By Gail Russell Chaddock, writer of The Christian Science Monitor
The Christian Science Monitor
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. Scandinavian success 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. …