Suzanne Fields

MADRID -- Josune Amunarriz is an avant-garde artist with a retro personal style. She's the first Basque woman to get a museum retrospective, currently on view at the prestigious Sala Kubo in San Sebastian. Her work will soon be displayed at the Queen Sofia Spanish Institute in New York. This tiny woman paints huge abstract murals reflecting the landscape and energy of the crashing waves she recalls from the Basque fishing village where she was born 63 years ago.

Her success, and how she attained it, reveals a lot about the status of women in Europe. Unlike Spanish feminists, who clamor for mandated equality, Amunarriz raised four sons and a daughter with the help of a supportive husband, and her singular talent broke through in a man's world. Like Frank Sinatra, she did it her way.

On this side of the Atlantic, that's unusual. "Women's issues" here are different from "women's issues" in the United States. Hillary Clinton is hardly a role model. A strong, independent woman who succeeds on her own is exceptional; a new law in Spain patronizes professional women by forcing them into a quota system. A company with more than 250 employees must employ at least 100 women, or 40 percent of its payroll, within eight years. In next month's national election, at least 40 percent of the candidates in regions and cities with populations greater than 5,000 must be women.

After this law was enacted, Prime Minister Jose Luis Rodriguez Zapatero stood on the steps of the Congress building to bask in the praise of thousands of women shouting "Ista, ista, ista, Zapatero feministas!" Zapatero is a feminist! Indeed, when he was elected in 2004, he appointed an equal number of men and women to his Cabinet, a first for the Spanish government.

Not everyone is happy with his formula of measuring success by statistics. The Popular Party, the conservatives opposed to the new law, exposes a major flaw. In at least one municipality, the Popular Party wanted to field an all-female slate but had to drop 40 percent of its candidates to make way for men who didn't have much interest in running. The iron law of unintended consequences prevails again.

The opposition party describes the prime minister as "an armchair feminist" who can't or won't confront the real problems most women face. Many women as well as men fret that "gender" will trump merit; even accomplished women will suffer the dreaded asterisk beside those accomplishments. They think there are better ways to move from making paella to making politics.

Suzanne Fields

Suzanne Fields is currently working on a book that will revisit John Milton's 'Paradise Lost.'

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