On January 14, 2020, a new political party, Voices of Women, announced an all-female slate for Israel’s parliamentary elections in March. Israel’s political scene is notoriously male dominated. Women’s representation has declined even since 2015, and the three largest parties each list only two women among their top ten candidates for the upcoming election. And yet Voices of Women is no anomaly. The group is actually the country’s ninth women’s political party and one of more than 100 to have emerged in 60 countries in the past century, including in India, Turkey, South Africa, Myanmar, Japan, and Poland.

Most women’s parties earn less than four percent of the vote and last just two or three electoral cycles before disbanding. Israel’s women’s parties have elected only a handful of deputies. The Women’s Equality Party in the United Kingdom and the parties called Feminist Initiative (or F!) in Finland, Norway, Sweden, Denmark, and Poland have never won seats in their respective national legislatures. A few women’s parties are notable outliers: the Netto party in Japan has done well in local assemblies for more than four decades, and the GABRIELA Women’s Party in the Philippines has won seats in the House of Representatives in the past six elections. But by and large, the parties’ poor electoral showing has led scholars and activists to discount their political potential.

Fortunately, elections do not tell the whole story. Women’s parties have in fact achieved a great deal, not least in pressuring other political parties to promote female leadership and pay attention to women’s issues.

Women’s parties participate in mainstream political competition in all the predictable ways—running candidates, devising platforms, and proposing policies. Some of them emphasize such issues as increasing women’s representation, protecting reproductive rights, stopping violence against women, and achieving pay equity between women and men. But even as they engage in electoral competition and policymaking, the parties channel a novelty, energy, and authenticity that signals an alternative to politics as usual.

A F! leader burns cash in Visby, Sweden, July 2010
An F! protest in Visby, Sweden, July 2010
Scanpix / Reuters

Women’s parties behave something like social movements, often linking formal politics with civil society initiatives or activist tactics. The women’s party in Iceland, for example, opened a women’s crisis center, a theater, and an art gallery. Japan’s Netto party collaborates with an ecological collective. The Swedish F! once burned $13,000 in cash to protest gender pay inequity. And some of the Swiss women’s parties in the 1990s participated in a nationwide women’s strike. By building such links and adopting such tactics, women’s parties establish their influence in the street, workplace, and home.

Women’s parties fill a void when established parties neglect women’s issues or deny women opportunities to participate. Such parties often appear in moments of systemic crisis—such as the collapse of communism in eastern Europe or the current upheaval in the party system in Israel. By drawing attention to the neglect of women in the established parties, women’s parties do more than offer an alternative in a given election. They change the parties they run against, advance certain policies, and alter the gender balance of parliaments in the countries where they emerge.

INFLUENCE BEYOND VOTES

In Iceland, a women’s party called Kvennalistinn (KL), active from 1983 to 1999, achieved a rare and resounding electoral success. Toward the end of the 1980s, KL held more than ten percent of the national parliament and 20 percent of the Reykjavik City Council. The effect was dramatic. Over the next three electoral cycles, women’s representation in Icelandic national politics increased from five percent to 25 percent, not just through KL’s direct participation but because other parties scrambled to adjust their policies and attitudes toward women. KL representatives in the parliament generated public debate and new legislation on previously taboo topics, such as incest, sexual abuse, and violence against women. 

The case of Northern Ireland, however, may be more typical, in that it illustrates just how much women’s parties can achieve even when their electoral showing is modest. In the 1990s, women constituted only 12 percent of the local councils in Northern Ireland, and no woman from Northern Ireland had served in the British Parliament or the European Parliament since 1972. Peace talks between political parties representing different sides in the conflict were scheduled to take place with no women at the table. Northern Ireland’s main political parties largely ignored women’s interests. So women formed their own party in 1996. That party, the Northern Ireland Women’s Coalition, elected two women to the Northern Ireland Forum, from which were drawn the peace talk’s participants, and ensured that gender equality guarantees were written into the 1998 Good Friday Agreement.

The very existence of the Women’s Coalition signaled that Northern Ireland’s main political parties had failed to adequately address the concerns of female voters, and ultimately, its emergence prompted those leading parties to change. In order not to be seen as neglecting women, the parties elevated women in their ranks and ran more female candidates. Female candidates for the British Parliament from Northern Ireland increased from six percent in 1993 to 16 percent in 1997, and their rate of success in those elections improved from 59 percent to 87 percent.

Despite never topping two percent in polls, the Coalition profoundly affected women’s representation.

The established parties in Northern Ireland began to pay more attention to women’s issues. Five of them issued platforms in 1997 that embraced priorities the coalition had advanced, such as dedicating public funds for childcare, recognizing the rights of children, and appointing more women to public bodies. Three of the four largest parties later issued separate policy documents on women. Despite never topping two percent in polls, the Women’s Coalition had profoundly affected women’s representation, and in 2006, its agenda largely subsumed by those of more established parties, it dissolved itself.

Women’s parties in countries such as Lithuania, Russia, Israel, and Switzerland followed similar trajectories to that of the Northern Ireland Women’s Coalition—polling low but broadly influencing national politics. Sweden’s women’s party, too, punched above its electoral weight in national politics. In June 2014, the Swedish Feminist Initiative, F!, won a seat in the European Parliament and looked poised to win one in the Swedish parliament in September. Other parties responded by incorporating feminist issues into their platforms for that election, in order not to appear outmoded. Soon each party platform mentioned an average of ten of the Feminist Initiative’s signature issues—such as discrimination, pay equity, the unequal burden of domestic labor, sexual and domestic violence, and environmental protection—an increase from an average of six in the three prior elections.

Sweden’s parties offered solutions consistent with their ideological positions: those on the right emphasized individual opportunities and choices, while those on the left focused on building public programs. But a clear consensus emerged that gender inequality deserved attention, largely because F! had put mainstream parties on notice that they needed to engage with the issue or risk losing seats. In this manner, women’s parties from Iceland to Israel have effected change well beyond their individual electoral numbers.

REWARDS OF EQUALITY

Despite their often short life cycles, women’s parties have not only generated greater political commitment to tackling issues that affect women but also boosted the number of women serving in parliaments in the countries where they emerge.

Female representation in parliaments has its own rewards. When women participate in a peace process, the agreement it produces is more likely to be stable. Where more women serve in legislature, the response to international crises tends to be less violent, government is less corrupt, and more programs promote social and child welfare, address violence against women, and encourage workforce participation

However women’s parties have performed in elections, they have not failed. By shaping national political agendas and pressuring established parties to become more inclusive, they have not only delivered for women but improved governance for all.

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  • KIMBERLY COWELL-MEYERS is Assistant Professor of Government in the School of Public Affairs at American University in Washington, D.C.
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