The number of women holding political office has grown slowly,
and that change has been accompanied by heated debates over
affirmative action measures used to get more women elected.
Speculation about Hillary Rodham Clinton running for president in
2016 has focused attention on the possibility of a woman breaking
one of the highest-profile barriers in politics.
In Europe, as in the United States, the number of women holding
political office has grown in a slow and patchy manner. In many
European countries, that change has been accompanied by heated
debates over the use of affirmative action measures to get more
Angela Merkel's re-election in September to a third term as
German chancellor confirmed her role as one of Europe's most
powerful leaders, but she is often a lone female figure at
Beyond Ms. Merkel, women head governments in Denmark, Norway and
Slovenia. Their numbers vary in the parliaments of Europe, from
nearly 45 percent of lawmakers in Sweden to fewer than 9 percent in
Hungary. Legislatures in the Nordic countries generally have the
highest representation, around 40 percent. Many countries hover
around the 25 percent to 30 percent range.
"I work in a place where four out of five of my colleagues are
men," said Stella Creasy, a Labour Party lawmaker in the British
House of Commons, which is 22.5 percent female.
In 2011, a year after becoming a member of Parliament, she had a
run-in likely to sound familiar to many female politicians.
"I got into a lift with a male M.P. who proceeded to berate both
myself and the other woman in the lift that we couldn't possibly be
M.P.'s because it was an M.P.'s-only lift," she said in a telephone
interview. "I put him right, politely."
There are many theories as to why women remain under-represented
among elected officials. The theories range from the effect of
strong male control of parties' candidate selection mechanisms to a
perceived lack of confidence on women's part. There are also issues
of how family responsibilities rest differently on men and women.
Unlike in the United States, Europe's discussion about bolstering
women's representation in politics turns quickly to quotas, which
exist in varying forms across the Continent. They often succeed in
increasing women's numbers, but they are highly controversial. While
supporters feel that quotas are crucial to increasing women's
representation, others say they are at odds with the democratic
process. Some can argue that both are true.
"Quotas are very popular because they work, and quotas are very
controversial because they work," said Drude Dahlerup, a political
science professor at Stockholm University. "It's a very simple
answer to a very complex question, that of women's historic under-
France, Belgium, Spain, Portugal, Greece, Slovenia, Poland and
Ireland have written quotas into law, said Ms. Dahlerup, an expert
on affirmative action. In other nations, some political parties use
In Britain, 34 years after Margaret Thatcher became one of the
West's first female leaders, the debate remains heated. Prime
Minister David Cameron was criticized in October when a government
shakeup left only four women in his cabinet of 22.
The opposition Labour Party uses a system called all-women
shortlists to compel some local party organizations to choose female
candidates. Ahead of the 2010 election, the Conservatives employed a
more voluntary approach, but they have since abandoned it.
"I believe that every woman in Parliament has the right to look
every man in the eye and know she's got there on the same basis he
has," said Ann Widdecombe, a retired Conservative lawmaker. "You get
in there on merit and merit alone, and everybody should compete on
the same playing field."
Ms. Widdecombe dismissed concerns about women's under-
representation in office.
"What we've got now is a situation where everybody on earth is
obsessed with the numbers," she said. …