"Not an encounter group": democracy and women's committees

Stokes, Wendy (1996) "Not an encounter group": democracy and women's committees. Doctoral thesis, London Guildhall University.


The following thesis describes the membership, goals and activities of five women's committees which were studied between 1992 and 1995. The committees were located in local authorities in different parts of England, selected to provide a degree of diversity. One goal of this thesis is to add to the body of knowledge about women's committee, but, more importantly, the thesis is intended as an analysis of the connection between the committees and theories of democracy and representation.

Some years before the formation of women's committees a renewed interest in the possibilities of democracy arose among both academics and politicians, which was to influence the constitution of the committees. Some of the ideas which were introduced for discussion between the 1960s and the present involved a reconsideration of familiar ground; others were truly innovative. Much of what was discussed entailed a break: from representative democracy as it was understood and practised. Amongst the most interesting ideas were proposals to combine representative and direct mechanisms, to extend democracy into economic and social life, to introduce the representation of groups, and to develop the deliberative element of democracy. All of these ideas had implications for women, and feminists investigated their potential for change.

Women's committees were introduced in some local authorities from 1982, where both the women's movement and the new urban left of the Labour Party played a part in their creation. The committees were both a result of new thinking about democracy and possessed of the potential to foster further ideas and strategies. They were also firmly feminist, although the nature of their feminism, and the relationship between that and their democratic impetus, was complex. This study puts together existing research into women's committees, fresh research into five committees, and research into democratic theory. It argues that the committees were both feminist and democratic initiatives, and that they demonstrated the possibility of putting into practice some of the theories described. It also illuminates the problems addressed by the committees, some of which are problems for democracy.

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