Women's Political Power

IS 1992 going to be the year in which women candidates in the United States make dramatic advances in their long quest for greater political power? A strange constellation of events has generated more interest for women candidates seeking national office, with some pundits predicting a "landslide" for women on Nov. 3.

The key primary victories by women in Illinois, Pennsylvania, and California, the independent challenge offered by billionaire Ross Perot, the symbolism of male dominance over women during the Clarence Thomas confirmation hearings, and the absence of cold-war security issues seem to have opened the door for more women to gain power in the political system.

In a recent study of power in the US, Thomas Dye found that women comprised less than 5 percent of those who run America. At present, only two of 100 US senators are women, and 27 women serve in the 435-member House of Representatives.

Yet women have made some headway in the past decade. In 1981, President Reagan appointed the first woman to serve on the Supreme Court - Sandra Day O'Connor - and in 1984, the Democratic Party chose the first woman - Geraldine Ferraro - to run on a national ticket. There is growing pressure on Gov. Bill Clinton and Mr. Perot to choose a woman as a running mate.

In contrast to the political power of women in northern European countries, however, American women have had a difficult time reaching anything like parity with men when it comes to running the national government.

Three Scandinavian countries - Sweden, Norway, and Denmark - all have legislatures that are more than one-third female. Norway has a woman prime minister with almost 50 percent of her Cabinet made up of women. Women make up 31 percent of Denmark's parliament and 25 percent of Holland's. Although both Britain and France have had female executives (Margaret Thatcher and Edith Cresson) recently, women account for less than 7 percent of Britain's House of Commons or the France's National Assembly.

What is the reason for women being so successful in gaining political power in some political systems and not in others?

The single most important element for women to gain entry into national politics is proportional representation (and quotas) instead of the single-member legislative districts so common in Britain and the US. In the American electoral system, the congressional candidate with the most votes (an absolute majority is not required) is declared the winner and represents the whole district.

An electoral system based on proportional representation traditionally allots seats in parliament according to the proportion of votes received. In this system, districts have more than one representative. In the Norwegian system, each major party has also agreed to a quota for women on the party's list for each election. This doesn't guarantee parity, but it has had a profound effect on the success of women candidates.

HOW have these changes in electoral politics influenced national life in Norway? Once women gained entry into the corridors of national power, they started taking up issues of importance to themselves and to the family.

The equality debate focused on the availability of choice for both men and women. No longer would women have to choose between having a career and becoming a full-time housewife. Laws began to change in Norway in the 1970s: Maternity leave includes two weeks prior to confinement and 30 weeks after confinement, with full pay; fathers have paternity leave for two weeks with pay; both parents have a right to 10 days off work with pay when a child under 12 is ill. Compare this to the US, where Congress and t he administration have been unable to agree on family-oriented legislation for the past three years. President Bush vetoed legislation two years ago that would have mandated that employers grant unpaid leave to workers so they could care for newborns or sick relatives.

As women have gained power in Scandinavia, men are now leaving politics and seeking better paid, higher status jobs in the private sector. And with increased internationalization throughout Europe, the power of parliaments has declined, contributing to the exodus of men to other activities. Women won 20 percent of the seats in the European Parliament in 1989, a clear sign that the search for equal opportunities and pay for women will continue.

Given the topsy-turvy makeup of the 1992 election year in the US, women candidates doubtless will win a few more seats in the Senate and House. It is quite possible that the abortion issue will play a significant role in determining the success of future candidates, both male and female. And, who knows, the US may see an Equal Rights Amendment attached to its Constitution by the end of the decade.

But the northern European experience in empowering women suggests that not much will change until the US alters the basic rules of the electoral game. Until this happens, the US is not likely to experience a revolution empowering women to push for and help pass legislation that emphasizes family values.

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