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Denmark has got its first woman prime minister ever

 
Helle Thorning-Schmidt, Photo: Press photo
The election victory won by the social democrat leader Helle Thorning-Schmidt, Denmark’s first woman prime minister, is a historic milestone in the struggle for women’s equality in Denmark. Several experts believe that equality in general will benefit within the country as a result. But amidst all the jubilation, there is also some disappointment. Of the 23 new ministerial appointments, only nine have been given to women, breaking the promise given to Danish women of a government with a 50/50 representation of men and women.

“This is the final proof that all jobs can be preformed by both sexes.” This was the statement made to the Danish Politiken newspaper by Danish social democrat Ritt Bjerregård, a former top-level politician with over 40 years’ experience as minister and former mayor of Copenhagen.

Following a nerve-wracking vote count in the recent Danish parliamentary elections held on September 15, it became clear that Helle Thorning-Schmidt from the Social Democratic Party would become Denmark’s first ever woman prime minister – 96 years after women first got the vote in 1915.

The significance of the event became clear already on election night when live television pictures were transmitted from the Social Democratic Party’s election party. As the result became clear, and as Helle Thorning-Schmidt took to the podium, tears trickled down the cheeks of the young women party supporters, as their male counterparts carried on celebrating. It was apparent that these young women were suddenly seeing a world of new opportunities opening up before them.

 

Helle Thorning-Schmidt

Helle Thorning-Schmidt, Photo: Press photo


“I try to think in a sisterly way throughout my entire day. The more power and influence I get, the more this is a responsibility that rests on my shoulders”

Or, as Denmark’s best-selling female author, Hanne-Vibeke Holst, stated to Politiken on 17 September:

“Finally, there’s a woman at the top of Danish politics! What happened yesterday is nothing less than historic. As a feminist, it’s hard to come back down to earth. But the fact that we’ve now got a symbolic figurehead at the top of Danish politics doesn’t necessarily mean that the struggle for women’s equality is over – far from it. Let’s not forget that Helle Thorning-Schmidt didn’t become prime minister because she is a woman. She became prime minister despite being a woman!”


Does it really matter what gender the prime minister is?
During the election campaign, the Social Democratic Party was very cautious about playing the gender card. Several media sources had, however, pointed out that Helle Thorning-Schmidt was already called ‘The Queen’ back in high school, and in earlier interviews, she herself had described herself as a feminist.

"I try to think in a sisterly way throughout my entire day. The more power and influence I get, the more this is a responsibility that rests on my shoulders,” explained Helle Thorning-Schmidt to the Danish newspaper Information on International Women’s Day in 2007.

"It is admirable that Helle Thorning has managed to maintain a balance between not being too caring or maternal, and not being too masculine and tough; or, for that matter, not playing too much on sex"

But the debate about the significance of the prime minister’s gender really took off once the election result had become clear.

“A woman prime minister – so what?” wrote the centre-right Anne Sophia Hermansen on 18 August. This comment in her blog in the centre-right newspaper Berlingske Tidende was meant as a counterweight to the media image that inflated the importance of the prime minister’s gender as well as the assertions of gender researchers about the same thing such as these:

“With the victory of Helle Thorning-Schmidt, the struggle for women’s equality has conquered the first of hopefully many pinnacles to come. (…) It is admirable that Helle Thorning has managed to maintain a balance between not being too caring or maternal, and not being too masculine and tough; or, for that matter, not playing too much on sex.” - Karen Sjørup, gender researcher at Roskilde University.

“The true scale of Helle Thorning-Schmidt’s achievement is something people have yet to realise. The question is whether or not they ever will,” wrote columnist, feminist and writer Jette Hansen in a summarised commentary and analysis in Politiken.


Historic on several fronts
In addition to Helle Thorning-Schmidt, the leader of the Danish Social-Liberal Party, Margrethe Vestager, has played a central role in the formation of the new government and has also secured herself a prominent position as Minister of Economy and Home Affairs. As the political spokesperson of the Red-Green Alliance (a coalition support party), Johanne Schmidt Nielsen has also been able to influence the political sphere of the coming government. Their positions have not least been assured thanks to the solid headway made by both their parties in this election. Among the four opposition parties, The Danish People’s Party is also headed by a woman, Pia Kjærsgaard. Consequently, of the eight parties in parliament, four are now led by women.
 

