Political Development and Women’s Status around the World

Farida Jalalzai. Women and Politics around the World: A Comparative History and Survey. Editor: Joyce Gelb & Marian Lief Palley. Volume 1: Issues. Santa Barbara, CA: ABC-CLIO, 2009.


When dealing with women’s status around the world, an essential topic to address is politics. Specifically, how well do political institutions represent women? What conditions promote or inhibit women’s political representation? How do globalization and transnational feminism interact to affect women’s political status?

Addressing the political status of women is vital because politics around the world is traditionally viewed as a masculine domain. Restrictions placed on women are routinely justified by prevailing gender norms, reinforcing the masculinity of politics. For example, men, as the providers and protectors of their families, are generally seen as part of the public sphere. Women, as nurturers of the family, are entrusted with taking care of the home and children and are associated with the private domain. Although the separation of spheres has been murky in practice and dependent on race, ethnicity, religion, and social class, the association of politics with the public realm has traditionally been a barrier to women’s entrance into politics and contributes to their marginalization around the world. Exclusion from politics has serious consequences. Without female representation, women’s second-class status ultimately remains unchallenged. Only through engagement in the political system can women’s voices be heard. Though women are not a monolithic group, their omission from politics leads to their interests being minimized in important policy debates.

Participation in the political system takes numerous forms: voting, protesting, engaging in localized activism, writing letters to public officials, and serving as public officials are just some of the many possibilities. Though all involve attempts to influence government, scholars have commonly divided political activity into two main strategies: insider and outsider. An insider approach involves participation in formal political institutions, such as working for a political party or running for office. In contrast, an outsider approach involves, in essence, participation in informal politics, such as engaging in grassroots movements or social protests (Lister 2003). The recognition of outsider political activities has been positive in that it acknowledges a whole host of activities women have long engaged in yet have generally been ignored by political scientists. Because of this, women’s political participation has been severely underestimated. At the same time, the dichotomy obscures the interconnectedness between those working within and outside formal politics (Gelb 1989 ; Gelb and Palley 1987). As Martha Ackelsberg aptly states, “Women are never wholly inside or outside of institutions” (2003, 219). In fact, it is often through movements for change that women gain various rights, including admission to formal political structures.

This essay explores women’s political status throughout the world. Attention is first given to their representation within political institutions. This is followed by a larger discussion of gendered patterns of political participation. Links between transnational feminist movements and political participation are drawn, and particular attention is paid to activism in a global human rights framework. Finally, the ways transnational movements and globalization together affect women’s political status are considered.

Political Representation

The maleness of politics is palpable throughout the world. Though there have been changes over time, the continued low levels of women’s representation as legislators, cabinet officials, and national executives provide evidence of this. Parliamentary office is still a male bastion, although the extent of this varies around the globe. According to the Inter-Parliamentary Union (IPU 2008), as of 2008, only 18.3 percent of the world’s legislators are women. This percentage combines both houses of parliament, if applicable. Women’s representation is 18.4 percent and 17.3 percent in the lower and upper houses, respectively. There is a great deal of variance around this mean, particularly between regions. Women’s representation is generally highest in Nordic countries, averaging 41 percent, and lowest in the Middle East, where women represent on average only 10 percent of legislators. For all other regions, women’s legislative representation ranges from an average of 13 percent in the Pacific to 22 percent in the Americas.

In general, women’s representation is on the rise, although overall gains are minimal. Since 1945, when they represented a mere 3 percent of parliamentarians, women have made significant strides. After more than doubling their representation between 1945 and 1955, however, progress since then has been slow. Based on IPU findings from August 2006 and July 2000 for both houses combined, women’s representation only increased from 13.8 percent to 18 percent. As of late, women have made the greatest inroads in the Americas, Sub-Saharan Africa, and the Middle East—each area increasing women’s representation by 5 percent. In fact, women in the Middle East doubled their representation. Around the world, legislatures comprising a “critical mass” of women (at least 30 percent) increased by nearly five times from 1998 to 2008.

The IPU also ranks 188 countries according to gender parity in legislatures (rankings are based on the lower house). Currently, the countries with the greatest parity include Rwanda (48.8 percent), Sweden (47 percent), and Cuba (43.2 percent). Rounding out the top 10 are Finland (41.5 percent), Argentina (40 percent), the Netherlands (39.3 percent), Denmark (38 percent), Costa Rica (36.8 percent), Spain (36 percent), and Norway (36 percent).

