Dinner was deliberately light fare--acorn squash soup and lamb, with dessert of green-apple sorbet and berries. Guests described the evening as cozy and autographed each other's calligraphic menus as souvenirs. But conversation at the opening session of this powerful new group with members from four continents centered on weighty world problems, from human rights to environmental dangers.
Hosted by Secretary of State Madeleine Albright, the dinner Friday night at the National Historical Society in New York marked a threshold in the world of politics, for the guest list was limited: female foreign ministers only.
"Guiding the world is no longer an exclusively male sport," one attendee noted with a chuckle. "Today there are enough of us that we can form our own unofficial club."
Yet the exclusive party underscored the bad news as well as the good about women and political power at the end of the 20th century.
In a world with 191 countries, just eight female foreign ministers sat around Albright's table. They came from Colombia, Slovakia, Finland, Sweden, Bulgaria, Lichtenstein and Sierra Leone. (Two other female foreign ministers, from Barbados and the Bahamas, were not in town.)
"The number of foreign ministers is growing, but the line in the women's toilet is still not too long," said Finnish Foreign Minister Tarja Halonen.
While women have made progress in some quarters, as is evident in Ireland, where four of the five candidates in next month's presidential election are women, female politicians remain on the periphery in major powers such as Russia and China, and in the minority globally.
Worldwide, there are just four female heads of government, 10 U.N. ambassadors and 17 speakers of parliament. None of the prime ministers today are as powerful as past leaders such as Britain's Margaret Thatcher, Indira Gandhi of India or Golda Meir of Israel.
And the trends are not encouraging for women.
Exactly 90 years after Finland became the first country to elect women to public office, the number of women in 173 parliaments worldwide has declined from almost 15% in 1988 to less than 12% today, according to a survey this month by the Inter-Parliamentary Union in Geneva.
The reason does not speak well for the outbreak of democracy. Open societies, it turns out, haven't been as generous as socialism and communism to women who want to serve in public office.
From Albania to Yemen, the number of women in power plummeted after the transition from socialist governments, which sought to develop female as well as male proletariats. As those governments died, so went the socialist ideals of equality and the subsidies for social programs that aided women. In many countries, traditional patriarchal cultures resurfaced.
Together, those forces made it more difficult for women to get the access and funding they needed to win elective office.
Setbacks in the East
The biggest setbacks for women in power have been in the former Soviet states and Eastern Europe, where representation has plummeted from highs of between 25% and 35% during Communist rule to as low as 4% in some of those countries today, according to the Inter-Parliamentary Union.
From 1987 to 1994, the number of women in Albania's parliament dropped from 28% of the total to 6%; in Romania, the comparable number plunged from 33% to 4%, according to U.S. Ambassador to Austria Swanee Hunt. In a recent article in the periodical Foreign Affairs, she warns of disregard for "talented and highly educated women in post-Communist democracies" in Eastern Europe.
Under free-market reforms in Vietnam, competition for resources has mushroomed, and women have suffered. "When resources are limited, men get priority," said Tran Thi Mai Huong, head of Vietnam's National Committee for the Advancement of Women.
The number of women in Vietnam's National Assembly dropped from 32% in 1975 to 18% in 1996, according to the U.N. Development Program. Representation on provincial, district and communal bodies is even lower.
The reason, officials agree, is that Vietnam's doi moi, or "economic renovation," has reduced social services, from child care to free education, that were key in freeing and promoting females. The ebbing of a socialist culture has also brought back the strongly patriarchal practices of Confucianism.
Both trends do not bode well for the future. The number of Vietnamese women in college, for example, has dropped from 43% in the early 1980s to 30% today. "Fees for secondary school and university are now high, and families prefer to use money to pay for males, so sons are getting priority," Tran said.
Turning to Quotas
The worldwide slump in female leadership would be far worse but for a counter-trend that has seen participation grow in some countries. An increasing number of countries, even democracies, are turning to a controversial technique to ensure women are empowered--quota systems.
India, for instance, brought a staggering 1 million or more rural women into politics in a single election after a 1993 constitutional amendment mandated one-third of all seats in local councils be allocated to women.
"The quota is a necessary first step to change the myths about women," said Devaki Jain, a leading Indian political reformer. "In India, male leaders claimed women had no time, what with children, dishes and housework. But the emergence of a million women disproved the belief that women are not available for politics."
In many cases, women defeated men in open races for seats that had not been designated for women, which further "disproved the theory that women lose against men. And all of them are proving that they know what power and politics is about."
Six countries have now legislated similar laws on a national level. Dozens of political parties are following suit by stipulating that up to 50% of their candidates be female.
"Because women are finding it impossible to break the male hold on politics and the money it takes to get into office, quotas are becoming the main means of bringing women into power today," said Christine Pintat, director of women's projects for the Inter-Parliamentary Union.
France's Socialist Party last year pledged that 30% of its candidates would be women, a move largely responsible for doubling the number of female members of Parliament to 11% in elections this summer. New Socialist Prime Minister Lionel Jospin, whose Cabinet is 30% female, has since suggested a constitutional amendment requiring changes that in a decade would mandate all elected bodies be split evenly between the sexes.
In Europe, only two other countries have tried constitutional quotas. In Belgium, a recent law stipulates that by 2000, one gender cannot make up more than two-thirds of parliamentary candidates. But similar "positive discrimination" legislation in Italy was ruled unconstitutional last year.
