PARIS – Are women in Europe on the verge of becoming an engine for political change? In economic-development circles, experience and common sense suggest that progress, accountability, and hard work start with and depend on women. Micro-credits, for example, are much more efficient when women receive and repay them. Perhaps because they bear children and must find the means to feed them, women are now perceived as the best and most determined “agents of change.”
That seems to be as true now of European politics as it has been of economics in parts of Africa and Asia. The results of Italy’s recent municipal elections could be a signal of an incipient electoral dynamic: it was women who voted Silvio Berlusconi’s party out of power in Milan, a city that he has long controlled (and the original seat of his power).
No direct link exists between that result and the dramatic Dominique Strauss-Kahn scandal in New York, but in the immediate aftermath of DSK’s arrest, Italian women and young voters decisively mobilized to defeat Berlusconi’s party (led in Milan, ironically, by a woman). These voters could no longer stand the combination of machismo and vulgarity that had once served so well the man Italian humorists now call “Berlus-Kahn.”
When Berlusconi first came to power 17 years ago, he had the support of a majority of women. They were not discouraged by his ambivalent perception of them (by turns celebrating their traditional domesticity and glorifying their sexual objectification). But Italian society has changed: most women are now working, and they are no longer willing to accept Belusconi’s anachronistic and outrageous chauvinism.
Italian men may pity the aging, isolated leader, who looks increasingly like his wax effigy at Madame Tussaud’s. But Italian women (indeed, women everywhere, it seems) feel only anger and humiliation over a man so obsessed with himself, his various criminal trials, and his vulgar pleasures that he appears to them to have no purpose left except to remain in power as long as possible.
Women, of course, are not alone in their opposition to Berlusconi, but they made the difference in Milan. They are the incarnation of modernity, animated by a yearning for simple dignity and respect.
They are not alone in the vanguard of a new Europe of women. As Iceland spiraled into bankruptcy, owing the irresponsible behavior of its mostly male political and financial elites, the people of Iceland decided that only a strong and responsible woman could redress the country’s problems. So they elected one as President.
The depth and gravity of the current economic and social crisis in countries like Greece, Portugal, and Spain present women with a new opportunity. Confronted with what many of them perceive as the equivalent of an “economic war,” women are playing an increasingly important role in maintaining their families’ financial security. And the more widespread this becomes, the more women will seek a political role that reflects their economic clout.
Of course, women’s changing status may not translate immediately into growing political influence. And the rest of Europe might never follow the example of Scandinavia, where gender equality has advanced much further than anywhere else. But such a dynamic does now seem to be in motion.
Similarly, regardless of the outcome of DSK’s trial in New York, the case might represent a turning point in the treatment of women in Europe. Public and private displays of atavistic machismo, one hopes, will no longer be considered acceptable.
In the Arab world, too, from Tunis to Cairo, young women have played an important role in the revolutionary process. Their appetite for change – understandable, given the treatment of women in traditional Muslim societies – appears to be one of the main causes underlying the force of the revolutionary impulse in Tunisia and Egypt.
None of this is to argue that “women” are a universal force for positive change in Europe and around the world. Consider, for example, Marine Le Pen, the new head of France’s National Front, Elena Ceaucescu, the sordid wife of the former Romanian dictator, or, more recently, Tunisian ex-President Zine El Abidine Ben Ali’s wife, Leila Trabelsi, who fled to Dubai with 1.5 tons of gold plundered from the central bank.
The point, simply, is that with so many people in so many countries demanding far-reaching change, the politics of gender is very much in play – in Europe and beyond. The main question is whether the growing number of women in politics will deliver the different perspectives and modes of leadership that many voters (or protesters) now seem to crave.