For the first time in history, unless you believe the ancient Greek myth of the Amazons, a European country has a government in which more women than men hold positions of power. The new Spanish cabinet, sworn in by the socialist Prime Minister Jose Luis Rodriguez Zapatero, has nine women alongside eight men, including Spain's first woman Defence minister, Carme Chacon, and its youngest-ever cabinet minister, the 31-year-old minister for equality, Bibiana Aido.
This is the country whose exaggerated respect for masculine values added the word "machismo" to the English language. Elderly Spaniards can recall life under General Francisco Franco, when no woman could open a bank account, apply for a passport or sign a contract without her husband's permission. The idea that a woman might serve in the army was, of course, out of the question. They were first allowed in 20 years ago, and now make up nearly a fifth of the total strength of Spain's armed forces.
Even so, the spectacle of the 37-year-old Chacon inspecting the troops on Monday morning dressed in black pants and a white tunic, and visibly pregnant, was altogether too much for the Conservative daily El Mundo, which raged against what it called "an exercise in political marketing" that offended the traditional values and culture of the Spanish army.
Others are delighted. In Spain, women earn about 30 per cent less than men, and take up less than 4 per cent of the places on the boards of the major companies. More than 40 per cent of Spanish mothers of young children work outside the home. Domestic violence persists: during 2007, 71 women were killed by their husbands or partners.
Mr Zapateros's choice of cabinet ministers is a symbolic step towards eliminating the barriers to opportunity – more eye-catching, though perhaps not as ambitious, as the legislation he introduced two years ago imposing the so-called 40 per cent rule. This prohibits men or women from making up more than 60 per cent of the candidates of any political party that contests national or local elections. It also demands, but does not require, that by 2010 any company negotiating for public contracts should appoint women to 40 per cent of the places on their boards of directors. The rule will have only a limited impact on the Spanish parliament, where women already make up 36.6 per cent of the deputies, the fifth-highest figure in Europe, but it could open spectacular opportunities at local government level, and particularly in the boardroom, for Spain's female university students, who outnumber male undergraduates.
"I am not only an anti-machoist, I am a feminist," Mr Zapatero once said. "The most unfair domination is that of one half of humanity over the other. The more equality women will have, the more civilised and tolerant society will be."
Denis MacShane, Britain's former Europe minister, who keeps a close watch on the continent's socialist parties, said: "Spanish politics are largely unknown to the British left, but the socialists, both under Felipe Gonzales and now under Mr Zapatero, have been probably the most innovative party of the democratic left in Europe for the past quarter century. I hope Gordon Brown and his ministers can spend more time going to Spain and learning."
While Spain has made the biggest strides in the past decade, they are not the pioneers in this field. That distinction belongs to the Scandinavians, and particularly to the Swedes. In 1972, the Swedish Liberal Party decided to make a pitch for the increasingly important female vote by making sure that at least 40 per cent of the MPs the party returned at the next election would be women. This was possible because Sweden's system of proportional representation gave party managers the power to manipulate numbers from the centre in a way that would be very difficult under the "first past the post" system in the UK.
The Swedish Social Democrats realised that the Liberals were on to a good idea, and matched it by bringing in the so-called "zipper" system, under which if there is a man at the top of the party list, the number two position must be occupied by a woman, the third by a man, and so on. The proportion of women in the Swedish parliament, around 14 per cent in 1971, soon trebled. In the 2006 election, women took 164 seats out of 349, or 47 per cent of the total, the highest proportion in Europe and the second highest anywhere in the world. (Rwanda has the highest with 39 women out of 80 in the lower house.)
The principle of "every second seat for a woman" is now well ingrained in Nordic countries. Finland, Denmark and Norway are all in the top 10 countries in the world for the proportion of women in their legislatures. Norway has a Gender Equality Act which requires that all publicly appointed committees, including the cabinet, should be made up of at least 40 per cent men and at least 40 per cent women. This rule was extended in 2004 to state-owned companies. Then in 2006, the government legislated to impose an extraordinary ultimatum on Norway's public limited companies – either have a minimum of 40 per cent of women on the company board by 1 January 2008, or be closed down. Despite the dire prophecies of economic catastrophe, the law has come into force without driving out any major company.
"The most alarmist people told us the economy would suffer, that investors would flee Oslo, that the level of competence on the boards would plunge," Marit Hoel, the head of Norway's Centre for Corporate Diversity said. "What we've seen is that the economy is doing very well, that the investors are still there, and that the women who have been appointed to the boards are more highly educated, more international and younger than their male counterparts."
Europe's most powerful state, Germany, is some way behind Scandinavia and Spain, but the proportion of women in the Bundestag is above 30 per cent – and they include, of course, the Chancellor, Angela Merkel, who has had a sharp reminder this week that sexism lives on, not least in the British tabloid press, which went wild over photographs of her in a low-cut dress at the formal opening of a new opera house in Oslo. "Merkel's Weapons of Mass Distraction" was the Daily Mail headline.
