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Women Legislators in Central America

Women Legislators in Central America
Politics, Democracy, and Policy

The first detailed study of women elected to the national legislatures of Central American republics.

January 2008
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356 pages | 6 x 9 | 24 b&w photos, 1 map, 5 figures, 35 tables |

During the years between 1980 and 1999, in the midst of war and economic crisis, a record number of women were elected to national legislatures in Central American republics. Can quantitative increases in the presence of elected women in Central America produce qualitative political changes?

In this detailed study, Michelle A. Saint-Germain and Cynthia Chavez Metoyer explore the reasons for this unprecedented political rise of women, and what effect it has had on the region. Focusing on Costa Rica, El Salvador, Guatemala, Honduras, and Nicaragua, the authors analyze national and regional indicators to evaluate various hypotheses concerning the reasons for women's electoral success in the region, as well as to make comparisons with findings from other world regions. They find that the election of more women depends on three things: the presence of a crisis, a pool of politically experienced women, and a culture of gender consciousness. They also compare the characteristics of Central American women legislators to women in other national legislatures around the world.

The authors document how elected women have used their policy-making power to begin to change the lives of all Central Americans, women and men alike. In more than seventy-five in-depth, personal interviews, these women legislators reflect on their lives, political careers, and gender identities in their own words, providing deep insights into recent events in this region.

  • Acknowledgments
  • Chapter 1. Introduction
  • Chapter 2. What Gets Women Elected
  • Chapter 3. Elected Women's Paths to Power
  • Chapter 4. Elected Women as Legislators and Representatives
  • Chapter 5. Women and Democratization in Central America
  • Chapter 6. Public Policy
  • Appendix A. Methodology
  • Appendix B. Interview Schedule
  • Notes
  • Glossary
  • References
  • Index

Michelle A. Saint-Germain is Professor of Public Policy and Administration and the campus-wide Director of Program Review and Assessment at California State University, Long Beach.

Cynthia Chavez Metoyer is Professor of Political Science and Department Chair and Internship Coordinator for the Political Science Department at California State University, San Marcos.


When one woman gets involved in politics, it changes her; but when many women get involved, they change politics.

Central America, 1990s


Political slogans in Central America in the 1990s reflected the belief that qualitative political changes accompany quantitative increases in the number of women in decision-making positions. Other slogans of that era emphasized that a nation's level of democratization could be judged both by the presence of women as representatives and by the extent to which the interests of women were represented. Did these slogans reflect a new political reality for women in Central America? This book considers that question by focusing on women elected to national legislatures in Central America in the 1980s and 1990s. This brief period, the most recent attempt at democratization in the region, was pivotal for women in all of Central America and also witnessed a dramatic rise in the numbers and percentages of women elected to the national legislatures of five Central American republics.


Upon first winning the vote and the right to be elected in the 1940s and 1950s, the percentages of women in the national legislatures of Costa Rica, El Salvador, Guatemala, Honduras, and Nicaragua were rather low but were consistent with those of most other countries in Latin America, which historically often lagged far behind the worldwide average. However, women's presence in the national legislatures of Central America began increasing after 1980 (Table 1.1). In Costa Rica, women's presence fluctuated around 7 percent until 1980, but then doubled to 15.8 percent by 1995. In El Salvador, women legislators nearly tripled, from 3.7 percent in 1961 to 10.7 percent in 1995. Guatemalan women achieved only a small increase, from 1.5 percent in their first election in 1954 to 3.2 percent in 1980, but then realized a much larger increase to 12.5 percent in 1995. Honduras hovered around 5 to 6 percent until 1980, and then increased slightly to 7.8 percent in 1995. For Nicaragua, there is agreement on the date of women's suffrage (1955), but there are varying reports on when women were first elected to the national legislature and how many were elected. In addition, data for Nicaragua for 1980 were not strictly comparable to those of the other countries in the region because they reflected the composition of an unelected advisory body, not an elected legislature. Nevertheless, in 1995 Nicaragua achieved the highest percentage of elected women in the region (16.3 percent).


