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Democracy Denied: The Correlation Between Language, Majority Bias, and Gender Exclusion in Political Debate

About the Author: Todd Waters

Todd Waters is a junior Cell Biology and Genetics student at the University of Maryland, College Park. Originally from Tallahassee Florida, he served for 8 years in the U.S. Air Force as a Chinese Linguist. He currently conducts research in University of Maryland's Dennis Van Engelsdorp Bee Informed Partnership lab, studying honey bee colony collapse disorder. He plans on attending graduate school at the University of Maryland, with research and academic interests lying at the intersection of food and chemical toxicology, and human health. He lives in the Fordham House of Cooperative Housing University of Maryland, where he enjoys putting together creative writing workshops and collaborative art nights. Additionally, he recently helped create a writing collective and is now working on founding a free library for students in the cooperative.

By Todd Waters | Position Paper

The injustice of political exclusion and inequality is an embarrassing stain on our society that is as evident in the boardrooms of Fortune 500 companies as it is in the halls of Congress. The legal basis of social and political equality in the United States, including in terms of gender, was largely solidified during the 20th century, yet widespread gaps in power and privilege still exist throughout all aspects of society. Recent studies show the under-representation of women in politics is mirrored by an under-representation of women in political debates, a critical entry point to political participation. Additionally, the problem of inequality extends across minority identities and is intersectional in nature. Because the importance of political inclusion in healthy democratic societies is commonly understood, and policies to narrow gender gaps have only been marginally successful to date, identifying the root causes of gender inequality in political debates is currently a hot research topic.

While most scholars agree that gender inequality in politics harms those excluded and our society as a whole, much disagreement remains regarding the origins and the persistence of gender inequality in political settings. Feminist authors and political sociologists have amassed significant volumes of research on the relationship between discursive sociology and gender inequality in public political discourse. Many of these studies say political debate is a critical entry point for political participation, and that social barriers in political forums create an environment hostile to the inclusion of women and minority voices. Other scholars argue that looking only at participation in political debate does not provide an accurate barometer of women’s political participation, because women are participating in politics in other ways. They argue that women are exerting political influence, despite holding few political seats, by serving as campaign staff and on political fundraising campaigns, suggesting women’s political inequality is not as big of a problem as it appears to be.  In this paper, I will argue that discursive sociological barriers such as sexism in language and pro-majority power dynamics preclude inclusive political debate. I will argue that no matter the best intentions of one group to accurately represent the needs of another, there is no alternative to inclusion of minority voices in political debates.  Furthermore, I will argue that rather than being a result of more desirable alternatives, it is in fact the exclusive environments of political debates that drive women, and minorities in general, towards less contentious forms of political participation, perpetuating inequality in politics.

My goal in this paper is to explore the causes of gender inequality in political debate, and analyze the political implications. My primary focus will be on women’s political inequality in the United States, but recognizing that this issue in international in nature, I will also incorporate resources from studies conducted in foreign countries as well. To define the existence of gender inequality, I will examine a study of gender differences in participation of collegiate political debates and relevant political data. Referencing academic articles on gender and language, I will investigate how existing inequalities in political debates and rampant use of sexist language perpetuate gender disparity by design. Next I will put to the test two common academic narratives from scholars who disagree with feminist authors on the severity or exigence of women’s political inequality. The first argument claims that gender inequality promotes rather than inhibits political participation. I will show how the author asserting the above claim confuses correlation with cause and effect. The second argument is that gender inequality is partly an illusion amplified by gendered differences in political participation. While conceding that evidence shows women do participate in politics differently than men, I will show how exclusive political environments can influence participation preferences and that political power is not the same among different participation methods. I will conclude that existing inequality, discourse dynamics, and sexism combine to inhibit, not just women’s, but all minorities inclusion in political debate, and that new thinking on intersectional identities could breathe life into the movement to empower women and minority voices in politics.