The top 20 countries are extremely diverse, and all have at least 30 percent female representation. On the other hand, several parliaments, particularly those in the Middle East, are completely devoid of women. Findings throughout the IPU rankings are often surprising. For example, women’s representation in Pakistan is higher than in the United States (23 percent versus 16 percent). In fact, the United States is currently ranked 70th in the world and has gradually been losing ground to other countries. Moreover, women’s representation in Pakistan has dramatically increased since 2002. In 1997, women’s representation was only 2.3 percent, placing Pakistan 95th in the world; Pakistan is currently in 45th place. These findings pose important questions: What factors are associated with women’s representation in legislatures? How have some countries like Pakistan successfully increased women’s representation while others, like the United States, have moved down the IPU rankings?

Since Maurice Duverger’s 1955 work, The Political Role of Women, women’s representation has been linked to the type of electoral system. Specifically, the conventional wisdom has been that multi-member rather than single-member districts produce more women legislators at least among the wealthiest and democratic nations (Rule 1985; Lovenduski and Norris 1993; Darcy, Welch, and Clark 1987; Matland 1998a). Similarly, proportional systems are considered more advantageous than majoritarian. According to Reynolds (1999),

Single member districts … create an incentive for party bosses to stand lowest-common denominator candidates in geographical districts; these rarely turn out to be women or minorities…. The literature on established democracies has long suggested that the most women-friendly electoral systems are list-proportional representation (list PR) systems with high district magnitude and low effective thresholds. In these systems of high proportionality between seats won and votes cast, small parties are able to gain representation and parties have an incentive to broaden their overall electoral appeal by making their candidate lists as diverse as possible.” (555)

However, after controls such as economic development and democratization are taken into account, several large-scale comparative studies find no relationship between electoral systems and women’s representation (Inglehart and Norris 2003; Moore and Shackman 1996; Oakes and Almquist 1993). This is because measures of the electoral system are often too simplistic. The degree to which seats are proportional to votes cast varies a great deal worldwide (Matland 1998b). As alluded to in Reynolds’ (1999) earlier quote, another important factor is district magnitude, or essentially the number of seats at stake. Several scholars have found that districts with fewer seats are less beneficial to women (Matland 1993; Rule 1987; Taagepera 1994). The reasoning is clear: those very benefits associated with proportional representation are diminished with fewer seats. Scholars taking a more nuanced approach to the study of electoral system design find that certain types of proportional representation systems are associated with higher levels of women’s legislative representation even after controlling for other factors (Reynolds 1999; Kenworthy and Malami 1999).

Another institutional factor related to women’s representation is the reliance on electoral gender quotas in a country. Recently, the number of countries using quotas has increased dramatically (Krook 2006). Currently, 14 countries have constitutional quotas, 38 have national quota laws, 30 have quotas operating at the subnational level, and in 73 countries political parties use quotas (International IDEA n.d.). Quotas may be mandated by the constitution or by statute. They may also be voluntarily adopted by political parties. Some require a fixed percentage of legislative candidates to be women (particularly in parliamentary systems using party lists) and others necessitate a specific number of reserved seats.

The ultimate impact of quotas on women’s representation varies. Beginning in the 1970s, Nordic countries adopted voluntary party quotas and have achieved high degrees of gender parity. After the fall of communism, women’s representation in Eastern and Central European legislatures declined, arguably because of the dismantling of quotas (La Font 2001, Matland and Montgomery 2003). The use of quotas explains to some extent the surprising IPU rankings of countries like Rwanda, which passed a constitutional amendment in 2003 reserving 30 percent of seats for women; since the 1994 genocide, 70 percent of the population of Rwanda is female, so even with adoption of quotas, women are still underrepresented (Mutume 2004). In fact, most of the countries in the IPU top 20 have some form of gender quota, particularly at the candidate or party levels (Baldez 2006). Pakistan’s national quota law, which reserves 60 of the 342 seats in the National Assembly for women, went into effect in 2002 and rapidly produced the striking results described earlier.

It seems logical to assume that a commitment to gender equality is a prerequisite to instituting a quota. Passing a quota, however, is just a first step. Implementation is another story. Commitment to gender equality is linked to enforcement mechanisms. In some countries, there may be no repercussions if goals are not met. Also, because of the increased pressure on governments to achieve greater gender equality in representation by various women’s rights conferences (particularly the 1995 Beijing Platform of Action) countries may adopt quotas to appear in compliance but may not have gender equality in mind. According to Drude Dahlerup (1998):

It is worthwhile noting that some governments, in some Arab countries for example, actually use the quota system for their own purposes. By getting more of their especially chosen women on board, governments can achieve two objectives: get the token “controllable” women, while claiming they are in favor of promoting women’s political participation. (99)

Quotas prove to have a minimal impact on women’s representation in multivariate analyses (Reynolds 1999, 559). However, this weak relationship is most likely due to the multiplicity of quotas and the strength of enforcement mechanisms. In analyzing individual case studies of countries, quotas may successfully (and rapidly) increase women’s representation given the proper circumstances:

