Spanish government joins those embracing feminist approach

Spain’s new prime minister has appointed a cabinet comprised of 65 percent women. Is that enough for a government to be called ‘feminist’?

By: /
July 13, 2018
Spain's new government members pose for a family photo following their first cabinet meeting at the Moncloa Palace in Madrid, Spain, June 8, 2018. REUTERS/Susana Vera

The photo-op started out like any other: Spain’s newly appointed government gathered outside the steps of the Moncloa Palace, with Prime Minister Pedro Sánchez front and centre, smiling as dozens of cameras clicked.

Yet this June, when the Spanish Socialist Workers’ Party took office, something stood out. There were fewer black suits, and in their place, bright red jumpsuits, skirts and dresses.

For the first time in Spain’s history, female ministers outnumber the men.

This new government landed by unusual means. There were no elections or running platforms: Sánchez simply replaced former Prime Minister Mariano Rajoy by leading a no confidence vote to oust Rajoy after Rajoy’s conservative People’s Party was convicted in a corruption scandal.

But in a more deliberate move, Sánchez gained international attention by choosing 11 women and six men to make up his cabinet. A gender-balanced cabinet had only been seen once in Spain, when the Socialist Party under José Luis Rodríguez Zapatero was first elected in 2004.

Headlines across the world have declared Spain’s new government the most feminist in all of Europe, quoting Sánchez’s promise to be “unmistakably committed to equality.” And as far as numbers go, Spain does have the cabinet with the greatest representation of women in the world. While roughly 50 percent of cabinet members in Canada, Sweden, France, Bulgaria, Slovenia, Nicaragua and Rwanda are women, Spain’s new government is 65 percent female.

Yet the presence of women doesn’t necessarily make a government feminist. As Canada and Sweden have shown with their own feminist policies — including those that address the low number of women in armed forces and more clearly-defined sexual assault laws — legislators have to actively tackle women’s issues and listen to women’s demands to show that they are committed to a more equal world.

Spain, then, will have to prove itself.

"Spain’s new cabinet has taken power during a critical time for women’s rights in the country’s history."

“A feminist government should, of course, have a gender-balance composition, which in this case it does,” said Tania Verge, assistant professor of political science and the director of the Equality Unit at Pompeu Fabra University. “But it should also have an approach to public policy and legislation that mainstreams gender equality throughout the government.”

Spain’s new cabinet has taken power during a critical time for women’s rights in the country’s history. On March 8th, for International Women’s Day, millions of women in Spain took to the streets, demanding, among other things, an end to gender violence. One month later, the country’s own #MeToo movement took off, after five men accused of gang-raping a woman were charged with the lesser punishment of abuse, as opposed to rape. Since then, women’s rights activists and organizations have put even more emphasis on the need for a state action plan that would combat gender violence. And there are more items on the movement’s agenda: the demand for equal pay in the workplace (with a current pay gap of 5.76 euros), a more expansive paternity and maternity leave, and in general, a need to look at policies through a feminist lens.

Since the new government took office last month, some changes have been made. Sánchez not only appointed a majority-female cabinet, but some of the women he appointed are now overseeing predominately male-dominated sectors such as finance, economy and defence. Sánchez also restored Spain’s Ministry of Equality — an entity dedicated to fighting discrimination and bringing more women into politics — and appointed Carmen Calvo, a self-proclaimed feminist, in charge of the ministry and as  deputy prime minister.

Spain government 2
The new Spanish government, from left to right, top to bottom: Prime Minister Pedro Sanchez; Deputy Prime Minister Carmen Calvo; Foreign Minister Josep Borrell; Justice Minister Dolores Delgado; Budget Minister Maria Jesus Montero; Agriculture Minister Luis Planas; Science Minister Pedro Duque; Labour Minister Magdalena Valerio; Economy Minister Nadia Calvino; Development Minister Jose Luis Abalos; Energy and Environment Minister Teresa Ribera; Education Minister Isabel Celaa; Culture and Sport Minister Maxim Huerta; Health Minister Carmen Monton; Industry Minister Reyes Maroto; Regional Administration Minister Meritxell Batet; Defence Minister Margarita Robles; and Interior Minister Fernando Grande-Marlaska. REUTERS/Sergio Perez

In a recent meeting, Calvo promised to funnel more money into city governments to combat gender violence, bring gender equality education into schools, and change the country’s sexual assault laws to, like Sweden, define ‘rape’ as when a victim did not give explicit consent.

