From Paella to Politics

Posted: Apr 12, 2007 12:01 AM
From Paella to Politics

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.

The new legislation allows new fathers to take 13 days for paternity leave. Several angry male politicians mocked the prime minister as wanting to mandate male breast-feeding, but figured he couldn't get away with it. All this, they argue, is no way to raise Spain's birthrate, the lowest in Europe, currently at less than one child per couple.

Germany, by comparison, looks at the problem differently. A popular new book, "The Eva Principle" (Das Eva Prinzip), subtitled "Towards a New Femininity," suggests that motherhood is counter-revolutionary. The author, Eva Herman, 49, a former newsreader (as news anchorpersons are called over here), abandoned a glamorous television career 10 years ago when she gave birth to a son. "We women have overburdened ourselves to be too easily seduced by career opportunities," she writes. She fears that Germans will "die out" if they don't change their attitude toward making babies. Angry German feminists accuse her of wanting to take women back to the '50s: "Instead of 'Leave It to Beaver,' she's calling for 'Leave It to Bernhard.'"

Christa Muller disagrees. She's the wife of the left-wing former finance minister Oskar Lafontaine. Five years ago she echoed Hillary Clinton's defiant boast that she didn't intend to stay home to bake cookies. Now Frau Muller urges women to look on motherhood as a career. She's writing a book called "Careful, Housewife Ahead! ("Achtung Hausfrau"), and is campaigning for the government to pay women for domestic work.

Women's issues are country-specific. Angela Merkel, Germany's first woman chancellor, is childless. Ursula von der Leyen, her minister for family affairs, is married and the mother of seven children. Preaching what she practices, she wants to boost the German birthrate, now at 1.3 children per woman, by increasing the number of nursery places for children younger than 3.

Many European women, aware that a majority of American women work outside the home, are puzzled by the attempt to resuscitate the Equal Rights Amendment. "What more could you gain?" one asked me. Said another, a strong, independent Spanish artist: "We've come a long way, senora."