These gains were impressive, but how did they compare with those of other countries in the Latin American region or throughout the world? In 1980, the percentage of women legislators in the Central American region climbed above the average for the Latin American region (Figure 1.1). In 1985, the Central American percentage grew to equal the world average, which included fully developed economies and democracies as well as those in transition. In 1990, the percentage of women in the national legislatures of four Central American countries (Nicaragua at 16.3 percent, Costa Rica at 12.3 percent, Honduras at 10.3 percent, and El Salvador at 8.3 percent) surpassed the average (6 percent) for a sample of fifty developing democracies (Rule 1994b); the Central American regional average exceeded both the world and Latin American averages. In 1995, the Central American average reached its highest point, at 12.6 percent, again higher than world and Latin American averages. In 2000, the regional average fell slightly, to 11.6 percent, and was overtaken by both the Latin American regional and the world averages. It appeared that women were making exceptional headway in Central American national legislatures between 1980 and 1995.


The changes over this period prompt a number of important questions: Why did these increases occur at that time? Was it due to something about these five Central American countries, either their history of conquest and colonialism, or the more current events surrounding democratization? Was it due to their method of election, or to cultural norms or political traditions that favored the election of women? What were women's political roles during this period? Were organized groups pressuring for the election of women? Which women were elected, and why? Was it due to the talents of this particular cohort of elected women? What were elected women's goals and interests, and what constituencies did they represent? Finally, did politics change elected women, or did elected women change politics?


This book explores these and other related questions by focusing on women elected to the national legislatures of Central American nations in the 1980s and 1990s. We use this focus to investigate whether explanations about the election of women to national legislatures in general can also be applied to the Central American experience in particular and, conversely, whether the particular Central American phenomenon can contribute to our understanding of the election of women in general. The issues, concerns, and developments covered in our study are not only important to the understanding of women and politics in Central America; they also contribute to a broader understanding of the complex theoretical and practical issues of women, representation, and democratization in the developing world and point to the types of developments in the status of women that can be expected in the future.


One of the important conditions for the rise in the representation of women was the state of affairs in Central America. To set the stage, we first briefly review the histories of Costa Rica, El Salvador, Guatemala, Honduras, and Nicaragua, comparing their economic and political cultures. We examine the major events of the 1980s and 1990s, which coincided with the winding down of the Cold War and the settlement of armed conflicts in three of the five Central American countries.


A second important condition for the election of women to national legislatures in this region was the presence of politically experienced women. We present stories from elected women themselves about their backgrounds that demonstrate not only an early interest but also an early active participation in politics. Their stories reveal many similarities, such as the accomplishment of historic firsts, from the first woman elected to a town council to the first woman to preside over a national legislature. However, there was also extensive diversity among Central American women legislators, with backgrounds as farm workers, international diplomats, university students, artists, and career politicians. They ranged in age from early twenties to late seventies, having from zero to nine children. Some came from urban, Spanish-speaking elites, and others from rural, indigenous minority groups; some came from the right, and others from the left. Nevertheless, they were all able to overcome barriers to election.


We then explore the interplay among all these conditions that promoted women's election and explore women's participation in the movements for democratization in the region. Finally, we ask what difference it makes if more women are elected, in terms of public policy. Here we find the adoption of a gender consciousness that constitutes the third condition for the increase in women's representation in Central America.


Road Map for the Rest of the Book


Immediately following this introduction is an overview of the major themes in the history of the Central American region in general, and then how these themes developed in specific ways in each of the individual countries (Costa Rica, El Salvador, Guatemala, Honduras, and Nicaragua). The purpose of the historical overview is to provide a context for the discussions that follow in the remaining chapters, which make reference to important developments in Central America during the 1980-1995 time period. It also documents the presence of one of the key factors for the election of women: the presence of a crisis. The overview also addresses some basic concepts about Central American states that may be unfamiliar to the reader (such as corporatism) and explains some of the major events (such as the Esquipulas peace process) that influenced the transition from revolution, war, and crisis to peace agreements and post-conflict elections. The remainder of this book is divided into chapters that focus on one of the initial sets of questions stated at the beginning of this introduction.


Chapter 2: What Gets Women Elected


Chapter 2 offers a snapshot of the presence of women in national legislatures worldwide during this time period. It introduces one of the central tasks of this book, which is to discover whether the forces that have been previously identified as having helped or hindered the election of women to national legislatures in other countries can also explain the Central American situation in particular. This chapter addresses questions that could be posed by scholars in political science, women's studies, international development, Latin American studies, and legislative studies, among other fields. How many women are in national legislatures worldwide? What helps women get elected? What are the effects on women's election of differences among nations in economic wealth and urbanization? What hinders women's election? Do some types of electoral systems help women's election more than other types? Our analysis in Chapter 2 relies on secondary data about Central American economies, societies, and electoral systems, as well as primary data obtained through personal interviews with elected women in Central American national legislatures during this time period.


