Theme Political Science

Written by Madeline Grey, The University of Melbourne

In the Australian academic field of 'women in the humanities and social sciences', the discipline of political science has remained consistently and resolutely male dominated. Despite this, female political scientists have shown strong leadership in striving for the development of a more gender-inclusive and representative discipline. Women's leadership in this discipline has been facilitated and supported by the Women's Caucus of the Australian Political Studies Association (APSA), the national professional association for those teaching and researching political science in Australia. The Women's Caucus was established by female political scientists as a separate space to formulate and implement strategies to improve women's representation and thus create a more gender-inclusive and equitable profession and discipline.


Feminist scholars of leadership have posed the key question: 'Why is it that so much of women's contribution to public life has not been recognised as leadership?' (Sinclair 2011,1) Although leadership has been acknowledged as a historical 'cultural-construction', it has consistently 'been defined as something that men do' (Sinclair 2011, 1). This construction has meant that women's achievements, particularly in male-dominated fields, have often not been recognised as leadership. Critical leadership studies have challenged this construct of leadership; including studies in the area of business and management such as Amanda Sinclair's work on Sexuality in Leadership (1995), Doing Leadership Differently (1998), and Leadership for the Disillusioned (2007), and feminist historical scholarship in the area of gender and women's leadership such as Founders, Firsts and Feminists; Women Leaders in Twentieth-Century Australia (2011), edited by Fiona Davis, Nell Musgrove and Judith Smart, and Seizing the Initiative: Australian Women Leaders in Politics, Workplaces and Communities (2012), edited by Rosemary Francis, Patricia Grimshaw and Anne Standish. Such studies have been useful in highlighting and exploring the issues that women face in male-dominated fields of work. They have also provided the tools to understand that leadership is more than a powerful position or individual but a process of influence, 'a set of practices, as distributed across a group and collectively achieved. Leadership is generally thought to include an interest in change: on challenging the status quo or envisioning a new way forward' (Sinclair 2011, 2). This re-conceptualisation of leadership as women consciously exerting influence, promoting change and challenging the status quo allows us to reinterpret the strategies and achievements of women in the discipline of political science and acknowledge it as leadership.

Women's Caucus of APSA

The APSA Women's Caucus was co-founded in 1979 by Carole Pateman, a British political scientist who played crucial role in establishing feminist scholarship in the discipline, and Marian Sawer, a leading Australian political scientist. The main aims were to improve the status of women in the political science profession, render women visible in the political system and promote the study of women and politics (Sawer, APSA 2004). From its immediate success in achieving change in the all-male APSA executive with the inclusion of Carole Pateman as vice-president, many other strategies to achieve gender equity in the discipline were initiated. Key achievements include the introduction of a policy commitment to the integration of gender into the curriculum, the inclusion of a gender audit in the annual report published in APSA's official journal, the Australian Journal of Political Science; funding for a biennial Women and Politics Prize; the recruitment of feminist scholars into the profession and, from 1998 onwards, the introduction of alternating male and female APSA presidents. While Pateman's role during her time spent in Australia was significant and influential, other women- many of whom were subsequent APSA presidents and leading members of the profession- such as Marian Sawer, Marian Simms, Carol Johnson, Verity Burgmann, Deborah Brennan and Judith Brett-were integral to the growth of a wide-ranging body of scholarship. The leadership enabled by the Women's Caucus and the ensuing achievements were the result of collective action, a hallmark of feminist leadership.

Feminist Institution Building

The intersect between feminist scholarship and practice was evident in Marian Sawer's concurrent identification of and engagement in the Australian political phenomenon of 'feminist institution-building'. Sawer nominated the social liberal ideological tradition of Australian political history, premised on notions of equal opportunity, social justice and the ethical state, as a significant factor in shaping Australia's political institutions and providing women with an opportunity to make important advances for equal rights within state institutions (Sawer 2002, 176). Sawer labelled this 'feminist institution-building'. She has argued that while feminists in Australia have engaged in separate institution building since Federation, epitomised by women's non-party political organisations, it was the development of second-wave feminism in the 1970s that led to a new wave of institution building and renewed institutional experimentation. This occurred both outside the state, in the form of community-based feminist collectives, and inside the state with the creation of specific spaces for feminist discourse within political parties, parliament and the bureaucracy (Sawer 2002, 149). The body of work that proliferated on the subject of Australian feminist engagement with the state led to the labelling of this subfield of feminist political science 'state feminism' and has been referred to as 'one of the most highly successful exports of Australian feminist political research' (Chappell and Brennan, 343).


