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Carolyn Hax

Carolyn Hax

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Posted at 10:34 PM ET, 05/09/2012

Michele Bachmann’s new Swiss political world

Today we learned that Michele Bachmann has applied for and been granted Swiss citizenship.

That’s a surprising development, given her general view of European-style welfare states.

I also wonder if Bachmann is aware that Switzerland is a particularly interesting country when it comes to the status of women in politics.

It has moved farther and faster than most countries have — including our own, where the number of female elected officials has plateaued in recent years.

Not until 1971 did women got the right to vote in Swiss national elections, but since then, the country has elected three female presidents.

On Tuesday morning, just about the time that news was breaking about Bachmann’s new claim to dual citizenship, there was an interesting discussion going on on the subject of how women politicians fare in Switzerland the United States. It was at a forum on Capitol Hill devoted to strengthening political participation by women, sponsored by Harvard’s Kennedy School, the Woodrow Wilson International Center for Scholars and the Embassy of Switzerland.

The panelists included two U.S. senators — Republican Kay Bailey Hutchison of Texas and Democrat Amy Klobuchar of Minnesota — and Christa Markwalder, a member of the Swiss national parliament. In Markwalder’s first election, to the Bern canton council in 2002, one of the incumbents she knocked out of office was her own father. (She noted that he got re-elected after she moved on to higher office.)

Switzerland was woefully behind the rest of the world in giving women the right to participate in the political system; most of Europe did it shortly after World War I. In one of Switzerland’s 26 cantons (the equivalent of states), it took a 1991 Federal Supreme Court ruling for women to get the right to vote in cantonal-level elections.

And how quickly they have moved since then. Where in the United States only 17 percent of the members of Congress are women, 27 percent of the federal Swiss parliament members are. As are three of the seven Swiss cabinet members.

“Still, women are heavily underrepresented when it comes to positions in crucial eoncomic and political decision-making bodies,” said Swiss ambassador Manuel Sager.

The American women noted that things have changed for them as well, in ways both large and small.

Klobuchar, for instance, noted the day that she was surprised to see her husband John Bessler walking across the Capitol lawn, lugging a big pink package. When she asked him what he was doing there, he told her: ”It’s a Senate spouse event. I’m going to [Virginia Senator] Jim Webb’s wife’s baby shower.”

And Hutchison said she believes that one thing that has made women more equipped for electoral politics is Title 9, the 1972 legislation that required equal funding for women’s sports.

Hutchison recalled that when she was interviewing Lynne Cheney a few years back, for a book on female trailblazers, the former vice president’s wife lamented that she had not been able to compete in sports. Instead, she nurtured her competitive side by becoming a state-champion baton twirler.

But Cheney seemed a bit embarrassed, Hutchison recalled.

“Just to retrieve my dignity here,” she told Hutchison, “[Supreme Court justice] Ruth Bader Ginsburg was also a baton twirler.”

By  |  10:34 PM ET, 05/09/2012

 
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