Inquiry into differences in the representation of women in national legislatures began to blossom around 1980 with comparative data from industrialized democracies, mostly in Western Europe (Kohn 1980; Lovenduski and Hills 1981; Christy 1987); the United States is generally excluded from comparative research because it does not use the proportional representation form of democracy adopted by most other Western nations.


The literature quickly grew and branched into three areas of inquiry into what hinders or helps women to get elected: first, the electoral system, especially proportional representation, multi-party districts, and party lists. There have been numerous quantitative studies of women in national legislatures (e.g., Beckwith 1992; Maitland 1991; Rule 1987) concerned with how structural differences in electoral systems affect the proportion of the legislature that is female. All five Central American countries have electoral systems which have been found to favor the election of women, including proportional representation, multi-member districts, and party lists (e.g., Norris 2004).


Notwithstanding, there is tremendous variation among these five countries both in terms of their electoral structures and in terms of results for women. Chapter 2 examines some additional factors suggested as having an effect on women's election, such as the size of the legislature, incumbency, the ideological orientation (left-right) of political parties, the number of parties vying for seats, and the number of seats won per party (e.g., Darcy and Beckwith 1991; Saint-Germain 1994). The analysis shows that generally in Central America more women are elected from districts with larger numbers of candidates than from districts with smaller numbers of candidates, and more women are elected from political parties that win large blocks of seats than from parties that win few seats in the national legislature, although there are some exceptions; there is also some support for the role of leftist parties in electing women.


The second type of explanation looks at indicators of the level of national development, such as the Gross National Product (GNP) or the percent of the population living in urban versus rural locations. Forces that encourage women to move to urban areas, usually to obtain an education and/or enter the paid labor force, especially into professional occupations, also encourage the election of women to national legislatures (Christy 1987; Norris and Lovenduski 1995). Central American nations do not rank highly on such measures of national development, nor is there much variety among these nations, and the sample (n = 5) is so small that these factors have little explanatory power in this situation. However, some trends are evident that support the link between better conditions for women and their greater representation in national legislatures.


The third type of explanation examines the social, cultural, and political orientation of the country, for example, by measuring levels of Catholicism or support for a women's movement. Countries with traditional cultures and high levels of religious adherence have lower proportions of women in their national legislatures (Rule 1984). Central America's political culture is heavily shaped by the traditionalistic gender system of machismo and by Catholicism, both of which constrain women's activities.


Given the disadvantageous level of economic development in Central America and the pervasive culture that equates political activity with male activity, it is perhaps not surprising that fewer numbers of women than men are in positions of national leadership in the region, although the majority of both women and men have traditionally been excluded from formal power throughout the Central American region. But the acknowledged presence of these structural and cultural barriers does not help us to fully understand the quite varied record of success in the election of women legislators across a region that shares many similarities. This chapter helps to fill in some of the gaps by discussing how other developments, such as a state of crisis, a ready pool of women candidates, and the adoption of gender consciousness, can offset the effects of underdevelopment and machismo, especially in countries where women participated visibly in prolonged armed conflict (i.e., Nicaragua and El Salvador). Moreover, it discusses differences among these countries in cultural forces that can positively affect the election of women to national legislatures, for example, the strong commitment to egalitarianism in Costa Rica. The chapter concludes with some possible strategies that women can use to increase their numbers as elected representatives.


Chapter 3: Elected Women's Paths to Power


Chapter 3 brings into focus the specific women who have succeeded in being elected to a national legislature. Some previous individual-level research includes studies of women national leaders, prominent women in politics, and women indigenous leaders (Chaney 1979; Dolan and Ford 1998; Furlong and Riggs 1996; Genovese 1993; Prindeville and Gomez 1999; Richter 1990-1991). However, there are very few studies that are comprehensive, either over time or over place, and very few that focus at the same time on structural indicators and electoral systems as well as the individual-level factors that make women successful in getting elected. This chapter addresses another set of questions, perhaps posed by scholars in psychology, sociology, anthropology, ethnography, and other fields, that concerns which women get elected. What are these women like? Are they extraordinary in some way, compared with other women in their country? What motivates them? Were there unusual circumstances that propelled them toward politics during early socialization, perhaps some type of economic, political, or social crisis? What are their life stories? What paths did they take to power? What are the variations for women from different backgrounds within the same country, and what are the similarities among women from different countries?


