A few days after International Women’s Day and with the U.S. abuzz with the prospect that Hillary Rodham Clinton might, possibly, get elected as the first female president, it’s worth remembering that women have already made that political leap on this side of the Atlantic.
Since Britain’s Margaret Thatcher became the first woman elected to run a European Union country in 1979, 17 of the 28 EU countries have had female presidents or prime ministers.
The United States sits in 72nd place in the international rankings for women in parliament, tied with Panama. Just 19.4% of seats in Congress are occupied by women. In contrast, 35% of lawmakers in the European Parliament are female.
In Sweden, Finland and Spain, women make up more than 40% of local lawmakers.
The European picture is not all rosy. Eight EU nations rank lower than the U.S. for female representation. Bottom of the heap is Hungary, with just 10%. Greece’s victorious Syriza party shocked left-wing supporters across Europe by including no women in the cabinet it formed in January.
The EU’s foreign policy chief Federica Mogherini had just two female companions at a meeting of European foreign ministers that opened Friday in Latvia, and male leaders currently outnumber women 23-to-5 at EU summits.
Of course, the most powerful of them all is a woman — German Chancellor Angela Merkel. But one could equally argue that just as impressive is Dalia Grybauskaite, President of Lithuania, a tiny Baltic country with a population of about 3 million people
When it comes to standing up to Vladimir Putin, few of Europe’s male leaders can match the “cojones” of Lithuania’s president. A karate black-belt who speaks five languages, 59-year-old Grybauskaite is one of Europe’s strongest critics of the Russian leader’s muscling in on Ukraine.
Last year she denounced Putin’s Russia as a “terrorist state” and compared him to Hitler and Stalin. Those are brave words for a country of just 3 million that shares a border with Russia and does most of its trade with its giant neighbor.
Yet Grybauskaite’s tough stance goes down well with the Lithuanians — she was re-elected last year with 58% of the vote. Backing up the defiant language, Grybauskaite has in recent weeks overseen the installation of a giant floating gas terminal to reduce energy dependence on Russian imports, and she’s just announced the reintroduction of the draft to bulk up the armed forces.
She is obviously a formidable woman and has succeeded in a country that generally reflects “traditional gender roles” in society. Lithuania has a highly educated workforce and we in the UK have benefited from many of them coming to work here where they usually speak impeccable English.