working through the content of these three concepts—autonomy, equivalence and solidarity—in detail has little to do with mere linguistic change. Liberty was denied us and is still denied us on many occasions when it opposes men’s liberty. The two liberties are made incompatible: impediments or prohibitions imposed against engaging in certain professions or activities, obedience expected and due, conjugal duty, submission, obligatory maternity, silence about sexual abuse, assaults on our sexual freedom…
This is why we don’t trust the principle of liberty, a principle that has been adulterated so very many times for us. We prefer autonomy, which implies a higher stage in one’s decision-making capacity, assertiveness, representativeness and skills to carry it out. It means having one’s own name as a subject with a chosen identity. It breaks with the idea of complementariness and dependence, opens the path towards interdependence, negotiation and pacts, and can make way for young women to form a new lineage of women to whom it cannot be said, "you can’t, you don’t know how, you shouldn’t." Autonomy opens the doors to designation, knowledge, esteem, to everything that remains to be built from women’s experiences.

We prefer equivalence to equality

Equivalence is preferable to equality, a worn-out concept that has been poorly used. It has not fully encompassed women, because it has been supposed that the way to attain equality is by imitating something to which we have to equal ourselves. In this case, must women be equal to men? Different? Similar? We can respond to this set of poorly resolved issues by replacing the term equality with equivalence. This makes it no longer a case of equaling anyone, either above or below, but rather of assuming equal value, treatment, consideration and rank, without having to shed or renounce the differential characteristics that we want to obtain or conserve of our gender-sex position to do so.

Equivalence assumes two-way treatment, free of the initial bonus-malus valuation. This is how we women would like to see ourselves democratically situated: with all the baggage we have accumulated as women, but with a full vision of being human beings with a right to any of the goods that our communities possess, create or distribute.

We prefer solidarity to fraternity

Solidarity will guarantee what fraternity never did. Fraternity is made among, by and for men, explicitly or implicitly excluding women. It implies a tradition of pacts, which may even cross class lines, but always take place "among gentlemen," who were sometimes bandits, ruffians or plebes but could recognize each other, name each other, help each other, cooperate with each other, defend each other, have fun together. Fraternity can be a model for women, but in the form it has come down to us, it does us no good. We have to reestablish it through sorority and learn to recognize each other, support each other, name each other, defend each other, cooperate with each other.

In this way, we might just establish the basis for true solidarity, a goal we aspire to achieve in the near future. It will emerge from the stagnancy implied by the irremediable decay of firm patriarchal principles such as superiority-inferiority or scorn for what is different, principles that are unfortunately still in effect but fortunately rarely serve as an argument. Without basic solidarity between women and men there can be no other kind of solidarity as we understand it, which is as a form of distributive justice and not a gracious concession derived from arbitrary benevolence. Women cannot have them "letting" us do things out of courtesy, condescension or magnanimity or "granting" us what is rightfully ours for these same reasons. While this is still the case between men and women, we will be unable to develop an adequate form of solidarity with other countries or with poorly situated collectives, because we will always feel that their demands and petitions are capricious and their rights are gifts.

Another first name for democracy

The time has come to give democracy a new first name, different from those used in the past: formal, representative, parliamentary, participatory, etc. Democracy deserves to be definitively connected to the most important questions concerning all human beings, personally and collectively, in the home and in society. Personal life must finally take its place in democracy and democracy must definitively take its place in personal life.

To bring about vital democracy, the pending challenge is to equitably divide responsibilities and obligations, and the pending task is to acquire and develop negotiating skills to achieve a mutually agreeable pact. Women have made progress in occupying places in the public world—or the civic-occupational world, as I prefer to call it—unilaterally and without prior conditions for negotiation being set. Our entry was permitted because it was just, or else we have imposed it through the force of events. But men have not entered the private world—the relational-familial sphere—the same way to share responsibilities with adult women in caring for things and dependent people. Until this happens, we women will find ourselves participating in the world with an excess of reproductive tasks and responsibilities and lacking the time, support and energy we should be able to dedicate to the world of work in production and representation, if we so desire.

This is the situation at the start of the third millennium. The road we have covered is neither short nor narrow, but it is our legacy for the new generations, for young men and women. Feminism has taught them to see themselves as equals and has elevated the political category of women to that of people who are subjects of rights. This is no small thing, but from now on, we must consider the true quality of life, which means that men and women must learn to share the tasks and advantages of production and reproduction on the one hand, and of leisure, creation and reflection on the other. We already have small experiences in this, which, though fragmentary, can serve us as examples of a superior model of human relations. All we have left to do is to extend this and incorporate it into discourse and political practice, understanding this practice as both private and public. It is no small thing, but we can do it.

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