Variation in the effectiveness of the quotas can be explained by whether the PR list is open or closed (with the latter most effective), the existence of placement mandates (requiring parties to rank women candidates in high positions on closed party lists), district magnitude (the higher the number of candidates in a district, the more likely quotas are to work), and good faith party compliance. (Norris 2004, 187)

Structural factors also affect political representation. Education and employment are important for fostering political participation (Inglehart and Norris 2003, 101). Two-thirds of the world’s illiterate are women, and women are still less likely to receive a formal education, particularly in Africa and Asia (Staudt 1998, 86). Employment opportunities are also crucial. Employment can lessen women’s dependence on men and lead to women’s empowerment. People who gain political power typically come from professional backgrounds. Even when women hold professional jobs: “Many traditionally female occupations such as teaching or nursing are less compatible with politics than are more male-dominated professions” (McGlen et al. 2004, 95).

Several comparative studies show a link between women’s inclusion in professional occupations and political representation (Rule 1987; Norris 1997; Darcy, Welch, and Clark 1994). In these cases, women are still not as likely to be part of the networks fostering political involvement. Even when their educations and professions fit the traditional backgrounds of politicians, women are still less likely than men to run for office, often feeling unqualified (Lawless and Fox 2005). The family demands placed on women all over the world make politics out of reach. However, if structures alleviating some of these burdens—such as government-sponsored day care—are in place, the costs of women’s political participation may be lower (see Henderson and Jeydel 2007, 150-151).

A way to measure women’s status is through human development. Human development, according to the United Nations Development Program (UNDP), is the process of enlarging people’s choices through expanding their human capabilities; it is measured by life expectancy, adult literacy, and gross national product per capita. Since 1995, the UNDP has computed a gender-related development index (GDI), which measures women’s well being in relation to men’s. Although large-scale economic indicators often fail to explain women’s political representation (Kenworthy and Malami 1999; Moore and Shackman 1996; Oakes and Almquist 1993; Paxton 1997), GDI is an important predictor of women’s representation in the legislature (Reynolds 1999, 567).

Culture and specific views regarding proper gender roles are also important to analyze. Inglehart and Norris (2003) find a strong and significant relationship between attitudes toward women’s political leadership and levels of representation in parliament. Nordic countries have both high levels of egalitarian attitudes toward women’s political leadership and high percentages of women parliamentarians. In contrast, Middle Eastern and some Asian countries have both low levels of egalitarian attitudes and low proportions of women in parliament. However, they find striking outliers. Americans possess more egalitarian attitudes than most nationalities, but they have low levels of women in government. Other countries, including China, have relatively more women parliamentarians but hold less egalitarian attitudes. Inglehart and Norris do find that measures of gender attitudes remain both a significant and distinct factor in their equation after adding various controls such as level of development.

Historical factors must also be explored in any comprehensive account. The longer women have been habituated in political roles, the more likely they will be political contenders. Historical political access is generally measured by the year women attained basic political rights, including the right to vote in national elections and run for national office. Generally, the longer women have had such political rights, the higher their numbers in legislatures (Reynolds 1999).

As is the case in legislatures, women’s representation in cabinets varies a great deal around the world, though their representation tends to be low overall. As of December 2005, women accounted for approximately 14 percent of cabinet ministers worldwide (IPU 2005). Given the lack of data and the difficulty in calculating percentages of ministers over time, long-term changes in women’s cabinet representation are difficult to assess. However, women’s cabinet representation appears to be on the rise in recent years. The United Nations (UN) estimated that women made up only 8 percent of cabinet ministers in 2000 (Burn 2005, 229). A few countries have also achieved gender parity in cabinets. Sweden had the highest percentage of women, a record-setting 52 percent. Spain followed at 50 percent (IPU 2005). Upon her election as Chile’s first female president in 2006, Michelle Bachelet appointed equal numbers of men and women to her cabinet (BBC News 2006). Although these are very positive developments, there are still at least 19 countries with no female cabinet members (IPU 2005). In general, countries with the fewest women in cabinets tend to be located in Asia, the Middle East, and Africa. Furthermore, upon examining women’s ministerial portfolios, most are still concentrated in posts like social welfare, family, women’s affairs, education, and the environment, and few are in defense, finance, and foreign affairs (IPU 2005). This too, however, is changing with high-profile appointments such as Condoleezza Rice as U.S. secretary of state and, more recently, Tzipi Livni as Israel’s minister of foreign affairs (Israel Ministry of Foreign Affairs 2008) and subsequently as prime minister. Though more modest, change is also occurring in the Middle East. The United Arab Emirates now has two women cabinet members, Mariam Mohammed Khalfan al-Roumi for social affairs and Sheikha Lubna bint Khalid al-Qasimi, who was previously the economics minister, for public works (United Arab Emirates 2006).

