PR Could Bring a True "Year of the Woman"

Cynthia Terrell

Another "Year of the Man"

        The media labeled 1992 the "Year of the Woman." But a closer look at the elections shows that 1992 was little more than another "Year of the Man" -- no surprise to those who believe we need fairer voting systems to elect our leaders.
        Take the U.S. Senate. Five women were elected to the U.S. Senate in 1992, by far the most in U.S. history -- but so were 29 men. Only seven women serve in the Senate, leaving it 93% male (and only 1% are African-American or Latino). And although the percentage of women in the House of Representatives nearly doubled in 1992, it still is barely 10%. Yet already some political analysts were quick to call 1993 the "Year of the Un-Woman."

The Example of Europe
        The women's movement in the U.S. is arguably stronger than its counterpart in Europe, but you wouldn't know it by the number of women elected to office. The legislatures of Norway, Sweden, Finland and Denmark are all more than a third women, and nearly every other democracy in Europe has a higher percentage of women than the U.S. Congress.
        The major reason for this difference is that most of these European democracies do not use our winner-take-all, single-member district voting system. They use forms of proportional representation (PR), which result in legislatures that accurately reflect voters' preferences at the ballot box. By providing more voters with a chance to elect someone, PR systems more fully realize the democratic principles of majority rule and a truly representative legislature that gives more people a voice in government.
        The only European democracies not using PR are Great Britain and France, both of which not so coincidentally have even lower percentages of women in their legislatures than the United States. When Italy in 1993 changed its PR system to mostly "winner-take-all" seats, it required parties to have gender-balance for the 25% of seats still elected by party list PR in order to offset the negative impact the winner-take-all seats were expected to have on representation of women.

Comparisons in Democracies Using Both Systems
        Germany clearly demonstrates how PR helps more women get elected. Half the parliament is elected from single-member districts (as we do for Congress), while half is elected from regional, multi-member districts (in which several people represent a district).
        In the 1990 German elections, women won nearly 29% of the PR seats, but only 12% of districts seats. Similarly, in Australia, women comprise 23% of the Senate, which is elected by PR, but only 7% of its lower house elected by winner-take-all.

Why PR Systems Elect More Women
        PR systems increase representation of women for two main reasons. First, with multi-member districts, political parties must support slates of candidates. With greater attention paid to all candidates nominated for office, parties in many democracies field gender-balanced slates. Second, parties must respond to the will of the electorate. In Iceland, a women's party formed in 1983 because existing parties were not nominating enough women. The party in 1987 won 10% of the vote and, as a result 10% of seats in parliament. Other parties then began nominating more women in order to maintain their share of the vote.
        Comparative studies on representation of women in the United States and around the world demonstrate that the method of voting is the single most important factor in the number of women elected to office: the more people are elected in a district, the more women win office. Furthermore, PR avoids pitting the interests of race against gender unlike race-conscious districting, the conventional remedy used to correct under-representation of racial and ethnic minorities. That is one of the key reasons why some within the American voting rights community -- like University of Pennsylvania law professor Lani Guinier -- have become supporters of proportional systems.

        Cynthia Terrell directed an Iowa campaign for the Equal Rights Amendment in 1992 and is a political consultant. She is Vice-President of the Center for Voting and Democracy.

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