Argentina adopted the world’s first gender quota law in 1991, mandating that political parties nominate women for 30 percent of the electable positions on their candidate lists. Quota proponents argued that the quality of democracy depended on women’s equal participation in lawmaking processes, using the now-famous slogan: “with few women in politics, women change; with many women in politics, politics changes.”1 These arguments have proved persuasive in Latin America and beyond: scores of countries have since implemented quota laws, adopted additional reforms to improve their effectiveness, and raised their threshold percentages. As of December 2014, seven Latin American countries—Bolivia, Costa Rica, Ecuador, Mexico, Nicaragua, and Panama—have instituted parity regimes for their national legislatures, and only three—Chile, Guatemala, and Venezuela—lack gender quota laws. The measures have undeniably improved women’s numerical representation, as women now average 25 percent of the region’s elected lawmakers. Yet observers and scholars alike continue to ask whether quota proponents’ wish—that would women change politics—has been fulfilled.
Quota proponents hope that women will transform politics in myriad ways, from combatting corruption to giving voice to marginalized constituents. These hopes rest on often essentialist understandings of gender difference and gender roles, raising both theoretical and empirical questions. Scholars explore how women’s gender identity motivates their legislative representation, and whether this representation indeed entails preferences and practices that differ from those of men. My research examines a particular outcome known as “women’s substantive representation”—or the idea that women will favor public policies that benefit women constituents, most typically in a progressive or feminist direction.
In a recent article, I present a case study of female legislators’ role in Argentina’s 2002 sexual health reform, which made contraception access universal, comprehensive, and free in the nation’s public, private, and labor union-based healthcare systems.2 A central point of departure is Jane Jaquette’s claim that progress on women’s rights in Latin America has depended “on the concerted actions of a few”3: social movements have declined, feminism has fractured, and professionalized issue networks have displaced principled grassroots revolutions. In this context, feminist policy change comes not from quotas’ ability to elect a critical mass of female representatives, but from their provision of a broad pool of elected women from which critical actors can emerge. These female legislators work in concert with executive branch officials and civil society leaders to not just pass reforms, but ensure their proper implementation. Researchers looking to explain feminist policy change should attend to the configuration of issue networks across the stages of the policymaking process, with the total numbers of female legislators constituting only one explanatory factor.
Another key factor is the issue type, which scholars Htun and Weldon array along two dimensions: whether the proposed policy challenges religious ideals of women’ status, and whether the proposed policy challenges class relations.4 Researchers and advocates often combine contraception and abortion under the umbrella term “reproductive rights,” but I argue that the issues are distinct. Both contraception and abortion challenge religious doctrines, but contraception—unlike abortion—is legal in most of Latin America. Argentina’s sexual health reform focused on expanding access: the state would guarantee and fund birth control pills, devices, and surgeries across all insurance plans. The policy goal of availability, rather than legalization, meant that female legislators across the political parties supported the reform. Feminist-minded legislators saw contraception as contributing to female citizens’ bodily autonomy and integrity. More traditional legislators viewed contraception as fulfilling pronatal goals, on the grounds that poor women would be better mothers if they could choose when to become them. The hybrid nature of contraception—in that it simultaneously challenged gender and class relations—drew more female legislators, executive officials, and civil society allies into the issue network.
I find that significant numbers of female legislators do matter for women’s substantive representation, insofar as a larger cohort allows individual women to emerge as key protagonists. Bills to provide universal, comprehensive, and free contraception were repeatedly introduced in the Argentine Congress throughout the 1990s, the vast majority authored by female legislators. Yet the proposal only succeeded during the 2001-2002 legislative term, when the quota finally raised women’s representation in both legislative chambers to nearly 30 percent. As women entered the legislature in greater numbers, they attained leadership positions on the key committees—health, budget, and family—that would work together in redacting a sexual health program with cross-partisan support. I found that, in the plenary debates, more women spoke in favor of the reform.5 However, support from civil society organizations as well as male actors beyond the legislature—most notably then-President Néstor Kirchner and then-Health Minister Ginés González García—also played a substantial role in cultivating support, especially among male parliamentarians.
