(for dangerous times)

Jane “Jenny” Mansbridge is Adams Professor of Political Leadership and Democratic Values at the Kennedy School of Government, Harvard. Over a career spanning more than forty years she has made field-defining contributions to our understanding of the theory and practice of democracy, feminism, political representation and deliberation, and everyday activism. Some of her most influential works include Beyond Adversary Democracy (1980), Why We Lost the ERA (1986), “Should Blacks Represent Blacks and Women Represent Women? A Contingent Yes” (1999), and “Rethinking Representation” (2003). Always a scholar-activist, she was named one of the 21 Leaders for the 21st Century by the Women’s eNews organisation in 2007.

Fiona Mackay, Professor of Politics, Head of the School of Social and Political Science at University of Edinburgh spent time with her feminist hero last Summer, and today reflects on the continuing and urgent relevance of the ideas of this quietly dangerous woman.



It seems a world ago since I sat down with Jenny Mansbridge in Edinburgh. We spoke hopefully of feminist politics inside and outside the Academy; a moment of promise – of “institutional readiness”, as Jenny put it. It was the early summer of 2016. Things have changed a bit, to be sure. Returning to the transcript several months later, I wondered at how pertinent our conversation would feel in these more uncertain – even dangerous – times: post-Brexit Referendum, and post-Trump presidential election. However I am struck at how urgently relevant – and prescient – her ideas remain: the need to figure out how to govern ourselves well; the need to celebrate and promote participation and deliberation in democracy, whilst remaining clear-sighted about power inequalities and conflicting interests; the need to address dynamics of deafness in polarised societies; the need to recognise activism in all its forms; and the need to understand the cyclical nature of political struggles both large “P” and small “p”.

Jenny Mansbridge is, quite simply, one of the leading scholars of democracy for our time. Her work is distinctive for the way it bridges the normative/empirical divide. She is an “engaged” academic: a passionate small “d” democrat and feminist, driven by a sense of social justice to address real-world problems at the level of both intellectual enquiry and citizen activism. She came of age in the heady days of the second wave women’s liberation movement and anti-imperialist mobilisation. When asked what made her a feminist, her short response is: “Harvard”. The sexism and misogyny commonplace in 1960s academia came as a shock and a call to action for the graduate from the all-female Wellesley College who was not used to playing handmaiden or subordinate to anyone. She recounts that:

Women were not allowed in the [main] library at Harvard… In those days too, women were not allowed in the Harvard Faculty Club without a male escort. And that included women professors.

So when the women’s liberation movement erupted, Jenny found her place. And she has combined academia with feminist and citizen activism ever since: from contributing to the original women’s self-help “bible” Our Bodies Ourselves, to organizing for the ratification of the Equal Rights Amendment (ERA) of the US Constitution, to taking to the streets as part of the Occupy protests. Originally a medieval historian, she also changed discipline to political science at this time:

When the sixties came and I realised how many problems there were to solve in the world, I thought that political science could help.  Trying to help us govern ourselves better — that’s what it purports, or should purport, to do. We human beings have not figured out how to run ourselves well. Once I realised this is a discipline that can be useful – a little useful? Like putting a leg on a table? No; useful, like putting a leg on a polity and keeping it from falling down! — I ‘got religion’ in regard to political science.


Democracy and deliberation

She describes her work as a series of “self-help” projects, animated by real world problems and issues. Drawing on her experiences and observations of conflict – particularly around how to deal with power – in radical and feminist collectives and consciousness raising groups in the 1960s and 1970s, she set out to explore and analyse how to make collectives work:

Because at that time we didn’t just see these collectives as nice little collectives that we happened to belong to, like little clubs, we saw them as pre-figuring change in the society. And if we couldn’t make it work, then that was saying something much bigger … about the possibility of transformational change.

Despite their radical aspirations, Jenny came to realise that these collectives:

were working on a model of democracy that I called ‘adversary democracy,’ which was based on conflict – a model that we’d borrowed from the nation state. That meant that we weren’t recognising our moments of commonality. And that lack of recognition was really hurting us because we were looking for conflict in every moment of commonality. And often that conflict wasn’t there.   … I consider the women’s movement the least hierarchical, the most open and the most inclusive social movement that I have ever come across. So my point was if we made some of these mistakes, everybody’s going to make those mistakes.

She argued that instead of insisting on everyone having equal power all of the time, another approach was possible, based on trying to calibrate by the context, and flexibly, the effort a collective put into equalize power :

You don’t have to monitor power quite so tightly if you are in a moment of common interests. Now, in moments of conflicting interest you might very well want to equalise power again, and you ought to be able to have an institution that allows you to segue back and forth between moments of common interest. Of course, when I say moments of common interest I mean relatively common interests, and moments of relative conflict. In these different moments you can use different institutional mechanisms, such as, obviously, consensus when you have close to common interests, majority rule when you don’t.

These ideas coalesced in the flagship book Beyond Adversary Democracy (1980), and have remained central themes of Jenny’s work, urging us to celebrate and promote participation and deliberation in democracy, whilst remaining clear-sighted about power inequalities and conflicting interests.

