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~RRT fVf Western Europe, North America, and Australia [12J Building Democratic Bridges over Belgian Political Bastions THE WORK OF THE VOK-WOMEN'S CONSULTATION COMMITTEE ~ Alison E. Woodward and Rita Mulier Introduction: Heterogeneous Landscapes That Frustrate Democratic Consensus The more organized the political divisions in a society, the harder it is for the women's movement to be able to frame issues in its own terms (Stetson and Mazur, 1995). There are few places where this is more evident than in Belgium. Belgian society is riven by class, religious, and linguistic cleavages which together form a political landscape with great chasms between groups. Such dramatic, institutionally reinforced political cleavages frustrate the voices of grassroots movements. When power is divided by strict and traditional rules, it is very difficult for new players to get a piece of the action. This is especially so for groups such as women which cut across class, religious, and linguistic boundaries. This chapter focuses on one grassroots organization that aimed at overcoming barriers, the Flemish Women's Consultation Committee or VOK (Vrouwen Overleg Komitee). It began as an informal grouping of women outside established political party structures, with avowed pluralistic, progressive, and feminist goals. Its membership has included many women strongly critical of the lack of democratic responsiveness of the established order. In its actions and form, the organization has challenged established ways of doing politics and trained women in new ways of bringing cross-cutting issues to the political agenda. 266 WfSifRn fUROPE, nom~ AmfRI[A, AnD AUSIRAliA The VOK is an organization that, from the grassroots, managed to mobilize a number of politically inactive women across the ideological spectrum. It has worked for fundamental changes in the structure of Belgian society and challenged the rules of established politics. The example of the VOK is interesting in that it attempted to develop a new democratic praxis in its leadership structure. Further, it has had an important influence in the formation of, and information given to, women political leaders who were attempting from within the established political system to place women's issues on the agenda. It is very likely that experience in cross-party work among members in the VOK was instrumental in the democratic renewal process. The cross-party coalition of women who finally sponsored abortion reform legislation in Belgium is an example of female coalition politics which resulted from the stimulation of the VOK cross-party policy-making practices. Currently, the Belgian legislative chambers have lively women's caucuses which are the envy of those who would like to introduce a new political culture. In many ways the case presented here provides echoes of the social movements of the second wave of feminism, movements which challenged male models of democracy and were present in more countries than Belgium. However, the Belgian case is especially interesting because of the strength of the cleavages that had to be overcome to create a forum for women's voices. The type of groundwork necessary to put women's issues on the agenda in Belgium is indicative of the kinds of initiatives that will be needed in Europe to keep women's issues on the agenda as it moves towards being a Europe of the regions. With a Europe that is more locally based, and with more local interests and thereby perhaps more direct participation of interested parties, divisions may also develop and subvert cross-regional women's cooperation. The established parties are building up their institutions, and there will be a need for new channels for gendered democracy. The experience of the VOK in creating bridges between the grassroots and the establishment can provide a model for the future. Belgian Political Bastions and Women Women achieved political rights in Belgium at a very late date, giving an indication of the traditionalism of the society, but perhaps also of the Building Democratic Bridges over Belgian Political Bastions 267 role of cleavages in frustrating women's demands. In Belgium, more than 80 percent of the population identifies as Catholic/Christian, although a very strong anticlerical movement is to be found in the French-speaking region and in Brussels particularly (Matthijs, 1988: 275). The socialist party has been traditionally strong in the French-speaking regions of the country, while the Catholic party has its strongholds in the Flemish north. In part, as a result of this splintered political landscape, women did not get the vote until 1948. The socialists feared that giving the franchise to women would lead to Catholic...


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