Our analysis in Chapter 3 of individual women who are national legislators in Central America demonstrates that they are more likely to have come from more urbanized areas, to have achieved higher levels of education, and to have practiced a profession. However, there are substantial differences among women in national legislatures within and between countries in the region, especially in the poorest countries, Nicaragua and Honduras.


This chapter also documents the second important factor for the election of women: the presence of a pool of politically experienced women from which candidates for the national legislature could be drawn. It identifies the early age at which elected women become interested in politics; the crucial role played by mothers who were involved in politics and/or worked outside the home; and the depth and breadth of their political experience as exemplified by the different paths they take to reach the national legislature. Women in Central America become cognizant of, interested in, and active in politics at an early age, averaging 16 years old. The most common reasons reported for developing a political consciousness include growing up in a political family; participating in student politics; being drafted into electoral politics; developing an awareness of social problems; and experiencing a crisis or traumatic event. There are also at least six distinct patterns that elected women in Central America have followed to get to the national legislature. These include the traditional route of capitalizing on a connection to a political man, commonly a deceased relative; taking up a political career late in life after completing a professional career; becoming a career party activist from an early age; moving up through the women's section of a political party; transitioning from a nonpartisan community activist into partisan politics; and distinguishing oneself in a revolutionary, military, or police organization (this last path became possible only during the 1980s and 1990s). These paths support our finding that despite the seemingly "sudden" appearance of women in national legislatures, most have put in a lifetime of hard work to get there. Chapter 3 concludes with a discussion of the variation in the paths followed by elected women, both among the countries in the region and within each country over time, and offers considerations for women contemplating a political career.


Chapter 4: Elected Women as Legislators and Representatives


Once elected, women express themselves in a variety of ways to fulfill the internal and external functions of the national legislature. This chapter addresses questions of interest to those who study role theory, work and family relations, theories of representation, and feminist theory, among other subjects, and examines how women elected in a transitioning democracy define their representational role. How do elected women define the functions of a national legislature, in relation to other government institutions and in relation to the governed? Do elected women perceive themselves to have multiple roles, and how do they balance competing and conflicting role demands? What or whom do elected women represent, and how do they represent them? Chapter 4 discusses another important factor in the election of women: the adoption of a gender perspective or gender consciousness (conscientización). It explores the phenomenon of conscientización through two normative questions: should women legislators represent women and, if so, how? What is their philosophy of representation, especially with respect to representing women?


Internally, there are various kinds of tasks that legislators perform, including taking leadership posts, serving on committees, and the day-to-day business of the legislature. Despite their relatively small numbers, Central American women legislators are serving in the highest possible leadership positions, and they are well represented on a wide variety of committees, not just on those concerned with "women's issues." Occupying leadership positions is important because "to produce change, women must not only be present: women must be powerful" (Htun 2000). Perhaps their success is due to their incredible commitments of time and energy to their work, a function of the fact that they have always had to work many times harder than men to obtain the barest recognition or rewards.


Within the legislature, a representative may play many roles, depending on the focus of representation (Jewell 1970; Skard and Haavio-Mannila 1985). Central American women legislators feel they represent many constituencies, including political party, geographic region, socio-economic class, and other groups. Nearly nine out of ten say they also represent women. Some women legislators take a passive role in representing women, while others take a much more active role. Some women legislators see themselves as delegates from women's groups, faithfully executing the group's wishes, while others act as trustees, watching out for women's interests. Trustees predominate in Costa Rica and El Salvador, while both styles are equally present in Guatemala, Honduras, and Nicaragua.


Externally, a legislature establishes relationships with other governmental agencies, as well as with the electorate. Legislators can perform numerous tasks for the electorate, including symbolic, service, policy, and resource distribution tasks (Jewell 1983). In relation to its external functions, many Central American women legislators define the goal of the legislature as an activist one, to pursue broad social goals.


Performing the internal and external functions of a national legislature requires a number of personal qualities. Central American women legislators identified a list of ideal qualities necessary to be successful in general, including educational, professional, leadership, interpersonal, and moral qualities. Professional qualities are most important in Costa Rica; moral qualities dominate in El Salvador; leadership rises to the top in Guatemala; interpersonal qualities are the most desired in Honduras; and Nicaragua prizes both interpersonal and leadership qualities equally. To be successful as a woman, however, additional qualities are needed, including more personal development in Costa Rica; overcoming machismo in El Salvador; a mix of these two strategies in Guatemala and Honduras; and adopting pro-women strategies in Nicaragua. Chapter 4 concludes that, in general, actively representing women is seen as a source of strength by Central American women legislators.