To this day, even in the United States, significant gender inequalities exist in nearly every aspect of society. Yet current gender disparities are still a remarkable improvement when compared to the stiff legal and social restrictions faced by women at the turn of the 20th century. With the abolition of slavery at the end of the U.S. Civil War, women activists for universal equality turned their attention to women’s suffrage. After decades of tremendous effort, the passage of the 19th Amendment in 1920 granted women equal voting rights and the feminist movement its long-sought victory. During the Civil Rights Movement, feminism experienced another period of growth, where women activists sought to expand social and cultural equality. With the passage of the Civil Rights Act in 1964, women won equal opportunity and anti-discrimination protections, and in the early 1970’s, the Supreme Court acknowledged a woman’s right to personal autonomy by deciding in favor of vast new reproductive rights. A third wave of feminism occurred in the late 1980’s and early 1990’s that sought to expand the discussion of sexism and patriarchy in the public sphere and its effects on women’s equality. The voices of this movement argued that the legal basis for equality was not enough, and that wide ranging cultural improvements needed to be undertaken to relieve the burden of oppression felt by women on an individual and collective level (Krolokke 1).

In the last few decades, the enactment of laws codifying gender equality, implementation of some affirmative policies promoting inclusion of women into positions of power, have led to the commonly held belief that feminism is nearing its long sought after results of radical social and political change.  However, this narrative is contradicted by the fact that women are still vastly outnumbered in the upper echelons of social and political hierarchies. In the article “Gender Inequality in Debate, Legal and Business Professions,” featured in the Contemporary Argumentation and Debate, California State University professor Irene Matz presents research on gender differences in collegiate debate tournaments and in the fields of law and business. She correlates massive inequalities in women representation in politics and private businesses to young women’s participation rates in political debate.  Matz points out that in 2006, only 17 of 100 senate seats were occupied by women and only 18 Fortune 500 CEOs were female (Matz 36). Statistics compiled from the annual collegiate National Debate Tournament (NDT) revealed that from 1947-2002, female participation never exceeded 24% (Matz 30).  Statistics from the Great Salt Lake (GSL) collegiate debates showed increased female participation overall, but with a sharp contrast between upper-level and novice. For instance, in the 1992 GSL tournament, ‘[females] comprised 55% of novices, 40% of junior varsity, but only 22% of open field levels of the debates’ (Matz 31).  This data demonstrates how gender participation gaps found in the professional and public sectors are mirrored in the world of collegiate level political debate.

The correlation between gender gaps in political debate and political participation is supported by a large body of research that shows political debate helps to expand and deepen a person’s politically discursive social networks. In the article “Conversation, Disagreement and Political Participation” in the journal of Political Behavior, University of Sheffield professors Charles Pattie and Ronald Johnston propose that strengthening political social networks through political debate is linked to increased political participation (Pattie, Johnston 262). Women who acquire social capital through political discussions can subvert exclusive power dynamics, creating a more favorable environment for future political inclusion (Pattie, Johnston 263). Essentially, existing unequal power dynamics in political debates have a tendency to self-perpetuate inequality, blurring the lines between cause and effect. The majority - in the case of gender, men - are entering political debates from a position of power before the first word is spoken. This privilege is derived from the fact that discussion topics, ground rules of debate, bounds of discourse, and accepted language, are all pre-determined by the majority. Additionally, the debate is critiqued, analyzed, and judged by the majority, resultant actions are designed and implemented by the majority, and the historical narrative is often controlled by the majority.

