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date: 14 May 2021

(p. 599) The State, Governance, and Policy Making

In contrast to some of the other sections in this handbook, understanding the state, governance, and policy making has always been seen as a central part of political science. Until the rise of the broader concept of governance, which facilitated the incorporation of a more diverse range of actors and activities, much of the conventional scholarship in this area traditionally relied on quite narrow and rather conventional understandings and definitions of politics, policy making, and the state. And again, most of this work has been gender blind (although as part of its broader vision, some recent discussions of governance have recognized women’s organizations as part of the policy networks that are increasingly important in diffused and diverse polities in which power is more dispersed and states more fractured).

Despite some early ambivalence about the state, gender scholars too have long recognized the importance of the state and policy-making processes, and they have studied them in a variety of ways since the 1970s. They have considered, using a range of different theoretical approaches and perspectives, the ways the state is gendered and, in particular, focused on the nature of gender (p. 600) institutions and the making of gender policy within the state, whether under the guise of state feminism, women’s policy agencies, (WPAs), or more generally. More recently, as we have seen in the handbook introduction, there has been an institutional turn within some of the gender and politics scholarship as well as in much of political science, as an increasing amount of work has been influenced by some variants of new institutionalist thinking.

The chapters in this section consider how the institutions associated with the state and governance operate, what they do, and how policy-making processes and their outputs are gendered. The authors provide both an overview of the key debates in their area but they are also writing informed by a range of perspectives—whether this is, for example, a feminist institutionalist or a feminist critical political economy one. A number of common themes stand out (as well as commonalities with other parts of the handbook). First, feminism as a political project, and feminist theory and analysis as a way of understanding the state, governance, and policy making, are both central. The question of whether the state and institutions of governance can be used to achieve change and in particular to further gender equality has been of key importance to many feminist activists and scholars alike. A range of views have been promulgated—some have argued that state institutions can be used for this purpose while others have been more skeptical about the potential for positive institutional change and policies and policy making that promotes gender equality. Various different strategies to advance gender equality—such as the creation of women’s policy agencies and gender mainstreaming initiatives—have also been attempted, again with varying assessments of their effectiveness.

Second, many of the chapters touch on the relationship between institutions and actors, both actors within institutions—whether they are femocrats or other policy makers inside institutions—or feminist and other activists outside of institutions trying to effect change. The key role that can be played by both and the potential for effective alliances forming between the two also recurs in many of the chapters. What is the room for agency, and how far are actors constrained by the institutions that they are operating within? Finally, the move to governance also ties in with an increasing emphasis on the importance of looking at different levels and their interaction, namely, not just the national but also the local, regional, and international, both for feminist strategy and understanding how institutions operate and policies are made and implemented. The use of broader notions of governance also helps the integration of a political economy perspective into the analysis of institutions and policy making. A number of the chapters end by suggesting that, as part of using broader definitions of institutions and understandings of how they are gendered and operate in gendered ways, one way forward would be to move away from a very explicit focus on gender policy and policy making and gender-specific institutions and look more generally at institutions and policy making even if they do not explicitly have an overt gender brief.

(p. 601) The section begins with an overview chapter on the state and governance by Louise Chappell. In this she explores developments in feminist thinking in three areas related to the state. She gives us a survey of the competing feminist theories of the state, outlining, as she sees it, a shift from the more monolithic conceptions of the state (some of which, for example, saw the state as patriarchal) to ones that understand the state as much more differentiated and as gendered, informed variously by notions of governance, poststructuralism, and intersectionality. Chappell ends her survey of how feminist understandings of the state and governance have changed by examining how gender operates within the state and how the state constitutes gender relations within society. In the final part of the chapter she considers feminist engagements with the state touching on a range of different institutional arenas such as the constitutional and judicial sphere.

Kate Bedford broadens out the scope to provide us with an introduction to the debates about multilevel governance (MLG) as they have been engaged in by and affected gender scholars. She aims to show that there is no agreement about what attention to MLG might tell those scholars interested in gender and institutions, but productive debates have occurred about the potentially democracy enhancing effects of MLG networks. She begins by outlining the impact of the shifts in institutional mandates and design on gender equality projects at various levels—local, national, regional, and international. She brings in a political economy focus by examining a key theme of the current literature on gender and MLG, namely, the relationship between neoliberalism and the rescaling of political authority arguing for example that feminists need to extend critical scrutiny to the political production of the family as a level of governance. She then touches on the impact of MLG on feminist mobilizing, showing how different types of feminist activism are affected differently by MLG trends ending by discussing the implications of the forum shopping that MLG facilitates and considering its implications for the affective dimensions of activism.

In their chapter, Dorothy McBride and Amy Mazur look directly at gender specific institutions and initiatives within the state by considering WPAs and state feminism. Drawing on the now large literature in this area, they describe the phenomenon of women’s policy agencies and outline some of the major issues and emerging research agendas that dominate the field. After describing the development of and central assumptions underlying WPAs, the main body of the chapter describes the framework, methods, research results, and theory of state feminism in Western postindustrial democracies as it has been elaborated by the Research Network on Gender Politics and the State (RNGS), as the group of scholars who have done most work in this area. The chapter ends by describing how the RNGS research challenges conventional wisdom about the effectiveness of agencies and the possibilities for state feminism to change gender policy and policy making and to help us gender the broader study of democracies.

(p. 602) After three chapters that delineate different aspects of the institutional terrain that feminist and other actors inhabit and interact with, the final two chapters in this section look more specifically at policy making and its outcomes. Emanuela Lombardo, Petra Meier, and Mieke Verloo focus on policy making. They expand and build on feminist policy studies and use scholarship from a range of disciplines to analyze how policy making can (re)produce gender inequality or counteract it. Loosely following the development of feminist policy studies, they begin by charting how women were brought into the analysis of policy making, particularly in development studies, before the focus moved to how gender bias is constructed in policy making using more discursive approaches, and the advent of gender mainstreaming. Throughout the chapter they emphasize the importance of recognizing multiple inequalities using the language of intersectionality as well as the importance of a wide range of institutional approaches.

In the final chapter in this section, Merike Blofield and Liesl Haas focus on policy outputs on gender equality, asking what do policies on gender equality look like—both ideally and in practice? They do this through an overview of the literature that attempts to categorize gender equality policies and to spell out the different stages of the policy process. They draw on examples from three issue areas that have been identified by feminists as ones where gender inequalities are particularly embedded: reproductive capacities; gender-based violence; and the work–family nexus. Their empirical material comes primarily from Europe and Latin America.