Quotas Boost Political Clout Affirmative-Action Policy for Women Reshapes Germany's Local, Federal Legislatures

Article excerpt

HAD there not been a quota, it's highly unlikely that Monika Renner would have a seat on the Munich city council today.

The medical-lab technician says she always wanted to get onto the council, "but I never trusted that I could." The "system," she explains, "favors men, and even when women are qualified, they're still at a disadvantage."

After volunteering her time for 10 years in the local branch of the Social Democratic Party (SPD), Ms. Renner says she got her break when the party adopted a quota for women that suddenly propelled her onto the city council three years ago.

The SPD quota is changing the face of German politics. This party may be relegated to perpetual opposition in Bonn, but it is still Germany's largest party and governs in the majority of the country's 16 states, called Lander. The quota, adopted by the party in 1988, mandates at least a 40 percent representation of each sex in elected office and in the party apparatus itself.

The SPD quota is one reason German women have made "considerably more" progress in politics than in business, says Susanne Schunter-Kleemann, a leading expert on German and European women's issues.

In the 1990 national election, for instance, women made the greatest gains ever in the Bundestag, or federal parliament, with the SPD women leading the way. Women now account for 21.5 percent of the Bundestag members, the third-highest percentage in the European Community and far ahead of the United States Congress, where women hold 10 percent of the seats.

German women have made even greater inroads in regional politics, filling from 11 to 35 percent of state parliaments and 20 to 42 percent of city and local councils.

Unlike most companies, political parties have greater exposure to the public, and this puts them "under greater pressure" to promote women, says Ms. Schunter-Kleeman. Additionally, she says, "I think we have a multitude of committed women politicians" who are relentless in their pursuit of equal rights.

Probably the most influential of these is Bundestag President Rita Sussmuth, an independent-minded politician who is not afraid to cross swords with her party boss, Chancellor Helmut Kohl of the right-of-center Christian Democratic Union (CDU).

Ms. Sussmuth swam against the current in her own party last summer by openly advocating a bill liberalizing abortion in Germany, a step supported by the majority of Germans.

Outraged, several CDU members tried to topple Sussmuth from her parliamentary leadership post. It wasn't the first time her political career was in danger, but like an Indiana Jones, she escaped what to most officials would have been certain political death. …