In the four Scandinavian countries, women hold 33% to 40% of parliamentary seats--the highest percentages in the world.
The numbers are due in part to political parties that have adopted voluntary quotas for candidates, said Kari Helliesen, a Norwegian member of parliament. Norway's Equal Status Act of 1988 also requires that each sex hold at least 40% of the seats on all public boards, councils and committees.
In South Africa, President Nelson Mandela's African National Congress imposed a 33% quota on its candidates for the National Assembly, while the government has created a Women's Empowerment Unit to identify and address factors that hinder women from being part of the lawmaking process.
South Africa's post-apartheid Constitution bars discrimination not only on the basis of race and religion but also on the basis of gender, marital status, sexual orientation--and even pregnancy.
The impact is obvious. Women now hold 113 of 400 seats in Parliament--or 28%, almost three times the U.S. average--and both the speaker and deputy speaker are women. Those figures put South Africa ninth in a ranking of female representation in the 173 national legislatures.
In that same ranking, the United States is 39th, with women accounting for 9% of the Senate seats and 11.7% of the House. At state levels, women hold 21.5% of all seats in the 50 legislatures, and hold three governorships.
But the gains from quotas are not without a price. The systems are producing a political backlash, from outright rejection of women by male politicians to the perception that "quota women" wield little clout because their route to power was aided.
"Quotas only further segregate society," Zimbabwean legislator Charles Ndlovu has said.
Leaving a Bad Taste
Quotas imposed by the Eastern European socialist regimes, where the legislatures often lacked real power, left a "bad taste," Pintat said. "Many women were only tokens. Quotas didn't help generate a culture where women were partners in politics. So when freedom came, they disappeared from the political space."
In India, the backlash has led to repeated delays of a constitutional amendment guaranteeing women the same one-third participation at the national level they have locally.
Despite endorsement from every major party, from the Communists to Hindu nationalists, Prime Minister Inder Kumar Gujral backed down from a promised vote in May after being shouted down by members of his own party.
The stickiest point for India's 93% male Parliament is that the one-third of lower house seats reserved for women would rotate among districts, so every region would have female representation every third election. The provision would in effect bump men from office after two terms.
Quotas should be a transition tool only, said Swedish Foreign Minister Lena Hjelm-Wallen, in a sentiment shared around Albright's table at the dinner. "They can help create equality in the beginning, but to have quotas in the long run is artificial. So the idea should be to get rid of them as soon as possible."
Perhaps the ultimate irony, however, is that not a single quota in any country comes anywhere close to guaranteeing that female participation mirrors women's numbers in society--which are higher than 50% in virtually every nation.
Pockets of Progress
Yet there are some significant pockets of progress. Only nine of 173 countries with legislatures today have no women representatives, the Inter-Parliamentary Union reports.
Political parties only for females have been formed in Armenia, Colombia, Iceland, Lithuania and Chad, where there are four women's parties--although only Iceland's Women's Alliance has put candidates into office.
Maria Emma Mejia Velez, one of the women at Albright's soiree, is the second female foreign minister in Colombia, which enfranchised women only 40 years ago. The first is now running for president.
The ultimate barometer of success, however, may be what impact women have on policy. In the U.S., Albright has called for new emphasis on expanding women's political participation among allies.
She has also advocated using part of U.S. foreign aid for female education and to help eliminate violence against women. She pushed hard to make rape an offense prosecuted by the International Criminal Tribunal for the Former Yugoslavia.
"Advancing the status of women is not only a moral imperative, it is being actively integrated into the foreign policy of the U.S.," she said in a speech March 12 to mark International Women's Day. "It is our mission. It is the right thing to do, and, frankly, it is the smart thing to do."
The State Department has published a monthly progress report on the advancement of women worldwide since the 1995 U.N. World Conference on Women in Beijing. Albright has not, however, been able to persuade Senate Foreign Relations Committee Chairman Jesse Helms (R-N.C.) to ratify the U.N. treaty barring discrimination against women, which has languished in the Senate since 1979.
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Women in Power
Despite gains through much of the 20th century, women are still a small minority in leading political jobs worldwide--and the number is shrinking. Only in Nordic countries do women come close to power sharing today, while in much of the world, the collapse of Communist or Socialist governments has led to sharp declines in the number of females in national office.
Percentages of women in national legislatures
Nordic countries: 36%
Arab states: 3%
* excluding Nordic countries
Of 191 governments worldwide, there are . . .
4 female heads of government
5 female heads of state
10 female foreign ministers
Top of the List
Women in Women in lower or upper Rankings** single house house 1. Sweden 40.4% -- 2. Norway 39.4% -- 3. Finland 33.5% -- 4. Denmark 33.0% -- 5. Netherlands 31.3% 22.7% Others 9. Germany 26.2% 19.1% 16. China 21.0% -- 21. Canada 18.0 23.1% 30. Mexico 14.1% 2.5% 41. U.S. 11.7% 9.0 46. Russia 10.2% 0.6% 50. Britain 9.5% 6.9% 72. France 6.4% 5.6% 83. Japan 4.6% 13.9% 107. Kuwait 0.0% --
-- means lawmakers serve in single house
** rankings based on representation in lower or single house
Leaders of legislatures
Members of upper house
Members of lower or single house
Source: Inter-Parliamentary Union