Structuring Representation: Women's Access to Political Power across the World

By Matland, Richard E. | Harvard International Review, Spring 2010 | Go to article overview

Structuring Representation: Women's Access to Political Power across the World


Matland, Richard E., Harvard International Review


On March 9, 2010, the upper house of Parliament in India, the world's largest democracy, passed a constitutional amendment to reserve one-third of the seats in Parliament and State Assemblies for women. The lower house and at least half of the states must approve the constitutional amendment for it to go into effect. If adopted, the amendment would more than triple the number of women in Parliament from the present modest level of 10.8 percent. This would catapult India from number 128 of the 186 countries tracked by the Inter-Parliamentary Union to one of the top 15 countries in the world. The move is indicative of the dramatic increase in women's representation that can happen when there is political will to deal with the issue. Such political will is increasingly common and has led to a move in many countries to adopt quotas to insure greater representation of women. While increases in women's representation have been rising at an incremental pace in much of the industrialized world, the pace has been much more chaotic and dramatic in the developing world, with many countries making dramatic leaps forward through the adoption of quotas, while other countries have made no advances at all.

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Historical Roots

The march toward greater representation of women in government suggests similarities to the first mass-based women's movement, the suffrage movement. Women first received the right to vote nationwide in New Zealand in 1893, followed by Australia (1902), Finland (1906), Denmark (1915), and Norway (1915). A team of sociologists led by Francisco Ramirez studying suffrage across 133 countries over 100 years found a sharp distinction in suffrage adoption between two time periods. In the first period, from 1890 to 1930, internal factors were key to determining whether a country adopted suffrage. Important variables were Western culture, strong national women's movements, and a high level of welfare state development. At this time the behavior of neighboring countries was largely irrelevant. In the second period, and especially after World War II the key factors changed. The strength of the women's movement inside the country became largely irrelevant. Instead, what mattered is whether the countries in the region around a state had adopted suffrage and what the overall international picture looked like. Ramirez suggests in this later period votes for women became part of the internationally defined norm for citizenship. Countries that became free after World War II overwhelmingly adopted constitutions providing for universal suffrage. Internal debates in existing countries moved toward providing suffrage as part of defining oneself as a modern international state. There was a conscious desire to mimic the existing international norms to validate oneself as a modern state. Part of this international construction after World War II became the goal of insuring equal voting rights for women.

During the first wave of feminism, little was said about access to decision-making positions. Demands for greater representation first started growing as the second wave of feminism developed into a mass movement in the 1960s and 1970s; representation has been a common theme among activists since that time. To assess the success of these demands we look at women's access to political power in terms of the top positions in government, in terms of cabinet positions and legislative positions in the congress or the parliament. We also consider what factors impede or ease access to these offices.

It's Lonely at the Top

The first woman elected as her country's leader was Srimavo Bandaranaike who served as the prime minister of Sri Lanka three separate times. The first time was from 1960 to 965, when, after talking over the leadership of the Sri Lanka Freedom Party from her assassinated husband, she led the party to victory. Since then, women leaders have served as either president or prime minister in a smattering of countries. …

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