Extensive linguistic and feminist research shows that language, as a method of communicating and perceiving, reinforces perceptions of gender inequality and practices of gender inequality simultaneously. In the book, Gender, Language, and Discourse, Victoria University of Wellington psychology professor Ann Weatherall explores the relationship between discourse, gender, and modern language. Regarding the social and deeply personal implications of language, she observes “...words are neither trivial nor neutral, but deeply ideological” (Weatherall 8). The author argues that socially acceptable sexist vocabulary, grammar, tone, language usage, and style all interplay to affect perceptions of reality and thus shape reality, generating a bias that favors the status quo (Weatherall 13). She cites studies on perception and literature that show generic vocabulary and gender assumptions combine to create men as prototypic persons. This means that readers assume men are narrating the story or performing as agents of action, even when gender identifiers such as gender pronouns are withheld from the audience (Weatherall 15). She explains that when women are mentioned in literature and speech, they are often undermined by trivializing the content of their arguments, or by focusing on other social factors such as appearance (Weatherall 15). Put simply, the author suggests that perceptions of gender stratification in language perpetuates actual sexism and gender inequality in political discourse. Passive repression of women’s voices occurs simply because language and language use are not only gendered, but also were shaped in the shadow of sexism and patriarchy throughout centuries. Therefore, prejudices firmly entrenched in language continue to shape gender perceptions and political behavior, thus becoming an obstacle to inclusive political debate and the realization of equitable participation in democracy.

In some cases, hegemonic personalities in the prevailing social and political hierarchy proactively maintain their group’s position in power by wielding derogatory language to limit the social mobility of others.  Demeaning and sexist language is purposefully used to embarrass and discourage women from achieving the upper hand in public debate.  University of Paderborn lecturer Dr. Jarmila Mildorf published a study titled “Words that Strike and Words that Comfort: Discursive Dynamics of Verbal Abuse in Roddy Doyle’s The Woman Who Walked Into Doors,” that investigates the use of explicit sexist and demeaning language in silencing women’s voices.  Addressing the link between silence and sexist attacks, she observes “...that derogatory, demeaning speech and sexist language are used in patriarchal societies to allocate to women a place marked by muteness and degradation”  (Mildorf 108). The author concludes that women who standout, either through engaging in public debate or through actions conducted in the public realm, become targets of oppressive speech, particularly from men who feel their positions of power and public perceptions of their authority are threatened (Mildorf 109). The author also points out how demeaning language is used by men, as well as by women competing for openings in the upper echelons of society. A recent nationally recognizable example is the use of sexist and misogynistic language directed at Georgetown University graduate student Sandra Fluke by prominent conservative male voices, including radio host Rush Limbaugh. After Fluke argued in favor of health insurance coverage of women’s contraception under the Affordable Care Act at a congressional hearing, Limbaugh and others attempted to devalue her argument by attacking her motives and sexuality. This powerful example demonstrates the type of coercive and oppressive language that can be employed specifically to devalue and delegitimize a women’s voice. Often, personal attacks, or the threat of personal attacks, combine with passive forms of oppressive language in public settings to create an environment hostile to upward mobility of women in our society.

A common counter narrative is that gender inequality in political settings increases, rather than decreases, women’s interest in political participation. This perspective suggests that perceptions of inequality, rather than being an obstacle to political activity, actually motivate women to become more involved. In her article “Gendered Characteristics of Political Engagement in College Students,” author Arla Bernstein reports on a study she conducted looking into gender differences in political engagement of college students. The survey results showed that gender gaps exist in overall political interest, political discussion, and political engagement (Bernstein 305). Correlation between perceptions of gender inequality and political participation was not observed in male respondents; however, there was a positive correlation between the perception of inequality and political participation rate among female respondents (Bernstein 305). Bernstein therefore claims “that women with higher awareness of gender inequality tend to be more politically engaged than their less aware peers” (Bernstein 307). The author concludes that women are motivated to become involved in politics simply because they perceive the reality of women’s political inequality. This conclusion falsely suggests that political inequality is not an obstacle to political inclusion. I think a strong argument can be made that Bernstein’s hypothesis confuses cause and effect with correlation. Given that women’s political inequality is an inescapable fact, women who are engaged in politics are automatically going to be aware of gender inequality in political settings; and women who have a personal disposition for political engagement are likely to learn about political inequality while pursuing what may be a natural interest. If a cause and effect relationship does exist between awareness of inequality and political mobilization, I would argue that awareness of gender inequality in politics results from a pre-existing interest in politics and political participation.

