On common sense, good sense, social transformation, and what happens when women argue for their right to political representation.

*Keynote presented at Birkbeck Institute for Social Research and Birkbeck Institute for the Humanities Graduate Conference 2015 “Reflections On Social Change” Original title: Unpacking common sense for social transformation

Thank you so much for inviting me here today to speak with you, it is an honor and a pleasure to be here.

I’m going to be talking to you today about common sense and good sense and since I know that you’re theoretically sophisticated graduate students you will have immediately clocked that these two terms put together are often associated with the work of Antonio Gramsci. But in fact I am not going to be using the term common sense strictly in the Gramscian sense of the term, as the spontaneous form of common sense arising out of the lived experience of the working classes, but rather in its much more prosaic and mundane sense: those types of arguments that are routinely put forward to justify and reaffirm the status quo.

The type of arguments that while often incredibly flawed logically and sometimes downright stupid nevertheless achieve a remarkable level of consensus in society.

The type of arguments that when put forward are often not questioned or submitted to refutation. But first I want to tell you why I think it’s important to talk about common sense in relation to social transformation.

Last year I was giving a talk about online and off-line activist communication strategies in the 15 – movement in Madrid. And after I finished my talk a learned professor asked me one of those questions that falls into the common sense arena in academia.

He said essentially “Well that’s all very well but what has it achieved? All of that effort and everything has stayed the same. Austerity politics are still in place and the same government is still in place.”

Of course this question already has within it a conception of social movements success and impact that is very narrowly focused on short-term political outcomes. In my own work, and indeed in my book social movements and globalization, this narrow conception of the political is something that I have argued strongly against.

My answer to the question essentially was that activist communication strategies have been used to relentlessly counter hegemonic narratives of the crisis of austerity of democracy and that this relentless contestation had in fact served to discredit and delegitimize the government and to reconfigure common sense in Spanish society around the very meaning of democracy. Of course, this is not all that activists in 15-M have done. They have also engaged in all sorts of direct actions, such as stopping evictions and re-occupying buildings, collective projects such as food banks and ethical banks, crowd-funding indictments against bank directors and so on.

But perhaps the most radical transformation has been to fundamentally question the widely shared consensual understanding of the meaning of democracy in Spanish society as being defined by the narratives that justified the political pacts made during the Spanish transition.

That transformation cannot be measured in short-term narrow political terms that can only be understood within an understanding of the transformation of the wider political culture, a transformation that has not only led to the questioning of the consensus around the meaning of democracy up to that point, but which has also laid the terrain for new institutional political projects such as PODEMOS and the many alternative municipal movement-based candidacies emerging right now in Spain.

The impacts of this transformation are only beginning to be felt and it’s impossible to know what form they will take or how long they will last. What is clear however is that contesting and breaking down commonsense understandings of the culture of Spain’s democratic transition was– and is —absolutely crucial to this process of transformation.


I was recently in Cairo at an event that brought together activists, filmmakers, translators, academics, and artists many of whom had been actively involved in the Egyptian revolution.

In the current context of brutal repression and the closing of political space in Egypt it was quite heartbreaking to witness the post revolutionary collective depression that has descended on so many people who gave so much and lost so much and so many for something they believed passionately in.

But the post revolutionary context in Egypt, like all post revolutionary contexts, also forces into the open differences that may have been suppressed in the midst of revolutionary fervor.

One of my fellow keynote speakers Khalid Abdalla, who you might know as one of the founders of the Mosireen collective or alternatively from his films such as United 93, the Green Zone or the Kite Runner, spoke about feeling of disorientation and void that comes from the realization that what you thought you shared with others in those moments of intensity and passion may later prove to be —in some cases anyway —an illusion.

And this realization leaves you struggling to reevaluate everything you thought you knew. And while I personally can’t share directly this ontological crisis with reference to a post revolutionary scenario as he can and as the other activists in Egypt could, I found myself very much relating to the feeling of disorientation, forced reevaluation, and depression for a completely different reason, a different shock to the system.

So what was this moral shock to the system that I experienced? What was this shock that left me feeling that I have been walking around assuming that I had been speaking the same language as other people and then realizing that that wasn’t the case in many instances.

Well it happened right after Syriza got elected in Greece and Tsipras’ second move (right after aligning with a xenophobic homophobic party) was to appoint an all-male Cabinet.

