Gender, discourse and the public sphere

WALSH, Clare (2000). Gender, discourse and the public sphere. Doctoral, Sheffield Hallam University.

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This thesis aims to develop an analytical framework that will combine the insights of critical discourse analysis and a range of feminist perspectives on discourse as social practice. This framework is then employed in an investigation of women's participation in a number of 'communities of practice('Eckert and McConnell-Ginet 1992) previously monopolised by men. Comparisons are also made with women's involvement in organisations where they are in a majority and where a feminist ethos prevails. I argue that women often find themselves at odds with the masculinist discursive norms that masquerade as gender-neutral professional norms. This, in turn, has implications for the way in which women are perceived and judged by others, as well as for the roles they are assigned within the public sphere.

With reference to selective transcripts of in-depth structured interviews with women in each of the domains under investigation, I suggest that the complex negotiations in which they engage in order to manage contradictory expectations about how they should speak and behave cannot easily be accommodated within a dichotomous model of gendered linguistic styles. Nonetheless, this is precisely how their linguistic behaviour is often 'fixed' and evaluated by others, especially by the mass media. I make reference to a wide range of texts from a variety of media in order to illustrate the role the media, in particular, play in mediating the perception of women's involvement in the public sphere and in (re)producing normative gender ideologies.

The first case study focuses on women Labour MPs in the House of Commons. It includes a detailed analysis of the media coverage of Margaret Beckett's bid for the Labour leadership in 1994. It also considers whether the record increase in the number of women MPs in the wake of the 1997 general election has helped to make the Government's policy priorities more woman-friendly and/or has changed the culture of the House. The second case study on women's involvement in devolved politics briefly considers their contribution to the Scottish Parliament and Welsh Assembly, before focusing in detail on the contribution made by the Northern Irish Women's Coalition to framing the Good Friday Agreement and to the structures of the new Northern Irish Assembly. The third case study compares the structure and rhetoric of the London-based Women's Environmental Network and those of male dominated environmental groups, including Friends of the Earth and Greenpeace and the relative media coverage these groups receive. The final case study compares women's involvement in the Church of England as outsiders, campaigning for women to be admitted to priesthood, and as recently ordained insiders, whose subordination within Church structures is sanctioned by canon law.

A central thesis of this study is that both the institutional constraints with which women have to negotiate and the stereotypical evaluations of their performance of public sphere roles have contributed to a process of discursive restructuring, whereby the gendered nature of the public/private dichotomy has been reproduced within the public sphere. However, women are not passively positioned in relation to the institutional and other discursive constraints that operate on them. I suggest that, they, in their turn, have helped to promote a counter tendency whereby the discursive boundaries between the traditional public and private spheres are becoming increasingly weakened and permeable. The study concludes by arguing for a more socially situated theory of language and gender to account for the constant tension that exists between the freedom of individuals to make choices within discourse and the normative practices that function to limit these choices.

Item Type: Thesis (Doctoral)
Thesis advisor - Mills, Sara
Research Institute, Centre or Group - Does NOT include content added after October 2018: Sheffield Hallam Doctoral Theses
Depositing User: Hilary Ridgway
Date Deposited: 17 Feb 2011 12:01
Last Modified: 26 Apr 2021 12:37

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