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Exploring Gender Role: Impact of Woman Suffrage

By Sherif Jimoh
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Gender role, according to Wikipedia, " is a social role encompassing a range of behaviors considered acceptable, appropriate or desirable for people, based on their biological or perceived sex ". Thus, gender role is basically distinguishable between notion of masculinity and femininity, subject to variations. The variations take form of contemporary cultures modifying gendered expectations to their whims. There is ongoing debate as to what extent gender roles and their variations are biologically determined or otherwise socially constructed.

Gender role emphasizes socio-environmental impact of historical and cultural influences of a society in bequeathing social norms, values and beliefs among a people. It thus conduces social role theory which proposes social structure as underlying force which distinguishes genders into sex-differentiated behaviors, emanating principle of division of labor. Thus, there are male compatible traits and tasks such as valor, dominance, aggression and labor; and female compatible traits and tasks such as tenderness, compassion, submission and nurturing.

In addition, gender role thrives on an age-long, hereditary traditional practice of patriarchy which pre-supposes male dominance in gender-based roles. However, there is an emergent contemporary socio-biological evolutionary theory to support patriarchal principle. Socio-biological theorists such as Alfred Russell w, Steven Goldberg (author of Inevitability of Patriarchy) posit that patriarchy arises as a result of "inherent biology more than social conditioning". This ideology subsumes Common Law family ordinance of "coverture" and is, however, compatible with Islamic Shariah dictates of male supremacy which is adduced to by the Islamic Scripture {Holy Qur'an Chapter 4, Verse 34} "men are the protectors and maintainers of women, because Allah has given the one (man) more (strength) than the other (woman), and because they (the former) support them (the latter) from their (livelihood) means. Therefore, the righteous women are devoutly obedient, and guard in (the husband's) absence what Allah would have them guard".

An evolutionary socio-biological theory of patriarchy, Bateman Principle propounded by Alfred Russell Wallace, sees womenfolk as a social resource (offspring production) over which men folk compete. The former before succumbing to the latter undergoes selective pressure in considering his economic potentiality in order to safeguard her well being and her offspring's. This in turn spurs men folk to undergo economic pressure by competing for scarce economic resource.

A classic case of gender role is gender stereotype. This is a widely accepted judgment or "bias" about a person or group in accordance with certain characteristic traits such as personality traits, domestic behaviors, occupations, physical appearances etc. Gender stereotypes reinforce archetypal traits of gender based roles which are connoted by terminologies such as hyper-masculinity and hyper-femininity. The latter denotes exaggeration of stereotyped behaviors typical of feminine such as passiveness, naivety, gracefulness; the former denotes exaggeration of stereotyped behaviors typical of masculine such as aggression, ambitiousness, insensitivity.

Socio-constructionist theory (of gender role) is a modern-day postulation which reinforces gender identity as counter-measure of gender role. This theory asserts gender roles are created by individuals (actions) within a social system, rather than having inherent nature of their own. Gender identity, according to Yogyakarta principles drafted by International Legal Scholars (2006)," refers to each person's deeply felt internal and individual experience of gender, which may or may not correspond with sex assigned at birth, including the person's sense of the body and other expressions of gender". This (gender identity) can either be cis-gender or trans-gender. The former identifies with cultural and conventional gender roles; the latter does not identify with cultural and conventional gender roles.

Trans-gender identity, otherwise referred to as gender-queer is having gender identity which aligns with elements of both male and female and spurs atypical gender roles (unconventional behavioral actions) by individuals presenting with such attributes. This is possible because human beings are susceptible to social change and acceptance. It is, however recognized that gender-queer individuals might have a transformed perception of gender identity which is only short-lived (gender-fluid).

Emanating from trans-gender identity syndrome, arose feminine activism, commonly referred to as feminism. A classic off-shoot of feminism, of all times, is women's suffrage activism which is a right movement of a woman to vote and to run for office. In broad terms, it is used for economic and political reform movement, without restrictions and qualifications such as property ownership, tax payments or marital status. It sprang up as a protestation movement to discrimination against social rights of women, especially political participation. Hitherto, women were not accorded political right of participation in decision making process of policies affecting their lives.

Historically, the movement was first undertaken by two French women in the names of Antoine Condorcet and Olympe de Gouges in the late eighteenth century (1780s-1790s) as an advocacy for participation of French women in elections. Subsequent to this, women's suffrage movement came into global limelight through collaborative efforts of two frontline American women who were advocates of women's rights in the names of Elizabeth Stanton and Susan Anthony. By their efforts, they organized Conventions, initially on regional scale, dedicated to liberation of status of women. The first of which was called Seneca Falls Convention (1848) which was attended by 300 delegates and from which resolutions were taken. Later, it metamorphosed into national outlook National Women's Rights Convention with wider participation of delegates. At this point in time, women were still subject to the Normans' legal doctrine of coverture which binds a woman in marriage to her husband and the former was regarded to a "minor".

At the height of their movement, the duo organized Women's Loyal National League (1863) which collected up to 400,000 signatures on slavery abolition. Similarly, they collaborated with yet another women's rights advocate by name Lucy Stone and then formed a joint organization, National American Woman Suffrage Association (NAWSA) in 1890. These two movements served as a formidable avenue for American White women to present a common front of advocacy for woman suffrage right and other discriminations against women. Classic examples of such discriminations were disruption of National Women's Rights Convention in 1852 and the dishonorable conduct meted out to female American delegates to world anti-slavery convention held in Central London, who were refused seating right. This thus led to subsequent formation of international organizations to coordinate affairs of women suffrage movement such as International Council of Women (1888) and International Woman Suffrage Alliance (1904).