That decision, deplorable and disappointing as it was, was not a shock to the system. After all, out of 28 EU countries only two have more women than men ministers (Finland and Sweden) and two more have the same number of male and female ministers in the cabinet (France and Holland). The remaining 24 have unequal representation of men and women to varying degrees, with no women at all in the ministerial cabinets of Greece Hungary or Slovakia, and about 10 to 30% in the remaining cabinets. So that wasn’t the shock to the system.

What was the shock to the system was the slew of common sense arguments that were deployed to justify and excuse that decision. As journalist Ignacio Escobar put it in a tweet:

There is something that has surprised me more than the disappointing decision of Tsipras not to name a single woman minister and that is how many people justify it.

Now I am not talking about justifications from the people who roll their eyes and sigh every time they hear the word feminism, as if in bringing up gender and equality, systematic violence against women, and feminism you were somehow personally responsible for creating the problem in the first place.

You know the people I mean, the ones that seem to be saying “everything was fine until you had to bring up women’s oppression and feminism!” You are the reason things can´t Be nice!

Or the ones who keep insisting – – despite overwhelming evidence to the contrary – – that gender inequality is a thing of the past because women have equal rights under the law now so get over it.

No. I’m talking about the people who, as long as everything is rolling along smoothly and no one is complaining, will be in support of feminism and might even call themselves the F word. The ones we might assume were talking about the same thing we are. They might be our friends, our family, our colleagues. The ones who are full of common sense.

Why was this a shock to the system? After all common sense is all around us isn´t it?

My problem is that I do not spend a lot of time with so-called normal people. I spend a lot of time with progressive activists for lack of a better word.

And in the activists spaces I frequent there has been a lot of progress over the past 20 years or so in terms of women’s political participation. The scene I am most familiar with his Madrid, and where is Madrid have always been very active in done loads of organizing, 20, 15 or even 10 years ago they did not often assume positions of leadership within assemblies to the same degree that men did, in terms of acting as de facto leaders, spokespeople, or even voicing their opinions as often or as confidently.

But now they do for the most part, at least in the assemblies I have taken part in, which cover a pretty wide spectrum of what we could call 15 M related spaces. Not only that, but the work of feminists in the movement has resulted in some very interesting advances. Men and women openly declare themselves, their assemblies, and their social centers, as feminist.

This does not mean a paradise on earth has been achieved but let’s just say that things are way better than they were before, and that I think it’s fair to say that feminism is considered a central tenet of the 15-M movement.

So to be confronted with justifications for Tsipras’ decision was extremely disconcerting and frankly, deeply depressing.

The fact that once again it was necessary to dismantle so-called common sense arguments made me feel as though I had been inhabiting a false reality and made me realize that once again it was necessary to unpack common sense arguments that justify maintaining a status quo in which women occupy an inferior and marginal political space vis-à-vis men.

So what are some of these arguments? What happens when we unpack them? And what are the underlying themes that connect them to each other?

One of the deep ideas that underlie most of these arguments is that women’s participation in politics is legitimate only when it satisfies certain conditions.

The essential idea that women should be allowed to participate fully in politics based solely on their human condition— without any other kind of condition being placed on that participation —shines by its absence.

Let’s have a look:

The first set of arguments goes something like this :

Syriza is a progressive leftist party– isn’t that what’s important? Isn’t overturning austerity and sticking it to the troika what should be the primary concern?

There are many many ways we can answer these questions. The first is that if you think it is possible for a governing party to be simultaneously progressive and leftist and not have any women whatsoever in the cabinet clearly your definition of progressive and leftist differs radically from mine.

If you think that social transformation and democracy are possible without the full participation of women you have understood nothing about democracy or social transformation.

This argument sets up a series of objectives in a hierarchical order where the inclusion of women in the cabinet takes a lower position in the order of priority. Historically on the left, when these kinds of hierarchies have been established, women’s inclusion or women’s demands have always been downgraded on that list.

First we need to solve world poverty, first we need to end global capitalism, first we need to overthrow the government, first we need to win the revolution, first we need to win the elections, first we need to “Please insert your favorite goal here” and then we can liberate women, and then we can talk about women’s full participation in politics.

How is that working out for you?  Not only is capitalism still doing pretty well for itself, but women continue to be severely underrepresented not only in politics but in positions of leadership throughout society.