Chapter 5: Women and Democratization in Central America


The turmoil in Central America during and since the Cold War could be seen as a contest to impose one particular definition of democracy over others. Chapter 5 explores the roles of Central American women in struggles toward democratization. This chapter addresses explicit and implicit questions about democracy, elected women, and democratization, which are of interest to many of the types of scholars mentioned above, as well as to political theorists, students of social movement theory, and students of democratization in comparative perspective. Which theory of democracy have the elected women in Central America adopted? How did elected and activist women contribute to the democratization process of the 1980s and 1990s? What has been the impact of democratization in Central America on women?


A useful framework for democratization developed by scholars such as O'Donnell (1992) and Linz and Stepan (1996) features a sequential process, progressing from a crisis, to a period of transition, and finally into consolidation. This literature often links the achievement of democratic consolidation to the adoption of a liberal, constitutional form of democracy, placing emphasis on formal political arrangements such as competitive party politics from which women are often marginalized (Waylen 1996, 118).


For this process to work, however, there must be widespread agreement on the definition of democracy. The word democracy has a long history and has been interpreted in many ways, including liberal, social, and radical versions. Chapter 5 presents comments from personal interviews to understand how democracy has been defined by Central Americans; where they see their countries in terms of democratization; how women have influenced democratization; and what impact democratization has had on women.


During this era, Central Americans drew upon liberal, social, and radical models, but they defined democracy in their own way. Their definition of democracy is multidimensional: it should guarantee public order; pursue social justice; use civil space to determine goals; and allow for collective influence. The primary rights of the individual are to live in a state free of violence, to have basic needs met, and to organize collectively based on common interests, or status, to influence social decision-making. The civic sphere takes on an enhanced role as the site where consensus is forged among organized sectors, and between sectors and the state, for the realization of the common good, through the process of concertación (coming together). Democracy is not only a process, but a process guaranteed to produce a socially desired result.


This conception of democracy is a rather idealized one, but women's commitment to its realization helps to explain why they have been so prominent in the struggle over democratization in Central America: women saw a unique opportunity to shape democracy into a form more responsive to their interests. This chapter examines the specific actions women took to bring about democratization. In the crisis stage, women participated in unprecedented numbers in peaceful marches and hunger strikes as well as in armed combat. To some extent, women were successful in challenging the social norms and political culture that had traditionally been indifferent to women's needs. But women were less successful in the second, transitional stage in their attempts to influence the direction that the new democratization was taking. For example, women were largely excluded from the negotiations that produced the earliest peace agreements, cessation of hostilities, and framework for the process of transition to democracy in Nicaragua, but they were more present in the similar agreements reached six years later in Guatemala, largely through concertación. In the third, or consolidation stage, women have had to struggle for visibility under the new electoral processes that are the cornerstones of democratization. Perhaps they should not have been surprised. After all, the experience of Central American women in many ways paralleled that of women in the Eastern European states where democratization resulted in a decrease in the number of elected women, the rollback of programs favoring women, and the adoption of measures increasing the regulation of women by the state (Landolt 1996; Metoyer 1997 and 2000; Nechemias 1994; Rai, Pilkington, and Phizacklea 1992; Regulska 1992). Nevertheless, Central American women contributed importantly to democratization, through their tireless pursuit of peace in the crisis phase, through demands for collective influence to be recognized in the civil sphere (concertación) in the transition phase, and through the flourishing of many nonpartisan, non-governmental organizations (NGOs) in the consolidation phase. The chapter concludes with some thoughts about the future of democracy in Central America.


Chapter 6: Public Policy


Chapter 6 addresses the "so what" questions that are important to policy analysts, activists, legal scholars, and skeptics. What impact—if any—have elected women had on Central American women's lives? Have any new laws, policies, or programs been introduced by elected women? If so, have they been adopted? What can the experiences of women elected to the national legislatures of Central America possibly offer to others?