The separate feminist institution building that occurred within the political bureaucracy in the 1970s and 1980s was known as the 'femocrat' phenomenon. The term 'femocrat' was created in Australia to refer to the feminist bureaucrats who joined the state bureaucracy following the appointment of Elizabeth Reid as Women's Advisor to Prime Minister Gough Whitlam in 1972. Femocracy subsequently became a distinguishing feature of Australian feminism. The Australian feminist political scientists' scholarly contributions assisted in the development of this groundbreaking political theory and feminist political strategy (Chappell and Brennan, 338). In the path-setting text on femocracy, Sisters in Suits: Women and Public Policy in Australia, Sawer reflected on the achievements of the Australian femocrats and the bureaucratic structures they developed to assimilate gender equity into government processes. Australian-based American political scientist Hester Eisenstein followed with Inside Agitators: Australian Femocrats and the State, which provided a personal insight into women and public policy in Australia, particularly the femocrats in the government bureaucracy. This distinctive development of feminist public policy mechanisms within the bureaucracy received international attention and acclaim (Sawer 1990, xvi). The contribution of Australian feminist scholars and feminist political scientists has subsequently been recognised, including their 'important and original scholarly contributions and, in many instances, [they] assisted in the development of feminist political strategy. In political theory, approaches to the state and in public policy, in particular, Australian feminists have broken new intellectual ground and gained international recognition' (Chappell and Brennan, 338). In 2003, Louise Chappell, for example, was to win the prestigious Victoria Schuck Award of the American Political Science Association for her 2002 book, Gendering Government: Feminist Engagement with the State in Australia and Canada.

Feminist Scholarship in Political Science

Since its emergence in the 1970s, feminist political science has become 'a vibrant sub-field of Australian political science' (Chappell and Brennan, 338). International scholarship in political science such as Women and Politics: An International Perspective (Vicki Randall, 1987) and books written by Australian-based international scholars such as The Sexual Contract (Carole Pateman, 1988) supplied a feminist critique of political science and explored the issue of women and politics. These studies have provided an important comparative context within which Australian feminist political scientists have analysed the Australian situation and reached similar conclusions that political science neglected women because of male dominance of the profession, women's limited role in the political arena until the 1970s and political science's focus on government and public policy-making (Randall, 1-2). Early studies did not attempt a gendered analysis of women's political participation and little if any thought was given to the systemic reasons for women's political under-representation. Mainstream political science has traditionally made a number of assumptions about women's political participation, such as a tendency for women to vote conservatively and the supposition that women are apolitical (for example, Encel, McKenzie and Tebbutt, Women and Society: An Australian Study, 1974), which second-wave feminist political scientists have questioned There has also been a tendency to compartmentalise and marginalise studies of women in politics by relegating them to a separate chapter on 'women' (Randall, 3).

It was not until the advent of second-wave feminism in Australia in the late 1960s and early 1970s and the revisiting of women's political role by feminist political scientists and historians that detailed accurate accounts of early women's rights activists were provided, and women were given a proactive and independent political role in historical texts.

While most commentators on the impact of feminist perspectives and influence on mainstream political science have concluded that it has tended to be 'additive rather than transformative in nature' (Chappell and Brennan, 339), typically marked by the addition of a chapter on women and politics, this should not detract from the significant scholarship produced by Australian feminist political scientists and the recognition their work has received both in Australia and internationally. The most comprehensive book to date on the subject of women and politics in Australia is Marian Sawer and Marian Simms' A Woman's Place: Women and Politics in Australia, first published in 1984 and republished and revised in 1993. Both Sawer and Simms are prominent political scientists and prolific writers on the subject of Australian women and politics. A Woman's Place charts women's political history in Australia and provides an extensive study of women's political involvement from gaining the suffrage at federal level in 1902 through to women's increased political participation by 1993. A major theme of A Woman's Place is the perceived 'feminisation' of Australian politics. This book was complemented by Jocelyn Clarke and Kate White's 1983 study, Women in Australian Politics. Sawer's 2009 history of the Women's Electoral Lobby (WEL), Making Women Count: A History of the Women's Electoral Lobby in Australia, builds on these political histories with the first comprehensive study of this major activist organisation. Elizabeth van Acker's Different Voices: Gender and Politics in Australia (1999) updated the material in A Woman's Place and covered new areas such as the media.

An area of political science where women have shown considerable leadership in Australia is international relations. For example, Emeritus Professor Jindy Pettman's ground-breaking 1996 feminist analysis and critique of mainstream international relations, Worlding Women: A Feminist International Politics, helped establish the new field of feminist international relations. Pettman was honoured by the International Studies Association (ISA), a scholarly association founded to promote research and education in international affairs, on the grounds that she was approached by Routledge to develop and become the founding editor of the International Feminist Journal of Politics, the first journal in the field of international relations to focus on gender issues in global politics.

