When hundreds of thousands of women in Spain took to the streets on International Women’s Day to demand equal rights, Pedro Sanchez saw the moment as a turning point.
“After March 8, Spain changed,” Sanchez, secretary-general of the Spanish Socialist Workers’ Party, said later in a televised interview. “Women went out to claim their role and their power of transformation to construct a society that has to have as a principle value gender equality.”
On Thursday, Sanchez, as the country’s new prime minister, saw a 17-member Cabinet take office that consisted of 11 women and six men. Women hold key posts such as deputy prime minister, economic minister and justice minister.
Sanchez said the appointments marked the first time since Spain returned to a democratic system in the late 1970s that the Cabinet included more women than men. The country had been run for decades by dictator Gen. Francisco Franco, who died in 1975, and in recent years saw varying numbers of women in Cabinet posts.
“The government of Spain seeks to be a faithful reflection of the society that we hope to serve,” Sanchez said during a news conference Wednesday night. “The new government is born with the objective of serving the modernization of Spain, to make it grow in a sustainable way and regenerate the public life of our country.”
The new Cabinet includes Carmen Calvo, a former culture minister, as deputy prime minister and human rights prosecutor Dolores Delgado as justice minister. The new economy minister, Nadia Calvino, has been the European Commission’s director-general for the budget for several years. Spain has the fourth largest economy in the European Union.
Sanchez, who lacks a majority in parliament, came to power last week after successfully leading a vote of no confidence against Prime Minister Mariano Rajoy. The Rajoy government had faced a major political crisis tied to Catalonia’s independence movement and a corruption scandal.
For the seven years he was in power, Rajoy, of the Popular Party, kept his Cabinet composition at about a third women. The Cabinet of Socialist Prime Minister Jose Luis Rodriguez Zapatero hovered near gender parity between 2004 and 2011, while the Cabinet of the Popular Party’s Jose Aznar ranged from 13% to 30% women between 1996 and 2004.
The announcement of the new Cabinet comes as women in Spain are pushing for greater representation in government and an end to gender-based violence. It was formed the same week journalist Soledad Gallego became the first woman to be top editor of El Pais, Spain’s largest circulation daily newspaper.
Journalists, academics and commentators took to social media to express their optimism for the historic Cabinet.
“There is this feeling of almost euphoria, because it’s such a big change from what we had before,” journalist Marilin Gonzalo, who helped lead a movement to protest sexism in Spanish media, said in an interview Thursday.
“AMAZING! WHAT GREAT NEWS!” wrote Spanish author Laura Freixas on Twitter.
“In ten days, we have changed the government. We have women Ministers in positions like Justice, Interior, Economy,” tweeted sociologist Soledad Murillo, who was Spain’s secretary-general of equality and a member of the United Nations’ Committee on the Elimination of Discrimination Against Women. “And if that weren’t enough, Sol Gallego is director of El Pais. CONGRATULATIONS to those who have fought to democratize public space, thanks to #feminismo.”
Some, however, warned that the government had yet to prove itself as a champion of women.
“This government, at the moment … has a women majority, there are also ministers who are well-known feminists,” wrote journalist Ana Aguilar on Twitter. “All of this is important and remarkable. But I would not say this government is feminist. It will be if its policies are feminist.”
The Socialist party is generally seen as a defender of women’s rights. In 2004, under Zapatero, the government passed a law protecting victims of sexual and gender-based violence. In 2007, the Zapatero government passed an “Equality Law” requiring political parties to field female candidates in at least 40% of the seats they contest.
Gonzalo, the journalist, said Spain, like many countries, has a culture that favors men.
She pointed to a recent survey about sexual assault that shows 40% of male respondents believe that workplace sexual harassment will stop if women “simply ask.” The survey, created by a state-run delegation on gender-based violence, showed that 34% of male respondents believe women exaggerate the gender-based violence.
Sexual violence has dominated Spanish headlines this year, with a high-profile case alleging an 18-year-old woman was raped by five men at the 2016 running of the bulls festival. In late April, a judge convicted the men of sexually abusing the woman, not raping her, sparking outrage among feminist groups.
While the Socialist government still has to prove its feminism with policy, Gonzalo said, at least the Cabinet is a start.
“This has shown a change in society we started to see after [March 8], all the women who are fighting for themselves,” she said. “Especially in places of power.”
Bernhard is a special correspondent.