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The separate spheres theory and women in politics


The core fundamentals of politics as propounded by 17th century political theorists like Thomas Hobbe and John Locke were built on the belief in the private-public dichotomy, one that pushed the theory that the private space even though an area of societal life, was opposite and separate from the public life. Charles de Montesquieu respected for his theorization of separation of powers and regarded as a scholar well ahead of his time promoted this split by arguing that women though capable of leadership were ineffective as heads of households. While this theory deemed men fit to inhabit the public sphere owing to their roles as heads of households, it subsumed women into the private sphere and under the control of men. Thus, the home, a component of the private sphere was regarded as a ‘woman’s proper place’.

This traditional Anglo-American approach to politics have been adopted by many countries around the world which model their political systems after the British and American political system either through colonization or by choice. As a result of this, women found themselves excluded from the political participation. Women’s movements from the 19th century until date have challenged the legitimacy of the public-private divide and exposed the inconsistencies inherent in a system that seeks to regulate their rights without their active participation.

The struggles of women movements while yielding positive gains since the last two centuries, is far from over as the privileging of politics continues till this day. Women participation in politics is far below average to be counted as significant. According to the UN, 17 countries out of 193 countries have women heads of state, 17 percent of ministers are women and only 19.5 percent are legislators. In Nigeria, the statistics for women participation in politics portray a more dismal picture. In 2011, women made up 6.4 percent of the senate and 6.9 percent of the lower house. In 2015, they made up 6.4 percent of the senate again and a lesser showing of 5.2 percent in the House of Representatives. This is indeed troubling and needs to be addressed urgently as this has done harm to the advancement of women rights in the country. An instance of this is the furor generated over the gender equality bill where the male dominated Senate took it as a matter of slight that women wanted equal rights with men in marriage, divorce, property ownership and inheritance.

An effective strategy in ensuring that a level playing field is provided for everyone regardless of gender is first, an overhaul of the entire system. The borrowed political assumption of separate spheres should be expunged from our political consciousness. It is a form of oppression that has somehow wormed its way into the fabric of our social consciousness and set limitations on what women can or should achieve. This is why a woman in spite of whatever accolades she has earned in her field of specialization, in a subtle reminder of ‘her proper place’, is often asked how she manages her home. It is an unnecessary burden women shouldn’t have to bear.

Women rights activists have rightly pointed out that there is no real difference between the private and public spheres as the two often overlap. Within the traditional African political arrangement, women enjoyed substantial social and political rights and contributed to policies that affected them. It is therefore ironic that a purportedly advanced system put in place by colonialists has stripped them of their former privileges and relegated them to the background.

As the struggle for the inclusion of women in the decision making process of most nations continues, it has become imperative for women groups in Nigeria to organize either autonomously or within existing structures like trade/market unions or political parties to help build the capacity of women to be active in the political landscape and not just be onlookers or cheerleaders. The participation of women in politics is crucial to every democracy. Nigeria as a democracy cannot survive if women who make up 50 percent of her population are left on the sidelines.


Written for Career Women in Politics Organization (CWIPO)