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January 17, 2006

Tough and Tender
Posted by Heather Hurlburt

Quick, what do the following countries have in common?  Ukraine, Sao Tome and Principe, Germany, Liberia and Chile. 

All have chosen women as their heads of state or government in the last 12 months, continuing a stealth trend in world affairs.  In the last ten years, something like 27 women have become heads of state or government around the world – as many as in the 30 years from 1960-1990, and more than the years 1900-1989.

But why should I care?  asks the "overwhelmingly male" blogosphere?

Here's why:  (and no, this isn't an item about US domestic politics)

Looking at how women's political empowerment took off globally and took root (or didn't) in individual societies just might tell us something important about how democracy promotion and civic empowerment do (or don't) work more broadly.  I would propose, in increasing order of importance:

--specific efforts to promote women in politics

--a global movement and globalized support for women in politics, flowing through the 1995 Beijing Conference, and

--a post-1989 global movement toward greater personal and societal freedom, and a desire for the real or perceived casting off of old rulers and elites.

Replace the phrase "women in politics" with another phrase -- oh, say, "democracy in Islam" or "petro-democracy" or "self-sustaining democracy" or "democracy among the poorest" and you might see how the broader democracy movement could learn from the "women thing."

I'm not going to write here about national and non-profit efforts to promote women's role in politics abroad.  They're not huge but they're out there.

What I am going to point out is that we've seen two big surges in women's entry into the upper levels of politics, after a period of steady but slow growth in the 1970s and 1980s.

One is after 1995, when, as I mentioned, as many women became heads of state or government as had in the 30 years after 1960; women flowed into national legislatures at rapid rates, and several countries adopted legislation mandating that women fill a certain proportion of seats in legislatures or slots on party lists.  Why 1995?  If you've ever met anyone who attended the UN's 1995 Beijing World Conference on Women, you are likely to have heard about what a life-changing experience it was.  Sure looks like they were right.  I didn't attend it myself and have never been a huge conference fan since attending too many for OSCE in the early 1990s -- but it seems clear that the amount of global attention, empowerment and resources that flowed to and among women's groups because of that meeting produced a real global climate for change.  And, it's worth noting even more, that change may have been heartily supported by wealthy Western women but no longer appeared to be owned by them.  A model worth considering.

The second date worth looking at is 1989.  The number of new women heads of state/government from 1990-1994 is more than five times what it was 1985-1989.  A disproportionate number of those women leaders came from the new post-Soviet states (Poland, Lithuania, Bulgaria, GDR).   A little later there starts to be an upswing in African women leaders -- short-term Prime Ministers in both Rwanda and Burundi, and a heavy emphasis on women's parliamentary representation in Rwanda after the genocide.  Asia and Latin America, which go through less dramatic upheavals-- and each have more history of women succeeding husbands or fathers in leadership -- show less dramatic change (though I am open to challenge on this by someone using statistical modeling as opposed to my back-of-the-hand counting).

Again, I think the lesson here is that the quiet, long-term support is important, but big events create openings -- for those who are prepared -- to make big change.

Lastly, I have to note that the New York Times appears to have just discovered that women politicians can effectively mix "Iron Lady" and "mommy" roles.  Doesn't anyone remember Golda Meir?


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"...but big events create openings -- for those who are prepared -- to make big change."

i don't remember which talking head news cast brought this up last weekend, but it was a fun scenario...

dick's heart forces young george to replace him as VP with condi, giving her a leg up on '08, which in turn forces the dems to run hillary...

now, there's an event that will create at least some eye opening...

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