This chapter contributes to the important debate in the literature over the effects of electing relatively larger numbers of women. Does their election lead to adopting policies that promote the interests of women, such as social justice and an end to violence, through the use of negotiation and compromise (concertación) to solve problems? Often women legislators hold more liberal and more feminist views, irrespective of political party affiliation (O'Regan 2000, 23). Nevertheless, we found that some qualitative changes in the political agenda occur when significant numbers of women are elected to decision-making positions in Central America, including:


  • More sponsorship of legislation concerning women and more collaboration in promoting such legislation (Craske and Molyneux 2002, 16);
  • *More introduction and passage of policies addressing social issues, such as peace, child labor, or social justice (Hansen 1995 in O'Regan 2000, 12); and
  • *A noticeable difference in the priority placed on these issues by women legislators compared to their male counterparts (O'Regan 2000, 19; Saint-Germain 1989).


Most studies addressing whether qualitative changes can occur when larger numbers of women take on decision-making capacities do not consider developing nations, do not compare many nations, or do not track changes over extended periods of time. In contrast, our analysis compares women who were elected to national legislatures in five Central American nations and also traces policy developments among these nations over time during the decades of the 1980s and 1990s. The analysis in Chapter 6 is based on both secondary data on laws and policies in Central America and primary data from field interviews with women legislators.


Chapter 6 explains that having women in the national legislature is important because legislators have significant influence on public policy, and women legislators are more likely to broaden the policy agenda to include new themes. This echoes the findings of other studies of Latin American legislatures (Las Bujias 1996; Nuñez de Escorcia 1996; Reingold 2000; Rivera-Cira 1993; Jones 1997). The number (or proportion) of women elected is also important, since legislatures with higher percentages of women are more likely to enact public policies in areas that affect women (O'Regan 2000; Saint-Germain 1989; Thomas 1994).


Of course, policy does not change overnight, and women have been present in the national legislatures of Central America only a short while, and still in small numbers relative to men. We did find that significant changes have been taking place in laws and policies affecting women in Central American countries. Many factors have combined to produce these changes, including women's participation in struggles for democratization; the mobilization of women's movements and pressure groups; international events such as the U.N. Decade for Women; the increasing presence of women in politics, government, and other influential positions; and the adoption of a gender perspective (conscientización) by many women. Whereas most Central American women legislators say they represent women, few label themselves as feminist (by their own definition of the term). Rather, there is a preference to speak in terms of conscientización.


The rise of conscientización among women in political parties in Central America represents an important development in policy-making by and about women. For example, Alatorre's 1999 study of Mexico revealed that gender-related policies, such as curbing domestic violence, were enacted only when they concurred with party interests. When gender-related policies (e.g., fostering reproductive health or the protection of women in the workplace) contradict party interests, it is less likely that legislation will be enacted (Alatorre in Htun and Jones 2002, 49). Even when gender-related policies have been enacted, the focus has generally been on preventing discrimination against women but without any explicit questioning of why women are structurally marginalized (Craske and Molyneux 2002; Elshtain 1981; Pateman 1988).


Not every country in Central America is equally situated with respect to law and policy on women; nor are women legislators a homogeneous group. They espouse a wide variety of opinions about existing policy—whether it should be preserved as is; whether it is sufficient and merely needs to be better implemented; or whether revised or new legislation is necessary. And each country presents different challenges and opportunities for transforming public policy concerning women. Still, the problem most commonly mentioned by all women legislators as impacting women is the economic crisis, including lack of development and the size of the foreign debt. Comments from the interviews demonstrate how the imposition of neoliberal economic policies and structural adjustment programs (SAPs) coincident with democratization created new hardships for women. The second most often mentioned problem is discrimination against women in all areas of life (including social, economic, political, and legal) based solely on gender.


The policy remedies proposed by Central American women legislators fall along a broad continuum, from continued traditional treatment of women, to palliative strategies for women's burdens, to strict equality between women and men, to radical or role-changing policies for women. These policies tend also either to treat women as individuals or to treat them as submerged within (or identical with) the family, which are further discussed in Chapter 6.


The discussion of policy in Chapter 6 reveals that while Central American women legislators were grappling with some of the same policy issues as their peers in other countries (e.g., child care), others of their issues were unique (e.g., machismo). Some of their ideas about how to address policy issues were comparable to those adopted in other countries (e.g., paid maternity leave), but some of their ideas seemed more radical than anything proposed elsewhere (e.g., laws regarding responsibility for housework). The chapter suggests how Central American women legislators' perspectives on public policy pose important and challenging questions for those interested in public policy on women everywhere. It shows how the seeds of some policies adopted in the new millennium (such as quotas for women in politics) can be traced back to developments during the 1980s and 1990s. It concludes by discussing the questions on the effects of elected women on public policy that remain unanswered and suggesting how they might be approached by future research.




