Women Up! for a New Progressive Agenda

March 2014 marks the fifth edition of the transatlantic dialogue on gender issues, organized by the Foundation for European Progressive Studies (FEPS) and the Fondation Jean Jaurès. The current political momentum both in Europe and the US, combined with this exciting anniversary, lead to a unique occasion within the cycle of the dialogue. This is expressed symbolically through the fact that the venue of the dialogue is again Boston, where the research program was launched five years ago. The event is organized with the support of Boston University, in the framework of women’s history month. The 2014 theme, “Celebrating Women of Character, Courage, and Commitment”, serves as an inspiration to link past achievements with present and future aspirations.

All of the addressed topics are crucial in the short-term at the upcoming European Parliamentary and US midterm elections. However, by synthesizing the experiences from the past meetings, the objective of the seminar is to tackle the main theoretic, strategic, and policy challenges concerning gender equality that progressives will face on the long-term on both sides of the Atlantic. Hence, the dialogue is planned to be an inspiration for both American and European participants: collecting initiatives and setting up strategies that can either strengthen progressives’ position for 2016 presidential elections and beyond or that can influence the new European Commission’s objectives on gender equality.

These concerns are embedded in the broader issue of creating a credible progressive alternative as a response to the current financial, economic, and political crisis. In terms of gender equality, while left-wing parties have enormously contributed to introducing the legal changes for achieving equality between women and men, they are currently not perceived as a driving force for change. Instead, rather alarmingly, it is perceived that they reflect only in their rhetoric the societal change that women’s entry to the labor market have brought, but they are not seen to be ready to transform the current power structure. Furthermore, the progressive narrative on gender issues is seen to be an agenda-follower underscoring the need for adaptation to the new societal challenges in order to become again an agenda-setter. Gender equality in the labor market is a key element of the emancipation process. Progressives are aiming to empower women through a fulfilling and meaningful job that contributes to the cohesion of the society. However, the still-existing issues—like the gender pay gap, involuntary part-time and temporary contracts, higher in-work poverty—transform this narrative to a negative one. It is felt that instead of empowering women, the focus is narrowed down to technical labor market interventions. This profound disappointment in the progressive promise of achieving gender equality has turned away many voters. On one hand, they prefer to identify with the positive narrative offered by the right, where women have a meaningful role within the society as mothers. On the other hand, many of them turn away from established political structures toward being active in the current protest social movements. This latter one is problematic, as most of these movements deny any kind of gender aspect and/or recreate within their structures the traditional gender roles, with men being the leading advocates of the cause, while women are preparing soup for other activists.

In the framework of these deliberations, the fifth transatlantic dialogue on gender issues aims to address the following topics:

The (in)visibility of women in the left: a historical perspective

To better understand that while there has been a setback in the success of the progressive strategy, it is suggested to analyze the trend which has led—with a few exceptions—to the invisibility of women in the left. Formal equal treatment and equality in opportunities was useful in the past to be a driver of societal change, but have reached its limits. As a result, women were largely embraced by the movement as activists but then could hardly advance in higher positions within the party structure. Available instruments, like trainings and quotas, have increased the number of women also in higher levels of politics but did not address the core issue of the missing new narrative. A rerouting is needed so that progressives can break away from their reactive rhetoric and can claim again the ownership over the parity agenda. In the meantime, conservatives could continue successfully with their approach based on biological differences. They were successful in shifting the paradigm towards rebiologization, where societal differences are presented as direct consequences of biological differences. Hence, addressing the structural inequalities that still persist also requires a differentiated approach from the progressives. Hence, the dialogue seeks to answer the following questions:

  • How have progressive political forces changed from norms-setters to reactive followers concerning gender equality?
  • How can the progressives address structural inequalities and increase women’s visibility to enlarge their societal basis through parity?

Changing the narrative on gender issues: from struggle to emancipation

After the historical analysis, the second dialogue aims to contribute to establishing a positive progressive narrative on the role of women within the society. Instead of focusing on the struggle toward equality, the discussion should develop an alternative vision which enables women to fulfill their aspirations. Therefore, the main question of this session is:

  • Against the crisis, how can we develop a positive story of emancipation?

Revisiting the core policy: gendered analysis of the new welfare state

The objective of the third session is to examine how this new narrative translates into policies. It is commonplace that some elements of the welfare state are reinforcing gender inequalities instead of decreasing them. The ongoing discussion on the post-crisis welfare state offers an exceptional possibility to reshape policies in a more egalitarian manner. This momentum defines the focus of the debate as well:

  • How can progressives shape a more gender-equal post-crisis welfare state

Strengthened commitment to the international dimension: Gender, peace and security

Defense and security have been traditionally issues dominated by conservatives. However, following the adoption of UNSCR 1325 on Women, peace and security and related Resolutions, and through its implementation process, progressives could grasp the occasion to become agenda setters on this field. The first years of existence of the European External Action Service (EEAS) call also for a constructive evaluation of its actions in this specific sector. In this framework, the enhancement and a gendered analysis of dispute settlement, conflict prevention and resolution, mediation and arbitration should be advocated. With security being one of the main electoral issues:

  • How can progressives advocate for a gender sensitive peace promotion as part of the global governance?
  • How can progressives promote effective implementation of UNSCR 1325 and related Resolutions within regional organizations and through national action plans?

Addressing current challenges: gender and new forms of political activism

They may be revolutionary in their narrative and harshly critical toward the established political structure. Nevertheless, the attitude of current social movements, as new forms of political activism toward gender issues, raises many concerns. On one hand, the criticism toward neoliberals and the fight for more equality and a fairer society might indicate that these forms of political activism could become allies of progressives. On the other hand, the rejection to take onboard any kind of gender dimension within their debate might bring progressives back to square one. As it has been pointed out earlier, structural inequalities require differentiated solutions. Against this background the following questions arise:

  • What is the relationship between gender and new forms of political activism?
  • How can progressive political parties embrace these new forms of political activism while safeguarding their distinctive narrative on gender issues?

Sharing effective strategies: mobilizing women for the progressive cause

To unfold its entire prospective, the process of revitalizing the progressive narrative, policies, and strengthening relationships with potential allies should be accompanied by accordingly inspirational communication and campaign strategies. The rapidly changing new technologies offer an enormous potential from this perspective. Hence, the last discussion aims to share concrete examples of motivating women to become politically engaged for the progressive cause. The discussion is organized around the question:

  • How can we combine traditional means of communication with new technologies in order to mobilize more women for the progressive cause?