40% of Spain’s parliament are women — why can’t we do that in the U.S.?
Now that the final midterm tallies are almost all in, it looks like women will make up about 23%of the new Congress, up from 20% of the current one. Some have dubbed this another ‘year of the woman.’ After the last ‘year of the woman’ in 1992 when women doubled their numbers, from 5% to 10%, my 24-year-old self imagined that this was just the beginning of what would be a fast road to more equitable political representation for women. Yet, here we are, 26 years later, and we’ve inched our way up to 23%. Sure, that’s more than double what it was, but it took 26 years to do that. Or, look at it this way: men still make up a fat 77% majority of Congress.
It feels underwhelming as an American woman and even more so as an American who lives in Spain, where women make up nearly 40% of the national parliament. (Yes, the same Spain where the term ‘machismo’ comes from.) European countries mostly outpace the U.S. in terms of women serving in their parliaments. Like Spain, Norway’s parliament is just under 40% women. France is close at 39%, Sweden at 38%, Germany at 37% and the UK and Italy lag behind at 32% and 31% respectively. The average for European Union member countries is 30%. But in the U.S., where we like to think of our democracy as that ‘beacon on the hill’, women have failed to advance as quickly as our sisters in Europe. Why?
Our political system holds a sizable share of the explanation. Most European countries have parliamentary systems. This means that voters choose a party and parties get their seats in parliament based on their vote share. Who chooses the list of candidates for each party? Party leaders do. So, politics is a very different game and while there are a lot of ways for Americans to get into politics, such as business and community leadership, here in Spain, they do so via service to their parties.
And that sets up the game: you become a militant member of your party ideally when you’re about 16 years old, make the right connections, follow a rising right star up the ladder and hopefully, you’ll get a good spot high enough on the list to get into parliament. All this means that bringing more women into the system has mostly been a matter of getting more onto the lists and in Spain, they have mostly done this through various quota systems.
Feminists inside the Spanish Socialist Worker’s Party (PSOE) fought for it to live up to its closely held value of equality and bring more women onboard. In fact, Spain’s first parliament after a 36-year dictatorship in 1977 had more women (5.8%) than the U.S. Congress at that same time (3.74%). But that wasn’t enough, so the women fought on and managed to get the PSOE to institute a 25% quota in 1988. While American women were stagnating with just 5% of Congress, Spanish women leaped from 6% to nearly 13% of parliament in the following election in 1989.
But in order to really understand these numbers, you have to desegregate them by party. While the PSOE put into place a 25% quota, the right of center People’s Party (PP) resisted doing so yet added women to their ranks anyhow, in order to show that they didn’t need a quota system to do so. The results were stronger for the PSOE, with female members of parliament (MPs) making up 17% of their parliamentary group (compared to 7% in the previous parliament). But, the PP’s female contingent also grew, jumping to almost 15% from 6%. Even if the PP didn’t go for quotas, they were challenged and in effect, shamed into putting more women on their list.
But the women of the PSOE didn’t stop there, in 1997 the party adopted a new system where a minimum of 40% and a maximum of 60% men and women in party-controlled positions. 7 years later, PSOE leader Jose Luis Rodriguez Zapatero and self-proclaimed feminist, was elected Prime Minister of Spain. He famously appointed 8 women ministers of 16, much to the derision of Italy’s Silvio Berlusconi, who called it “too pink”. But this wasn’t enough, in 2006, he established the PSOE 60/40 rule as the law of the land. Since then, the PSOE has gone on to what they call the ‘zipper rule’, meaning that candidate lists for parliament alternate male and female. It’s by no means perfect, Spanish women are still underrepresented in their parliament and none have become prime minister, but it’s better than most countries.
So, while the U.S. is not about to change to a parliamentary system anytime soon, we can indeed understand our numbers better by desegregating them by party. Of the (at least) 125 women that will make up the next Congress, 106 are Democrats and just 19 are Republicans. Or, a better way to look at it is that 37% (up from 33%) of congressional Democrats will be women compared to just 7.5% (down from 9.8%) of the Republicans. In fact, while Democrats will add at least 35 new women to their ranks in the House, West Virginia’s Carol Miller will be the sole new Republican woman. There is indeed still progress to be made, but Democrats are within striking distance of Spain’s 40% mark and are 7 points above the EU average. Republicans, on the other hand, have failed miserably to get with the program.
Quotas aren’t particularly workable for our presidential system of government where candidates must be individually recruited and supported through a process that is no small undertaking. Unlike simply being on a list, American candidates have to battle it out against an opponent which requires a skillset and a campaign team no matter how big or small the office. Because of this, American candidates and officeholders much more agile in the art of campaigning than your average member of any parliament, but the whole process is much more daunting for newbies. This is why recruiting and supporting candidates from underrepresented groups is so critical.
EMILY’s List has done groundbreaking work since 1985 to elect pro-choice Democratic women and the Susan B. Anthony Foundation, to a much lesser extent, has done similar work for pro-life Republican women. But as we can see, it’s just not enough. Democrats have done better at recruiting and supporting candidates from underrepresented groups, especially in 2018, particularly as a reflection of their diverse electorate. Republicans just don’t have that same impetus and seem to be immune to any shaming on the issue.
What we can learn from Spain is that voters and activists will have to continue to hold the Democrat’s and, especially the Republican’s feet to the fire in terms of putting more muscle and money behind female candidates. Because the Republican party has so few female leaders, it will take an enlightened man or two to champion the cause from within. Our political system might be a trickier game, but there’s no reason why we can’t get there.