Dr. Denise Walsh, Political Scientist

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Associate Professor, Political Science
College & Graduate School of Arts & Sciences
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How can liberal democracies become more inclusive and just? The longer I study how democracy works in practice, the more I seek answers to this question, as I have found that even in the most celebrated of liberal democracies politics is far more exclusionary and unjust than most people, including scholars, realize.

My current project is When Rights Go Wrong: Multiculturalism Versus Women’s Rights. This book is a comparative study of multiculturalism and women’s rights, and investigates the so-called “burqa ban” in France, indigenous women’s rights to remain members of their tribe in Canada and polygamy in South Africa.

Many scholars believe that cultural practices like polygamy and the face veil are in conflict with women’s rights. As a result, policymakers, pundits and scholars have tried to find a way for liberal democracies to both respect cultural difference and women’s rights.  I am finding that this effort is a lost cause. By studying policy conflicts over these conflicts, I have learned that liberal democratic politicians often deliberately pit multiculturalism against women’s rights to advance their own interests. I also am finding that the people who can defuse these conflicts are not policy actors in liberal democracies but minority women.  Many of these women are working to reinterpret their culture; they honor it while at the same time adapting it to empower women.

Unfortunately, because liberal democratic politicians want to use conflicts between multiculturalism and women’s rights for their own purposes, they usually ignore the solutions that minority women offer. Worse, I am finding that politicians routinely use these conflicts to undermine democratic procedures like community hearings and parliamentary oversight committees. My research thus reveals that liberal democratic institutions are quite weak, and not only in newly democratic countries like South Africa, but also in exemplary ones like Canada.

While the results of my research have been sobering, they are also exciting, as sometimes they reveal the routes through which change is possible. My first book, Women’s Rights in Democratizing States (Cambridge University Press, 2010), explains how institutions critical to liberal democracy, like political parties, legislatures, and social movements, obstruct advances in women’s rights and what women can do to challenge that.

Through a comparison of Poland, Chile, and South Africa, I find that many of these institutions are not only male dominated, they also are masculinist, meaning that their formal and informal norms make it difficult for women to access these institutions, speak out, be heard, and challenge the status quo. This opposition to women’s participation is ubiquitous across countries and institutional sites, and comes in many forms, from men obstructing the doorways of committee meeting rooms and refusing women entry, to refusing to call on them in meetings, deriding their comments when they do speak, and tasking them with serving lunch and making tea. In these circumstances, women who fight back succeed by organizing among themselves within these institutions.

Transitions to democracy often provide women with the space to organize, as politics moves to the streets and the rules of the game are up for grabs. Where women organize and forge alliances across sectors, change can happen, as South Africa illustrates.  Where they fail to organize and do not seize the opportunity that the transition offers, even a more democratic state may result in fewer opportunities in public life and policymaking for women, as happened in Poland. The lesson, then, is that women must organize and secure not only greater numbers in powerful institutions, but also the capacity to speak out and challenge the status quo.

Learn more about Dr. Walsh’s research and teaching. http://denisewalsh.weebly.com/


Indigenous Women of CanadaI attended the annual celebration of National Aboriginal Day in Edmonton, Canada in 2012 when I was doing research on indigenous women in Canada who have lost their Indian status and right to remain in the tribe because they married non-native men. Native men do not lose their Indian status or right to remain in the tribe for marrying non-native women.




Video: https://www.edmonton.ca/attractions_events/schedule_festivals_events/national-aboriginal-day-video.aspx;

Photos: http://indigenous.alberta.ca/National-Aboriginal-Day.cfm


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