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Not so easy to follow where Thatcher led
By Tony Barber, Jan Cienski, Leslie Crawford, Paivi Munter, Frederick Studemann and John Thornhill
Published: September 13 2005 03:00 | Last updated: September 13 2005 03:00 - Financial Times
While Angela Merkel may be poised to join a small pantheon of women who have led European - and world - governments, the fate of her predecessors shows that breaking the gender barrier does not ensure permanent political equality among the sexes.
Margaret Thatcher, the first female government leader in the UK and of any G7 country, remains an isolated beacon of female political success in the UK; 15 years after her resignation, nary another British woman is near the government pinnacle.
In France, women in politics still must live down Edith Cresson and her legendary gaffes as prime minister in 1991-92, notably her observations that most British men were homosexuals and the Japanese were "ant-like". Her comeback a few years later at the European Commission was cut short when she became embroiled in one of the worst scandals to hit Brussels.
In Italy, women are conspicuous at the highest level of Italian politics mostly by their absence. Only two women serve as ministers in the 26-member centre-right government. The balance is little better within thecentre-left opposition.
Women are well represented in governments of Nordic countries; Finland will next year mark the 100-year anniversary of women's right to vote, and women have held the top political position in three of the five Nordic countries - Norway, Finland and Iceland.
That, in turn, has helped lead to far greater - and more successful - efforts at getting women into corporate boardrooms and in executive seats than in other countries in Europe.
In eastern Europe and former Soviet republics, women have made little political headway since the collapse of communism, which had imposed "equality" on paper but not in daily life or in government.
Indeed, among virtually all European countries, women largely appear to have plateaued, at the political level, after the 1970s. Back then, women successfully led the political charge on a number of issues - family planning, abortion, the environment and part-time work among others.
Few women, however, took the helm of theirparties. Even under Mrs Thatcher, no flagbearer for those issues, only one wom-an minister served at cabinet level - briefly - during her rule from 1979 to 1990. Today, under Tony Blair, six of the 21 cabinet ministers are women; none during his eight years in office has held one of the three powerful offices of state - finance, foreign or home affairs.
In parliament the number of women MPs has risen steadily over the last two decades; still, women make up barely 20 per cent of the total membership of parliament.
For Estelle Morris, a former British cabinet min-ister, the failure of Mr Blair's Labour party to make politics more appealing to women has been the one of his worst failures.
"My experience at senior levels of politics really did lend me to believe that the cultural climate has not changed," she said. "The political bit of Downing Street, in terms of the advisers and so on, is very macho," she added.
The result, she said, is that women were turned off by politics which is seen as blighted by a macho "shouting culture" of debate and inability to deal with differences of opinion and an aggressive style of media reporting.
Spanish women have overcome the macho shouting barrier, although their trailblazer was known for her shout: Dolores Ibárruri, "La Pasionaria", the coal miner's daughter who rallied Madrid's besieged population against Gen Francisco Franco's troops with the cry of "No pasarán!" (They shall not pass). Franco's forces did, however, and for the next 40 years, women were chained to the kitchen sink.
These days, Spanish women are rapidly making up for lost time, in government and at work.
In theory, Spain's two main political forces - the Socialist and Popular parties - are committed to equal representation in parliament. But fielding enough female candidates has been a bit of a struggle. In the Cortes, or lower house of parliament, about one-third of deputies are women. About one-quarter of the Senate is female.
José Luis Rodríguez Zapatero, the Spanish prime minister who describes himself as a feminist, struck a blow for gender equality by appointing eight women to his 16-member cabinet when he won power last year. Their performance in government, like those of their male colleagues, has been uneven.
María Teresa Fernández de la Vega, Spain's deputy prime minister, is perhaps the most respected figure in Mr Zapatero's team. Tough, phenomenally hard-working and shockingly blunt in her public pronouncements, Ms Fernández, a 56-year-old judge, terrifies her malecolleagues and opposition MPs.
The same cannot be said for Gloria Calvo, education and culture minister, or Maria Antonia Trujillo, housing minister, whose gaffes are the butt of many political jokes. But sexism, in the new, politicallycorrect Spain, is not necessarily at work here. Mr Zapatero's men are lampooned with equal glee when they make mistakes.
The Spanish right also takes women seriously. José María Aznar, the former prime minister, promoted many women to high office, including Ana Palacio as foreign minister, and her sister Loyola, who became an EU commissioner.
Italian women are not so lucky.
"On the domestic front, Italy has made significant progress in empowerment," said Stefania Prestigiacomo, minister for equal opportunities, in a speech last March. "But in our society, although women play a larger and more prominent role, the 'glass ceiling' has remained intact, restraining women's participation in local and national elective offices."
Still, the widespread sexism and discrimination in the Italian workplace also is prevalent in government. The press and her colleagues appear more interested in Ms Prestigiacomo's supposed flirtations or hairstyle than in the issues she espouses.
In the lower house of parliament, only 11.5 per cent of legislators are women, placing Italy 29th in a 41-nation European league table. In the Senate, parliament's upper house, 8 per cent of legislators are women. Of the governors of Italy's 20 regions, only two are women.
That said, some of the most familiar faces on Italy's political scene belong to women. Alessandra Mussolini, granddaughter of dictator Benito Mussolini, is a prominent far-right politician who rarely shirks from advocating women's causes.
Reporting by Tony Barberin Rome, Jan Cienski inWarsaw, Leslie Crawford in Madrid, Päivi Munterin Stockholm, FrederickStudemann in London and John Thornhill in Paris