Nov 24 2020

Professor Sarah Childs, Department of Politics, International Relations and Philosophy, has recently published a new book entitled 'Feminist Democratic Representation (FDR)'. We recently caught up with Professor Childs to ask what the book is about and the inspiration behind it.

1. Can you tell us a bit about yourself and your role in the Department of Politics, International Relationships and Philosophy (PIRP)?

I arrived at Royal Holloway in May, from Birkbeck College and before that, the University of Bristol. My research centres on the theory and practice of women’s representation, gender and political parties, parliaments and institutional change. I’m currently writing a monograph, Building Feminist Institutions, based on my experiences trying to re-gender the UK House of Commons, following a secondment (I invited myself in) to the House of Commons in 2015-2016, funded by an ESRC IAA. My The Good Parliament Report identified a series of reforms to make the UK House of Commons diversity sensitive – I am most proud that the House made a permanent change to its Standing Orders in Sept 2020 to allow MPs on babyleave to vote via a proxy.

In PIRP, and working with Professor Laura Sjoberg, Director of the new Royal Holloway Gender Institute, I am keen to re-gender the politics curriculum: I will be introducing a new third year u/g module, ‘Gender and Political Representation’ in January, and am looking forward to developing new UG and PGT gender and politics modules in the coming years. The Gender Institute is really exciting move by the College, with huge potential to catalyse gender research across Royal Holloway – bringing together researchers who are already working in this area and via new collective and collaborative research, boost our activities, individual and shared outputs, reputation and standing and, following the feminist imperative, have effects on the world.

2. You recently published a book entitled Feminist Democratic Representation, can you tell us what the book is about and what readers can expect?

Feminist Democratic Representation (FDR) is about re-designing our democratic institutions and changing how politics happens within it, and how elected representatives work with and respond to women outside. It redresses the poverty of representation that we see all around us. Hardly anywhere are women equally presented in our elected political institutions; and women’s political issues and interests are all too often marginal to mainstream debate.  FDR contends that the formal institutions of representative democracy – and all its politicians, men and women - must do better for and by women. Democratic decision makers should know more and care more about the political needs of women. Our political institutions and political actors need to connect with women in society, much, much better than now is the case. FDR takes seriously differences amongst women: women’s ideological and intersectional diversity, and reflects much better how political representation works on the ground. We introduce a new category of representative – the affected representatives of women – and create a new process of representation, which brings about new representative relationships between elected representatives and women.

3. Who is the book aimed at?

Feminist Democratic Representation (FDR) opens with an Introductory Essay that uses a series of real life vignettes to interrogate the everyday representational problematics that we see women experiencing in many countries today: women’s issues being marginalized from the political agenda; elected representatives making claims to act for women in ways that the women being represented might contest; and differences of women’s interests used to argue that women are politically unrepresentable. This approach is our way of showing that FDR is for women beyond academia who care about who makes the decisions in our democracies, as well as for gender and politics scholars, democratic theorists, and institutional and parliamentary scholars. It offers a feminist democratic design that speaks to gender politics, parliamentary politics and representative democracy.

4. What inspired you to specialise in politics and gender?

At my local sixth form college I had the opportunity to attend women’s studies classes alongside my A Levels; as an undergraduate at the University of Sussex back in the late 1980s, there was only one module on gender (and US politics), but in all my other classes  - for example, political geography; Russian Revolution; and British politics – I researched gendered issues and read feminist theory, Feminism and South Africa, Alexandra Kollontai, and gender and Westminster, respectively. During my Masters in Women’s Studies at the University of York, I came across the work of Professor Anne Phillips and became fascinated by the concept and practice of political representation. I then spent seven years working on my PhD part-time, a period that coincided with the doubling of the number of women in the UK House of Commons. Having once vowed never to be a lecturer in British politics, my interest in how representation played out took hold; since then I’ve been fascinated empirically and theoretically with political representation. 

5. What do you enjoy most about working at Royal Holloway?

It’s been a very strange time to move universities…. My office only arrived three weeks ago; I’ve been coming in one day a week for a month. I found the university very prepared - in a remote sense - for new staff and everyone has been very helpful online when I’ve asked the silly questions that normally someone on your corridor will answer. I’m really happy to be back on a campus and just really hope that there’s a vaccine very soon so I can really ‘join’ …in the meantime I’m doing rather well in the Dept fantasy football league.

6. How do you like to spend your free time outside of work currently?

In lockdown my favourite non work time is gym training on Clapham Common, weekly fresh pasta delivery and Friday G&Ts.