What Country Has the Most Women in Government?

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Does the majority get represented in most countries?

Saudi Arabia, the most restrictive nation on the planet as far as women’s rights is concerned, just elected 20 women to their local governing bodies, the highest level at which they are allowed to seek office. The argument could be made that is a baby step towards equality for women in that country. Twenty out of a population of 30.8 million. Baby steps.

America is known as the leader of the free world with a population of 320 million, 51 percent of whom are women. So how are our numbers?

At the highest level that women in America currently hold office there are 84 women in the House of Representatives and 20 in the Senate. Only 104 women out of a population of 320 million. Yes, women sit on boards of education, city councils, county commissions, and state legislatures and executive offices. But at the highest level in the most free nation on the planet - 104 out of 320 million?

That number doesn't quite put us at the top of the worldwide list for the percentage of female representation in government based on a nation's population. We’re not number two either. We’re even not in the top ten. We are number 72. Saudi Arabia is number 70. The country where women are most free (supposedly) and the country where they are the least free (by all empirical evidence) are separated on the list by only two other countries: Greece and Kenya. The top 10 countries on the list are:

1. Rwanda

2. Bolivia

3. Cuba

4. Seychelles

5. Sweden

6. Senegal

7. Mexico

8. South Africa

9. Equador

10. Finland

The entire list of countries and statistics is available at the Inter-Parliamentary Union.

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The last nation to give women the vote:

This December in Saudi Arabia, 20 female candidates were elected to the approximately 2,100 municipal council seats. Salma bint Hizab al-Oteibi (Salma, daughter of Hizab of the Oteibi tribe) became the first elected female politician in Saudi Arabia, elected to serve on the council in Madrakah in the Mecca province. Incidentally, Mecca is the site of the holiest mosque in the Islam religion.

These councils have only local responsibilities such as garbage removal and street maintenance in their communities. The Kingdom is under the sovereign rule of the al-Saud tribe. But in this historic election, voter turnout was approximately 47 percent. Those voters chose two thirds of the seats in 284 councils throughout the kingdom. Some 131,000 women and about 1.35 million men had registered to vote in these elections. Many of the 978 women who attempted to register as candidates were deemed ineligible by authorities. No reason was required, but many of those candidates were well-known advocates for the expansion of women’s rights.

Once successfully registered to run for office in the last country on earth to grant women the right to vote, female candidates faced challenges unheard of in America. They could not drive, so they needed a male relative to drive them both to register and to campaign - even to vote. In fact, all the women who voted in these elections needed a male relative to drive them to the polls. As all females in Saudi, the candidates had to cover their faces in public. They could not directly speak to male voters. At campaign rallies they either had to speak from behind a partition or have a man read their speech for them. Photographs of candidates, male or female, were prohibited. And the campaign only lasted 12 days.

And it was not like elections were an established practice. The first local election in Saudi Arabia was in 2005. Another was held in 2011. Women were neither on the ballot or allowed to vote in those two elections.

First Congresswoman elected before women even had the vote.

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Well . . technically


Rebecca Latimer Felton represented the state of Georgia as senator and became the first woman to do so for any state in the union. But her term lasted exactly one day.

When Senator Thomas E. Watson died on September 26, 1922, Governor Thomas Hardwick took the time-honored step of appointing a replacement to serve until a special election could be held. However, Watson died while the senate was not in session, and the special election would be held before the next session began. The governor knew the person he appointed would not actually serve, but as the incumbent that person would stand the best chance of winning the special election. And the thing was: he wanted to win that election himself.

So he appointed someone he knew would never win an election to be a senator from the great state of Georgia (or in 1923 from any other state in the union.) He appointed 87-year-old Mrs. Felton, improving his chances of winning and hopefully placating Georgia's brand new female voters. He had opposed passage of the 19th amendment.

In spite of the governor's savvy political maneuvers, two weeks later Hardwick lost the special election to Georgia Supreme Court Judge Walter F. George. In the spirit of southern gentlemanliness, George allowed Felton to present her credentials on the first day of the new session and be sworn in as senator. The next morning she resigned, saying that the women who followed her would serve with "ability, integrity of purpose and unstinted usefulness." Almost a decade later, that woman was Hattie Caraway of Arkansas who became the first woman to win election to the Senate in 1932.


You've still got a long way to go, Baby.

,Since the beginning of the 20th Century 170 countries have had a female head of state, including the United Kingdom, Germany and Israel. America has yet to have a woman at the top of the ticket from a major political party. (Five have run as third party candidates.)

So when was the first woman elected to Congress in America? Jeannette Pickering Rankin was elected in 1916 to the U.S. House of Representatives from the state of Montana. That was four years before women in America had the right to vote. In fact Rankin campaigned on a constitutional women’s suffrage amendment. Rebecca Felton of Georgia became the first senator in 1922 (see sidebar).

Rankin’s legally election into Congress was delayed a month as her fellow congressmen discussed whether a woman should be admitted. The day she was allowed to take her seat, April 2, 1917, President Woodrow Wilson asked a joint session of Congress for a declaration of war against Germany. Rankin was one of only 50 representatives to vote against the declaration. She was the only dissenting vote when President Franklin D. Roosevelt asked for a declaration of war against Japan on December 7, 1941. Such a furor resulted that she did not seek reelection.

Since Rankin's service, 313 women have been elected to Congress as representatives or senators. Today the largest and most diverse group of women, 134, equal 58 percent of all the women who have ever been elected to the legislative branch of our federal government. They have created a Congresswomen’s Caucus to promote legislation that is important to women. They have had one of their members rise to the role of speaker of the house and have had one on the ballot for vice president. A female governor has also been on the ballot below the name of the male presidential nominee. That is as far as we, as a majority in America, have come. To rewrite a popular phrase from the 1970s, and you still have a long way to go, Baby, without the hindrances many of your sisters deal with in other parts of the world.


History, Art and Archives

History of the House

Women in Congress, 1917–2006

al Jazeera America

Inter-Parliamentary Union

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