Some of the same factors related to legislative representation remain relevant for women’s inclusion in cabinets, particularly structural, cultural, and historical factors (Reynolds 1999). However, some differences are clear. Because women are appointed to cabinet posts, they do not have to encounter a potentially conservative public. At the same time, a chief executive’s commitment to gender parity (or the legislative body that may need to give final approval) cannot be taken for granted. Evidence suggests that female chief executives are more receptive to including women on their cabinets (Davis 1991). Though not as common as those for legislators, some countries use quotas for cabinets. They have increased women’s cabinet representation in some countries like Colombia, which mandated that at least 30 percent of appointed positions in the executive branch be occupied by women (Henderson and Jeydel 2007). Until more countries establish cabinet quotas, however, it is difficult to offer sound conclusions about their overall success. Although the electoral system is not directly related to the percentage of women cabinet ministers, female cabinet representation is higher when their proportion in legislatures is higher (Reynolds 1999, 570).

Sixty-five women from 50 countries have joined the ranks of female national leaders between 1960 and August 2008. This figure includes those women who have served on a temporary basis, such as acting or interim leaders. However, it excludes those who have occupied positions that do not conform to presidential or prime ministerial office and in countries that are not politically autonomous. This overview reveals that these women in positions of executive leadership hail from geographically diverse locations. While the largest proportion is from Europe, regions like Asia, Africa, and Latin America also have large number of female leaders. Presently, 12 of these women occupy political office: 7 presidents and 5 prime ministers.

Women executives have always represented geographically diverse countries, with a substantial number from the developing world. Since Sirimavo Bandaranaike of Sri Lanka came to power in 1960 as the world’s first female prime minister, women executives have routinely represented countries where their economic, political, and social status is low. Twenty-five are from Europe, but Asia, Africa, and Latin America follow with the most women executives (13, 9, and 9, respectively). Few women around the world made inroads into executive positions until the 1990s, when the number of new female leaders nearly quadrupled. This pattern was repeated again in the 2000s. As such, more than three-quarters of all female presidents and prime ministers have come to office in the years since 1990. Clearly, women’s executive representation has vastly increased. Few studies explore factors associated with women’s representation as prime ministers and presidents (see Jalalzai 2004, 2008). However, the governmental type is often pointed to as a possible explanation. Parliamentary rather than presidential systems are generally considered more auspicious for women. Presidential systems generally rely on the popular vote (or some combination of voting, as in the United States) to select the president. Depending on how receptive the general public is toward women, this could present an obstacle. Because party members in presidential systems have less control over their candidates than in parliamentary systems, they also have less authority over the executive once in office. In turn, women presidents may be perceived as more threatening because they are subject to less party control. In parliamentary systems, even if the country has a socially conservative electorate, a woman may be able to work her way up in a party and win the respect of her colleagues, become party head and, ultimately, prime minister (Whicker and Isaacs 1999). Furthermore, prime ministers lead their parties in government and are less autonomous actors than presidents. This is because they share power with other officials in exercising executive power, including their cabinet, and because they can be voted out of office at any point in time in a vote of no confidence (see Jalalzai 2008). This is generally not the case for presidents, who are independent of the legislature and have fixed terms in office, only subject to impeachment in cases of abuse of power.

Many political systems do not fit the traditional categories of presidential and parliamentary. Rather, they share aspects of both and have a dual executive arrangement featuring both a president and prime minister. Moreover, these positions vary a great deal in level of authority. In some countries, such as Iceland, Ireland, and Malta, the president is mostly a figurehead; the real power is vested in the prime minister. In essence, these countries have a traditional parliamentary system. Women may have less difficulty becoming presidents in systems where they hold few powers but face more obstacles to becoming president in pure presidential systems. On the other hand, several countries, particularly those in Africa and Asia, have a popularly elected president who appoints a prime minister. Here, presidents hold the preponderance of power, sometimes having unilateral authority to appoint and dismiss prime ministers. Although these are not pure presidential systems, “presidential dominance” is certain (see Siaroff 2003). While women may have difficulty becoming presidents in such systems, they may be appointed prime minister (Jalalzai 2008).

Restricting the analysis to women who have served on a non-temporary basis, the majority—32 of the 52 women overall, or 62 percent—have been prime ministers. Further, most female national leaders have secured their position through legislative or presidential appointment; only 12 came to power initially through popular election. The remainder of female presidents bypassed the public to obtain power through succession or selection by legislatures.

