Accepted paper:

"This lady, she's A-list!" The empowerment impact of female political elites for women in South African higher education


Ján Michalko

Paper short abstract:

This paper considers the impact of women's inclusion in politics as creation of normative resources for young women's empowerment. Ultimately, it questions how female political elites enhance women's ability to challenge oppression and whether they contribute to fighting intersectional inequalities.

Paper long abstract:

This paper contributes to the scholarship on the impacts of women's inclusion in positions of political power by analysing their role model effect on young women (see for example Wolbrecht and Campbell, 2017; Beaman et al., 2012). Women's political representation is argued to contribute to increasing gender equality, by enabling women to overcome their internalized patriarchal gender norms (Alexander and Welzel, 2011). However, much of the political science role model scholarship has been limited by western conceptualisations of politics and power (M'Cormack-Hale, 2015; Tadros, 2015). Therefore, this study expands the analytical scope of the role model debates by reframing the role model function as a process of using social norms for one's empowerment (Kabeer, 2012). Thus, it examines the political elites' potential to contribute to the transformation of gender-based, intersectional oppressions.

Based on interviews and group discussions with women at the University of Johannesburg, South Africa, conducted in 2016-2017, this paper argues that women in politics contribute to the students' construction of their ideal self, which is attached to the notion of a female political elite. The empowering resources for the students' decisions about their education and future employment are therefore not the women in politics themselves, who often fail to meet the normative expectations, but the ideal that emerges from the observations and engagements with a variety of women both in and outside of politics. Consequently, interventions focused on women's inclusion in politics ought to focus on increasing young women's exposure and connection to a diverse set of women.

panel B2
Just add women? The developmental impact of opening up politics to women