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The False Illusion Of Female Power In Politics

Britain, Poland and even Germany are all examples of how having women in power doesn't necessarily translate into greater social or economic power for women.

Women20 summit in Berlin on April 25
Women20 summit in Berlin on April 25
Susan Vahabzadeh

MUNICH — Recent parliamentary elections in France resulted in a new record: 224 of the country's lawmakers — or 39% — are now women, up from just 155 after the last election. One of these women is Marine Le Pen, head of the far-right National Front and the runner up in this year's presidential election. But it was her rival, Emmanuel Macron, who is really responsible for the increase in female representation.

The new French president chose to give half his Cabinet positions to women. And his recently founded party, La République en Marche (LRM), and its coalition partner MoDem (Mouvement Démocrate) selected women to fill more than 45% of their respective parliamentary seats.

Let's compare this to the UK. Recent elections there also saw more women than ever before elected to Parliament. With four more women lawmakers than in the last legislative period, female representation now stands at 32%. The prime minister, of course, is also a woman. And yet, within Theresa May"s party, only 21% of its lawmakers are female.

Macron's feminist agenda can be found in the LRM program. The language is candid and praiseworthy. In the preamble on women's rights, he talks about the so-called "20% rule," arguing that women occupy 20% fewer seats in parliament, receive 20% less in wages, and that 20% of women are raped at some stage in their lives. The document even talks about how men do just 20% of the housework. Seriously, that's what it says.

As the number of women in any given sector increases, wages decrease.

LRM wants parity, at the very least, and if that cannot be achieved, then it has three focal points as part of its program, one being an awareness campaign on violence against women and sexual harassment. The program also touches on the issue of maternity leave, saying it needs to be available for all mothers, even those without a permanent contract. This should lower the temptation of not hiring them in the first place.

The third focus is on jobs. Simply having a job isn't enough, Macron argues. Women also need to live from the income they earn. LRM wants to introduce regular spot checks to ensure the enforcement of equal pay. The new government also wants to set the example by providing parity in the distribution of administrative posts.

We will, of course, have to wait and see how Macron fares with his agenda. He has already gone back on his promise to create a Ministry of Women's Affairs, and is being criticized for it by French feminists. Still, it's clear that feminist Macron is trying his hardest.

In Germany, in the meantime, the governing Christian Democratic Union (CDU) party hasn't yet presented its election manifesto for September. We can recall from its 2013 program, however, that it urged women to take on more jobs traditionally held by men as a way to bridge the pay gap. But isn't it true that as the number of women in any given sector increases, wages decrease?

The CDU has also funded shelters for women who are victims of violence, but done little to try and prevent that violence. And it called for the introduction of a gender quota system for high-level managerial positions, but not until 2020. The party's program, in other words, isn't very far-reaching when it comes to women, despite the fact that its leader, Angela Merkel, is a woman.

It takes more than just a T-shirt

It does of course matter that Merkel, the long-serving German chancellor, is the most powerful woman in the world, and that women have come to play a major role in the legislative process. All of that is long overdue and something we just need to get used to.

But we cannot take it for granted either, as recent events in Washington demonstrate so clearly. The current version of U.S. health care reform — "Trumpcare," as it's been dubbed — was drafted by an entirely male committee that is clearly in the dark about why health insurances should pay for pre-natal screenings, for example. Men, after all, don't get pregnant.

And what about Britain's Theresa May? Sure, she famously donned a T-shirt bearing the slogan "This is what a feminist looks like." And yet many women remain unconvinced. Why? Because they hold her responsible, as prime minister and home secretary before that, for introducing budget cuts that mainly affect women.

Photo: Fawcett Society

Research conducted by the think tank Women's Budget Group showed that 85% of the people most affected by the social welfare cuts and tax changes are women. Austerity hits women much harder than men seeing as they generally earn a lot less than men. Even if it is a woman introducing budget cuts, it does nothing to alleviate the damage caused.

Avoiding "borrowed plumes'

There is a total of three female leaders of government in all of Europe. But what does that even mean? One of them, after all, is the Polish prime minister, Beata Szydło, whose policies — starting with an (unsuccessful) attempt to introduce a blanket ban on abortion — seem to be paving the road back to the Stone Age.

There's also the enigmatically named "500+" child welfare program introduced by Poland's governing PiS (Law and Justice) party. The program offers families with children 115 euros in child support per child — unless it's an only child, which is often the case with single mothers. Thanks to the "500+" initiative, the country now has even fewer women with gainful employment. This may increase the birth rate. But it also increases the number of dependable women.

For years, politicians "begged and politely asked the companies' to make their boards more balanced — all to no avail.

Angela Merkel recently found herself hosting the W20 Women's Summit, where she was asked if she considers herself a feminist. Her answer — that she doesn't "want to adorn herself with borrowed plumes' — came a bit reluctantly. But it was better than the answer given by Ivanka Trump, who was seated next to her. Trump stated loudly that yes, she is a feminist. Except, strictly speaking, that's not true. Because being a real feminist means doing something for other women, not just fighting for one's own place in society.

In Merkel's defense, it should be acknowledged that, during her terms in office, her government introduced the universal right to a place in kindergarten, as well as laws aimed at bridging the male-female income gap and boosting female participation (via a quota system) in high-level management positions. The quota system her party talked about for 2020 ended up getting pushed forward — to 2016. That is not her doing alone, of course. But she didn't stand in the way of those changes either.

She also offered some interesting insight during the W20 Summit. Regarding the quota system, she recalled that for years, politicians "begged and politely asked the companies' to make their boards more balanced — all to no avail. And so in the end, the companies "earned the quota law by doing nothing." In retrospect, it seems like the chancellor should have been able to anticipate the corporate foot-dragging and taken more direct approach from the outset. But at least she's happy with the result.

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A Writer's Advice For How To Read The Words Of Politics

Colombia's reformist president has promised to tackle endemic violence, economic exclusion, pollution and corruption in the country. So what's new with a politician's promises?

Image of Colombian President Gustavo Petro speaking during a press conference in Buenos Aires on Jan 14, 2023

Colombian President Gustavo Petro, speaks during a press conference in the Community of Latin American and Caribbean States (CELAC) Summit in Buenos Aires, Argentina, on January 24, 2023.

Manuel Cortina/ZUMA
Héctor Abad Faciolince


BOGOTÁ — Don't concentrate on his words, I was once advised, but look at what he's doing. I heard the words so long ago I cannot recall who said them. The point is, what's the use of a husband who vows never to beat his wife in January and leaves her with a bruised face in February?

Words are a strange thing, and in literal terms, we must distrust their meaning. As I never hit anyone, I have never declared that I wouldn't. It never occurred to me to say it. Strangely, there is more power and truth in a simple declaration like "I love her" than in the more emphatic "I love her so much." A verbal addition here just shrinks the "sense" of love.

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