Women in the discipline of political science have challenged a wide range of established areas of political science, including Australian women and the political system (Marian Simms), gender equality politics and policy theory (Raewyn Connell, Carol Bacchi, Joan Eveline), citizenship, public policy and state feminism (Anna Yeatman), the politics of labour and social movements (Verity Burgmann), childcare policy (Deborah Brennan) and globalisation and state power (Linda Weiss). Feminist political scientists have clearly played an important role in producing and promoting feminist scholarship both within APSA, through the contribution of key articles to the Australian Journal of Political Science, and also through the broader publication of feminist political research as highlighted above. The Women's Caucus was also instrumental in initiating the provision of statistics by the Australian Journal of Political Science on the gender breakdown of authors and content since 1999 (IPSA Gender Monitoring Report 2011; 2012, 10).


Political science, as a field of scholarship, has seen women leading the way towards increasing the presence of women in the profession and also developing a more gender-inclusive discipline.

The creation of the Women's Caucus, a specific structure with a clear mandate to focus on gender issues, has played an important role in supporting women to challenge the status quo and promote change. The role of national women's caucuses has been recognised in a recent Gender Monitoring Report by the International Political Science Association, which found that 'generally women's caucuses have been initiated by women members of national associations and have acted as a ginger group in improving the status of women in the profession and the integration of gender perspectives into the discipline' (IPSA Gender Monitoring Report 2011; 2012, 9). The APSA Women's Caucus has allowed women political scientists to work collectively to exert influence and implement initiatives. Their contributions to a feminist body of scholarship through the Australian Journal of Political Science and other national and international publications has laid the groundwork for transforming the discipline. Feminist political scientists themselves have examined and labelled this process separate 'institution-building'. It is a process that is both recognisably feminist and distinctly and uniquely Australian and has proved effective in the context of male-dominated Australian party politics, both as a discipline and as a practice.

A recent 2012 report by the Australian Political Studies Association together with the Australian National University (APSA/ANU), Women's Advancement in Australian Political Science, has found that women continue to be under-represented in the academic hierarchy in the discipline: 28 per cent in academia (compared to 47 per cent of PhD candidates). Three main factors were nominated as contributing to women's ongoing under-representation: 'the leaky pipeline, the normative political scientist and the chilly climate' (Women's Advancement in Australian Political Science Workshop Report, 11). Despite this continued male dominance of the discipline, a strong collective of individual women continues to lead the commitment to a more representative and gender-inclusive profession and discipline. This is reflected in the growing list of female political scientists who have achieved sufficient scholarly distinction to be elected Fellows in the Academy of the Social Sciences in Australia, which, while perhaps a more traditional indicator of leadership, is nevertheless a mark of eminence and worthy of celebration, though they numbered only five before the end of the last century. They are, in order of election: Carole Pateman (1980), Marian Sawer (1996), Judith Brett (1998), Verity Burgmann (1999), Carol Bacchi (2000), Marcia Langton (2001), Anna Yeatman (2001), Michelle Grattan (2002), Jindy Pettman (2003), Linda Weiss (2004), Carol Johnson (2005), Robyn Eckersley (2007), Stephanie Lawson (2008), Deborah Brennan (2009), Jenny Hocking (2010), Lisa Hill (2011) and Diane Stone (2012).