Measured against some of these international comparisons, the UK's record is not impressive. In 1997, when Tony Blair was photographed amid a sea of female Labour MPs, whose number had suddenly shot up to 102, it seemed that the UK was also going to take a world lead, but that promise has not been fulfilled. The current House of Commons has 126 women among a total of 646 MPs – 19.5 per cent of the total. That puts the UK in the bottom half of the EU league table, below former Communist states such as Poland. This is partly because of the voting system, but it also reflects British political culture.
A coalition of feminists and public sector trade unions first introduced positive discrimination to British politics, aided and abetted by the slightly old-fashioned Labour leader, John Smith, when they decreed that half of the new candidates in winnable Labour seats would be chosen from all-women shortlists. Tony Blair was lukewarm about the idea but it produced a furious reaction, mainly from outside the Labour Party, until an employment tribunal ruled that it was illegal. That ruling caused the proportion of women in the Commons to drop after the 2001 election, but the Government then changed the law, and Labour brought back all-women lists.
Representation of women is slightly better in some other parts of British public life. Nearly 30 per cent of local councillors are women. In the Welsh Assembly, which uses the "zipper" system, there are 28 women out of 60 members – 46.7 per cent.
If Labour's record has been patchy, Mr Brown can at least argue that the party has made a start. The Fawcett Society, which campaigns for gender equality, has calculated that at the present rate of progress, Labour could take another 20 years to reach a position where half of its MPs are women, whereas the Conservatives will need another 400 years to get there.
One of the standard arguments trotted out by those who oppose the promotion of women is that they go off at crucial times to have babies. Spain has 750 troops in Afghanistan, when most of the population want them withdrawn. In two months, the new Defence minister will give birth. Another of Mr Zapatero's reforms entitles her to 16 weeks' paid paternity leave. If she vacates her office for four months, expect the rumbling of discontent from tradition-bound Spanish males to get louder.
Spain's female government
Cristina Garmendia, Science minister
Cristina Garmendia, 46, a Basque biology PhD and boss of a successful biotechnology company involved in stem-cell research, enters the cabinet as minister of Science and Innovation. Her tasks are to cut the red tape gagging Spanish science, make it productive and recruit talent. On the executive committee of Spain's equivalent of the CBI. A team-builder.
Mercedes Cabrera, Education minister
Mercedes Cabrera, 57, adds Social Affairs to her previous Education and Sport portfolio. The former political history professor is battling with bishops over RE in schools, and adapting Spain's universities to conform with the rest of Europe. She must implement Civic Studies courses as alternative to religious studies in state schools, in the teeth of Catholic opposition.
Maria Teresa Fernandez de la Vega, Deputy Prime Minister
Maria Teresa Fernandez de la Vega, 58, has a second term as Deputy Prime Minister. The lawyer is Mr Zapatero's right hand woman, a firefighter with added responsibility for co-ordinating the work of all ministries. She is renowned for her hard work, will of steel and openness to dialogue.
Bibiana Aido, Equality minister
Bibiano Aido, 31, Spain's youngest minister so far, heads a new Equality Ministry and has responsibility for implementing an equality law and strengthening women's rights to protection from sexual violence. Aido was a regional MP in Andalusia's government, and director of the Flamenco Agency. Has good English thanks to a master's from Newcastle University.
Elena Espinosa, Rural Environment minister
Elena Espinosa, 48, adds Environment to her former portfolio of Agriculture and Fishery. Discreet, knowledgeable and effective, she is from the north-west region of Galicia where she ran the port authority of Vigo, Europe's biggest fishing port. Now she must tackle climate change, and Spain's acute water shortage, and resolve demands of farmers and environmentalists.
Magdalena Alvarez, Minister of public works
Magdalena Alvarez, 56, the tough-as-concrete minister of Public Works, survives after fending off Catalan criticisms – and a parliamentary reprimand – over her handling of a complex high-speed rail link between Madrid and Barcelona. A fiery Andalusian, diplomacy is not her forte, but she is an effective manager.
Carme Chacon, Defence minister
Carme Chacon, 37, was appointed Defence minister after brief stint at Housing. From working-class Barcelona, she was a shop assistant, studied law and taught at university. She became MP at 29, helping to organise Mr Zapatero's rise to party leadership in 2000. A key bridge with Catalan socialists.
Elena Salgado, Civil Service minister
Elena Salgado, 58, is in charge of public administrations. As Health minister she brought in a smoking ban in public places and promoted healthy eating. Appointed to her current post in previous government, she now has to implement new statutes of autonomy approved by the regions and reform regional and local finances.
Beatriz Corredor, Housing minister
The new Housing minister, Beatriz Corredor, 39, takes over from Carme Chacon in a recently created ministry designed to help young people afford their own homes and confront a sector in crisis. She is a former opposition socialist housing spokeswoman in Madrid´s conservative-run town hall, and a qualified property administrator.
Women MPs in EU countries
Percentage of women MPs (equivalents) per member state:
The Netherlands 39.3
Czech Republic 15.5
As of 31 December 2007. Source: Inter-Parliamentary Union