Women's Political Power

By David W. Dent. David W. Dent directs the International Studies program . | The Christian Science Monitor, June 22, 1992 | Go to article overview

Women's Political Power


David W. Dent. David W. Dent directs the International Studies program ., The Christian Science Monitor


IS 1992 going to be the year in which women candidates in the United States make dramatic advances in their long quest for greater political power? A strange constellation of events has generated more interest for women candidates seeking national office, with some pundits predicting a "landslide" for women on Nov. 3.

The key primary victories by women in Illinois, Pennsylvania, and California, the independent challenge offered by billionaire Ross Perot, the symbolism of male dominance over women during the Clarence Thomas confirmation hearings, and the absence of cold-war security issues seem to have opened the door for more women to gain power in the political system.

In a recent study of power in the US, Thomas Dye found that women comprised less than 5 percent of those who run America. At present, only two of 100 US senators are women, and 27 women serve in the 435-member House of Representatives.

Yet women have made some headway in the past decade. In 1981, President Reagan appointed the first woman to serve on the Supreme Court - Sandra Day O'Connor - and in 1984, the Democratic Party chose the first woman - Geraldine Ferraro - to run on a national ticket. There is growing pressure on Gov. Bill Clinton and Mr. Perot to choose a woman as a running mate.

In contrast to the political power of women in northern European countries, however, American women have had a difficult time reaching anything like parity with men when it comes to running the national government.

Three Scandinavian countries - Sweden, Norway, and Denmark - all have legislatures that are more than one-third female. Norway has a woman prime minister with almost 50 percent of her Cabinet made up of women. Women make up 31 percent of Denmark's parliament and 25 percent of Holland's. Although both Britain and France have had female executives (Margaret Thatcher and Edith Cresson) recently, women account for less than 7 percent of Britain's House of Commons or the France's National Assembly.

What is the reason for women being so successful in gaining political power in some political systems and not in others?

The single most important element for women to gain entry into national politics is proportional representation (and quotas) instead of the single-member legislative districts so common in Britain and the US. In the American electoral system, the congressional candidate with the most votes (an absolute majority is not required) is declared the winner and represents the whole district.

An electoral system based on proportional representation traditionally allots seats in parliament according to the proportion of votes received. …

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