The reality is we would need to reverse this logic: there is no revolution without women’s full political participation, there is no democracy worth its name without women’s full participation. As the HASHTAG that was the trending topic in Spain the day after Tsipras’ decision was taken put it so cleanly and simply: without women there is no democracy- period. On one level it really is that simple and we could leave the argument there.

But the real trap in this kind of argument is it sets up a false opposition that opposes women’s political participation to the other political priorities as though these were really our only two options:

Sorry folks EITHER we win the revolution OR we include women, you can´t have it both ways!

Ignacio Escolar wrote a wonderful article using tweets he got about the Tsipras decision and his replies called “the justifications for sexism”.

So, someone tweeted:

“Tsipras needs to save millions from poverty. But hey, they better wait until they have a gender balanced government.”

Escolar replied: Are these two things incompatible? Do we need to choose between having women ministers and saving the Greeks from poverty?

Indeed, can´t you pursue a leftist or progressive or anti-troika pro-poor people politics and include women in the cabinet? Why are these incompatible in any way? Unless, and only if, what you are really arguing is that women are not capable of bringing these political changes about.

I love the sense of urgency in this one too, “he needs to save millions of people from poverty right now! He can´t wait around all day thinking up women to include in his cabinet!”   As if in the 5 minutes following the swearing in ceremony, Tsipras was going to eliminate poverty in Greece.

Someone else tweeted: What about the ratio of bald to non-bald ministers or ugly to good-looking ones? Is the government well balanced?

And Escolar replied: You need only look at the Greek parliament-or any other- to see that a lack of hair has never been the cause of discrimination in politics.

Another commonsense tactic is to draw a false equivalence between two acts, in this case celebrating all the wonderful things Syriza did or will do. As if a good action in any way alters or mitigates a different bad action. This is the kind of but Hitler was nice to his dog argument. Or one of my favorites that you hear about Bill Gates whenever anyone criticizes Microsoft’s monopoly of software: Oh but he gives billions to charity! Oh, so that’s OK then!

One version of this was for people to write long articles about Syriza and how much better their policies and inclusion were for women than other parties.

Let’s be clear: we can commend Syriza for having a more inclusive party than any other in the Greek parliament, and still hold it to account when it acts in such a way as to not further a democratic agenda.

One tweet said: What a to do with SYRIZA, no women ministers. Let’s not be sexist, all will be well if they do a good job.

And Escolar answered:

“The decision to not name any women ministers is a bad one and merits criticism irrespectively of any other good decisions Tsipras or his government might take. Your use of the term sexist is also curious in this context: sexist is that which discriminates against women, not that which criticizes sexist appointments.”

And let’s not forget the cultural arguments! These are often invoked in a very well-meaning way even from committed feminists. One person actually suggested that because women have no authority in Greece it wouldn’t be possible to appoint women ministers because they would just have to have a man ratify any decisions that that woman took.

The great thing about this argument is its total commitment to the status quo– even if it were true– is the appropriate response then to say “okay then, thanks for explaining that to me, Greek women have no authority so they really can’t be given any authority, which means they will never have any authority…. Ever.”


Then there is the argument about qualifications: the discussion about qualifications only arises we are talking about the appointment of women to ministerial positions. Men’s qualifications to lead or to govern are taken for granted.

Women on the other hand are stuck in a double-bind:

If there are women ministers appointed then immediately the qualifications are questioned and people argue that they have only been appointed because they’re women to satisfy a quota system or an ideological principle of equality

or if they’re not appointed as in the case of SYRIZA then the argument is that there were no women qualified for the job.

Result of either of these arguments? Women are not qualified to lead or to govern.

Here is another tweet from Escolar’s article that is typical of this kind of argument:

“and what if the women in Syriza are less qualified? is it better to put them in government? You have to put the most qualified people in the job whether they are men or women

And Escolar replied: And coincidentally the 12 best ones are all men? Is there really anyone who believes that there’s not a single woman that’s qualified to be a minister? Not a single one?

The questioning about qualifications is one of those common sense arguments that fits in with a meritocratic ideal.

And of course this is another common justification, one used by Tsipras himself, that he needed to choose the most qualified people.

Even if we do assume that there is a single best person for the job -a very questionable assumption indeed -and that Tsipras or anyone can figure out who that person is,

if we accept that the reason all of the ministers are male is because they are the most qualified people for the job, then we are also being asked to accept that the reason men dominate in positions of leadership through virtually every sector of society is because they too are the most qualified for their jobs. Which means we need to accept that that, despite women making up over 50% of the population, and contrary to all the empirical evidence in Europe as to women’s qualifications, women are simply not as qualified as men. Which means that we accept that women are inferior to men.

