PARIS — In the May 1 election, British voters nearly doubled the representation of women in Parliament, thanks to the Labour Party's decision to field women for a quarter of all seats.
And across the Channel in France, a record 1,448 women are campaigning to break into the National Assembly - one of the industrialized world's most closely guarded men's clubs - in elections later this month.
But both these nations have long lagged behind the Western world in encouraging women to enter national politics. Only with the prospect of tight elections this spring did the gender gap move up high on the political agenda.
With women representing only 6.4 percent of legislators, France ranks No. 105 in its representation of women, behind Algeria and Tunisia. French women were not allowed to vote until 1944, and didn't win the right to work without their husband's permission until 1965.
And until this month's vote, the "mother of parliaments" had, in fact, few mothers. At 9.5 percent female, the British Parliament ranked No. 75 worldwide, edging out Laos and Bangladesh.
Ironically, what prompted the Labour Party to aggressively promote women in its ranks was its third defeat at the hands of Margaret Thatcher, the first female prime minister in British and European history.
After their 1987 loss, Labour analysts concluded that their party needed to become more "women-friendly." Women shared many of the values Labour claimed as its own, yet viewed Labour as the most masculine of all parties and voted disproportionately for Conservatives.
The solution: quotas requiring 40 percent representation of women at every level of party life.
This "quiet revolution" ran into little resistance, until British Labour leaders decided to target 50 percent of vacant Labour seats and other "winnable" seats for women. Two rejected male candidates took the issue to court; and in January 1996, an industrial tribunal ruled that all-women short-lists constituted sexual discrimination and were illegal.
New Labour leader Tony Blair formally abandoned the practice, but by then, many women candidates had already been designated. "The legal challenge came quite late in the selection process. We'd already selected most of our candidates. In addition, many local parties resented the ruling and selected women candidates in spite of it," says Meg Russell, national women's officer for the Labour Party.
The controversial strategy helped boost the number of women Labour MPs from 39 to 101, or 93 percent of the women in Parliament. "We're hoping that more women MPs will set a different tone and emphasis in Parliament," she adds. "Now we're waiting for the other parties to catch up."
Worldwide, women constitute 11.7 percent of the world's parliamentarians. "Political life is still dominated by men, and the majority of parliamentary assemblies is still overwhelmingly or entirely composed of men," concluded women legislators from 75 countries meeting in Seoul last month. This year, the 135-member Inter-Parliamentary Union, the Geneva-based world organization of parliaments, recommended that all nations adopt a 30-percent threshold figure of women in parliament.
The Nordic nations of Denmark, Finland, Norway, and Sweden have long topped the list of nations with the highest representation for women. All elect lawmakers to parliament via a system of proportional representation, which allows parties to weigh candidate lists in favor of women. Under this system, the candidate placed highest on the party list is most likely to be elected.
In Sweden, which leads the world with 40.4 percent women in parliament, the five leading political parties require that men and women alternate positions on party lists. Political parties in Norway regularly field 50 percent women candidates for national votes, either by tradition or by party rules. Finland adopted 40 percent quotas for women in 1995.
Other nations with a high percentages of women in the legislature have also adopted some form of quotas. The African National Congress Party in South Africa requires women to head a third of all lists. Argentina, Mexico, and Belgium have also made quotas compulsory for all political parties. Germany and Spain boosted parliamentary representation for women to 26.5 and 16 percent respectively through party quotas.
"Every country that has made progress on this issue has used some kind of quota system to deliver the change," says Clare Short, who helped develop the British Labour Party's strategy on women.
France lags behind
Unlike most of their European neighbors, Britain and France elect deputies individually, a system that forces parties to make hard choices between male incumbents and women newcomers.
"France is one of the last countries in Europe to elect candidates by a single vote, rather than by party lists, where you can equilibrate the number of men and women candidates," says Jean-Luc Parodi, secretary-general of the Paris-based French Political Science Association.
In France, the political will to do this has been hard to muster. As recently as March, some 75 percent of French deputies said they opposed the principle of parity between men and women in the legislature.
Many French deputies hold office for decades, as well as accumulating other local or regional mandates. For example, Prime Minister Alain Jupp is also mayor of Bordeaux, president of metropolitan Bordeaux, and leader of the Rally for the Republic Party (RPR).
"The more politicians rack up mandates, the less room they leave for others, especially women," says Sylvie Guillaume, who directs women's issues for France's Socialist Party.
"Things have to change for women. Political parties can't stay as cut off as they have been from society," says Anne-Marie Couderc, the RPR minister in charge of women's rights.
Women have also faced high levels of derision in French public life. Hours after Mr. Jupp appointed a record 12 women ministers to his Cabinet in 1995, they were dubbed "the Juppettes" by the French news media. Six months later, eight of the women were sacked in a Cabinet shuffle.
In the runup to France's May 25 vote, all parties pledged to limit the number of offices politicians can hold. All but the extreme-right National Front Party are also campaigning to increase the role of women in public life. But French politicians have stopped short of setting a quota of winnable seats for women.
Even Socialist leaders did not target winnable seats, as did their British Labour counterparts. Regional leaders were simply told to ensure that 30 percent of their candidates were women.
"There are districts that will be very difficult, but the so-called tenors of the majority are no longer unbeatable. [French conservatives] couldn't even convince their own rank and file that there was a need to change the representation of women in politics," says Socialist Guillaume.
Despite campaign pledges to improve access for women, the majority RPR and Union for French Democracy parties are fielding only 45 women to compete for 577 seats, or 7.8 percent of their candidates. "Women won't vote for women," says a close RPR adviser, on condition of anonymity. "It's a fact of life."
Politicians versus public opinion
But pollsters say that such views are lagging behind public opinion. Some 82 percent of French people in a survey last year said they favor a referendum on parity, and 80 percent favor forbidding politicians to occupy many posts at the same time, in order to liberate more positions for women.
"The notion that women won't vote for women is completely false. If anything, women have slightly more tendency to vote for women," says Roland Cayrol of the Paris-based CSA polling agency.
"What makes it difficult for women in France is the system of voting and a certain Mediterranean machismo. Women have made big strides in teaching, health professions, communications, and journalism, but not yet in politics or big business," says Mr. Cayrol.
With an 80 percent majority in the current legislature, France's majority parties face more of a problem than opposition challengers in dealing with incumbents who are unwilling to step aside for women newcomers.
"It's been tough to increase the number of women candidates, because we have so many incumbents who are men. They have been loyal, so we can't just tell them they can't run. But you'll see many more conservative women in next year's regional elections, where the RPR is committed to 30 percent women," says RPR minister Couderc.