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After Machismo's Long Reign, Women Gain in Spain

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.

Many men scoff at the law's efforts to legislate home life.

"Just because Zapatero says by law men have to do dishes, men are not going to do dishes," said Alberto Fuertes, a stocky, square-faced 37-year-old owner of a small factory. "That's ridiculous. It's totally absurd."

A recent government-sponsored television advertisement showed a man meticulously washing his car and admonished that if a guy can clean his auto, there's nothing unmanly in helping his wife pick up around the house.

Some women also take potshots at Zapatero's reforms and the women he has promoted to help him run the country.

After Zapatero filled eight of his 16 cabinet positions -- including the vice presidency -- with women, "the first thing they did was have a picture taken dressed up in party dresses and full of furs," sniped Ana Pastor, a member of the lower house of parliament and one of the most senior women in the opposition Popular Party. She was referring to a controversial photo spread of the female cabinet members in the Spanish edition of Vogue two years ago. "The vice president of the government, Fernandez de la Vega, is known as Fernandez de la Vogue."

Zapatero, elected in part on his promises to improve the station of women, has said his mission is to make up for lost time.

"One thing that really awakens my rebellious streak is 20 centuries of one sex dominating the other," Zapatero said shortly after his election. "We talk of slavery, feudalism, exploitation -- but the most unjust domination is that of one-half of the human race over the other."

During the height of the sexual revolution in the United States and other parts of Europe, Spain was just beginning to emerge from decades of dictatorship under Generalissimo Francisco Franco and a legal system that did not recognize rights for women. Domestic violence was considered a means of disciplining wives rather than a criminal violation, and many jobs were closed to women.

Despite advances in government opportunities for women, the Spanish private sector remains one of the most chauvinistic in Europe. Women sit on less than 5 percent of corporate boards and overall earn 30 percent less than their male counterparts. It remains common practice for companies to fire pregnant women, according to women's organizations and victims.

"The culture and tradition of machista is very deeply ingrained in the mentality of everyone," said Carmen Bravo, secretary for women's issues for Spain's largest labor union, known by the initials CCOO.

Fuertes, whose small factory makes mattress covers, said he has no problem hiring women -- all 11 of his employees are women, most between the ages of 46 and 55.

"The older generation of women are used to working hard," said Fuertes, balancing his 2 1/2 -year-old daughter on his lap after returning home at the end of a recent workday. "If I hire a 36-year-old, the problem is that she's going to take a lot of days off to take her child to the doctor. She knows her rights and knows I can't do anything about that."

At home, Fuertes said, it's not Zapatero's laws, but his working wife who has persuaded him to share in the cooking and cleaning.

At his parent's home, "My father crosses his arms and says to my mother, 'Bring me my coffee,' " Fuertes said. "My mother does everything -- she irons and cooks and cleans. Women now don't want to be like their mothers."

And if Alba, his daughter, grew up to marry a man like grandpa?

"I would not be happy," said Fuertes, as his toddler nestled against his chest. "It would go against everything I've tried to teach her."

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