Political Representation in Everyday Life: Feminism

Expanding upon Pitkin’s Concept of Representation in Everyday Life: Feminist Politics and the Feminist Movement in United States History

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The notion of “political representation” is one that is misleadingly simple. In viewing this type of representation, it is clear that many people, including scholars, fail to come to an agreement as to a particular definition. Political representation seems to occur when political actors: speak, advocate, symbolize, and act on the behalf of others in the political arena, offering individuals a type of political assistance which they would otherwise lack.[1] However, much research notes that this understanding is not as straightforward as it may seem at first glance. Rather, it leaves the concept of political representation underspecified with “multiple dimensions competing” with on another.[2]

In attempting to close the gap on this overarching definition, Hanna Pitkin offers a comprehensive discussion of the concept of political representation in her work: The Concept of Representation. Pitkin established four distinct theories of representation: formalistic representation, including authorization and accountability; symbolic representation; descriptive representation; and substantive representation. [3] One can begin to view real-life historical examples under the lens of Pitkin’s theory in order to see if these examples fit into Pitkin’s overall view. One example that seems to fit Pitkin’s theoretical model is that of feminism and the ongoing feminist political movement in the United States. But, in viewing Pitkin’s theories, it becomes clear that Pitkin is vague in certain areas. In viewing certain accounts by researchers on the topic of feminism, it appears that Pitkin doesn’t bring her definitions together in the manner that is necessary. Rather, it appears that feminists who cite Pitkin in their assertions, find her to lack the real descriptive representation that feminism requires in the realm of U.S. politics.

Political Representation in Everyday Life: Feminism

Pitkin’s four types of representation, formalistic representation, including authorized, deals with a situation in which a representative is legally empowered to act for another. Symbolic representation, occurs when a leader stands for national ideas. Descriptive representation occurs in situations when the representative stands for a group by virtue of sharing similar characteristics such as race, sex ethnicity or residence. And, substantive representation takes place in situations when the representative seeks to advance a group’s policy preferences and interests. [4] In understanding this theoretical basis in terms of the feminist movement throughout United States history, one can see that until fairly recently, “the assumed political actors, both represented and representative” were male.[5] And, at the core of feminism is the issue of representation itself. As seen in the aforementioned notion, feminism from an historical standpoint has always involved the “proper representation of women,” and postmodernism itself tends to question this agenda, questioning “the very identity of womanhood itself” in its wake. [6]

As such, the starting place for a discussion regarding feminist engagement within the realm of political representation can be dated back to Pitkin’s theories, as Celis and Childs claim that for Pitkin, the “crucial dividing line in forms of representation is the distinction between ‘standing for’ and ‘acting for’ representation. Pitkin’s argument is seen in feminist involvement in politics in the U.S., as only recently in U.S. history, have women been able to both stand for and act for themselves.” [7] Celis and Childs note:

“Many feminist scholars emphasize a relationship, albeit half-fastened, between the descriptive and the substantive component of representation; being female – or standing for – is conceived as an enabling condition for the substantive representation of women – or acting for. Thus, the argument here is simple: women, when present in politics, are more likely to act for women than men. Crucially, though, this is not a guarantee that they will. Moreover, this relationship is underpinned not by sex, but by gender – women’s shared experiences.”[8]

As such, the idea of being a women equates to standing for women and more generally pushing for the representation of women within a larger group equates with acting for women, and this notion of the quest for extended feminism in the U.S. fits into the model that Pitkin has set forth in terms of representation. The Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy notes that for Pitkin, disagreements about representation can be “partially reconciled by clarifying which view of representation is being invoked (formalistic, descriptive, symbolic and substantive), as each view provides a clearly distinctive view for examining representation. [9] In citing Pitkin’s theories in the realm of feminism, i.e. establishing citizenship for women and giving women the vote, the public has sought to establish a means of political representation that allows the people to decide, by establishing “fair procedures for reconciling conflicts, which provides democratic citizens one way to settle conflicts and issues about the proper behavior of their representatives.”[10] The U.S., as a nation, fueled by the will of its citizens, advanced the feminist movement by allowing women to achieve a status equal to their male counterparts.

In many ways, the feminist movement in the U.S. falls in line with Pitkin’s overarching theory, making it easy to understand and apply, thus allowing her theories to be utilized by people whom they govern – women in particular. And, in this capacity, the notion of “acting upon” comes directly into play when viewing the female population in the U.S. and their historical fight for equality. Pitkin notes that a representative democracy, which is used in the United States, is based upon the principle of elected officials representing a group of people, and the two models that are often used to describe representative democracy are the “trustee model” and the “delegate model,” which are both present in Pitkin’s democracy. [11] The trustee model allows representatives “greater autonomy,” permitting them to make the decisions “actually going against the interests of their constituents,” other than the delegate model, which “requires representatives act as a mouthpiece for the wishes of their constituency.”[12] And, as these two models clearly place contradictory demands upon elected officials and political representatives, the journey to change the way representatives act upon and for the substantive representation of women has been a rocky one.

