As the U.S. electorate continues to ask whether it is prepared for a female commander-in-chief, Spain watched its new Defence Minister inspect her troops this week, a maternity blouse doing little to obscure the fact that she is seven months pregnant.
Over the weekend, Spanish Prime Minister Jose Luis Rodriguez Zapatero named the country’s first majority female cabinet, with nine of 17 ministries headed by women.
Among his appointments was 37-year-old Defence Minister Carme Chacon, the government’s former minister for housing and a constitutional law professor who studied in Toronto and Montreal, and is expecting her first child.
Ms. Chacon has pledged to boost the number of women in Spain’s armed forces, which first allowed female members in 1988 and is part of the NATO engagement in Afghanistan.
Her high-profile position in the new government came after Mr. Zapatero’s Socialist Party won its second four-year term in a March 9 election and the Prime Minister named women’s issues as his priority, placing female ministers in charge of Science and Innovation, Development, Housing, Sport, Environment and Public Administration.
He also named a woman as Deputy Prime Minister and created a new Equality Ministry, which will be filled by the country’s youngest-ever minister, 31-year-old Bibiana Aido. The new office was created to promote opportunities for women in Spain, address violence against women and combat what Mr. Zapatero has dubbed “criminal machismo.”
A photograph taken of the Spanish leader and the women in his cabinet this week may have looked more like a Vogue shoot than a paradigm shift, but is much more than a photo op.
Last year, Spain introduced a bill requiring certain firms to employ 40 per cent women at top-ranking positions, and Mr. Zapatero has proudly referred to himself as feminist.
“I am very proud to be the Prime Minister who for the first time has made a woman Defence Minister,” Mr. Zapatero said after he was sworn in on the weekend. “Moreover, I feel very proud that there are more female ministers than male.”
Jeffrey Kopstein, a professor of European studies at the University of Toronto, said the new Spanish government is part of a larger shift within the European Union to make political representation and policy more reflective of society, especially when it comes to gender.
Last year, Finland became the first European country to appoint a majority female cabinet and, in 2002, Norway introduced a law that required state-owned and some private companies to fill their boards at least 40 per cent with women by January of this year. And last spring, the Portuguese parliament legalized abortion after a referendum on the subject.
“In the case of Norway and the Scandinavian countries in general, people aren’t all that surprised,” Dr. Kopstein said. “With Mediterranean countries, it’s more surprising because the preconception is that they are macho cultures.”
But the effort to expedite gender equality across Europe has been motivated by several factors, he said. From a purely political standpoint, Dr. Kopstein said, putting women in cabinet positions is a move that appeals to female voters.
But it is part of a larger, continent-wide reaction to the European Court of Justice, a judicial body that operates like a Supreme Court of Europe.
“One of the things they’re allowed to rule on is equal pay for equal work, and that has allowed the European Court of Justice to take a very outspoken line on all kinds of gender-relation issues,” Dr. Kopstein said. “And what they rule, you have to follow.”
In the case of Spain, the government is also trying to bring social policies in line with the country’s relatively new and prosperous democracy.
“Spain and Portugal are like the California and Oregon of Europe,” said Dr. Kopstein, referring to the Iberian Peninsula’s economic and tourism credentials. “These are countries that have developed their economies and have consolidated their democracies against long odds and now they’re kind of headed down the route of what you might call social modernization.”