But the argument about qualifications brings us back to conditioning and justifying women’s participation, instead of refusing to accept women’s non-participation or non-inclusion.

And this even happens from well intentioned people arguing for womens’ qualifications. These people show with empirical evidence that women are as qualified as men, that in most European countries more women than men have university degrees etc.. but on a very fundamental level these kinds of arguments are also missing the point, because the simple fact of the matter is this: It actually does not matter how qualified women are. In democracy everyone is supposed to have the right to participate in politics.

So, if we are committed to equality and democracy, in a world were 50% of the population are women, we should expect to see roughly that percentage in all positions, regardless.

The hashtag says it all “without women there is no democracy”

.Let’s do a little exercise of thinking in reverse, inverting the kinds of questions and statements that are made to question women in positions of power or to justify their exclusion.

Are the male cabinet ministers really qualified or are they just there because they are men?

For example, let’s imagine that a woman was elected prime minister of a country, say Greece. And she appointed an all female cabinet.

What do you think would happen? Honestly, imagine it for a moment. How do you react emotionally to this? Do you think it is unfair? Unreasonable? Ideologically driven? Artificial? Does the thought of it make you uncomfortable?

Now imagine the kinds of arguments that might be used to justify it. Let’s try some of the ones we heard to justify the all male cabinet:

Gender is irrelevant.

They were the most qualified people in the country for those jobs.

Does gender really matter? Isn´t what is important is solving the nations’ problems? First, let’s get on with solving urgent problems, then we can talk about men’s political inclusion in the cabinet.

Men are already well represented in the party rank and file, more men than in any other party in fact, so really, this should not be a issue.

Do we really think for one moment that anyone would be making these kinds of arguments if the situation were in reverse?


There is another really common justification that is probably one of the stupidest and yet one of the most frequent and you hear this from all kinds of people. Once again it places particular conditions on women’s political participation and it goes like this:

I believe in women’s political participation but just look at Margaret Thatcher.

Or as one tweet featuring the photos of two right-wing women ministers in Spain put it in the debate over Tsipras’ decision:

Only two photos. And now keep criticizing Syriza’s government for not having women.

Escolar answered: The fact that one female minister does a bad job doesn’t mean that all women are going to do a bad job. You could repeat the exact same argument with a photograph of the Prime Minister and the Minister of Culture as proof of masculine incompetence and it would still be a fallacy.

These kind of argument are also about placing conditions on women’s participation: the underlying logic is you can participate as a woman, but only if you satisfy particular criteria only if you’re not like Margaret Thatcher, only if you’re not like women politicians who don’t share my ideology. And it’s kind of amazing how many people on the Left fall into this kind of argument.

Some years ago I was listening to a woman give a talk about women’s political participation and she was really decrying the situation of the underrepresentation of women in politics and so on.

And everything was going along fine until she said “but not any woman will do. We need women who will do X and Y, who will be feminist, etc. etc.”

and I said Hey wait a minute– what are you doing? It doesn’t work that way. Either women can participate fully in politics and that means that they can do that with any ideology that they want, just as men can, or else they can’t, it’s not for you or for me or for anyone to put special conditions on their participation. Because that is precisely what people tried to do to women all the time: Place special conditions on their participation.

So it seemed like this woman was really delivering a progressive argument because she was arguing for a feminist agenda but she was falling into this trap that so many people with their commonsense arguments fall into.

At its root that argument falls into the same logic as that used by the Egyptian military when they performed virginity tests on women in Tahrir square: you need to satisfy these conditions which I will determine for you before you can participate in the public political sphere. Conditions that are never applied to men when they enter into that same arena.

Placing conditions on women’s political participation or even denying it has a long history on the Left. During Spain’s second Republic women’s suffrage was greatly debated. Arguments against women’s suffrage were mobilized on the Left but interestingly less so on the Right.

Many Leftists argued that women’s ignorance due to their lack of education, their scant interest in politics, and for other reasons didn’t qualify them to decide for themselves. And given that most women were religious, the argument was that they would just end up voting whatever their priests told them to vote. Some conservatives doubted that women would be so compliant and so were against giving women the vote because they might vote differently from their husbands and this would cause tensions within the family.

