Rebecca Helm-Ropelato
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Thursday, January 11, 2007
Cry Me A Quota
Today I want to tell a story I heard recently while having a conversation about women and politics. It's about one particular woman in Italian politics and the day she cried.
The woman is Stefania Prestigiacomo and for those who like to visualize the heroine she is undeniably a beautiful blond. The key subject of the story is something known here as the quote rosa. Translated this means pink quota. It refers to a proposal that by law would require a certain percentage, at minimum, of the candidates on political party election tickets be women.
As background, in Italy women comprise 54 percent of the country's voting population but at present their share of parliamentary seats is less than 16 percent.* Italy is a charter member of the European Union and for some time the EU has recommended that its member states set their quotas for women on parliamentary election tickets at a minimum of 33 percent.
And just for purposes of comparison, Italian percentages of women in parliament are running about even with the percentage for women in the U.S. Congress, now at about 16 percent (
At the time this story took place, Ms. Prestigiacomo was the Minister for Equal Opportunity in the government of then Prime Minister Silvio Berlusconi. The need for a quote rosa had been under discussion for some time in Italy.
It was the fall of 2005. The Berlusconi government was in the process of passing the Finanziaria which is the annual budget law. This law is by far the major legislative act of the Italian Parliament and mandates the budget and regulatory laws for the current year. As part of the proposed Finanziaria, Ms. Prestigiacomo put forth a proposal to introduce the quote rosa (requiring a pink quota of 25 percent).
This was a smart move on her part because even though the budget law process is inevitably contentious, it is generally easier to pass a law as part of its package than to introduce it separately. Other factors also seemed promising. It was believed that Ms. Prestigiacomo's proposal was supported by her own center right colleagues. The support of the center left parties also was assumed as some of its leaders were advocating that the pink quota be set at the much higher level of 50 percent. All this plus the support of the Prime Minister, gave Ms. Prestigiacomo reason to be optimistic.
So it was quite a surprise when the proposal suffered a major defeat when it was introduced in the Camera (the lower house of parliament roughly equivalent to the U.S. House of Representatives).
“To tell the truth, it was a hard blow for everyone,” said my sister-in-law Daniela Ropelato, a political scientist, who strongly favors the pink quota. “The vote in the Camera signalled that many were opposed to the quote rosa both in the center right parties and in the center left.”
But Ms. Prestigiacomo still did not give up on her proposal. Continuing to lobby her male colleagues to change their minds, she tried to introduce the bill once again in November of that same autumn. The widespread opposition to the pink quota, however, was unrelenting. Finally, Ms. Prestigiacomo admitted defeat. And, famously, cried.
Why did she cry? I asked Daniela and also another sister-in-law, Silvia, who is also an activist for the pink quota. They said they didn't know really but probably for the obvious reason that she was disappointed.
I have to say I wish Ms. Prestigiacomo hadn't cried. Crying's not a bad thing but for women in politics it's probably not the best approach. It just reinforces demented testosterone levels in the male and encourages them to act stupid and sexist. I would have preferred that Ms. Prestigiacomo deliver the usual inane sound bite but with a glint in her eye that promised she would be back to fight another day. In fact, she is still a member of the Italian Parliament and probably is still fighting for the quote rosa. I hope so.
* See here for a Global Database of Quotas for Women, 2006.

(Source note: The primary source for the information cited in this article about Italian politics was Daniela Ropelato. She is a political scientist with a PhD from the University of Florence.)
by Rebecca Helm-Ropelato
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