Rather than alluding to an underlying source of gender exclusion,, some critics also commonly argue that gender inequalities identified in previous research can be easily explained by faults in previous research methodology. In the article “Same Game, Different Rules? Gender Differences in Political Participation,” Utrecht University sociology professor Hilde Coffe and University of California Irvine professor Catherine Bolzendahl report the findings of their study assessing gender gaps across different modes of political activity. Coffe and Bolzendahl conducted a cross-national study assessing gender gaps in different types of political activities, proposing that, “perhaps women do not participate less, but rather, participate differently” (Bolzendahl and Coffe 320). The results showed that men are much more involved in “formal” political activities, such as party membership, collective action, and direct political contact (Bolzendahl 330). Interestingly though, women were more likely to take part in “informal” politics, such as individual activism including signing petitions, political consumer choices, and donating/raising money for political causes (Bolzendahl 330). The authors claim that since women have greater participation in informal political methods, they are shaping the debate and achieving political power in ways not seen by previous research. Effectively, the authors’ hypothesis calls into question the true extent of underrepresentation of women in politics.

While I agree that the Bolzendahl and Coffe study brings up great points regarding previous research methodology, demonstrating that women most likely have greater political agency than previously indicated, I continue to wonder whether or not it is the exclusive nature of many political settings that influences the participation decisions of disadvantaged individuals. I think many women and minorities interested in politics are being coercively pushed into informal forms of political participation due to systemic factors that undermine their desired involvement. In the article “Democratizing Democracy: Feminist Perspectives,” University of Sussex professors Andrea Cornwall and Anne Marie Goetz address political gender inequality and the relationship between different participation pathways and actual political influence. In their study, the authors find that increases in quantitative participation in informal politics are not enough to increase the overall presence of women’s voices in democracy (Cornwall, Goetz 788). They explain that only by engaging in political debate do people develop the ability to articulate interests, accept opposing views, reform their arguments, persuade others, and eventually exercise political leadership (Cornwall 788).  When compiling data on engendered participation internationally, the authors found that women “form the bulk of the foot-soldiers in campaigning and fund-raising, but parties the world over appear hostile to women’s engagement in decision-making, especially at top leadership positions” (Cornwall 788). Additionally, the authors determine that informal spaces for political participation do not contain the patriarchal constructs of formal political participation pathways and are inherently more democratic (Cornwall 793). Essentially, the study shows political debates provide the grounds for political learning and the realization of equity of political influence, more so than informal political settings. However, as shown in the Matz study on competitive political debates, women attempting to enter political debate are often discouraged by existing power dynamics, patriarchy, and sexism, inherent in modern politics and often seek other ways to exhibit political influence. These obstacles undermine democracy both by supporting gender inequality and exclusion in political debates, and by relegating women to less influential forms of political engagement.

Ultimately, the forces silencing women’s voices and representation affect not only women, but all of us, by robbing us of a diversity of political perspectives, a critical attribute that is the bedrock of democratic processes. In addition to women, large segments of our population are facing similar obstacles to equal speech and representation, whether that exclusion is based on citizenship, race, class, ability, or mental health, and these disadvantages compound for people categorized by two or more of these identities. For instance, a low-income latino transgender woman will likely face significantly more restrictions entering politics than a white cis-gender woman. Thus, their experiences of exclusion and degrees of oppression are not the same (Crenshaw 1242). I think previous studies can be improved by turning the focus from exclusion to inclusion and by challenging feminist writers to recognize that the issue of political inequality is intersectional in nature. Scholars can identify arenas where political diversity has trumped political inequality, and they can analyze these model settings to determine the ingredients for widespread political inclusion and look for ways that inclusion can be expanded into areas where political inequality is still a reality.

