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Quotas Boost Political Clout

Affirmative-action policy for women reshapes Germany's local, federal legislatures

HAD there not been a quota, it's highly unlikely that Monika Renner would have a seat on the Munich city council today.

The medical-lab technician says she always wanted to get onto the council, "but I never trusted that I could." The "system," she explains, "favors men, and even when women are qualified, they're still at a disadvantage."

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After volunteering her time for 10 years in the local branch of the Social Democratic Party (SPD), Ms. Renner says she got her break when the party adopted a quota for women that suddenly propelled her onto the city council three years ago.

The SPD quota is changing the face of German politics. This party may be relegated to perpetual opposition in Bonn, but it is still Germany's largest party and governs in the majority of the country's 16 states, called Lander. The quota, adopted by the party in 1988, mandates at least a 40 percent representation of each sex in elected office and in the party apparatus itself.

The SPD quota is one reason German women have made "considerably more" progress in politics than in business, says Susanne Schunter-Kleemann, a leading expert on German and European women's issues.

In the 1990 national election, for instance, women made the greatest gains ever in the Bundestag, or federal parliament, with the SPD women leading the way. Women now account for 21.5 percent of the Bundestag members, the third-highest percentage in the European Community and far ahead of the United States Congress, where women hold 10 percent of the seats.

German women have made even greater inroads in regional politics, filling from 11 to 35 percent of state parliaments and 20 to 42 percent of city and local councils.

Unlike most companies, political parties have greater exposure to the public, and this puts them "under greater pressure" to promote women, says Ms. Schunter-Kleeman. Additionally, she says, "I think we have a multitude of committed women politicians" who are relentless in their pursuit of equal rights.

Probably the most influential of these is Bundestag President Rita Sussmuth, an independent-minded politician who is not afraid to cross swords with her party boss, Chancellor Helmut Kohl of the right-of-center Christian Democratic Union (CDU).

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Ms. Sussmuth swam against the current in her own party last summer by openly advocating a bill liberalizing abortion in Germany, a step supported by the majority of Germans.

Outraged, several CDU members tried to topple Sussmuth from her parliamentary leadership post. It wasn't the first time her political career was in danger, but like an Indiana Jones, she escaped what to most officials would have been certain political death. The law, meanwhile, passed - although it's being challenged in the constitutional court.

Her party rejects quotas for women, but Sussmuth strongly advocates them. "The result of efforts to get women into top positions without the quota have shown there is no alternative to this instrument at the present time," she told the Monitor in an interview.

But having a quota doesn't mean women can slack off, warns Inge Wettig-Danielmeier, the SPD treasurer. She spearheaded the drive for a quota. "One can't say that women's progress [within the party] is going on automatically," she says. "If we rested for just five minutes, our progress would be gone."

Of the 16 German state governments, meanwhile, none are headed by women. Chancellor Kohl has four women ministers in his Cabinet: two assigned to traditional roles as chiefs of the women's affairs and health ministries, and two in nontraditional roles as heads of the construction and justice ministries.

In the last several years, the Bundestag has passed significant legislation affecting women, including two years of federal assistance for parents on child-raising leave and pension-plan credit for the years spent at home raising children.

But most women in German politics say they still have much to accomplish. "I would need another 10 years to achieve what I came here to do," says Uta Wurfel, Bundestag member since 1986 and the main author of the new abortion law.

Among the issues remaining: There is virtually no child care for infants and toddlers in west Germany; conditions are still difficult for single mothers; east German women are suffering disproportionate unemployment; and equality in the workplace is far from reality.

Christina Schenk, a Bundestag member from east Germany, is especially concerned by the sudden disappearance of women from the political scene in the East. During the East German revolution, women became very politically active, she said, but their participation has dried up.

"After the great illusion - that you could keep the good of both parts of Germany - women [in the East] entered a phase of disappointment," Ms. Schenk says.

With the overriding political agenda in Germany being unification, "policy on women is certainly not the major priority," Sussmuth says.

But, she adds, it's becoming clear that the single-minded pursuit of women's issues as women's issues is not necessarily the smartest strategy.

"The more we succeed in making it clear that policy on women is also policy for men," Sussmuth says, "the more successful we will be."

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