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
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
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
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
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.
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. …