In celebration of Women’s History Month and International Women’s Day (March 8) we thought we’d try something a bit different for the blog. We asked the foreign law specialists, analysts, and interns at the Law Library of Congress to provide responses to a series of questions related to the history of women’s rights in various countries. Margaret also contributed information on the U.S. We particularly wanted to highlight some of the important milestones and people around the world in three areas: women’s suffrage, political participation, and involvement in the legal profession.
In our first post, we looked at women’s voting rights. Today we highlight women who have been elected to national legislatures and as the leaders of different countries. Our final post will cover women in the law, including the first women lawyers and judges in different countries.
QUESTIONS: When was the first woman elected to parliament? What is the current percentage of women in parliament? Has a woman ever been elected to lead the country?
ARGENTINA (by Graciela Rodriguez-Ferrand): Juanita Larrauri from the Entre Ríos Province became the first woman senator in 1951. The following year, in 1952, Seferina del Carmen Rodriguez de Copa from the Salta Province became the first female national diputada (representative). Law 24,012 of November 1991 requires that women candidates make up at least 30% of party lists in parliamentary elections. Currently, 37% of the seats in the Chamber of Deputies and 40% of the seats in the Senate are held by women. Cristina Fernandez de Kirchner was the first woman ever elected to the presidency in 2007. However, Isabel Martinez de Perón became president in 1974 when she, as vice president, assumed the presidency following the death of her husband, President Juan Domingo Perón. She held the position until 1976.
BRAZIL (by Eduardo Soares): In 1933, Carlota Pereira de Queirós, a physician from the state of São Paulo, became the first woman elected to the National Congress. She was elected to the Chamber of Deputies and participated in the Constituent Assembly that discussed, voted on, and implemented a new Constitution for the country. Following the 2014 elections, 51 of the 513 deputies (about 10%) in the Chamber of Deputies (lower house) are women. In the Federal Senate, women represent 13.6% of the total 81 members, with 11 senators. In 2010, Brazil elected the first woman in its history as president of the republic. Dilma Vana Roussef, the former Chief of Staff (Ministra da Casa Civil) of the previous administration, was elected with 56% of the votes. She was re-elected for a second term in 2014.
CHINA (by Laney Zhang): The First National People’s Congress (NPC) of the People’s Republic of China (PRC), which sat from 1954 to 1959, had 147 women deputies, accounting for 12% of the total. The current 12th NPC reportedly has the highest percentage of women in the history of the NPC: 23.4%, totaling 699 women out of the 2,987 representatives. The current Electoral Law requires that there be “an appropriate number” of women deputies in the NPC and the local people’s congresses, and the law also states that the proportion of women deputies “shall be raised gradually.” No woman has been elected to the presidency, nor has any woman been a member of the Politburo Standing Committee of the Communist Party of China since the PRC’s founding in 1949.
EGYPT (by George Sadek): In the 1957 elections, Rawya ‘Atiya was elected as the first woman parliamentarian in Egypt (and the first in the Arab world). There is currently no Egyptian parliament due to the Egyptian Shura Council (the upper house) being dissolved in July 2013 (it was later abolished). People’s Assembly had previously been dissolved in June 2012. Elections for the new unicameral parliament were originally scheduled to take place starting this month (March 2015), but will likely now be delayed following a Supreme Court decision. The Court struck down part of the new law on the People’s Assembly (Law No. 46 of 2014). Under that law, the parliament would comprise a total of 567 members, with 56 of the 120 available list seats reserved for women.
FRANCE (by Nicolas Boring): Two women, Marthe Simard and Lucie Aubrac, were nominated to the Assemblée consultative provisoire (Provisional Consultative Assembly), which was an assembly of representatives of the different factions of the French Resistance during the Second World War. However, it would not be until after the end of the war, on October 21, 1945, that women would actually be elected to a national assembly. On that date, 33 women were elected to the National Constituent Assembly. Currently, 87 out of 261 (25%) French senators and 155 out of 577 (21%) National Assembly representatives are women. No woman has been elected as president of France so far, but there has been a woman prime minister: Edith Cresson, who served from May 1991 to April 1992.
