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Women Rise in World Politics

Following Tuesday's [11/7/06] U.S. elections, opposition Democrats are set take control of the House of Representatives in January. And many analysts say how well they do may depend in large measure on California Representative Nancy Pelosi who, by most accounts, is expected to become the first female Speaker of the House.

While men still compose the majority of influential political figures around the world, the balance is beginning to shift. In less than a year, women for the first time have won elections to high office in Chile, Germany and Liberia.

Women's Gains

Forbes magazine highlighted the growing role of women in the international arena in a recent cover story that presented its list of the 100 most powerful women in the world.

In an interview broadcast by Video Network, the magazine's senior editor, Elizabeth MacDonald, said, not only are more women running big companies, an increasing number are also running countries, by the magazine's count - - 30 this year. "And that's up from 17 last year. So we are seeing some dramatic increases in the terms of women gaining influence around the world," says MacDonald.

Among the women who have made history in their own countries by becoming the first female leaders are Chile's elected President Michelle Bachelet and German Chancellor Angela Merkel, who the Forbes editor says is achieving "rock star status" at home.

There is also Liberian President Ellen Johnson Sirleaf, who addressed a joint session of the U.S. Congress in March, just two months after she was inaugurated. "I stand before you today as the first woman elected to lead an African nation," said President Sirleaf.

President Sirleaf recounted how she rose from relative obscurity. "When I was a small girl in the countryside, swimming and fishing from twine made from palm trees, no one would have picked me out as the future president of our country."

A woman in top national positions is not new. Britain's Margaret Thatcher, India's Indira Gandhi and Israel's Golda Meir all were powerful leaders, whose influence on their countries has carried forward to this day.

"They had to be tougher than the men to be in the positions that they were in. Otherwise, they couldn't have gotten elected, couldn't have held on to their power. They were brilliant statesmen, brilliant people, brilliant politicians. I'm not sure they were necessarily distinctive as women," says Isobel Coleman, Director of the Women and Foreign Policy program at the Council on Foreign Relations. She says the increasing number of women in positions of authority is having a definite effect on politics at the local level.

"And there have been some interesting studies that have been done that look at the impact of women in power at the local level. And women make decisions differently, so there are different processes and different methodologies," says Coleman. "But they also make different decisions. [That is] not to say that they're better, [they are] just simply different. They allocate resources differently."

She points to one example in India, where men and women did not make the same decisions. "You see women spending more on water and education, and men spending more on road-building and transportation," says Coleman. "It's just a difference in how they allocate resources because of what their own experiences are and how they have lived their lives, and what they deem to be important to the community."

Coleman says there are more women involved in government. But she says it is still more an exception than the rule for a woman to reach the pinnacles of power. For that reason, she says it is too early to say whether women are changing the way foreign policy is conducted.

"I think I'd be hard-pressed to say that it has affected foreign policy, to date. [That is] not to say that it won't. But right now, I think women leaders are still very much in the minority and you really don't see it having a huge impact on global foreign policy at this stage," says Coleman.

Worldwide Influence

Although their numbers may still be comparatively small, women leaders can be found in every region of the world. In Europe, besides Chancellor Merkel, women are the presidents of Finland, Ireland and Latvia. Women leaders in Latin American and the Caribbean include the president of Chile and the prime minister of Jamaica.

Meanwhile, Asia is represented by women prime ministers in Bangladesh and New Zealand, as well as a president in the Philippines. In Africa, the Liberian president is joined by the prime minister of Mozambique.

North America is an exception. Only Canada has had a woman prime minister and she was in office for about four months [in 1993]. In the United States, women make up less than 20 percent of the 535 voting members of Congress [435 members of the House of Representatives and 100 members of the Senate].

The rarity of women in leadership roles is reflected in the list of foreign leaders invited to address joint meetings of the U.S. Congress.

France's Marquis de Lafayette was the first foreign dignitary to speak before a joint meeting of the House and Senate -- more than 180 years ago. Since then, some of the speakers have been women. But former television journalist Renee Poussaint said at the annual Women's Foreign Policy Group luncheon, they have been rare.

"There have only been 103 joint sessions of Congress in the history of the United States, dating back to Lafayette in 1824. And only nine women have been accorded the distinction of addressing a joint session of Congress," says Poussaint.

Women and U.S. Politics

Although the United States has not had a woman president, American women have been prominent in shaping U.S. foreign policy.

The first woman secretary of state, Madeleine Albright, served in the Clinton administration, from 1997 to 2001. At a recent news conference to launch a Democratic initiative to develop national security policy, Albright said she has noticed positive changes in recent years from when she was in office. "I do think that there are more and more women involved in national security policy and I'm very glad to see that. It was lonely," says Albraight.

And in January 2005, Condoleezza Rice became the second woman to serve as U.S. Secretary of State. "When Condi Rice became secretary of state, even though she was the second woman to hold that position, I got all these phone calls from people asking, 'Can you comment on her as a woman?' I thought we were beyond that, but clearly not," says Coleman.

The Council on Foreign Relations' Coleman acknowledges that although it is too early to say what effect greater numbers of women in government will have on overall foreign policy, it is important that they are at least politically present.

This story was first broadcast on the English news program,VOA News Now. For other Focus reports click here.