Published Resources


  • Bacchi, Carol and Eveline, Joan, Mainstreaming Politics: Gendering Practices and Feminist Theory, University of Adelaide Press, Adelaide, South Australia, 2010. Details
  • Burgmann, Verity, Power, Profit and Protest: Australian Social Movements and Globalisation, Allen & Unwin, Sydney, New South Wales, 2003. Details
  • Chappell, Louise, Gendering Government: Feminist Engagement with the State in Australia and Canada, UBC Press, Vancouver, Canada, 2002. Details
  • Clarke, Jocelyn and White, Kate, Women in Australian Politics, Fontana/Collins, Sydney, New South Wales, 1983. Details
  • Connell, R. W., Southern Theory: The Global Dynamics of Knowledge in Social Science, Cambridge Polity Press, Malden, United States of America, 2007, 271 pp. Details
  • Connell, Raewyn, Gender and Power: Society, the Person, and Sexual Politics, Polity Press, Cambridge, England, 1987. Details
  • Eisenstein, Hester, Gender Shock: Practising Feminism on Two Continents, Allen & Unwin, Sydney, New South Wales, 1991. Details
  • Eisenstein, Hester, Inside Agitators: Australian Femocrats and the State, Allen & Unwin, Sydney, New South Wales, 1996. Details
  • Encel, Sol; MacKenzie, Norman and Tebbutt, Margaret, Women and Society: An Australian Study, Cheshire Publishing, Melbourne, Victoria, 1974. Details
  • Franzway, Suzanne; Court, Dianne and Connell, Raewyn, Staking a Claim: Feminism, Bureaucracy and the State, Allen & Unwin, Sydney, New South Wales, 1989. Details
  • Pateman, Carole, The Sexual Contract, Polity Press, Cambridge, England, 1988. Details
  • Randall, Vicki, Women and Politics: An International Perspective, Macmillan, London, England, 1987. Details
  • Sawer, Marian, Sisters in Suits: Women and Public Policy in Australia, Allen & Unwin, Sydney, New South Wales, 1990. Details
  • Sawer, Marian, Making Women Count: A History of the Women's Electoral Lobby in Australia, Radford, Gail, University of New South Wales (UNSW) Press, Sydney, New South Wales, 2008, 317 pp. Details
  • Sawer, Marian and Simms, Marian, A Woman's Place: Women and Politics in Australia, Allen & Unwin, Sydney, New South Wales, 1993. Details
  • Sinclair, Amanda, Doing Leadership Differently: Gender, Power and Sexuality in a Changing Business Culture, Melbourne University Press, Melbourne, Victoria, 1998. Details
  • Sinclair, Amanda, Leadership for the Disillusioned: Moving Beyond Myths and Heroes to Leading that Liberates, Allen & Unwin, Sydney, New South Wales, 2007. Details
  • Van Acker, Elizabeth, Different Voices: Gender and Politics in Australia, Macmillan Education, Melbourne, Victoria, 1999. Details
  • Yeatman, Anna, Bureaucrats, Technocrats, Femocrats: Essays on the Contemporary Australian State, Allen & Unwin, Sydney, New South Wales, 1990. Details

Book Sections

  • Chappell, Louise and Brennan, Deborah, 'Women and Gender', in Rhodes, Rod (ed.), The Australian Study of Politics, Palgrave Macmillan, London, England, 2009, pp. 338 - 346. Details
  • Sawer, Marian, 'Reclaiming Social Liberalism: The Women's Movement and the State', in Howe, Renate (ed.), Women and the State: Australian Perspectives, La Trobe University Press, Melbourne, Victoria, 1993. Details
  • Sinclair, Amanda, 'Not just 'adding women in': Women Re-making Leadership', in Francis, Rosemary; Grimshaw, Patricia; and Standish, Ann (eds), Seizing the Initiative: Australian Women Leaders in Politics, Workplaces and Communities, The University of Melbourne: eScholarship Research Centre, Melbourne, Victoria, 2011, pp. 15-34. Details

Edited Books

  • Simms, Marian (ed.), Australian Women and the Political System, Longman Cheshire, Melbourne, Victoria, 1984. Details
  • Simms, Marian (ed.), Women and the Secret Garden of Politics: Preselection, Political Parties and Political Science, Australian Women: Contemporary Feminist Thought, Grieve, Norma and Burns, Ailsa, Oxford University Press, Melbourne, Victoria, 1994. Details

Journal Articles

  • Sawer, Marian, 'The Impact of Feminist Scholarship on Australian Political Science', Australian Journal of Political Science, vol. 39, no. 3, November 2004, pp. 553 - 566. Details
  • Sinclair, Amanda, 'Sexuality in Leadership', International Review of Women and Leadership, vol. 1, no. 2, 1995, pp. 25 - 38. Details


  • Matonyte, Irmina; Sawer, Marian and St-Laurent, Mathieu, IPSA Gender Monitoring Report 2011, International Political Science Association, Montreal, Canada, 2012. Details

Online Resources

  • Academy of the Social Sciences in Australia, c.2013, Details
  • Cowden, Mhairi; McLaren, Kirsty, Plumb, Alison and Sawer, Marian, Women's Advancement in Australian Political Science: Workshop Report, Australian National University (ANU): Australian Political Studies Association, 30 July 2012, Details
  • Davis, Fiona; Musgrove, Nell and Smart, Judith, Founders, Firsts and Feminists: Women Leaders in Twentieth-Century Australia, The University of Melbourne: eScholarship Research Centre, Melbourne, Victoria, 2011, Details
  • Sawer, Marian, Waltzing Matilda: Gender and Australian Political Institutions, Australia Reshaped: 200 Years of Institutional Transformation, Brennan, Geoffrey and Castles, Francis G., Cambridge University Press, Cambridge, England, 2002. Details