American University

Can the Inclusion of Women Stop Democratic Erosion? by Nicole Wells @ American University

I recently attended an event at the United States Institute of Peace titled “Women’s role in Constitution making”. The focus was on including women’s participation in statebuilding in post-conflict societies and the impact that has on lasting peace. Evidence shows that including women in the political process increases stability, promotes inclusiveness of all in civil society, and prioritizes equality. According to Marie O’Reilly, the director of Research and Analysis at Inclusive Security, statistical analysis shows that where women are empowered in multiple spheres of life, countries are less likely to go to war with their neighbors, to be in bad standing with the international community, or to be rife with crime and violence.[1]

As I reflect on this global phenomenon of democratic decay and authoritarianism, the event at USIP has me wondering, if women’s participation in statebuilding makes such an impact, could women’s participation in politics slow down or even reverse the effects of democratic erosion and promote healthy democracies? I am by no means suggesting that the exclusion of women is the cause of democratic erosion but it certainly seems that democracy is unhealthy and erodes when stakeholders do not have an equal role in the political process.

It is no secret that women continue to be excluded and underrepresented in politics around the globe. Inclusive Security’s guide to Constitution Making for Women, states that women’s input is undervalued by decision makers because women are not seen as legitimate political actors.[2] One hardly has to look very far to see examples right here in the United State of undermining women’s legitimacy and competency. Recently, the White House pronounced Nikki Haley as confused on sanctioning Russia for their part in the use of chemical weapons in Syria.[3] Or John Kelly’s latest remarks on women as more emotional than men and his treatment of them with kid gloves.[4] Women are scant in the Trump administration, there are only five women in the cabinet. Women hold 22% of senior level positions in the Trump cabinet compared to 30% in Obama’s first term and 32% in Clinton’s (which is still dishearteningly low).[5] There are countless examples in the US and around the world of women’s exclusion and yet there is so much evidence that shows women are an important component of not just statebuilding but of political life in general.

Since Trump was elected we’ve seen a dramatic increase of women running for political office in the US. So far 575 women have declared their intention to run for office.[6] Should women’s representation in Congress increase, could that lead to a stronger, healthier democracy? Can the same measurements of women’s inclusion in constitution making and peace be used to understand the role women play in strengthening civil society and democratic institutions? Evidence in post conflict countries show that when women play a role in statebuilding they prioritize equality for underrepresented groups. If women win enough seats this November could we see an uptick in the promotion of strengthening the resilience of our democracy with inclusionary politics? The inclusion of women is important because democracy is always at its best when all stakeholders are represented. In Polyarchy, Robert Dahl argues that the two key characteristics of democracy (Dahl prefers the term polyarchy) are public contestation and political participation. When a regime grants this right to some of its citizens it moves toward greater public contestation. But the larger the proportion of citizens who enjoy the right, the more inclusive the regime.[7] According to Dahl’s theory, regimes can be compared based on their inclusiveness. This is not the only characteristic to be considered when determining how democratic a regime is, however a healthy democracy will have included women and minorities in the political arena. Levitsky and Ziblatt argue in How Democracies Die, that mutual toleration or the understanding that competing parties accept each other as legitimate rivals is essential to the survival of democracy.[8] The authors see this in the relationship of Republicans and Democrats, but I argue we should see mutual toleration as women and minorities having the legitimate right to participate in the political arena and this is one of many ways to prevent the erosion of democratic institutions.

Democratic erosion is a relatively recent phenomenon and there is not much research specifically on women’s impact on reversing or preventing democratic erosion. We do know that women’s inclusion is essential to the health of democracy. I am hopeful research will be done on women’s inclusion and the effect on democratic erosion. It is the responsibility of all to maintain our democratic institutions. Equality and inclusiveness are essential to the health of democracy. There is a wide range of responses to democratic erosion from stronger political parties and civil society, to increased participation in associations and labor unions, there is no one way to ensure the survival of democracy. And with democracies around the world facing the threat of erosion, it is more important than ever to make sure the underrepresented have a voice and inclusionary politics be prioritized.


[1] O’Reilly, Marie. “Why Women? Inclusive Security and Peaceful Societies.” October 2015. Inclusive Security.

[2] IO’Reilly, Marie. “Why Women? Inclusive Security and Peaceful Societies.” October 2015. Inclusive Security.





[7] Dahl, Robert.” Polyarchy” New Haven Press, Yale University, 1972.

[8] Levitsky, Steven and Daniel Ziblatt. “How Democracies Die” Crown, New York, 2018.

*Photo by AK Rockefeller



    May 12, 2018 at 10:24 pm

    You wrote an interesting article about the role of women in democracy. I like how you searched for the vital role of women to empower democracies specifically in political processes. I personally believe that this is an important aspect to look at (not because I am a woman), but in remembering two women that took part in Philippine democracy.
    The Philippines is said to be in a great democratic backslide now because of the ousting of the Supreme Court Chief Justice Maria Lourdes Sereno. Women have been taking part in the country’s political processes across the three branches of the government, and the loss (if I may use that word) of her in this ‘battle’ can be considered as an implication of the democratic erosion happening in the country. If CJ Sereno came from a result of democratic erosion, a woman president was however dubbed as the ‘most corrupt’ leader in Philippine history. She was put into office after a People Power against President Estrada – without elections, and then got re-elected and became famous from the ‘Hello Garci’ scandal. These are two sides I thought of especially when you said that there is not much research on women’s impact on reversing or preventing democratic erosion.

  2. Hannah Bodegon

    May 21, 2018 at 12:17 pm

    I like this article as it presents a gendered perspective on democracy. It underscores one of the issues of feminism which is the divide of public – private/ political – non – political, where women previously were relegated in the private – non – political sphere. As we know, women’s inclusion in politics started to gain traction in the 90’s and development towards further inclusion in the political sphere can be gleaned, e.g. in how women legislators represent women interests. However, now as what your article points out we are facing another challenge where we see very little research being done on the relationship between women and democracy – the role they play in developing it and the role that they play in eroding it. In most democratic indicators, this is subsumed under civil liberties where women’s rights are measured to indicate whether democratic erosion is happening or not. However, much is loss with quantitative studies that narratives (found in qualitative studies) can provide. This is a research loophole that we must all look into.

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