From the Iron Lady to Chancellor Merkel
Last July, British politician Theresa May became the 28th woman to become head of state of a European country. She was elected by the Conservative Party to lead the country outside of the European Union after the victory of ‘Brexit’ and the subsequent resignation of Prime Minister David Cameron. Therefore, Theresa May will be responsible for negotiating a new relationship between the UK and the leaders of the EU, which also include three other prominent women in the position of head of government: Angela Merkel, Chancellor of Germany, Beata Szydło, Prime Minister of Poland, and Dalia Grybauskaite, president of Lithuania. Also Norway - a European country, but out of the EU - is led by a woman: the conservative prime minister Erna Solberg.
Only five women positioned as head of state, in a total of 45 European countries, isn’t quite an optimist figure. However, it means a gradual improvement since 1979 when conservative Margaret Thatcher was elected prime minister of UK, thus becoming the first woman to become head a state in a European country.
Margaret Thatcher, known as the Iron Lady, became prime minister of the United Kingdom from 1979 to 1990; the longest period of power in the history of British prime ministers. Thatcher’s government meant a complete transformation of her country, as she promoted the privatization of state companies, education, media and the healthcare system. In some other Latin American countries, especially in Argentina, the name Margaret Thatcher isn’t only connected to one of the most prominent women politicians in the world, but also to the Falklands War.
Since Thatcher was elected prime minister, there have been other European women who have reached high political office, although less well known, such as Édith Cresson, prime minister of France from 1991 to 1992, under the shadow of President François Mitterrand. Cresson has so far been the first and only woman to hold the position of prime minister in France. According to the journalist Élisabeth Schemla, author of the biography Édith Cresson, la femme piégée (1993), the short duration of Cresson in office was largely due "to the misogyny of socialist elites, the French political elite and the media communication in France,” she writes. Currently, Cresson is a member of the Council of Women World Leaders (CWWL), a network of women who are, or have been, presidents or prime ministers. The CWWL was founded in 1996 by Vigdís Finnbogadóttir, former president of Iceland (1980-1996) and it is based in Washington DC. The aim of the CWWL is to mobilize women in high political offices to promote collective action and take measures aimed to solve issues of importance for the female population. Dalia Grybauskaite, president of Lithuania, Tarja Halonen, president of Finland between 2000 and 2012, and Mary Robinson, president of Ireland between 1990 and 1997 are among the CWWL European members. Additional members of CWWL are former presidents of Switzerland, and the former prime ministers of Denmark, Kosovo and Croatia. Most European countries, however, have never had a female leader in front of the executive power. This is the case of Spain, Italy, Sweden and the Netherlands.
According to the United Nations (UN WOMEN), in the world there are a total of 11 women heads of state and ten heads of government. The latest data, updated in August 2016, indicate that only 22 percent of members of national parliaments are women, which means that the proportion of parliamentarian women has increased slowly since 1995, when it stood at 11.3 percent globally. The differences are particularly marked among regions: Nordic countries, 41.1%; Americas 27.7%; Europe (excluding the Nordic countries) 24.3%; Sub-Saharan Africa 23.11%; Asia 19.2%; Arab countries 18.4%; and the Pacific region 13.5%.
In Spain, in particular, the proportion of women in politics in 2016 remains low: they represent around 17 percent of mayors, one third of the council and 39.4 percent of the deputies, a record number in this new parliamentary term. Some of the most influential women in the current political landscape in Spain include the new mayor of Madrid, Manuela Carmena, and the Mayor of Barcelona, Ada Colau. Both belong to political platforms linked to the progressist Left (Ahora-Podemos), in contrast to the political line of the party in power, the conservative Popular Party (PP). The current Spanish politics scenario also includes prominent women as Deputy Prime Minister Soraya Saenz de Santamaria; Susana Diaz, president of Andalusia, and candidate to secretary general of the Socialist Party; and Esperanza Aguirre, PP senator and former president of the Community of Madrid.