Women taking dominant political role in Norway


OSLO, Norway -- The prime minister of Norway is a woman, and half her Cabinet members are women. So are the leaders of two of the main opposition political parties. So are the two candidates running next fall for mayor of Oslo. And so are 59 of the 165 members of the Norwegian Parliament.

"Sometimes I meet some men who think that women have too much influence," said Astrid Noeklebye Heiberg, a professor of psychiatry at Oslo University and the Conservative Party nominee for mayor. "But I remind the men they should not be too fearful. They still have two-thirds of the Parliament."

In no other country do women play such a large and highly visible role in both national politics and government. In Britain, for example, only 7 percent of the members of Parliament are women, and in the United States, fewer than 6 percent of the lawmakers in Congress are women -- 29 of 435 members in the House of Representatives and two of 100 senators.

Gro Harlem Brundtland, a 52-year-old Harvard-trained physician who is serving as Norway's prime minister for the third time, is both the inspiration and the symbol of the growing influence of women in public life here, a trend that she attributes to her nation's deeply held democratic beliefs and longtime commitment to social reform.

"If you look at the '70s, in the U.S. and in other European countries, feminism was a kind of high-level intellectual and cultural debate, focused through novels, through speeches," she said. "It never came deep into reality."

But in Norway there is broad agreement with the idea that women must take part fully and equally in politics. To that end, Dr. Brundtland's Labor Party adopted a rule in 1983 requiring that no fewer than 40 percent and no more than 60 percent of its nominees must be women. Soon other parties followed.

Such questions are probably more easily addressed in a small, prosperous and racially homogenous country such as Norway, where civil rights mostly revolve around questions of age and sex.

Even so, there are those who believe that feminism alone cannot explain what has happened.

Four years ago a Norwegian research institute commissioned a study called Scenario 2000, in which a group of scholars, business executives and politicians suggested that one reason that women were becoming more prominent in public life was that men had conceded the field.

As Norway's economy became more internationalized, the theory goes, real power was no longer confined within the nation's borders. That meant, in turn, that the brightest men were deliberately avoiding public service and choosing to move into higher-paying, higher-status jobs in the private sector.

The report concluded, "Women may be moving from a marginal minority to a marginal majority."

Dr. Brundtland acknowledges that women have made few gains in Norway's private sector but says that women have come to power as government influence is expanding.

"During the 1970s and the 1980s, there was an increase in public expenditures, an increase in the number of new government programs

and new reforms," she said.

"If you want to use the power discussion, this certainly was not a phase in Norwegian postwar history where political questions were uninteresting, or where there was no growth."

She also argues that women have made a difference in reshaping Norway's national agenda. With more women in politics, she says, there has been a much stronger emphasis on such issues as child care, education and family life.

Dr. Brundtland herself is the mother of four. Kaci Kullman Five, who is the head of the rival Conservative Party, has two children, and Anne Inger Lahnstein of the rural Center Party has three. Their parties attract 70 percent of the national electorate.

Although some critics say the changes are mostly symbolic and merely an extension of Norway's traditional emphasis on social welfare, there are broader discussions in government now about expanding day-care programs for the children of working parents and lengthening the number of hours that children are in school.

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