In 2010, amid much fanfare, Elena Kagan was nominated and confirmed to the Supreme Court of the United States. Justice Kagan would become the fourth-ever female justice, and for the first time in the nation’s history, three female justices would sit on the country’s highest court. In the time since Kagan was confirmed, there has been significant debate as to what effect women at the highest levels of government can have for women’s rights, not just in America but throughout the world. Evidence across a variety of countries suggests that the answer depends wholly on democratic bona fides and is considerably more nuanced than a simple yes or no.
Starting with the judicial branch, a study reveals that out of 13 areas of the law studied, 12 find no major difference in rulings from male versus female judges. The lone exception? Sex-related employment discrimination. Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg has pointed to this issue as one where being a woman, especially one of her generation, provides important insight that men will not have.
In addition to the the three Supreme Court justices, there is similarly impressive movement on women’s rights by women in the elected branches of government. Amid intense speculation on her future plans, as both secretary of state and as a quasi-private citizen Hillary Clinton has made the advancement of women’s right a pet issue. She has spent much of her time and effort creating programs all over the globe for equality and women’s education. The legislative branch has seen similar success, with leaders on this issue ranging from Nancy Pelosi to Heidi Heitkamp and Kirsten Gillibrand, (both of whom may be the subject ov intense vice-presidential speculation as we inch towards 2016).
So that’s a yes, right? Increased female representation in the highest echelons of government does great work for the advancement of human rights? Not so fast. Again, the answer is far more nuanced than a simple yes or no.
Rwanda is the only country in the world with a female majority in parliament. But rather than the progress on women’s rights one would expect from the above paragraphs, Rwanda has found itself in a situation that should give us pause:
Evidence suggests it [greater female representation] has had very little impact on the lives of ordinary Rwandan women. This is because while the state has tremendous female representation, it is still an authoritarian, one-party state. While I am running the risk of vastly oversimplifying, the argument goes that in a state where the Parliament just votes the party line and has no real power over a dictator, the gender of the individual voting the party line has little policy impact.
Rwanda makes clear the issue for female politicians in advancing women’s rights. The more power an individual politician has in advancing his or her own agenda, the more likely they are to make a difference with that agenda. In democratic states women can make a huge difference in the lives of ordinary women by advancing women’s rights agendas and bringing different life experiences to issues of vast importance. In non-democratic states the opposite is true, as there is very little room for individual policymaking in any area.
Last month, newly elected Iranian President Hassan Rouhani made what much of the world saw as a giant step forward for women’s rights in the country by appointing a woman, Elham Aminzadeh, as his vice president for legal affairs. If she is confirmed (by no means a sure thing), Professor Aminzadeh will become the second woman in Iran’s history to serve in the cabinet and the first to rise to the position of vice president. As in Rwanda, the optics of a female vice president are extremely welcome to outside observers of the conservative Islamic Republic, but also as in Rwanda, there are serious doubts as to the difference her confirmation would make in the lives of ordinary women.