Inés Villanueva Pérez.


The most praised studies on social capital have failed in considering genre differences. Robert Putnam’s own research, foundational of such literature, has been criticised for overlooking the «gendered nature of associational involvement» (Gidengil et al. 2003, 3). Here I’ll try to emphasize such differences by taking a brief look at Spanish women’s movements, ways of networking and its implications in politics.

When considering women in the concept «social capital», statistics and researches traditionally locate women’s interests and fields of participation in a more closed sphere, such as family, neighbours and relatives – that is, informal sociability. Women’s ways of social capital would be, in the end, related to caring issues (particularly, in associations that have to do with health, education and social services), inside what Putnam baptized as «bonding social capital» (Putnam 2000; Lowndes 2003).

Nevertheless, time has changed – a revival of the feminist fight has taken place and wants to intervene the political sphere; not that it didn’t in the past, though. An example of this would be one of the mottos of the 15-M movement in Spain, that claims “the revolution will be feminist or won’t be” (Fernàndez 2015, Translation from Spanish). But, what does data say about this supposed growing interest in politics among women? Could we say genre-segregated feminist assemblies are spaces of political action or do they represent a broader space for developing women’s social capital?

Though these questions deserve more profound researching and explanation, and space here is highly limited, some givens may be stated. First, we should focus our analysis in a concrete location – let that be Spain. By looking at the data, the CIS 2006 survey «Citizenship and participation» shows that from those interviewed, only an approximately 25% of women were highly or quite interested in politics, whereas 73.5% were little or not at all interested. Instead, men showed more than ten points of interest than women and 62% of non-interest, as we can see in the graphic. Women’s tendency is clearly growing when approaching less interest.

Even though these disappointing results, Spanish women do have a history in syndicalism and in organizing in politically active groups, as stated by Fernàndez in her research «Una revolución silenciosa» (2015). She compares the networks women stablished during the last years of Franco’s dictatorship and onwards through neighbourhood associations or such political parties as the PCE (Spain’s Communist Party) with the groups originated during the
15-M movement. What the author concludes is that the first, who were generally in mixed assemblies, ended up reconverting in non-mixed groups, female-dominated, that were usually non-political either (the so-called «Casals de la Dona», the DAIA – Dones per l’AutoconeixençaI l’Anticoncepció, etc.) (Fernàndez 2015, 33). The second were in fact leaders of certain sections of the 15-M movement, sometimes having strong debates in the movement’s assemblies discussing their group’s nature (non-mixed, female-dominated) (Egio 2013; Fernàndez

In the first case, these assemblies were indeed spaces where women could meet and did stablish networks valuable enough as to be called a way of social capital. Perhaps because of its contemporaneity with Putnam and others’ researches on the term, these associations were perfect examples of what they defined as women’s social capital. Moreover, the tendency was to belong to groups of the same age, educational level and, obviously, genre – a common trait of the way women related to their surroundings (Popielarz 1999; Gidengil et al. 2003; Lowndes 2003).
There is not much consensus in determining the reasons why women would end up belonging to such narrow groups, which narrowed likewise their social capital. Fernàndez, when talking about Spanish women in the 80s, affirms that «those women who decided to belong to mixed entities as neighbourhood associations, perceived a wastage in the permanent negotiation and an underrating of their activities as committees» (2015, 33, Translation from Spanish).

Some academics have stated the following idea, a sort of circular argument, that is nuclear for understanding Fernàndez’s statement: the lack of interest in politics is related to a lack of knowledge about it, which leads to a lack of representation and thus a lack of power. This lack of power would drive itself again to the lack of interest. Be noted here that there’s no «beginning of the problem» – it isn’t women’s lack of interest that drives them not to have
power nor representation. In fact, we could fairly say that it is completely the contrary – as there are many «advantages [that] men continue to possess in terms of occupation, income and status» (Gidengil et al. 2003, 14). This is extremely related to the weight political knowledge has in terms of social capital. Putnam states that such a way of socializing boosts the individual’s knowledge –and interest– in politics (Puntam 2000, 343). Therefore, how are women to be empowered in politics when it certainly is «a man’s world» (Gidengil et al. 2003, 26)? To make myself clearer, the following graph shows how population have seen women in politics between 2010 and 2012 – the results are sadly obvious.

Lowndes (2003) states that «women remain under-represented in politics (…) It seems that social capital may get women into politics, but it may also hold them back» (2003, 17). This is explained by the tendency of women of leaning aside when it comes to responsibility positions, the author remarks, either because of «a lack of confidence and (…) unfamiliarity» (2003, 19) or because of the traditional «caring responsibilities [that] seem to be particularly
incompatible with council membership for women» (2003, 20).

What we are facing here is, in the end, the reason why women prefer gender-segregated assemblies and associations. The nature of women-only spaces tries to «allow women to evolve in save spaces, exempted from male domination (…) space[s] for self-determination and collective subjectivity» (Aromatario n.d., 1, 4). The author also states that discussion around this segregation dangerously tends to certain arguments like the unnecessity of such assemblies because “equality has already been achieved”, a misconception of the actual
gender situation indeed.

To conclude, we could argue that women do relate differently than men to their surroundings because of the patriarchal structural problems of today’s society. But we shouldn’t incur the mistake of trying to «man-tize» women’s way of socializing. Researches from before the beginning of the century stated that women’s social capital was not at all interested in becoming political. But as time goes by, women’s empowerment is facilitating their entrance
in the political world – an empowerment provided by such welfare as belonging to a gendersegregated association, that gives women the proper space to develop politically, though not yet in real positions of responsibilities. It may be about time, but it certainly is about change and consciousness that we can switch over such a situation.

Bibliography and references:

  • Aromatario, Aurélie. n.d. ‘Gender (Non-)Mixity: Strategy and Collective Identities in Feminist Activism’.
  • CIS. 2006. ‘Ciudadanía y Participación’.
  • CIS. 2012. ‘Comparación de la situación de las mujeres frente a los hombres: acceso a puestos de responsabilidad en la vida política’. CIS.
  • Egio, Carolina. 2013. ‘Las Feministas a Pie de Calle. Redes y Alianzas Desde La Coordinadora Feminista. Notas Del Seminario “Crisis 2: Necesidades, Alianzas y Propuestas”’. Barcelona.
  • Fernàndez, Eva. 2015. ‘Una revolución silenciosa. Memorias de activismo feminista y vecinal: de la Transición al 15M en Barcelona y su cinturón industrial’. Ankulegi, 2015.
  • Gidengil, Elisabeth, Elizabeth Goodyear-Grant, Neil Nevitte, André Blais, and Richard Nadeau. 2003. ‘Gender, Knowledge and Social Capital’. In . University of Manitoba, Winnipeg, Canada.
  • Lowndes, Vivien. 2003. ‘Getting on or Getting by? Women, Social Capital and Political Participation’. In . University of Manitoba, Winnipeg, Canada.
  • McMichael, Celia, and Lenore Manderson. 2004. ‘Somali Women and Well-Being: Social Networks and Social Capital among Immigrant Women in Australia’. Human Organization 63 (1):88–99.
  • Popielarz, Pamela A. 1999. ‘(In) Voluntary Association: A Multilevel Analysis of Gender Segregation in Voluntary Organizations’. Gender and Society, April 1999.
  • Putnam, Robert D. 1995. ‘Turning In, Turning Out: The Strange Disappearance of Social Capital in America’. PS: Political Science and Politics 28 (4):664–83.
  • Putnam, Robert D. 2000. Bowling Alone: The Collapse and Revival of American Community. Simon and Shuster.
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