After Machismo's Long Reign, Women Gain in Spain

Spain's first female vice president, Maria Teresa Fernandez de la Vega, and the Socialist government are leading a cultural shift toward gender equity.
Spain's first female vice president, Maria Teresa Fernandez de la Vega, and the Socialist government are leading a cultural shift toward gender equity. (By Paul White -- Associated Press)
By Molly Moore
Washington Post Foreign Service
Saturday, October 7, 2006

MADRID -- When Maria Teresa Fernandez de la Vega graduated from law school in the 1970s, Spanish law prohibited her -- and any other woman -- from becoming a judge, serving as a witness in court or opening a bank account.

Today, the angular, outspoken 57-year-old is Spain's first female vice president, helping orchestrate a cultural revolution in the boardrooms and living rooms of the country that coined the word machismo -- male chauvinism -- five centuries ago.

"We have a prime minister who not only says he's a feminist -- he acts like a feminist," Fernandez de la Vega said in her cavernous office of polished wood floors and cream-colored sofas. "In two and one-half years, we have done more than has ever been done in such a short time in Spain."

Her Socialist government is requiring political parties to allot 40 percent of their candidate lists to women and is telling big companies to give women 40 percent of the seats on corporate boards. Half of Prime Minister Jose Luis Rodriquez Zapatero's cabinet members are women -- the highest proportion in any government in Europe.

New divorce laws not only make it easier for couples to split but stipulate that marital obligations require men to share the housework equally with their wives.

To draw more women into the armed forces, the government is shrinking the height requirements for women entering the National Guard and opening child-care centers on military bases.

Not even the royal family is immune: Zapatero wants to abolish the law giving male heirs first rights to the throne.

The push for gender equality in one of Europe's most macho cultures comes as both internal and outside forces are creating seismic social shifts: Spanish women are taking greater control of their own lives by waiting longer to marry and having fewer children. The European Union is exerting more pressure on members to enforce equality. And the growth of high-tech businesses with a greater sensitivity to hiring women is expanding job opportunities.

The chief executives of Spain's IBM, Microsoft and Google operations are all women. In many cases, they are not only hiring more female employees than traditional industries, but they are attempting to make the workplace more family-friendly.

Microsoft chief Rosa Maria Garcia, a 40-year-old mother of three, said she has mandated that no company meetings be scheduled before 8:30 a.m. or after 5:30 p.m. -- a revolutionary move in a country where workdays routinely stretch until 9 or 10 p.m.

Despite the advances, Fernandez said, "There is resistance. We have a long way to go."

Business organizations are attacking the proposed quotas for women on corporate boards. Some Catholic Church officials denounce decisions allowing gay couples to marry and liberalization of abortion laws as "demonic." Despite new laws cracking down on domestic violence, the number of women murdered by their partners has escalated this year -- in part, some sociologists believe, because men are striking back even harder at spouses who dare to report abuses to police.

CONTINUED     1        >

© 2006 The Washington Post Company