During his first televised interview as prime minister, Sánchez promised to improve the country’s state action plan to combat gender violence — a plan which was approved last year by the previous administration. The policies within the plan, however, have not yet been implemented, and some of them were criticized for not addressing the issue in full. The new government has also said it will penalize companies that pay women less than men and make the duration of paternity and maternity leave equal.

Overall, Sánchez’s government has put forward policies that show an openness the country has not seen in recent years. As Europe continues to face an immigration crisis, with some countries closing its borders and anti-migrant sentiment on the rise, Spain took in two rescue vessels carrying migrants that were denied entry in Italy and Malta. But it’s unclear whether or not that falls underneath a deliberate ‘feminist’ approach, highlighting the challenge in defining the label.

Patrícia Martínez i Àlvarez, associate professor at the University of Barcelona focusing on gender and history, says she’s skeptical of labelling the government one way or the other.

“I don’t consider the new government feminist,” she said. “Or at least, it doesn’t necessarily mean that it’s feminist. I think it’s important to distinguish between the presence of women and the possibility of ‘feminizing’ politics.”

Martínez i Àlvarez considers the Barcelona en Comú political party, led by mayor Ada Colau, to be one of the few examples of a government that’s actually ‘feminizing’ politics. They’ve brought to the public’s attention women’s issues and taken specific actions to address them. To Martínez i Àlvarez, feminized laws should also put the human person at the centre; they should prioritize people over corporations, she said.

“I think we can’t forget that it’s been a slogan for [the new Spanish] government, that they’ve used the idea that because they’re majority female, [it implies that] it’s a feminist government,” said Martínez i Àlvarez. “Like with any other government, I would wait. You can’t just say it, you have to be it and live it.”

"Like with any other government, I would wait. You can’t just say it, you have to be it and live it."

Martínez i Àlvarez emphasized the need for real action in order to back up such framing, starting with judicial reform. She cited the case of the five men charged with abuse sparking Spain’s #MeToo movement who, late last month, were let go on bail as they wait an appeal decision. Justice Minister Dolores Delgado responded by saying there needs to be a “mental reform” in Spain’s judiciary system. Martínez i Àlvarez agreed, arguing that, while a cultural change is indeed needed, a judicial change is just as crucial.

Sofía Castañón, secretary of intersectional feminism and LGBTI with Spain’s left-wing populist Podemos party, has been involved in politics as an activist and, now, as a politician since a very young age. She applauds Sánchez’s decision to appoint a gender-equal cabinet, but says that until something gets done, this is only a gesture.

“The positive side of this, for those of us who are feminists, is that a government that makes feminist gestures” is more likely to listen to feminist demands, said Castañón.

But while a female-majority government doesn’t necessarily make a government feminist, a “true feminist government” is not so easy to define. Castañón believes a feminist government is one that takes women’s demands into consideration, and brings the female lens into political discussions — everything from economy to immigration to housing.

Martínez i Àlvarez thinks it would require something more drastic: a complete eradication of the old system and the creation of a new one.

“We need to radically change institutions and power dynamics,” she said.

The current political system was built on a patriarchal foundation, she adds, so while this system is still in place, it’s virtually impossible to create a feminist government. The way things are set up now, she says, women are occupying a political space that was created by men and for men.

While there are different views on what a feminist government looks like, many agree on one thing: in order to pass legislation that favours women, there needs to be fairer representation of women in positions of power.

According to the United Nations, as of June 2016, only 22.8 percent of all national parliaments were female. Marta Val, program specialist at UN Women’s Leadership and Governance, said that only 17 countries around the world have a woman as the head of government.

“So I think this sets a precedent and also raises the level in terms of what a cabinet in the modern world, in the future, would look like,” said Val. “It sends a powerful message that this can be done just with political will.”

Verge, the assistant professor at Pompeu Fabra University, says that, in order for a feminist approach to be introduced, it matters very much who is in the central government. Spain’s former conservative administration proved difficult for feminist groups to pass gender violence legislation, and they’re hoping that this time around, it’ll be different.

“If women are half the population, or 51 percent, women should also be half of all decision-making positions,” said Verge. “It’s the only way to guarantee that women’s experiences meet expectations, or are taken into account in the policy-making process.”

Yet Martínez i Àlvarez says that it’s not about the number of women that hold positions of power; it’s that without women, it’s impossible to get to a place were feminist policies are introduced.

“Spain isn’t feminist, many women in Spain and in Catalonia are feminists,” said Martínez i Àlvarez. “The world, the only thing it needs right now, is feminism. Without feminism, there won’t be any transformation, neither here nor in America nor anywhere.”