Good Representatives and Good Representation
by Karen Celis, Vrije Universiteit Brussel, and Sarah Childs, Birkbeck, University of London
This article should be read as an ongoing dialogue between Suzanne Dovi and ourselves about a common concern: the quality of representation in general and, in particular, the good substantive representation for women (SRW). We strongly share Dovi’s concern that democratic institutions and processes can favor those in positions of power and can be used to dominate and oppress. We also are persuaded that for democracy to function well, a specific type of representative is required (Dovi 2007). The key difference between us is that Dovi’s focus (2002; 2007) is on the individual representative’s characteristics and qualities, whereas we turn our focus to the level of representative processes. Representation is a process of advocacy and deliberation taking place within and outside of formal political institutions, where differences in political perspectives are advocated for and deliberated over (Saward 2010; Urbinati 2000; Williams 1998). SRW in formal institutions such as parliaments—we argue in this contribution—should meet specific “quality-control” criteria. We defend our preferred conception of good representation as procedural but, as we show herein, Dovi’s values of the good representative well may be important prerequisites for the good processes that we envisage.
Our claim for a shift away from the actors (i.e., women/feminist Members of Parliament) and content of SRW (i.e., legislative and policy outcomes) toward a focus on the processes of representation stems from two sources. First, we must fully acknowledge that women are a highly diverse group with varying and even conflicting interests. Second, we should reject an elision between SRW and feminist substantive representation. In our view, good SRW does not occur when the interests of only a limited group of women are represented. Neither does it occur when only a specific feminist understanding of gender equality is articulated. Instead, good representational processes take seriously the heterogeneity of women’s interests while accepting that not all women share feminist ideals.