Ideologically, women suffrage movement evolved as two distinct ideologies: liberal and radical. Liberal suffrage movement ideology centered on evolutionary political system in effecting constitutional and amendments toward recognition of participation of women in political decisions. Foremost advocates of this ideology were Elizabeth Stanton and co who proclaimed a Declaration of Sentiments, Grievances and Resolutions in 1848 at Wesleyan Methodist Chapel. Radical suffrage movement ideology emerged as relentless advocacy for immediate governmental implementation of political right of womenfolk. A foremost advocate of this ideology was Emmeline Pankhurst who was founder of the militant organization Women's Social and Political Union (1903) which had as it's movement slogan, Deeds not Words.

Emanating from the socio-political movement of these amazons, came resultant effects or outcomes in terms of recognition of women's suffrage by various independent colonies and countries. Historically, it is recorded that recognition of woman suffrage came in phases of restrictive and full implementation. The restrictive implementation came by way of conditional recognition of right of women to participate in political affairs such as property possession, tax payment or matrimonial status as pre-conditions for right of voting or running for office. The first recorded "self governing" colonies granting restrictive implementation of woman suffrage were the Isle of Man (1881) and Wyoming Territory (1869. The full implementation came by removal of all barriers and conditions to equal participation of women and men in political circles. The first recorded British colonies granting full implementation to woman suffrage were New Zealand (1893) and South Australia (1894) which later transformed to Federation of Australia in 1902.Subsequently, this right was recognized by the United Kingdom (1918); United States of America Nineteenth Amendment Bill (1920); France (1944); Greece (1952); Switzerland (1971).

On the international scene, advocacy for woman suffrage was launched into international lime-light by United Nations. In 1948, Human Rights Commission of the body under chairmanship of Eleanor Roosevelt adopted a universal declaration of human rights which has under Article 21 (1) "everyone has the right to take part in the government of his country, directly or through freely chosen representatives". Similarly, in 1979, a multi-lateral adoption of universal suffrage was signed into by countries around the world under aegis of the United Nations known as Convention on the Elimination of All Forms of Discrimination Against Women.

The most conspicuous impact, in terms of resultant benefit of woman suffrage, is political emancipation of womenfolk such as franchise right and other constitutional roles. Thus, womenfolk can vote alongside men folk counterparts and can occupy offices. In fact, womenfolk have been widely criticized to either wipe out voting power of men folk by out-voting them or double it (in cases of married women). In common cases, pioneer woman suffrage advocates usually mobilized their franchise rights into bloc votes to push for progressive feminine related social policies such as Divorce Act, Child Welfare Act, Family Allowances Act, Equal Pay Act, Women's Parliamentary Rights Act etc.

The foregoing is a clear testimony to the fact that woman suffrage movement is ideologically based as opposed to partisan politics practice. It is very instructive to buttress this historically proven manifestation that woman suffrage movement leaned most to progressive ideology for advancement of women's rights rather than party affiliations. One fundamental distinctive characteristic of early and latter day advocacy for women's rights could be seen in the antithetic ideology between the two: the former favors progressive policies and the latter party politics. In the early advocacy of woman suffrage movement, it was formed to use "franchise to create purer, more moral maternal common wealth".

As a matter of empirical evidence, global ascendancy of womenfolk to top-most politico-economic levels in terms of sitting at "corridors of power" {political offices and board rooms) is infinitesimally inconsequential at "2% and 10%" respectively {Wikipedia}. Another study paints a more graphic picture of family earnings and spending analogy by revealing that men earn 61.5% of all global incomes but spend 25% on domestic spending; women earn 38.5% of all global incomes but spend 75% of domestic spending. In fact, the study shows much of their spending is on themselves, aside family welfare.

What this suggests is that there is contemporary misplacement of women's liberalization struggle from ideology to individual identity. This is convincingly evidential in contemporary partisan politics which gives "equal rights" to both man and woman. This is climaxed in the Beijing Declaration of Affirmative Action for Women in 1985. By this, women have become more vociferous and audacious in the struggle for power, oblivion of what to do with power. In my continent of Africa, this is a most difficult problem we are contending with, of women aspiring to political offices without adequate preparations and requisite qualifications. All they aspire are official designation and perks of offices. This is especially true of so-called First Ladies in Africa whose only legacy are phantom pet projects purportedly meant for social welfare with no consequential resultant effects. For instance, successive First Lady pet projects in Nigeria such as Family Support Program, Better Life for Rural Women, Future Assured Project thrive on media propaganda and just cater for a handful of beneficiaries without wide-spread impact. This similar trend of uneventful performance in office with respect to gender related politics focused on womenfolk is witnessed in dedicated ministries such as Ministry of Women Affairs and Social Development. It only exists as a governmental ministry without palpable value and effect. In a recent media reportage {coverage} that featured the substantive Minster, Sarah Paulen, she could be seen and heard clamoring for ‘more allocation of funds for proper functioning’ of her ministry.

The latest on African soil with respect to beneficiaries of political "equal rights" advocacy could be seen in the North-Central region of Nigeria, precisely Kwara State. The Governor, Abdurrahman Abdurazak recently appointed up to 56% female commissioners who have just been sworn in. As a resident and citizen of Kwara State, I have not seen any appreciable impact of this woman dominated cabinet and I doubt to see such.

This writing will close by reiterating to our women-folk that progressive social policies lie at the root of woman suffrage movement which they freely enjoy today rather than pomp and pageantry. But if they can not impact meaningfully for the betterment of society, they better retreat and maintain their traditional gender role of morally catering to family life positive values.

Sherif Jimoh wrote from Kwara State

Disclaimer: "The views/contents expressed in this article are the sole responsibility of Sherif Jimoh and do not necessarily reflect those of The Nigerian Voice. The Nigerian Voice will not be responsible or liable for any inaccurate or incorrect statements contained in this article."