Margrethe Vestager 

Margrethe Vestager, Photo: Press Photo

In terms of the distribution of the 179 seats in the Danish parliament, 71 are now held by women and 108 by men. This means that women now hold 39% of the seats, representing a slight increase in the parliamentary representation of women from the 38% following the 2007 election.


Disappointingly few women ministers
On 3 October, the new government presented itself to the Danish queen, Margrethe II. Although the Queen herself holds a status above party politics and expresses no political opinions, she still plays a central role when it comes to appointing and presenting a new government to the people of Denmark. And in Denmark, it is traditional that crowds of people turn out in the square in front of the royal Amalienborg palace (the Copenhagen residency of the Queen) to celebrate the newly appointed government.

When the Queen prepared to meet the new Danish government following the recent election, three coalition parties stepped forward: the Social Democratic Party, the Danish Social-Liberal party and the Socialist People’s Party. The parties had shared between them the 23 ministerial posts, appointing only nine women as ministers.

"The Social Democratic Party has made its demands clear regarding the number of women sitting on management boards. But it seems that they themselves find it hard to live up to their own criteria. I had expected to see up to 50% women"

The Social Democratic Party has 11 ministers, with five of these being women. The Socialist People’s Party has six ministers, three of whom are women. The Danish Social-Liberal Party has six ministers, with the only women minister being the party’s leader Margrethe Vestager, despite the fact that Danish Social-Liberal Party has nine women MPs among its 17 MPs in parliament. And this sparked a fair amount of debate.

“The Social Democratic Party has made its demands clear regarding the number of women sitting on management boards. But it seems that they themselves find it hard to live up to their own criteria. I had expected to see up to 50% women,” tells Professor Tim Knudsen, “but we’re a long way off that figure.” In fact, the percentage of women in the new government stands at only 39.13% - a fact that Professor Tim Knudsen finds surprising, as the party in the past has advocated a quota of 40% women on boards of directors. In comparison, half of the ministers in the previous government from 2010 were women. Helle Thorning-Schmidt herself has said that she would like things to be different, but explains that it was the choice of The Danish Social-Liberal Party to select five male ministers and only one woman minister.
 

Johanne Schmidt Nielsen 

Johanne Schmidt Nielsen. Press photo: Mark Knudsen

 
Fact box

The new three-party coalition government consists of the Social Democratic Party, the Danish Social-Liberal Party and the Socialist People’s Party, with the Red-Green Alliance as a supporting party. The new government represents the red (centre-left) bloc.


The new government platform based upon equality and diversity
The new Danish government has plans to introduce a number of new initiatives in the areas of equality and diversity. It will allow three months’ earmarked paternity leave for fathers and establish a maternity/paternity fund for those who are self employed. The government will look into the possibilities for establishing gender-based wage statistics with a view to achieving equal pay. With respect to management board gender quotas, the government will enter into dialogue with the corporate sector in order to get more women onto management boards, but it will also review suggestions regarding quotas. Also, the government will prioritise initiatives for vulnerable and socially marginalised boys in relation to vocational training and education.

Mothers who have chosen to be single parents will be treated in the same way as other single-parent providers, and mothers of children conceived through artificial insemination will be treated in the same way as fathers who are participants in artificial insemination. For the sexual minorities in Denmark, it will become possible to be married in the Christian state church, and the government will look into the possibility of increasingly gender-neutral marriage legislation. The government will also examine whether it will be possible for transgender individuals to change their gender status by law. In relation to the much-discussed ban on paying for sexual services, the government will conduct a thorough investigation of a ban.

About the Danish Parliament and the monarchy
In Denmark, the monarch is completely removed from undertaking political action, as this is the job of the government and parliament. Before becoming law, bills must be signed by the monarch and by the minister under whose ministry the legislation falls.

The Queen also holds an important role in the appointment and discharge of governments. In what is known as the Queen’s Round, the monarch has the important task of appointing the person who can assemble greatest support thereby being able to form a new government. When an elected person has established the basis for a government that does not hold a majority against it within parliament, that person must notify the Queen of this and recommend a suitable appointment of a government.

Each parliamentary year begins with a parliamentary opening ceremony on the first Tuesday in October, at which the members of the royal family attend and listen to the Prime Minister’s opening speech.

 



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