Looking at the specific types of offices that women have held, a significant finding is that most female leaders—42, or 65 percent—are from dual executive systems and therefore share power with another executive. Women thus serve more often in systems where executive authority is more dispersed. Moreover, in most of these cases, women are more often placed in positions of weaker authority. Several of the female presidents elected by the public, for example, hold relatively nominal positions, serving mainly as figureheads. As such, Mary McAleese of Ireland and Pratibha Patil of India have very few substantive powers as compared to the prime minister. In other instances, female presidents bypass the public because they are elected by legislatures (as was the case with Latvia’s Vaira Vike-Freiberga) or replace male presidents from the position of vice-president when their predecessors are impeached or resign (such as the Philippines’ Gloria Macapagal-Arroyo and former Indonesian president Megawati Sukarnoputri). Additionally, there are numerous examples of weak female prime ministers operating under much stronger presidents. This is typically the case for women in Africa, who are often unilaterally appointed by the president and frequently subject to dismissal at his hand, as was the case with Senegal’s Mame Madior Boye. This is also true for several female leaders in Eastern Europe, including Ukraine’s Yulia Tymoshenko. In a nutshell, not all national leadership posts are created equal. This is not meant to suggest that women’s increased numbers as executives is inconsequential. However, the specific powers and level of autonomy at their disposal is crucial in assessing how far they have come.

Though institutional factors explain a great deal, the question remains: Why do many serve in countries where women lack basic rights? Women executives in much of the developing world are aided by unique political opportunities—power is often limited to elite women with familial ties to male political leaders and/or relegated to periods of political instability (see Jalalzai 2008). Nearly all female executives from Latin America and Asia possess familial ties to male politicians, and nearly all entered office during periods of political transition. Many serve during periods of frequent shifts of power and democratic transition, particularly in Africa. Although instability was pivotal in their achieving office, their powers are often constrained in practice and taken away when they no longer prove useful. Women, as stated earlier, tend to either serve in dual executive systems, often in weaker positions, or in pure parliamentary systems. Their powers are not as concentrated and their tenures are less secure. Thus, though women’s representation as prime ministers and presidents has greatly increased over time, there are still limits to their paths to office and powers they ultimately exercise. Clearly, much more research is necessary to more fully understand how women occupy executive positions around the world.

An important research question addresses the potential impact of women in political institutions, particularly female legislators in the U.S. context: Do women officeholders provide women with substantive representation (acting on behalf of women’s interests) or just descriptive representation (standing for women)? This scholarship, on balance, provides evidence of women’s substantive representation. Women support policies that are beneficial to women and minority groups (Carroll 2001; Dolan and Ford 1995; Reingold 1992; Swers 2002; Thomas 1991) and are generally more liberal than their male counterparts (Burrell 1996; Welch 1985).

Though there is much less research outside the United States, there is evidence that democracies with higher proportions of female legislators pass more laws benefiting children (Lijphart 1991). Case studies in Norway indicate that women’s representation has aided in passing child-care legislation (Bratton and Ray 2002). Although earlier research on female legislators in Britain did not find that women acted on behalf of women’s interests, this has changed since women increased their representation in parliament in 1997 (Childs 2001; Norris and Lovenduski 2001). Much more comparative work needs to be undertaken on the issue of women’s substantive representation, particularly in the developing world. Female officeholders worldwide also provide descriptive representation by providing role models for girls and women to aspire to political life.

Because of their relative dearth, there is limited literature analyzing the behavior of women executives. The existing literature generally consists of case studies (Saint-Germain 1993; Thompson 1993; Weir 1993; Everett 1993; Genovese and Thompson 1993) or collections of biographies (Liswood 1995; Opfell 1993). “None of these women has been a ‘revolutionary’ leader, and overall they have tended to be spread across the ideological spectrum” (Genovese 1993, 215). Transformative leadership leads to change in individual citizens, states, and societies (Sykes 1993, 220). Transformative leadership need not include a feminist agenda, but it can extend into any area that fundamentally changes the status quo. Feminist leadership, however, explicitly contains a concern for the alteration of the place and perception of women in society, acknowledges that the status of genders is socially constructed, and aims for the equalization between the genders. Some women executives, such as Gro Harlem Brundtland of Norway, do provide transformative and feminist leadership. For example, Brundtland has been transformational in her achievements in environmental policy and feminist in her appointment of large numbers of women to her cabinet (see also the earlier discussion of Bachelet of Chile). Others, like Margaret Thatcher, only provide transformational leadership. Thatcher ended the 40-year postwar consensus in the United Kingdom by ushering in a revolutionary era of economic transformation and ruling by conviction as opposed to compromise (King 2002). Other women leaders, such as India’s Indira Gandhi (Sykes 1993), offer nothing in the way of feminism or transformation but still challenge prevailing assumptions about how women rule. In Gandhi’s case, this was through exhibiting highly masculine traits as prime minister, evidenced by her winning the “title of only man in cabinet of old women” (Masani in Everett 1993, 112). Much more work needs to be done to explore both the conditions leading to women entering executive office and analyses of their behavior once in office to form definitive conclusions. Because of the ever-increasing numbers of such women, now is the perfect time to begin.


