Ensuring Female Representation

Has Democracy Failed Women? by Drude Dahlerup challenges conventional wisdom that Greece was the birthplace of democracy, as it totally excluded women from participation in the political process.

The book starts with a brief review of women’s battle long difficult battle for the right to vote. New Zealand was the first to grant women a vote in national elections in 1893. Other English-speaking countries, including Britain, enacted women’s suffrage following World War I. Catholic countries, including France, Italy, Chile and Argentina waited till World War II ended. It was 1971 before women could vote in national elections in Switzerland.

It’s well established that democratic assemblies with inadequate female representation, are incapable of addressing the continuing oppression women experience under capitalism.* Yet more the 100 years after first receiving the right to vote, women (who comprise 52% of the population) are still denied full representation in the institutions of power. In the West, only two parliaments have granted women full parity (40-60% representation). In the global South, only Rwanda and Bolivia have as many women as men in their assemblies.

Dallerup blames the “secret garden of politics,” the failure of most political parties to select candidates in a transparent or democratic process, for women’s failure to receive fair representation in government. In most places, party officials limit their candidate pools to well-established old boy networks.

In general, only countries with Proportional Representation1 are likely to achieve more than 25% female representation in their national governing bodies. Countries (like the US, UK, and Canada) employing a Plurality/Majority (winner- takes-all) voting system based on geographic districts have the most difficulty achieving adequate female representation. In these countries, a woman usually has to defeat a male incumbent to win a seat.

I was very surprised to learn that 57% percent of countries have achieved better female representation by imposing gender quotas. Pakistan was the first in 1956 (though they have subsequently rescinded the quota), Bangladesh in 1972 and Egypt in 1979. Scandinavian countries took a big step towards gender parity via voluntary party quotas

As of 2015, only four countries had no women at all in government: Bosnia-Herzegovina, Hungary, Pakistan and Saudi Arabia. Trump has only two female cabinet members, the lowest since the 1970s.

In an era in which the power of elected assemblies is being systematically eroded by multinational corporations, Dallerup fells it’s also really important to ensure strong female representation on corporate boards and the regional and international bodies they control. Spain, Iceland, Belgium, France, Germany, India and Norway all have laws requiring a minimum of 40% representation on corporate boards (a move consistently linked with higher profits).

* Interventions Dallerup views as essential to ending women’s inequality and oppression include:

  • redistribution of money and resources, e.g., to single mothers for maternity care and maternity leave
  • actions against the feminization of poverty
  • public services: care for children, the elderly and disabled
  • housing and public transportation
  • an independent judiciary without with gender biases; intervention against domestic violence; anti-discrimination regulations, ie on equal pay and equal treatment; and affirmation action (i.e., gender quotas)
  • support for men’s role as caregivers, e.g., paternity leave
  • protection from sexual violence and harassment in peace and war and the inclusion of women in peace negotiations and post-conflict reconciliation
  1. See “The Case for Proportional Representation. []
Dr. Bramhall is a retired American psychiatrist and political refugee in New Zealand. She has published a free, downloadable non-fiction ebook 21st Century Revolution. Her first book The Most Revolutionary Act: Memoir of an American Refugee describes the circumstances that led her to leave the US in 2002. Email her at: stuartbramhall@yahoo.co.nz. Read other articles by Stuart Jeanne, or visit Stuart Jeanne's website.