Additionally, there is much to learn from the example of feminism as it relates to Pitkin’s definition of political representation, especially in terms of what Pitkin’s definitions leave out. Pitkin argues that formalistic (emphasizing institutions that facilitate representation – namely the rules that govern how representatives make decisions on behalf of others) and substantive (which includes all of the ways in which representatives “act for” or on behalf of the represented) representation are the most significant types, believing that a representative’s identity is only relevant when it is related to his or her actions, noting: “A representative must first of all be capable of effective action, otherwise he or she is no representative at all.”[13] However, Childs and Lovenduski note:

“The relative importance, indeed the practical applications and interactions of two of Pitkin’s concepts of substantive and formalistic have come under close feminist scrutiny. There is relatively little feminist scholarship, theoretical or empirical, on authorized representation. Conceptual, and to a lesser extent, empirical research on symbolic representation is also somewhat limited. For Pitkin, symbols are often arbitrary with no resemblance to the represented. Assessing the adequacy of symbolic representation relies on whether the representative is believed in, a criterion Pitkin found wanting. For feminists the notion that women are symbolically represented when they believe they are, even if all the representatives are men, is intuitively unsatisfactory.”[14]

Additionally, as the feminist movement “vehemently argues for the importance of adding the ‘who’ to the liberal notion of democracy, often criticizing the ‘how,’ many have sought to ‘genderize’ Pitkin’s categories in an attempt to connect the ‘who’ to the ‘what’ to the ‘how’ and the ‘where’ or representation.”[15] As such, there is a myriad of research which seeks to stretch Pitkin’s theories in order to better define them in the realm of women’s substantive representation and the enhancement of the feminist movement. As many of the definitions of “women’s substantive representation” seem to revolve around being a “representative of women” as well as a pillar of “women’s interests” or working “on behalf of women,” studies that use the term “women’s substantive representation” often take as their point of departure, Pitkin’s concept of “representing as acting for . . . in the interest of.”[16] This concept was developed in Pitkin’s text as “one of four different concepts of representation,” but many argue today that Pitkin never fully explained how these four different views of representation fit together, and as such, the question has become “central to the study of gender and politics today.” [17]


As seen, while Hanna Pitkin’s concepts of representation are applicable in viewing the history of feminism and the rights of women in the United States, there are certain facets of these concepts which must be adjusted in order to define the representation of women in the most accurate way and make Pitkin’s assertions less vague.

In viewing Pitkin’s theories in relation to feminism and the feminist movement within the United States, it becomes clear that Pitkin is vague in certain areas. In viewing the aforementioned accounts by researchers on the topic of feminism, it appears that Pitkin doesn’t bring her definitions together in the manner that is necessary. Rather, it appears that feminists who cite Pitkin in their assertions, find her to lack the real descriptive representation that feminism requires in the realm of U.S. politics. The question that arises then is how Pitkin’s notion of representation can be adjusted in order to provide women with the descriptive representation necessary. As with any definition comes certain limitation and questions that surround the finite nature of a term. This is applicable in viewing Pitkin’s theories in relation to feminism.


Celis, Karen and Childs, Sarah. “The Descriptive and Substantive Representation of Women.” Parliamentary Affairs. Vol. 61. March 2008. 419-425.

Childs, Sarah and Joni Lovenduski. “Political Representation.” 2012. In Waylen, Georgina, Celis,

Karen, Kantola, Johanna and Weldon, Laurel (eds.) The Oxford Handbook of Gender and Politics. Oxford: Oxford University Press.

Escobar-Lemmon, Maria and Michelle Taylor-Robinson. Representation: The Case of Women. New York, NY: Oxford University Press. 2014. Print.

Lovenduski, Joni, ed. State feminism and political representation. Vol. 315(1). Cambridge: Cambridge

University Press, 2005.

Pitkin, Hanna. The Concept of Representation. Oakland, CA: University of California Press, 1972.

Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy. “Political Representation.” Stanford University. January 2, 2006.

Web. Retrieved from: http://plato.stanford.edu/entries/political-representation/#PitFouVieRep on 4 March 2015.

Tisosky, Chelsea. “Is a Woman’s Place in the House? An Analysis of Shared Gender and Political Representation.” Cornell University Department of Policy Analysis and Management. May 7, 2014. 15. Web. Retrieved from: https://ecommons.library.cornell.edu/bitstream/ 1813/36336/2/tisosky_thesis.pdf on 4 March 2015.