Although occupying political office is perhaps the most demanding form of political participation possible, a more basic way women can participate in the political system is through voting. However, this right has long been denied to women both by law and custom (IPU n.d.). In fact, countries long heralded as models of democracy routinely deprived women of suffrage. Switzerland, for example, did not extend voting rights to all women until 1971! Beginning in the mid-1800s, one of the early goals of Western feminist movements was to gain women’s enfranchisement (Klosko and Klosko 1999). Obtaining suffrage involved prolonged and intense struggles throughout the world. Although the earliest gains were made at the local level throughout the 1800s, New Zealand was the first country to grant all women suffrage in 1893. Several European countries followed in the early 1900s. During this time, organization increasingly turned global, as evidenced by the International Woman Rights Conference held in Washington, D.C., in 1902, which was attended by delegates from 10 countries, including the United States, England, Turkey, and Chile (Fraser 2001, 36).

The end of World War I resulted in a large wave of suffrage extensions. Suffragists in the United States and England faced explicit governmental pressure to stop their protest campaigns and support the troops during World War I. Although these demands were not heeded by prominent activists, and in fact led to the escalation of protest by groups led by Alice Paul and Emmeline Pankhurst, suffrage was not achieved until the end of the war. This great expansion occurred between 1918 and 1921, primarily in the Western world, and encompassed the ratification of the 19th amendment in the United States.

Even with the liberalization of voting laws, various obstacles persisted. For example, though Australia extended suffrage to white women in 1902, aboriginal women were not enfranchised until 1967 (Henderson and Jeydel 2007). Women often faced different age restrictions than men, which eased over time. Although women in the United Kingdom gained suffrage in 1918, until 1928, they needed to be at least 30 years old to vote; men only had to be 21.

It was not until after the end of World War II that women gained suffrage rights in France and Japan (1945 and 1947, respectively). A major suffrage wave occurred between the late 1940s and 1960s in the developing world. This coincided with the dismantling of colonial governance after successful movements for political independence. Pakistan (1947), Algeria (1962), and Malaysia (1963) are just a few of the countries that gained political autonomy and women’s enfranchisement simultaneously during this period. It took women the longest to achieve voting rights in the Middle East. Oman (2001), Bahrain (2003), and Qatar (2003) all extended full suffrage to women relatively recently. The first year that women in Kuwait voted was 2006. This success was achieved for a combination of reasons—namely, continued activism of women’s rights groups and the actions of a ruling family that has been more sympathetic to women’s rights and forged a compromise between resistant tribal and Islamic leaders in the National Assembly; the compromise included a provision mandating that women continue to abide by Islamic law (Etheridge 2006). As of 2008, the monarchies of the United Arab Emirates and Brunei continued to deny suffrage to both men and women. In 2005, Saudi Arabia held its first local elections which were open only to men. Elections are still not held nationally.

Because official voting data disaggregated by sex are rare around the world, research has typically focused on the United States and Western European countries. Early work found that women typically voted less than men (see Lipset 1960). Given their relatively fewer economic and educational opportunities and the persistence of traditional gender roles limiting women’s public participation, this is not surprising. It was also generally thought that women were politically apathetic (Almond and Verba 1963). However, starting in the 1980s, the gap narrowed and even reversed in some countries. Since 1980, the proportion of women voting in U.S. presidential elections has been higher than that of men. This same pattern has held in midterm elections since 1986 (see Conway, Steuernagel, and Ahern 2004). In Britain, the number of women voters also surpassed that of men in 1979 (Norris 1999). By the mid-1990s, women had closed the gender gap in turnout in many other countries as well (Norris 2001). However, in a recent study of 51 countries, Inglehart and Norris (2003, 109) found that women are still slightly less likely to vote in many countries and that these gaps persist in later generations.

