Women in politics: Berlusconi lays into Spain's 'too pink' cabinet

Centuries-old prejudices were to the fore in the colourful Italian Prime Minister's remarks about his counterpart in Madrid
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The Independent Online

Sometimes, a week is a long time in politics. Other times, 350 years fly by and nothing seems to change. One of the following statements about women in politics was made in the 17th century by an unenlightened London satirist; the other was made last week by one of the leaders of the 21st-century free world. Can you guess which is which?

"[He] has formed a government that is too pink," reads one. "That's something we cannot do... because there is a prevalence of men in politics and it isn't easy to find women who are qualified for government. Now he's asked for it. He'll have problems leading them." The other imagines "the merrie Lawes by them newly Enacted, To live in more Ease, Pompe, Pride, and wantonnesse: but especially that they might have superiority and domineere over their husbands [and] cure any old or new Cuckolds...".

The first assertion is by the Italian prime minister Silvio Berlusconi; the second is a 1646 woodcut called "The Parliament of Women". But the sentiment behind them is similar, and any confusion may arise from the fact that Berlusconi is now the one whose "wantonness" is a matter of record.

In 2005, he claimed that he had to "dust off [his] playboy skills" to win over the Finnish president, Tarja Halonen. Good that he's not wasting energy on silly things like politics, those allegations of corruption or the stagnation of the Italian economy. And nor, incidentally, is his contemporary, Vladimir Putin, an eminently "qualified" man who has just left his wife for a 24 year-old rhythmic gymnast. (He'll have problems governing her, Mr Berlusconi might think.)

The Italian PM has been getting his knickers in a twist over Spanish politics. There, prime minister Jose Luis Rodriguez Zapatero has appointed his cabinet, and (mamma mia!) half of them are women. There's the minister for public works and infrastructure, Magdalena Alvarez, who argued, "Many of us women would never belong to a government headed by Berlusconi". Then there's defence minister Carme Chacon, who is seven months pregnant and has proved her cojones by visiting Afghanistan – a fact that will surprise right-wing Spanish commentators who couldn't have imagined she had it in her.

This will inevitably lead to comparison with the British Parliament – 60th out of 188 countries in the equality league, with 19.5 per cent of our MPs being women. Crueller commentators have pointed out a certain lack of style among UK MPs when compared to their counterparts in Spain, France or the beauty pageant from which Berlusconi chooses his lady colleagues. Surely a more bizarre anomaly is the fact that six out of the nine Spanish women are blonde: do blonde women become more successful, or do more successful women become blonde? We need to know.

Before this foolhardy move by Zapatero – and he'll regret it when all the girls simultaneously suffer from "women's trouble" and fall out spectacularly over shoes – Scandinavian countries were leading the way in the equal representation table, with Sweden, Finland, Denmark and Norway all in the top 10, narrowly trailing Rwanda, which has 48.8 per cent women.

In her memoir House Music, former MP Oona King wrote: "One new MP was impressed to find that each MP's coat hanger had a pink ribbon attached – presumably to highlight Aids or breast cancer awareness – only to discover that they were for us to hang our swords on."

She also quotes another woman MP, elected in 1997, explaining why she would not stand again. "I got tired of the willy jousting," she said. Whatever Zapatero's girlie pink Spanish parliament gets up to, at least Spanish voters will be spared that horrible image.