Women councillors' stories of effectiveness in New Zealand local government: a feminist hermeneutic inquiry

Tester, Louise
Waring, Marilyn
Smythe, Liz
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Doctor of Philosophy
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Auckland University of Technology

This thesis asks: ‘What are women councillors’ stories of effectiveness in New Zealand local government?’

Guided by a constructivist epistemology, the experience of the women councillors in this study was situated according to the social, cultural and historically determined constructs of their lives. Feminist standpoint theory was the theoretical basis for the study, which assumed that the gendered construction of the women’s lives influenced their experiences of effectiveness in local government.

The methodological framework chosen was a feminist hermeneutic approach. Episodic narrative interviewing was the method for gathering the stories about the women's experiences of effectiveness, because women's stories are a way of examining reality and assisting with the interpretation and meaning that is given to individual experiences. Through the narrated expressions from the women councillors, analysis of the data took place through hermeneutic interpretation, using the analytic principles of ‘suspicion’ and ‘faith’.

Women's minority presence within the local government system, created by men, and which reflects masculinist values, has been a challenge for the women councillors’ effectiveness. The councillors’ different ways of being effective has been impacted by the persistent maleness of local government culture and structure, yet the women's particular ways of working have facilitated and benefited their personal and political effectiveness. Women’s gendered socialisation has influenced the style and focus of the councillors’ effectiveness. The women’s historically and culturally constructed gender roles have predisposed the women's representational styles to those that were embedded in relationships and connections and more closely attuned to an ethic of care.

An examination of 25 women councillors’ perceptions about what it means to be effective in local government has revealed it as complex, multi-dimensional, temporal and constructed according to the women's particular lived experiences. Through a hermeneutic exploration of the women councillors’ experiences of their effectiveness, the inquiry revealed effectiveness as operating at personal, political and community levels and related to outcomes, values and behaviours, and as something that was perceived, felt, received and conveyed. The women's ways of being effective was characterised by an integration of their personal personas to their political personas. The women’s stories highlighted that there were different orientations of effectiveness, degrees of effectiveness and ways of being effective. Assessments of effectiveness were both presentation and judgement; it was about meaning making. Effectiveness was a lived experience.

The inquiry presents a new perspective about the meaning of effectiveness, one that extends existing theory. The new interpretations provide a foundation of understanding that can be extended with further inquiry. It is a thesis that encourages further exploration, and thinking about new insights and understandings. The results of this inquiry add to the growing body of local government research through the focus on the lived experiences of the elected women councillors, and the consideration about what it means to be effective in local government. The inquiry is of particular importance to those with a scholarly interest in the lived experiences of women in the public and political domains, because of the new knowledge it generates about women's local government political participation, and the meanings they attach to their political work.

Women councillors , Local government , Effectiveness , Feminist standpoint theory , Feminist hermeneutics , Lived experience
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