Interview with Catherine Bolzendahl on Women’s Political Empowerment Worldwide

Catherine Bolzendahl, Associate Professor in the Department of Sociology of the University of California-Irvine, recently delivered the keynote speech, “Women’s Political Empowerment: A Path toward Progress in Uncertain Times,” at the Politics and Inequality conference held December 2018 in Warsaw, Poland.

Catherine Bolzendahl’s interests are in political change cross-nationally and over time, as well as gender and politics. Her research has appeared in Social Forces, European Sociological Review, and British Journal of Sociology, among others. Her recent book is the co-edited volume, Measuring Women’s Political Empowerment Across the Globe: Strategies, Challenges and Future Research (2017, Palgrave).

Interview with Catherine Bolzendahl

At the Politics and Inequality conference, you presented your long-running and varied research on gender and politics in comparative perspective, and what comes next for your research. Looking back, what are some of your most important findings and discoveries?

This is an interesting question because I feel like it is only lately that I’m starting to identify the broader contributions of my current body of work. I’ve always been fundamentally interested in how and why women and men engage with politics and how politics shapes people’s lives as men and women. Of course, this is strongly centered on concerns regarding inequality. My work has led me to a few findings that have been exciting and compelled me to keep digging. First, nations where women have more equality to men politically and economically invest more in social policy generosity. In particular, this contributes to the growing conclusion that women’s political representation changes the policy output in a nation for the better. Second, that we often define politics too narrowly, and in ways that exclude and undervalue women’s contributions as political citizens. This undermines both gender equality and an accurate understanding of women’s political contributions. Third, there is pervasive gender inequality within legislatures, and many are structured to segregate women’s and men’s participation and thus reify patterns of inequality that limit potential for larger change.

What challenges have you faced in conducting or presenting your research on gender?

There are many! As a sociologist, much of my work depends on the larger body of work on gender and politics that exists within the field of political science. Political sociology and political science have long been intertwined and successfully pushed our knowledge forward. However, in sociology, by studying gender, the field does not always know what to do with my work. Political sociology tends to view my work as belonging more to gender and gender scholars see my work as belonging more to political sociology. This makes it difficult to navigate publication outlets, and I often find myself publishing in political science journals. Nevertheless, I strongly believe that issues of gender and politics are of central concern to sociology and work to publish and advocate for such work in the field. Unfortunately, political scientists often do not cite sociology, which may lower my profile in this larger sub-field. By networking across both sociology and political science, I work to counter this, but it is more challenging. Nevertheless, working at the intersections is also, I think, more exciting.

What surprised you most in your research on gender and politics?

The biggest surprise for me was realizing that some feminist scholars view my work as invalid or less important because I use quantitative methods. I was invited to a panel at the Social Science History Association that asked, Can Quantitative Work be Feminist? Before that time I hadn’t realize some thought it could not!

What’s the next step for your research agenda?

I have so many unanswered questions! I’m particularly interested in a better understanding of the roles men and women play within legislatures and how this affects policy outcomes. Another question I’m working on with colleagues is related to international gender gaps in beliefs about family form, particularly same-sex families. Finally, I hope to continue working on issues related to the link between intolerance and ethnonationalist populism over time.

Please list two of your recent favorite articles or books in the field of politics and inequality, and why you chose them.

I recently taught a graduate course on Gender, and finally got the chance to read Viterna’s 2013 book:

Viterna, Jocelyn. 2013. Women in War: The Micro-processes of Mobilization in El Salvador. Oxford University Press.

It is meticulously researched and theoretically powerful. I was particularly struck by the insights Viterna provided into which women guerrilla fighters went on to maintain an activist profile. The women who continued to engage in political activism has been given more authority and high-level networking with the (men’s) leadership during the war. I’m still mulling over the implications of her work for my own perspectives

Another book I’m still working through is by Laurel Weldon and Mala Htun that came out last year:

Htun, Mala, and S. Laurel Weldon. 2018. The Logics of Gender Justice: State Action on Women’s Rights Around the World. Cambridge University Press.

I find their argument that different issues related to gender inequality depend on various “logics” to be really compelling. I think it is one of those book that will launch a great deal of future research that works to utilize and further test their arguments.

What’s an older article or book in the field of politics and inequality that you like, and why?

I will have to name three! First, I will always have a soft spot in my heart for Walter Korpi’s book, The Democratic Class Struggle (1983). It was very eye-opening for me to think about how disadvantaged groups could claim their rights and advance their position in society. Second, T.H. Marshall’s classic essay on “Citizenship and Social Class” (1950) profoundly shaped my views on political rights, and my belief in the importance of advancing social rights as fundamental democratic rights. Third, Anne Orloff’s American Sociological Review article “Gender and the Social Rights of Citizenship” (1993) helped me see how the other two pieces could be leveraged with feminist theory toward the agenda I pursue today.

measuring womens political empowerment book

“Without doubt, this is the book that all scholars of gender, politics, and empowerment must have on their shelves.”

— Professor Jocelyn Viterna, Harvard University, USA

The interview was conducted via email by Joshua K. Dubrow, who also edited this piece, including the embedding of web links. This work was funded by the National Science Centre, Poland (2016/23/B/HS6/03916).