Arguments in favor of women’s suffrage which were put forward by some women feminist groups and conservative political groups stated that the vote is a citizen’s right, and that women, just like men, as citizens, should be able to exercise this right.

This may seem like a very basic argument to you today. But it’s worth remembering that in Switzerland women didn’t get the right to vote in federal elections until 1971.

And underlying many of these commonsense arguments that we hear to justify TSIPRAS’ decision, there is an essential rejection of the idea that women have a right to full and equal participation in politics with no conditions whatsoever, just because they are citizens.

There are many other illogical, empirically refutable, and downright stupid justifications that we could unpack, but I want to think about just one more.

And that’s the question what difference does it make? Does it really matter?

Here we are supposedly talking about social transformation and I just spent the last half hour dismantling arguments about gender mainstreaming. What’s transformative about that? What’s radical about gender mainstreaming and talking about women ministers?

I think this brings us right back to the question of how we can evaluate the importance or impact of certain political acts. If we only consider narrowly defined political goals and short-term impacts it’s easy to fall into the types of false hierarchies and false oppositions such as women ministers versus solving poverty in Greece that we’ve seen in this debate.

But I think if we look at the scope and possibility of change we could actually pose the question of which action would have a greater and more long-lasting impact.

If we were forced to choose between women ministers and sticking it to the troika, which would be likely to be the more revolutionary act that would be within the grasp of Tsipras?

Did anyone really thinks Syriza was going to single handedly bring the troika or global capitalism to its knees? They haven´t yet in case anyone was still wondering. So their all male super qualified cabinet probably didn’t make a big difference in this regard because they were up against forces that even 12 male superhero ministers would probably not be able to overcome.

On the other hand in the context of women’s severe underrepresentation in politics in Greece and in Europe let alone the world, and the autonomy of action Tsipras had available to him indeed one of the very few areas of autonomy of action that he would have available to him, appointing women to the cabinet would’ve arguably been one of the most transformative actions and one with the longest lasting impact.

Why do I say this? Because the symbolic power of appointing women cabinet ministers cannot be overstated. I am certainly not a person who will hold up the Spanish Socialist Party as an agent of radical social change. Yet it’s a curious fact that in discussions with young activist women in Spain, Zapatero’s decision to appoint 50% of women to his cabinet comes up as something that had an impact regardless of their own personal ideology.

The frequent appearances in Spain of women ministers in the press and on TV had an important influence on transforming Spanish culture and Spanish political culture. Because on one level it doesn’t really matter what those women are doing or saying, the larger message that those images transmit is that women have the authority to speak, to decide, to lead, to represent.

Gender mainstreaming is often dismissed among the theoretically sophisticated as not being transformative. It is not radical.

But I would argue that in a world where women still do not feel empowered to speak in public even in the most progressive arenas, where women’s leadership in all areas of society is still a fraction of that of men’s, that in fact gender mainstreaming is still transformative, even radical.

Does it solve the issue of women’s oppression? Of course not. But without it there is no hope of ever doing that. Appointing women ministers defies all the commonsense justifications that are mobilized for not including them.

What I hope I’ve shown you is that none of the justifications offered, not history, not culture, not ideology, not strategy, can stand up to what is unjustifiable. And although I’ve use a concrete example to unpack particular arguments that are invoked to condition women’s political participation I hope you can see that I’m talking about all the arguments that are invoked in our common sense every day that serve to justify the status quo, be it patriarchy, racism, classism, homophobia and heteronormativity and so on.

More than that I hope I have shown you how easy it is to fall under the sway of common sense. There is a great saying that says “common sense is the least common of all the senses”.

There is another saying that goes ” If you do not want things to change, keep doing what you’re doing.”

I started off by arguing that 15-M transformed Spain’s political culture and political landscape in great part by relentlessly dismantling common sense about democracy and the crisis. But there are still so many forms of common sense that need to be transformed into good sense.

So, next time you hear an argument that seems commonsensical ask yourself this question: does this argument serve to justify the status quo or to transform it? If it justifies it, then it is time to start unpacking.

Thank you for listening.


Ignacio Escolar: Los argumentos para el machismo http://www.eldiario.es/escolar/argumentos-machismo_6_350724962.html

Una versión parecida (aunque no idéntica) de este discurso en castellano:

El sentido común, lo “político”, el feminismo y el 15M

Cristina Flesher Fominaya




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