ARTICLE | A feminine ‘ethic of care’ and the future of Australian democracy

Jean-Paul Gagnon, University of Canberra

One hundred inspiring ‘democracy champions’ will gather at Old Parliament House in Canberra tonight to mark the launch of Democracy100, a network of leaders, innovators and thinkers from a range of sectors who are committed to the vibrancy of our democratic process.


The aim of the event is to kick-start a multi-partisan conversation about the future of Australian democracy at a critical time of flux. So, with a focus on Australia’s past, present and future, we thought it worth pausing to ask – how does democracy function in practice? And is there another way to envision and enact it?


While Selen Ercan looks at the rise of small p politics in contemporary democracies,  here  Jean-Paul Gagnon argues that a more flexible and reflexive feminine morality, or ethic-of-care, pushes us to think differently about democracy, and how we can make it work for all of us.

In 1982, Carol Gilligan published her book In A Different Voice. The book is famous for establishing a feminine ethics-of-care theory that emphasises the importance of everyone having a voice and the need for responsiveness in relationships. The theory posits that male and female moralities are inherently different. Whereas male morality emphasizes “separation rather than connection and focuses more on the autonomy of the individual”, female morality is concerned with “sustaining connection [and] keeping the web of relations intact.”

Josephine Donovan and Carol Adams cement the distinction: “whereas the masculine concern with rights, rules, and an abstract ideal of justice tends often to seem like ‘a math problem with humans’, the feminine approach offers a more flexible, situational, and particularized ethic.”

The feminine approach offers a more flexible, situational, and particularized ethic.

Nowadays, democracy in practice tries to confer certain rights to citizens, it is bound by rules, and it pursues an abstract ideal of liberalism and representation in flavours of either capital-gain or equity-prevail. It’s mathematical, metrical, steeped in a standard history of usually white power, white thinkers, and privileged men.

Although this official history is a gross oversimplification of democracy, it passes from teacher to student in nationally accredited textbooks, eventually made ready for packaging, export and promotion to people in other parts of the world who yearn to have democracy – until they get it and decide they had something other than the hollow institutions of liberal representative government in mind.

This is where the power of feminine morality shows itself in thinking about democracy. Its flexibility and attention to power prompts us to think about the forlorn and forgotten expressions of democracy that exist outside its standard history. It asks us to challenge each official claim on the definition of democracy by illuminating other instances, other happenings, other thoughts that fall irrevocably under democracy’s name but are without explanation officially excluded.

Old Parliament House in Canberra, which houses the Museum of Australian Democracy.

Consider the republic of Tlaxcallan, an ancient state in central Mexico, which had a civic religion consistent with those found in other “egalitarian and collective political regimes” like ancient Athens. If you were in Tlaxcallan in the 15th century and wanted to be a councillor, to hold some state power in your hand, you’d first have to distinguish yourself to your peers (usually in war) to get nominated as a candidate for council.

Then, you’d also have to undergo two years of training in a cloistered temple where priests would whip you with a thorny vine, starve and sleep deprive you, and ask you to reflect on your duty to the people. Ritual blood-letting in worship of Tezcatlipoca-Camaxtli – god of the republic, chastener of the council, protector of the commoner – was part of a budding politician’s penitence. Perhaps it’s telling as to why this story isn’t featured in democracy’s curriculum: which politician today would want to endure that?

In all seriousness, though, it is the feminine ethic-of-care that pushes us to think differently about democracy. It prompts us to emancipate the idea of democracy from male morality and to reconstruct this body of knowledge in a way that shows it comes to us from thousands of situations and that it is imbued with thousands of particularities that require investigation, interpretation and nurture.

It is the feminine ethic-of-care that pushes us to think differently about democracy.

It invites us to wonder about a future beyond official definitions, to blaze a trail for practices of democracy that come from the ground-up and that can explain their relation to other expressions of democracy – expressions that can be used to save democracy when trouble arrives at its door.

And trouble has arrived. Trump, Brexit, Duterte, the GFC, inequality, violence and terror. The crisis of democracy seems rampant today.

One hundred heroes are being gathered into a network in Australia to form the bulwark, to resist trouble, and protect the country’s democracy from its foes. But which democracy? Who is the foe? And will you think about democracy like a man or a woman at the palisade?

I sit with my sisters and all others despite their gender, tastes, or age, who share in this ethic because we don’t need a hundred men at the front spitting hyperbole, defending smoke and fighting shadow, we need a hundred women deeply attuned to the long and complex life of democracy who can interpret what we have at home, find our truer democratic character, and name our foes who might in large part be ourselves, as we know so little about democracy but demand so much from it.

Maybe it’s not democracy that’s in crisis, but rather our ability to understand and re-imagine it.

Jean-Paul Gagnon, Assistant Professor of Politics University of Canberra

This article was originally published on BroadAgenda. Read the original article.