GERMANY (by Wendy Zeldin): Women had the right to vote and stand for election for the first time in the elections to the constituent National Assembly (Weimarer Nationalversammlung) of January 19, 1919. Marie Juchacz was one of 37 women (subsequently rising to 41) elected to the short-lived National Assembly and gave the first speech as a legislator on February 19, 1919. Currently, 230 of the 631 seats (36.5%) of the Bundestag (parliament) and 28 of the 69 seats (40.5%) of the Bundesrat (representation of the German states) are held by women. Angela Merkel is the first woman to serve as Chancellor (head of government) of the Federal Republic of Germany. She has held the position from 2005 to the present. Shortly before reunification of West and East Germany, for a few months in 1990, Sabine Bergmann-Pohl served as Acting President (head of state) of the former communist German Democratic Republic.
GREECE (by Theresa Papademetriou): In 1952, Heleni Skoura was the first woman elected as a member of the Greek parliament. Following the January 2015 elections, women hold 56 seats in parliament out of a total of 300 (18.7%). A woman, Zoi Konstantopoulou, was appointed as the speaker of the parliament. No woman has ever been elected as a prime minister.
INDONESIA (by Constance Johnson): In the first general election of 1955, 17 women were elected to the national legislature (holding 6.5% of the seats). Women currently make up about 17% of the members of the People’s Representative Council (lower house) and 26% of the members of the Regional Representative Council (upper house). Under the election laws, at least 30% of each party’s candidate list must be comprised of women. Megawati Sukarnoputri became the first female president of Indonesia in 2001 when the parliament removed the previous president, Abdurrahman Wahid, and named her president. She held the position until 2004.
ISRAEL (by Ruth Levush): Twelve women were elected to the First Knesset (Israeli parliament) in the January 1949 elections. The percentage of women in the current (outgoing) Knesset is 22.5% (27 of the 120 members). The first woman ever elected to lead the country was Golda Meir, who served as prime minister from 1969 to 1974. She was elected as a member of the Knesset in the 1949 elections and also served as foreign minister from 1956 to 1966.
JAPAN (by Sayuri Umeda): Thirty-nine women were elected to the House of Representatives in the 1946 election (about 8% of the 464 seats). Following the December 2014 election, currently 9.5% of the members of the House of Representatives (lower house) and 15.7% of the members of the House of Councillors (upper house) are women.
MEXICO (by Gustavo Guerra): Aurora Jiménez de Palacios was the first woman elected to Mexico’s House of Representatives in 1954. Alicia Arellano Tapia and María Lavalle Urbina were the first two women elected to the Mexican Senate in 1964. The current percentage of women in Mexico’s House of Representatives is 40% (200 women, 300 men). In the Mexican Senate, the percentage is 33.6% (44 women, 84 men).
NEW ZEALAND (by Kelly Buchanan): Women were not able to stand for parliament in New Zealand until the passage of the Women’s Parliamentary Rights Act, 1919. Elizabeth McCombs later became the first woman elected to parliament when she won a by-election in 1933. Currently, around 30% of the members of the unicameral parliament are women. New Zealand’s first female prime minister was Jenny Shipley, who became prime minister in 1997 (remaining in the role until 1999) following the resignation of the previous prime minister. The first woman elected prime minister of New Zealand was Helen Clark, who held the position from 1999 to 2008.
NICARAGUA (by Norma Gutiérrez): In the 1957 election, Dr. Olga Nuñez de Saballos became the first woman to be elected to the Nicaraguan House of Representatives (Cámara de Diputados). Currently, there are 38 women (41.3 %) in the 92-member unicameral National Assembly. Under the Electoral Law (Law No. 331/2000, as amended by Law No. 790/2012), the electoral lists of political parties that participate in the National Assembly elections must include 50% men and 50% women candidates. Nicaragua’s first and only female president to date was Violeta Barrios de Chamorro, who served from 1990 to 1997.
