The country that invented the term "machismo" in the 16th century has suddenly found itself on the forefront of women's rights in Europe.
When members of the Spanish government's new cabinet arrived Sunday morning to be sworn in at Madrid's Zarzuela Palace, eight of the 16 ministers who stood before King Juan Carlos and promised to uphold the Constitution were women. With these appointments, Spain becomes one of just two European countries to achieve gender parity at the highest level of government.
It is a remarkable shift in a political system long dominated by men. "I didn't think it would happen," says Marta Ortiz, who has been working on women's rights issues since 1975, the year dictator Francisco Franco died. Now she is the president of the Spanish chapter of the European Women's Lobby.
While the appointments fulfill a campaign promise by Spain's new prime minister, José Luis Rodríguez Zapatero, they also reflect a larger societal shift in the country. Thirty years ago, under the Franco regime, women could not hold jobs without their husbands' permission; Only in 1981 did Spain legalize divorce.
"Women have made very important advances in this country," says Paloma Saavedra, president of the Citizen's Network of Europe, a lobby group. "Women's groups have been actively working since 1992 for democratic parity, and I think we've convinced the parties that they have to include it [in their platforms]. Today, nobody disputes democratic parity."
In his investiture speech before Congress last Thursday, Mr. Zapatero, who led the country's Socialist Party to victory in recent elections, promised to amend the Constitution's articles that govern royal succession, so that women will be equally eligible to assume the Spanish Crown.
He appointed Spain's first-ever female vice president, Maria Teresa Fernández de la Vega, and has tapped women to head several ministries, including those of Culture, Education, Environment, and Agriculture. Of 350 seats in Congress, 126, or 36 percent, are now filled by women - a 27 percent increase since the 2000 elections.
By contrast, only 12.2 percent of the members of the French National Assembly and 17.9 percent of the British House of Commons are female.
Observers attribute the move toward gender equality in Europe to efforts by Socialist leaders like Zapatero. "It all depends on the leadership," says Catherine Hoskyns, professor emerita of European Studies at the University of Coventry in England. "If the leadership is committed, as it seems to be in Spain, then equality can be achieved."
Mona Krook, who is researching gender quotas in the European Union at Columbia University, notes that a European directive to fix gender quotas first came from the Socialist International in the late 1980s, and was adopted by the Spanish Socialist Party soon after. "The whole demand to have equal numbers of women in Spanish politics," she explains, "is very much connected to the Socialist Party."
Although gender parity is voluntary in Spain - not legislated, as it is in France and Belgium - Spain now ranks with some of the most historically progressive European governments, like Sweden and Finland, in its representation of women.
Ms. Krook attributes this transformation to Spain's recent history, and particularly its evolution from a dictatorship to a democracy. "You see this in a lot of countries that go through a transition to democracy," she explains. "In that context, you start talking about how to include more people. "
In fact, even under José María Aznar's conservative Popular Party, more women were getting appointed to political posts - a sign of overall changing attitudes toward women. Domestic violence - once a taboo subject - is receiving unprecedented attention, and not just from politicians.
This year's Goya Awards for best Spanish film went to "Te doy mis ojos" ("I give you my eyes"), a film that confronted spousal abuse through its graphic portrayal of a couple locked in a pattern of domestic violence.
And the Socialists have promised to liberalize the nation's abortion laws, a promise that has already drawn criticism from Spanish clergy. Currently abortions are only available to women for whom pregnancy is deemed a physical or psychological danger; Zapatero wants them to be legally available to any woman in her first trimester.
Cardinal Antonio María Rouco, the leader of the Spanish church, has been careful to guard his opinions regarding the new government. But at a recent gathering of clerics and conservative politicians, Mr. Rouco accused those intent on implementing changes in abortion practices of being blind to the "grave consequences" of the reform.
With European Parliament elections slated for June, gender equality promises to be an important issue across the Continent. Although directors of the Brussels-based European Women's Lobby declined to be interviewed for this article, the organization's website indicates that it recently launched a campaign to increase female representation in the EU government.
Women currently hold 31 percent of the seats in the European Parliament, but many fear that number will decline with the addition of the new member states May 1, since they have a low rate of female representation.
In Spain, most expect the pattern of equal representation to continue, however, and the Socialist Party has promised that at least 40 percent of its candidates for the European elections will be women. "The fact that the party in government is committed to parity," says Ms. Ortiz, "is going to pressure all the other parties to do the same."