Beyond studying the frequency of voting, an important issue to address is whether gender differences manifest in vote choice, ideology, and party preferences. If so, increasing women’s turnout could make a substantial difference in politics. As with turnout, early research in this area concentrated on women in the United States and Western Europe (Campbell et al. 1960; Duverger 1955; Lipset 1960). Findings indicated women’s greater support for center right parties, subsequently known as the “traditional gender gap” (Norris 2003). This pattern was often attributed to women’s more traditional social attitudes and greater religiosity. Subsequent research found that by the 1980s Western European women displayed few differences from men in voting preferences (Baxter and Lansing 1983; Mayer and Smith 1985; Rose and McAllister 1986). In the United States, after exhibiting greater support for the Republican Party in presidential elections between 1952 and 1960, gender differences faded. However, by the 1980s, a disparate gender gap emerged—women increasingly identifying with and voting for the Democratic Party and men with and for the Republican Party (Norris 2003). This same pattern took hold in several other countries by the 1990s (Norris 2003).

What is behind this gender realignment? According to Inglehart and Norris (2003) , the new gender gap is caused by a combination of structural and cultural shifts related to modernization and has primarily been due to the greater Republicanism of men—not a substantial change in women’s party allegiances. Findings from the World Values Surveys indicate that women generally are more supportive of an active government role in the economy and in providing social services, which is related to their greater liberalism compared with men. This has coincided with the increased salience of related concerns and divisions over these issues by major political parties:

In explaining this phenomenon, we have demonstrated that the modern gender gap persists in many nations even after introducing a battery of social controls, but the size of the gap diminishes substantially when we take cultural values into account. This suggests that the modern gender gap reflects differences in the value orientations of women and men, especially in their attitudes toward postmaterialism, the role of government, and gender equality, more than differences in their lifestyles and social backgrounds. (Inglehart and Norris 2003, 99)

According to this account, the development of the modern gender gap in the United States is a lasting gender cleavage that has also taken hold in several advanced industrial nations because of long-term change in cultural values (Inglehart and Norris 2003, 100). These differences in political preferences, coupled with women’s increased turnout in many countries, points to women’s potential power to influence elections and thus policy outcomes.

Findings are somewhat less optimistic when analyzing gender and participation in other types of political activities. In the United States, women are still less likely to work on campaigns and contribute money during presidential election campaigns (Conway, Steuernagel, and Ahern 2004). There is large-scale evidence of continued gaps favoring men in party membership and participation in voluntary organizations, community associations, social movements, and protest activity in several countries (Inglehart and Norris 2003). However, the gap among advanced industrial countries is modest and narrowing among younger generations, although it is much larger in the developing world (Inglehart and Norris 2003, 126). Finally, whereas men more commonly belong to civic groups than women, this varies depending on the type of organization. For example, men dominate in sports and professional associations, whereas women are more represented in religious, health, and social welfare groups (Inglehart and Norris 2003).

Despite the increasing comparative study of gender and political participation, there remains a lack of adequate data from a number of developing nations (Henderson and Jeydal 2007). Regardless of legal guarantees, women continue to face de facto discrimination in exercising rights, particularly where strong proscriptions against their public participation exist. Furthermore, women continue to lag behind men in acquiring basic prerequisites to participation, including education. This makes it more difficult for the gender realignment discussed earlier to take shape.

Transnational Feminism, Globalization, And Women’s Political Status

As noted earlier, women around the world have a long history of coming together to work on behalf of their empowerment. The contribution of American women in this regard is particularly invaluable. Important figures like Lucretia Mott and Elizabeth Cady Stanton, victims of gender discrimination at the 1840 World Anti-Slavery Conference in England, began to organize on behalf of women’s interests in the United States. American forums like the Seneca Falls Convention in 1848 eventually influenced women to come together from around the world. For example, Stanton, Susan B. Anthony, and Carrie Chapman Catt formed the International Women’s Suffrage Alliance in 1904 to secure suffrage rights for women globally. Through both domestic action and international alliances, many women in the Western world achieved a number of important rights, including property ownership and suffrage at the end of the 19th and beginning of the 20th century.

After World War II and the formation of the UN in 1945, women’s involvement in the international sphere greatly increased. Several countries sent female delegates to the UN, many of whom pressed for changes in women’s status around the world as part of the human rights agenda. Although Article 55 of the UN Charter specifically called for the equality of men and women, the blatant discrimination women experienced made it necessary to further establish a legal basis for their political empowerment. Greater protections were provided in the UN Universal Declaration of Human Rights in 1948. Special bodies targeting women’s rights were also established, including the Commission on the Status of Women in 1946, which drafted pivotal documents advocating women’s rights. The Convention on the Political Rights of Women was adopted in 1952, and legally bound ratifying governments to grant women full political rights, including suffrage and officeholding. Other essential agreements affecting women’s political status include the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights of 1966, which went into effect in 1976.