PAKISTAN (by Tariq Ahmad): Begum Shaista Suhrawardy Ikramullah and Begum Jahanara Shahnawaz were the only female representatives in Pakistan’s first Constituent Assembly, which convened in August 1947. Currently, in Pakistan’s National Assembly (lower house) women hold 70 seats out of 342 (20.5%). In the Senate (upper house) women hold 17 seats out of 100 (17%). There are 60 reserved seats for women in the lower house and 17 reserved seats in the upper house. In 1988, Benazir Bhutto was the first woman to be elected as prime minister of Pakistan. She is considered the first woman to head the government of a Muslim country.
RUSSIA (by Peter Roudik): The first nine women were elected to the 767-seat legislative body on November 25, 1917. Today, Russia’s bicameral legislature consists of 618 members, 87 (14%) of whom are women.
SOUTH AFRICA (by Hanibal Goitom): The 1930 Women’s Enfranchisement Act accorded white women the right to stand and be elected for legislative bodies. In 1934, Mabel Catherine Malherbe became the first woman member of parliament. Prior to that, in 1931 she was elected mayor of Pretoria and in 1933 she was elected to the Transvaal Provincial Council. At present, 163 of the 400 seats (41%) in the National Assembly (lower house) and 19 of the 54 seats (35%) in the National Council of Provinces (NCOP) (upper house) are held by women. Both the speaker of the National Assembly and the chairperson of the NCOP in the current parliament are women.
THAILAND (by Ployparn Ekraksasilpchai): On June 5, 1949 (B.E. 2492), Ms. Orapin Chaikarn became the first woman elected to sit in the Thai parliament. In 2014, 16% of the seats were held by women, compared to 13% in 2010. Ms. Yingluck Shinawatra, the younger sister of former prime minister Mr. Thaksin Shinawatra, was the first woman prime minister of Thailand. She was the 28th prime minister and held the position from August 2011 to May 2014.
UNITED KINGDOM (by Clare Feikert): The Parliament (Qualification of Women) Act 1918 provided that women could be elected to, and sit, in parliament. Constance Markievicz was the first woman elected to parliament in 1918. However, she was a Sinn Fein member and as a result did not take her seat. The first woman elected to actually take her seat was Nancy Astor in 1919. The most influential woman member of parliament to date is Margaret Thatcher. She took her seat as a member in 1959, entered the Cabinet in 1970, and was elected as the leader of the Conservative Party in 1975. She became the first woman to be prime minister in 1979, a position that she held until 1990. Currently, 25% of members of parliament are women.
UNITED STATES (by Margaret Wood): Jeanette Rankin of Montana was the first woman elected to Congress as a member of the House of Representatives on August 29, 1916 – four years before the passage of the Nineteenth Amendment that gave all women in the U.S. the right to vote. She took her seat in the House on April 2, 1917, when she was sworn in as a member of the 65th Congress (1917-1919). The first woman appointed to the Senate was Rebecca Felton who served for 24 hours during a special session of the 67th Congress. Hattie Caraway was the first woman elected to the Senate in 1932. Currently 20% of Congress are women. In 2007, Nancy Pelosi became the first woman to be the Speaker of the House of Representatives.
You have forgotten Finland, which was a Grand Duchy when universal suffrage was adopted in the country 1906. New Zealand is always mentioned as the country where women were the first to gain the right to vote, but women were not able to stand for parliament in New Zealand until the passage of the Women’s Parliamentary Rights Act, 1919. They were in the Grand Duchy of Finland from 1906. In the 1907 elections 19 women (out of 200 seats in the parliament) were elected.
This is lovely. Thank you for wour work. I am wondering if anyone happens to know about state-level (as opposed to federal level) women legislators. I am using the vocabulary for the U.S. but I am wondering about world-wide. I know in the U.S. that distinction belongs to Colorado in 1895 when (in Nov. 1894) Carrie Clyde Holly of Pueblo County and Clara Cressingham and Frances Klock of Ararpahoe County were the first U.S. Women to serve as state legislators. Does anyone know of any legislators elected earlier than that year?
The first woman in any parliament in Australia was Edith Cowan. On the 12th of March 1921, she won the seat of West Perth and entered the Western Australian Parliament.