You can see that these themes have become part of my life.  This was my work prompted by that moment; it was life-changing in that it gave me a set of structures and language that I’ve used for the rest of my life.


The dynamic of deafness

The ideals and practice of deliberative democracy underpin much of her work, with the importance of listening a constant theme: the need to work past mutual incomprehension or complacency; the need to hear alternative views. As a young assistant professor at Chicago in the 1970s Jenny helped organize for the Equal Rights Amendment of the US Constitution, the gender equality provision that ultimately failed to be ratified. Reflecting on that seemingly shocking setback for women’s rights, she highlights the polarising effects of what she calls the “dynamic of deafness.” Different camps talked past one another,  ”not hearing the other side”. She makes the point that if “it happens in the feminist movement when we pride ourselves on listening”, we must take seriously the anti-deliberative dynamics of all social movements, progressive and conservative, and find ways to foster a deliberation based on listening. Learning these lessons seem as urgent as ever in these polarised times of social media bubbles and echo chambers.


Everyday activism and change

Through her theorising, her research, and her activism Jenny has puzzled over the dynamics, shape and pace of change: from revolutionary upheavals to culture and society to the daily grind of “outsiders within” working with the grain of institutions like universities, governments, and legislatures, making small gains and sometimes – by spotting times of “institutional readiness” – major wins.  For example, she has worked behind the scenes for decades to figure out the openings to promote better conditions for female faculty and push for greater diversity in the Academy. Change, she notes, is cyclical and gains can be reversed. Alliances are important, inside and outside the academy, especially with other groups seeking change. But beyond institutional and social movement activism, Jenny contends we need to understand that change comes from  “the everyday talk” and daily practice through which “ordinary” women – from different political standpoints or none – “make their everyday lives more equal, and stay alive, and not go under”. A precursor to micro politics, Jenny has long argued for the importance of everyday activism, for example, exploring these ideas through a series of conversations with non-organised low-income women from different backgrounds in the 1990s:

I wanted to make the point that everybody thinks of deliberation as what they do in legislatures or what maybe elites do….Women were thinking about these things and talking about them with their friends, with their sisters and so forth and coming up with their visions and their versions of political ideas that matched their lives and that worked with their lives. They were doing creative work just the way the people who were more politically active in the conventional sense were. And I considered their work ‘activism.’

According to Jenny, this everyday talk is a crucial part of a wider deliberative system, and everyday practices of change are important forms of activism.

I became very impressed with the subtlety and the understanding and the commitment and the bravery of these women working things out by themselves.…The everyday feminism they practiced was not aimed at influencing somebody who would read it, but rather at just taking an action in everyday life that would make their own lives better. And ‘better’ means more in tune with their sense of justice, more in tune with their sense of autonomy, more in tune with their sense of what it would be to hold their head up in the world.

One story she tells stands out:

This wonderful woman has got her first full time job, she’s raised children. And she’s just a para-professional in a school, very low paid, but she gets the benefits from being in the state school system. And one day she makes a “big meal,” as she puts it, “ham and muffins and all,” and her husband comes and he looks at the table and he says, “Yup – [you] forgot the mustard.” And she said, “And that  enraged me so.” She went through to the living room where he was sitting with his newspaper and she stood over him and said ”I bring the medical and dental benefits into this house; YOU get the mustard!”


A dangerous woman?

So does Professor Jane Mansbridge see herself as a dangerous woman? She laughs:

I don’t think of myself as a dangerous woman because I’m a bit of a pusher behind the scenes. But If you define the women I’ve just been talking about as dangerous women then damn it I’m a dangerous woman too because with my fellow women I won’t be stopped. I mean I can be stopped individually. But WE are not going to be stopped. And even as I say those words to you I feel the steely thing that comes into you when you think someone’s going to try to stop you and your cause is right, and there are other women with you. No, goddammit, we’re not going to be stopped. So that is dangerous. But my style is more within academia. I’ve been within academia for a very long time now. I think a lot of things I’ve gotten have been gotten just by being persistent and rarely taking my eye off the ball, just waiting.… Some [feminist activists] are the ones who are going to be up there with their nostrils flaring and their hair flying backwards in the wind as they charge into the fray. And others will be standing behind going, “Is that really a good argument?” But you need both of these. And as long as those people don’t get angry at one another, and realise that we’re all part of a team, then the combination is fabulous!

US feminist legal theorist Nancy Fraser, in conversation with Jo Shaw in an earlier Dangerous Women post mused that:

Some forms of dangerousness […] are very obvious and exciting and dramatic like Pussy Riot or whatever, but wouldn’t it be interesting to look for the forms of dangerousness that are less obvious.

Indeed. She could have been talking about her friend and former colleague Jenny Mansbridge – a quietly dangerous woman.



Feature photo: Jane Mansbridge, Photo: Martha Stewart. Originally used on http://news.harvard.edu/gazette/story/2013/12/we-can-work-it-out/