Foreign Policy: Why The World Needs More Nancy Alexandra Starr thinks the world needs more female lawmakers, but says a quota system might not necessarily get us there. In countries that adopt quotas, female legislators tend to be junior players who can be stymied by misogynistic old boys clubs. Though progress happens, retrenched anti-feminism is no stranger.
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Foreign Policy: Why The World Needs More Nancy

Democratic House members applaud as U.S. Speaker of the House Rep. Nancy Pelosi stands up after she signed the Senate Health Reform bill on Capitol Hill in Washington, DC. Alexandra Starr argues that parliaments around the world need more female representation like Pelosi. Alex Wong/Getty Images hide caption

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Democratic House members applaud as U.S. Speaker of the House Rep. Nancy Pelosi stands up after she signed the Senate Health Reform bill on Capitol Hill in Washington, DC. Alexandra Starr argues that parliaments around the world need more female representation like Pelosi.

Alex Wong/Getty Images

When the Indian Parliament passed a bill earlier this month requiring that a third of the body's seats be reserved for women, Prime Minister Manmohan Singh described the vote as a "historic step forward toward emancipation of Indian womanhood." But if anything, the Indians are late to the party. More than 100 countries already have gender-based quotas in their legislatures, and if the experience of these nations is any indication, Singh announced Mission Accomplished a little early.

That's because, in most cases worldwide, an influx of female legislators has led to few noticeable changes in policy. To be sure, individual women leaders around the world have proved very influential — look no further than U.S. Speaker of the House Nancy Pelosi, who played a pivotal role in ushering health-care reform through Congress. But in countries that adopt quotas, female legislators tend to be junior players who can be stymied by misogynistic old boys clubs. And the unintended consequences range from culture shock to retrenched anti-feminism to, every now and then, progress in surprising areas.

In Argentina, the transition from an almost all-male parliament to including 30 percent (now almost 40 percent) women was rocky at first. Some female legislators were turned away when they tried to enter el Congreso through the entrance reserved for deputies: The guards would explain that girlfriends needed to use a different doorway. "That particularly happened to the attractive deputies," Mark Jones, a Rice University political science professor who studies Latin American electoral politics, observes wryly.

One questionable custom — converting the dining hall, popularly known as the anexo, into a bar in the evenings where male legislators could rub shoulders with young women — was eventually discontinued after more women took up seats as deputies. Once the congressional gender composition was altered, running what was effectively a nocturnal meat market within the country's most august legislative building began to look less seemly.

When it comes to policy, however, change isn't always as easy to come by. For one, a double X chromosome doesn't guarantee that a representative will champion issues like access to contraception and subsidized child care. And even if she does, party bosses often stand in the way of getting things done. Part of the problem is inherent in the quota system itself. As I wrote in an article for Slate, women who enter politics through a quota system often have to keep their higher-ups happy because they are generally elected in countries where citizens vote for parties rather than for individual candidates. That means if a candidate runs afoul of party bigwigs, she can be expunged from the ballot, as in the case of former Argentine national deputy Marcela Durrieu, who was kicked out of the party along with her allies when her push for women's rights antagonized Buenos Aires's male old guard.

The female dependence on male party leaders is underscored in some countries by ugly nicknames. In Britain, where Tory leader David Cameron has actively recruited female candidates, the press has tagged some of the new pols "Cameron's cuties." In Argentina, women parliamentarians are occasionally referred to as "mujeres de," or "women of," the implication being that they owe their jobs to the men heading their parties.

In many cases these politicians do have an uncomfortably close connection to party bosses: Wives and sisters are frequently the first people a politician turns to when he is forced to put women on the ballot. Partly for this reason, gender quotas generally haven't increased socioeconomic diversity. Opponents of the Indian initiative pointed to this tendency as a reason to scuttle the legislation. Politicians who arrived through the quota, they alleged, would be upper caste and as such could hardly be expected to champion the interests of the poor female masses.

Of course, it's not just sexist barriers that impede women from enacting progressive legislation. As Michelle Taylor-Robinson, a political science professor at Texas A&M University, points out, freshmen politicians of both genders often find themselves too hamstrung to effect much change. "It takes skill and experience to craft legislation that will pass," she says. "It also takes time to rise to positions to achieve legislative goals." Because quotas are a relatively recent phenomenon, in many countries women are low down in seniority, and that curbs their influence.

Nonetheless, women who band together have been able to effect some change. After a quota law in Rwanda mandated that women take at least 30 percent of seats in Parliament, female legislators ushered through legislation that defined rape and protected victims of sexual abuse. Women can find themselves stymied when pushing for policies that will require resources or offend conservative sensibilities — building publicly funded child-care centers, for example, or requiring pay equity. But in her research in Honduras, where theoretically the legislature is supposed to be 30 percent female, but falls short of that number because there are no penalties for parties that flaunt the requirement, Taylor-Robinson learned women were able to move issues like domestic violence forward by finding common cause with their male counterparts. "They would convince men it was in their interest, too, by telling them they had wives and sisters and daughters," Taylor-Robinson explains.

Policy isn't just tweaked after women become a substantial portion of the representatives — the culture of institutions changes, too. When female politicians poured into the Argentine Congress after a quota law was enacted nearly two decades ago, legislators dropped the habit of passing seminal legislation in the wee hours of the morning. That new schedule wasn't just friendlier to working moms — it also improved transparency because there were more observers around to detect when sketchy amendments were slipped into legislation.

Sometimes cultural changes can extend beyond the walls of Congress. Peruvian politician Lourdes Flores — who for months was the front-runner to become her country's president in 2006 — found in focus groups that the more women who served in elected office, the more comfortable voters were installing a woman in the presidential suite. "Once voters see women in executive positions," says Joan Caivano, deputy director of the Inter-American Dialogue, "it becomes commonplace and they don't fear it."

That gradual acclimation arguably already has helped women climb their way to the very top. Consider Costa Rica, where former vice president and justice minister Laura Chinchilla was just elected president. The Central American country adopted a quota law two decades ago, and women now comprise more than a third of legislators. Against that backdrop, it didn't raise too many eyebrows when outgoing President Oscar Arias cultivated a woman as his successor. "He may not have done that when women were only 10 percent of the Congress," Jones points out.

To be sure, passing feminist legislation and potentially electing a female president are not the express purposes of legislative quotas. Proponents often promote the idea of "women serving as women" — in other words, the legislators will muscle through policies that will provide more government services and protections to a classically marginalized group. At this point, those expectations generally have not been fulfilled.

But the mere presence of women in politics changes the face of power, and that can have a far-reaching impact. It could be that if India ever elects a female prime minister who isn't a scion of the Gandhi dynasty, historians will look back to the adoption of the quota law as instrumental to her historic rise.