This book is the first to present an in-depth and comparative study of women elected in the 1980s and 1990s to the national legislatures of Central American republics. We draw upon a large variety of wide-ranging works, including many Spanish-language sources. We include primary data obtained through personal interviews with women elected during these years as legislators in Costa Rica, El Salvador, Guatemala, Honduras, and Nicaragua, augmented with secondary data on each country. This period is pivotal, since the proportions of women in Central American national legislatures greatly increased after 1980. This book examines the reasons for this increase, the women who formed this new wave, and its impacts. We identify the most salient regional factors as the historical era of democratization that presented a political opening, the presence of politically experienced women who became active during their formative years, and a widespread phenomenon of adoption of a gendered consciousness (conscientización).


However, we also examine whether national differences in the level of women's representation in the region are linked to factors identified in previous comparative studies of industrialized democracies as contributing to greater proportions of elected women, such as levels of urbanization, industrialization, and wealth. At the individual level, we look at similarities among elected women across countries in the region as well as differences within each country, especially in terms of early political awareness. We consider whether factors identified in previous studies on successful political women are also present in Central American women legislators. These include ties to politically powerful families, early socialization to politics through a working or politically active mother, and the ability to overcome powerful cultural barriers.


Turning to the women elected during this period, the book analyzes their interpretation of the job of a representative and the personal qualities it requires. Building upon previous comparative studies of national legislators, it looks at the various roles that legislators can play, how legislators balance multiple and conflicting role demands, and how their experience in politics has raised women's gender consciousness. The book then explores not only the impacts of politics on elected women, but also the impacts of elected women on politics, through democratization and public policy.


This book draws on new waves of scholarship on women and representation. Prior studies have tended to focus on one or the other of two main themes: empirical studies on numbers of women holding political office, with particular emphasis on their absence, and/or studies of individual elected women; or gender-related legislation and public policies on topics such as domestic violence, reproductive health, workplace protection and equality, and their effects on women. Research on women and politics of the first type has generally concentrated on the comparatively smaller numbers of elected women compared to men or the relative absence of women in the political arena, particularly in public office (O'Regan 2000, 13). A shortcoming of the first group of studies is the lack of simultaneous consideration of both national-level and individual-level factors that propitiate the election of women, which we address in Chapter 2 and Chapter 3. A caveat with research of the second type is its legalistic focus, with little exploration of the nuances of public policy for women in different national, cultural, and political environments. Drawing on studies of the impact of increasing numbers of women in decision-making bodies, and of the importance of a gendered perspective, this book reveals in Chapter 4 the great heterogeneity in how elected women perceive their roles.


In Chapter 5, we link both of these types of important studies to the larger theoretical discussion on democratization. What is the impact, if any, of higher numbers of women in elected office on the transition from a pre- or quasi-democratic political system to a more democratic one, and its subsequent consolidation? This is important because as Craske (1999, 86) points out, the struggle for democratization has shown that there is always the potential for change and for power relations to be renegotiated. The book investigates the reciprocal effects of democratization on women as well as the effects of elected and politically active women on democratization. The experiences of women in Central America are also compared and contrasted with those of women in other newly democratizing regimes in Eastern and Central Europe.


Finally, we consider the broad range of policy proposals of elected women in Central America in Chapter 6. In Central America, the interests and demands of women were not well articulated during the transition to democracy in the 1980s and 1990s, and were largely excluded from the agenda for democratic consolidation. This resulted in a profound questioning by women of the connections between peace, rights, development, and gender. Shut out from the new formal institutions, women have begun developing their own informal political practices and creating non-governmental organizations (NGOs) to lobby for their claims on the new democracy. This final chapter offers examples of how elected and activist women are now drawing upon their political expertise, honed during years of struggle for other causes, to develop gender consciousness and to define and assert their own interests and rights through public policy in the new emerging state. The issues, concerns, and developments covered in our study are not only important to the understanding of women and politics in Central America; they also contribute to a broader understanding of the complex theoretical and practical issues of women, representation, and democratization in the developing world and point to the types of developments in the status of women that can be expected in the future. Finally, the book spells out the implications of the Central American experience for other countries and makes recommendations for the direction of future studies.


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