Yet, as scholars and observers of Latin American politics know well, statutory reforms alone remain unable to bring about greater equity and equality in the distribution of goods and services. Quota proponents argue that electing more women will change politics, but this change requires not just the passage of reforms, but their successful implementation. And this process cannot be controlled by the legislature.
Following the passage of Argentina’s sexual health reform, female deputies and senators were more active than male deputies and senators in monitoring the program. Congressional resolutions or declarations demanding proper implementation, and amendments to close loopholes and expand coverage, were largely written by female legislators. Female executives, however, obstructed the program’s success. Whereas Néstor Kirchner and Ginés González García proved willing to confront the Catholic Church and demand that subnational officials make contraception freely available, their female successors—President Cristina Fernández de Kirchner and Health Minister Graciela Ocaña—curtailed the program beginning in 2007.
Fernández and Ocaña cut funds, fired staffers, and removed educational material from government websites. The National Consortium for Reproductive and Sexual Rights, an umbrella group consisting of several hundred journalists, activists, civil society organizations, and legislators, lost its privileged position to monitor implementation from within the ministry of health. My 2009 interviews with consortium affiliates and healthcare providers across the country documented numerous instances of provincial and local officials ignoring the law—with no enforcement or sanctions from the federal government.
The poor implementation of Argentina’s sexual health program does not, however, mean that those concerned with women’s equality should abandon their support for gender quotas. As proponents of Latin America’s new parity regimes remind us, the fifty-fifty representation of men and women in the legislature remains an essential cornerstone of democracy, a fundamental component of the system’s inclusiveness and fairness.6 Quota proponents should recognize, however, that raising the proportions of female legislators cannot alone transform policy outcomes in a progressive or feminist direction. Nor do women’s bodies guarantee gender consciousness, as the Mexican feminist Marta Lamas frequently cautions.7
My research suggests that women’s rights policies stand greater chances of success when several factors are present. First, the issue challenges entrenched religious and class interests in a way that attracts allies from across the political spectrum. Second, a large cohort of female legislators allows individual woman to emerge as critical actors. Third, executive branch officials—especially presidents and ministers—implement the policy, which includes responding to legislators’ and civil society’s demands for redress in cases of noncompliance. Policy change is a lengthy process, subject to victories and reversals, and gender quotas are just one piece in this process.
1 Caminotti, Mariana, Jutta Marx, and Jutta Borner. (2007). Las legisladoras: cupos de género y política en Argentina y Brasil. Buenos Aires: Siglo XXI, p. 67.
2 Piscopo, Jennifer M. (2014). “Female Leadership and Sexual Health Policy in Argentina.” Latin American Research Review 49 (1): 104-127.
3 Jaquette, Jane, ed. (2009) Feminist Agendas and Democracy in Latin America. Durham: Duke University Press. (p. 6)
4 Htun, Mala, and S. Laurel Weldon. (2010). “When Do Governments Promote Women’s Rights? A Framework for the Comparative Analysis of Sex Equality Policy.” Perspectives on Politics 8 (1): 207-216.
5 For extended analysis of the legislative debate, see Piscopo, Jennifer M. (2011) “Rethinking Descriptive Representation: Rendering Women in Legislative Debates.” Parliamentary Affairs 64 (3): 448-472.
6 See Archenti, Nélida, 2011. “La paridad política en América Latina y el Caribe. Percepciones y opiniones de los líderes de la región.” CEPAL: División de Asuntos de Género, and Piscopo, Jennifer M. (2014) “Rights, Equaltiy, and Democracy: The Shift from Quotas to Parity in Latin America.” The European University Institute: Robert Schuman Centre for Advanced Studies Working Paper Series No. 125.
7 Lamas uses the phrase regularly. An early use occurred in a 2000 interview: http://www.cimac.org.mx/noticias/00oct/00103106.html