I believe that looking at exclusion of political speech as solely a women’s issue is potentially harmful in the following ways. First, it presumes that gender is binary and is wrapped in a narrative that oftentimes excludes trans* and queer voices. In fact, everyone who does not fit into the paradigm of traditional cis-gender men are under exclusionary pressures of some kind. Second, exclusion from political debate and political representation is much more than an issue of gender alone. Third, discussion of political exclusion can be confusing and can incite defensive responses from those in positions of relative power or privilege if justified inconsiderately. Finally, I’m concerned this argument potentially victimizes women, taking away their agency. If the goal is to change the behavior of those benefitting from the traditional paradigm, a breakdown in communication due to defensiveness is harmful to advancing the conversation of political inclusion. I think that one project that could benefit the conversation would be to work on shifting our language from the “privilege” of participation to the “right” of participation - with the objective of portraying political power as a necessity that everyone should expect from a democratic society. Scholars could work to show the public how political inclusion benefits all and lay out positive steps that people who are interested in political inclusion and diversity and who hold positions of power can take in order to promote the currently disadvantaged to political equality.

In this paper, I established the importance of political debate as an entry point into political participation and political empowerment. I demonstrated the ways normative political behaviors and existing power dynamics perpetuate gender inequality in political debate. Next, I identified methods of political participation and demonstrated how exclusionary pressures can direct disadvantaged groups from one mode of political participation to a less contentious form of participation. Furthermore, I provided evidence showing how less contentious forms of political participation, such as informal political participation, are less politically influential than engaging in leadership and representation in decision-making bodies. Finally, I conclude that a new, more inclusive direction needs to be taken to properly address the inclusion of women, and all politically oppressed peoples, into political debate and positions of political power. Recognizing the deeply ideological role of language, I believe changing the way we talk about power and privilege can provide the space for people to look within, which is where all radical change begins.

Works Cited


Bernstein, Arla “Gendered Characteristics of Political Engagement in College Students.” Sex Roles. 52.5/6 (2005): 299-310. JSTOR. 5 Apr. 2012.

Coffé, Hilde, and Catherine Bolzendahl. "Same Game, Different Rules? Gender Differences In Political Participation." Sex Roles. 62.5/6 (2010): 318-333. Academic Search Premier. Web. 5 Apr. 2012.

Cornwall, Andrea, and Anne Marie Goetz. "Democratizing Democracy: Feminist Perspectives." Democratization 12.5 (2005): 783-800. Academic Search Premier. Web. 4 May 2012.

Crenshaw, Kimberle. “Mapping the Margins: Intersectionality, Identity Politics, and Violence Against Women of Color.” Stanford Law Review. 43.6 (1991): 1241-1299. JSTOR. Web. 14 Nov 2013.

Krolokke, Charolette. Gender Communication Theories and Analyses. London: Sage Publications Inc, 2006. Print.

Matz, Irene S. and Jon Bruschke. “Gender Inequality in Debate, Legal and Business Professions.” Contemporary Argument and Debate. 27.9 (2006): 29-49. Academic Search Premier. Web. 10 Mar. 2012.

Mildorf, Jarmila. "Words That Strike And Words That Comfort: Discursive Dynamics Of Verbal Abuse In Roddy Doyle's "The Woman Who Walked Into Doors.." Journal Of Gender Studies 14.2 (2005): 107-122. Academic Search Premier. Web. 15 Mar. 2012.

Pattie, C.J. and R. J. Johnston “Conversation, Disagreement and Political Participation.” Political Behavior. 31.2 (2009): 261-285. JSTOR. Web. 1 Nov. 2013.

Weatherall, Ann. Gender, Language, and Discourse. New York: Routledge, 2002. Print.

Speer, Susan A. Gender Talk: Feminism, Discourse and Conversation Analysis.  New York:   Routledge Inc, 2005. Print.