This article suggests a framework for thinking about the gendered nature of civil society. The framework involves four sites of power – family, civil society, state, and market – that are infused and interconnected by a circuit of gender relations. This circuit comprises culturally specific roles, identities, norms, and values that delineate men and women as socially distinct beings. Conceptualizing gender relations as a circuit frees it from any essentially given location. The article argues that civil society and feminist theorists should engage in cross-border dialogue.
There has, so far, been little theorisation of the engendering processes of civil society. This is not for want of an extensive body of research on the economic, political, cultural, and historical aspects of gender relations. Instead, there has been a failure on the part of civil society and feminist political researchers to engage with each others’ frameworks. While feminist theorists have centred their analysis on the social construction of the public/private divide, civil society theorists have been more preoccupied with the relationship between the state and civil society, and to a lesser degree with the market.
The fact that civil society and feminist researchers have not engaged in a serious dialogue with each other has had significant consequences at both the theoretical and practical levels:
- If civil society theorists had engaged with the feminist problematisation of the public-private divide, they could have explored how the family shapes norms and practices in the sphere of civil society and how gendered power relations pervade the spheres of state, market, civil society, and family.
- This would have enabled them to look at power and subordination within civil society, thereby introducing caution into debates that portray civil society as benign, virtuous and harmonious, in contrast to the venal, oppressive state.
- It might have steered civil society theory and discussion towards a more productive focus on the interconnectedness, fluidity, and permeability of these spheres.
- If feminist theorists were to apply their theories to the analysis of civil society, they could reveal the production and reproduction of power relations within its folds, and the potential of civil society as both a conservative and a progressive force for men and women.
- Feminist researchers could be more alert when the language of civil society is used to justify user choice, state deregulation or community provision, initiatives that might prove to be double-edged for women.
Compared to the civil society theories that treat the family (domestic) as a residual boundary marker in order to focus attention on civil society/state or civil society/state/market relations, this new model incorporates the four sites of concentrated power relations: the state, civil society, market, and household. By breaking down the public into the state and civil society, the model enables analysis that recognises the different organising principles of the state (regulation and coercion) and civil society (voluntary solidarity) and the connections made between these through gender relations. The model:
- Allows us to understand how particular gendered norms, ideologies, practices and values work their way through the power sites of the state, civil society, market, and family and position men and women in different ways.
- Makes it harder at the conceptual and practical levels to ignore the influence of gender relations in apparently separate domains, such as the state and civil society.
- Reveals the gender relations in apparently non-gender specific issues such as health and the environment, as well as the cross-cutting of gender relations with other organisers of identity such as class, religion, sexuality, and ethnicity.
- Gives us scope to examine the blockages in flows, and in particular, flows of men and women, between sites of power.