Power through the ballot box

For most people women’s suffrage seems obvious and perhaps taken for granted. But the political rights of women haven’t always existed.

Last year was the 100th anniversary of women’s attainment of rights to participate in European parliament. In Poland women have had the right to vote for only 90 years. And in countries like Switzerland and Liechtenstein, women have elected and have been elected to parliaments only since the 1970s. Before 1970, except for Scandinavia, no European parliament had more than 10 percent women. In comparison, in 2006 the average was 23 percent female. The leader was Sweden with women constituting 48 percent of the members of parliament. At the rear were Hungary and Malta with nine percent.

In countries with a patriarchal political culture and a strong Catholic church, women still have a low representation. In cabinets, women remain a small minority. Europe’s first female cabinet member was Alexandra Kollontai (1917-18 in the Soviet Union). Until World War II, Europe had only eight women in cabinets. Most countries appointed women to cabinet posts for the first time between 1945 and the late 1960s.

In 1979 Margaret Thatcher became the first female government leader in Europe. She held power for 11 years. Europe’s first woman head of the state was Vigdis Finnbogadottir from Iceland, who was elected in 1980. Only seven female presidents of other countries have followed her.

All of this information can be found in the exhibit “1906-2006: The Century of Women in European Parliaments.” The exhibition is on display at the Women’s Foundation Efka until October 19.

The show is organized by Efka Foundation in cooperation with Goethe Institute in Krakow and Women Museum in Bonn. The exhibit is very educational, consisting of several large-scale illustrations with short historical sketches about women’s suffrage.

Countries on display include Poland, Great Britain, Liechtenstein, Switzerland, Italy, Bulgaria, Hungary, France, Austria, the Netherlands, Luxembourg, Lithuania, Estonia, Germany, Norway and Finland.

Between the texts are historic photos that show the most important moments of women’s suffrage movements in each country. The exhibition is timely because of Polish parliamentary elections scheduled in a few weeks. Since 1989, in Poland, voter turnout has been extremely low for parliamentary elections. The exhibition shows how important the elections are. One hundred years ago, people campaigned vigorously for their right to vote. Today, most Poles seem to have no interest in voting.

“1906-2006: The Century of Women in European Parliaments,” on display until October 19 at the Women’s Foundation Efka, ul. Krakowska 26, Apt. 1.

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