Although international feminist activism has been ongoing for well over a century, the framing of gender discrimination as a violation of human rights is relatively recent and has only occurred after a long struggle (Burn 2005). For example, whereas the Universal Declaration of Human Rights prohibits torture by states, domestic violence has only recently been considered a human rights violation, thanks to the global activism of women (Friedman 1995). The origins of the current movements on behalf of gender equality date back to International Women’s Year in 1975, which marked the beginning of the Decade for Women. During that decade the Convention on the Elimination of All Forms of Discrimination Against Women (CEDAW) was ratified as an international treaty. As of 2008, 185 countries had ratified CEDAW (United Nations n.d.); noticeably absent, however, is the United States. By the 1993 World Conference on Human Rights in Vienna, the conception of women’s rights as human rights was firm and encompassed the private and public spheres (Fraser 2001, 57). The statement “Women’s Rights as Human Rights” was further incorporated as a pivotal aspect of international activism when it was written into the Declaration of the Fourth World Conference on Women in Beijing in 1995. Not only was the Beijing Conference the largest meeting of women ever held, it was also the largest one convened by the UN (Gaer 2001).

The resulting Beijing Platform of Action outlined several goals for increasing women’s representation at all levels of government. Specific actions to be taken by governments and political parties included reviewing the impact of electoral system design on political representation, monitoring progress in annual collection of gender disaggregated data, supporting programs that would result in greater balance between work and family, examining party structures and measures that discriminate against women, developing programs that would allow women to participate more in the internal policymaking processes, considering gender equity issues in political agendas, taking positive action to build a critical mass (30 percent), of women in political decision making, recruiting women into public service, and encouraging the formation of nongovernmental organizations (NGOs) (United Nations 1995).

Although the platform also established specific goals in such areas as education, economics, reproductive rights, health, and violence, interconnections between issues were stressed as part of gender mainstreaming: “a process of assessing the implications for women and men of any planned action, including legislation, policies, or programs, in all areas and at all levels” (Gaer 2001). For example, if women lack access to education, they are less likely to be able to make informed political choices. The realization of these goals has been the subject of subsequent meetings, including the Beijing + 5 Conference in 2000. Such forums have fostered dialog between representatives from NGOs, sharing important information about strategies for feminist action (Burn 2005, 305).

The importance of transnational feminism to women’s political development is clear. These conferences have led to concrete changes within governments and women’s lives. For example, influenced by the UN, several countries have now established their own ministries of gender equality. Based on legally binding commitments to gender equality, gender discriminatory policies have been found unconstitutional in many countries’ courts. Establishing clear timetables and goals for increasing female political representation has led to several countries passing gender quotas, which under the proper circumstances can significantly increase gender equality in legislatures.

Other important effects of global feminist movements include the collection of important data on women’s political status by both international agencies and governments. Without such data, much of the political research cited in this essay would be nonexistent. “These data are invaluable, not only for research, but also as leverage to pressure states to improve their programs that impact women’s lives” (Henderson and Jeydel 2007). Lastly, as a result of global activism, thousands of feminist NGOs and grassroots organizations have sprouted around the world and have sponsored countless projects improving women’s political status.

Although the negative implications of globalization on women are well documented (see Hu-Dehart 2007), such positive developments from global action provide evidence of potential benefits. According to Bayes and Kelly (2001) , “Globalization, with its disruption of economic, political, and other social structures and patterns, creates the potential for opening for political spaces for women” (147). Although globalization has resulted in increasing disparities between men and women in much of the world, it has also led to women organizing to counteract its ill effects. Pena’s (1991) study of female maquiladora workers illustrates that exploited female workers do engage in resistance. There is strong evidence that much of this organization against the effects of globalization has occurred at the international level (Cabezas 2002, Naples and Desai 2002).

According to Valentine M. Moghadam:

In my view, the singular achievement of globalization is the proliferation of women’s movements at the local level, and the adoption of international conventions such as the Convention on the Elimination of All Forms of Discrimination Against Women and the Beijing Declaration and Platform for Action of the Fourth World Conference on Women. (Moghadam in Burn 2005, 185)


Through this discussion, it is clear that women’s political status has changed over time. Though increases in formal positions of power have been slow, women are becoming much better represented, even in the highest positions of power. Causes for women’s continued lack of representation are multifaceted and encompass institutional, structural, cultural, and historical factors. Women still lag behind men in much of the world in various forms of participation, but many of these gaps have narrowed, and women have been able to form an important electoral bloc. Although the legal restrictions against women’s political participation have largely subsided, de facto obstacles continue, and are perhaps the most daunting.

What is of little doubt is that increased representation of women in all facets of political participation is beneficial. Only by including women in the process will their interests be heard, ultimately challenging the masculine nature of politics. Furthermore, politics cannot be removed from other important areas affecting women, including health care, reproductive rights, education, and employment. All of these areas are inextricably linked. Politics is only one of the many contexts in which women need inclusion to achieve gender equality.