Argentina’s Ley de Cupos: Machismo in Disguise?

by Valerie Soley

In November of 1991, Argentina became the first country in the world to put into law a mandatory quota regarding women in politics (Craske Chapter 4). This law, named Ley de Cupos (translation: quota law), states that women must represent 30 percent of the candidates on each party’s ballot in legislative elections (Craske Chapter 4). Since this law was enacted, the number of women in politics in Argentina has, in fact, increased. This policy has become very popular in the region, as many countries in Latin America have since adopted similar quota laws regarding women in politics, such as Bolivia, Brazil, and Mexico (Baldez 327). Despite this seemingly ‘big step’ towards gender equality in the region, it is still up for debate as to whether or not the policy has actually produced or brought the region closer to gender equality. Based on my research, I have found that gender quota laws have not and do not produce gender equality in Argentina, and therefore do not promote a high-quality democracy. At the same time, many people consider the law “anti-democratic since [it] stifles autonomous political expression and identity, something which has particular resonance for Argentina” (Craske Chapter 4). While the representation of minorities and expression of minority rights is an essential part of a quality democracy, it is also an essential part of a quality democracy to allow “citizens to deliberate among themselves, to discover their common needs, and to resolve their differences without relying on some supreme central authority” (Schmitter 79). Additionally, “all democracies involve a degree of uncertainty about who will be elected…” (Schmitter 82). This quota law may violate the basic principles of what a democracy is. Even if the goal was to allow more women into politics, which should be a goal, the execution has not helped towards this cause. While Ley de Cupos has resulted in more women in the Argentinian legislative branch, it has not resulted in more women in higherup government positions beyond the legislative branch, nor has it resulted in the passing of more legislation that is directed at the promotion of women’s issues and rights, nor has it combated the overall sexist, anti-feminist attitude towards women and women’s movements in the country.

Examining the Gap: Women Outside the Legislature

There is no doubt as to whether or not Ley de Cupos has resulted in more women in government in Argentina. In 2016, women made up 38.5 percent of legislators in Argentina (Baldez 326). “By contrast, the percentage of women in the US congress is an anemic 16.9 percent. The United States ranks #72 on the list of women in legislative office, falling between Greece and Turkmenistan” (Baldez 326). In terms of increasing female participation in the legislative branch, the quota law has done what it intended to do. However, despite the increase in women in the legislative branch, the growth of women’s representation in government stops there. As explained by Craske, although women are being encouraged into the legislative branch, the legislative branch tends to be the least powerful branch of the government, and women’s entrance into “key power arenas” still remains a challenge (Craske Chapter 4). “In Argentina we have the case of one of the highest levels of female representation in a national parliament, but only one female secretary of state and few undersecretaries” (Craske Chapter 4). Argentina has already had two female presidents, Evita Perón and Cristina Fernández de Kirchner, while the United States has never had one, so it is easy to assume that women are being properly integrated into the political arena. But if you take a closer look at the country, it is also easy to see that this assumption may be wrong. As  Waylen points out, since 1983, there have been “very few” women in the executive branch (Waylen 778). “The increase in the number of women deputies has not been accompanied by a similar increase in the number of women at the top of hierarchies. Nor has there been a marked increase in the numbers of women in government” (Waylen 781). Waylen goes further to explain that there are, again, “very few” women in higher-up positions within party hierarchies (Waylen 778). “Despite forming 47.7 percent of party affiliates, in 1993 women formed an average of only 7.2 percent of national party directorates” (Waylen 778). Overall,  representation of women in high power roles outside of the mandated legislative branch has been slim.

The Impact on Women’s Rights & Women’s Issues

With more women than ever in the Argentinian government, one would expect to have an increase in policies proposed and enacted that would benefit the lives of women and address many issues considered to be ‘women’s issues.’ However, the resulting increase in women in the legislature has not delivered the desired and expected effect of the quota law. According to Franceschet, “the majority of women’s rights bills actually do not succeed” (Franceschet 415). To illustrate this, there were a total of 93 bills introduced between 1994 and 2003 that related to reproductive rights, of which only two bills succeeded: the Surgical Conception Law and the Sexual Health Law (Franceschet 416). Between 1999 and 2006, there were only three women’s rights bills approved, resulting in a success rate of 1.3 percent (Franceschet 416). In comparison, with a legislative body of women making up only 16.9 percent, the United States has managed to pass an average of two percent of bills related to women’s rights (and to put this into greater perspective, overall, only four percent of bills introduced in the House become law) (Volden 2019). This shows that, despite having no gender quota laws, the United States has managed to introduce and pass more bills directed towards women’s rights than Argentina has with the quota.

There seem to be two main reasons as to why more bills related to women’s rights have not been passed despite the major increase of women in politics. The first is what Franceschet has labeled as the ‘mandate effect’. She explains that gendered quota laws can make women legislators feel obligated to act on behalf of women (Franceschet 394). This perceived obligation often puts an unwanted burden on women in politics, and may often be rejected because of this (Franceschet 402). In Franceschet’s research, she cites the research of two others, Ne´lida Archenti and Niki Johnson, who found that “between 1994 and 2003, only half of female legislators in Argentina introduced at least one bill with gender content,” possibly illustrating the powerful impact that the mandate effect may have over women legislators (Franceschet 414). While this effect may turn previously active feminists into unactive feminists, or even anti-feminists, there is also the possibility of an already anti-feminist woman being elected into office. It is not safe to assume that all women elected through the quota law will be feminist or introduce bills related to women’s rights. “The women who enter parliament through quotas can be non/anti-feminist and may vote against measures which they perceive as challenging women’s traditional domestic roles” (Chasteen Chapter 4). The mandate effect has also resulted in men introducing fewer bills relating to women’s issues and rights. “In the first period, where women’s presence was scarce, men introduced over half of the women’s rights bills. In the last period, where women hold more than 30% of the seats, male legislators introduced only 21% of the bills in these four areas. Thus, increasing the descriptive representation of women has not had strong diffusion effects on the actions of male legislators; if anything, female legislators have become more responsible for introducing women’s rights bills” (Franceschet 413). Rather than encouraging the entire government body to be more inclusive regarding women and women’s rights, it appears the law has actually done the opposite: it has made women more hesitant to enact women’s rights laws, and it has made men feel less obligated to enact these laws as well. 

The second main reason as to why more bills related to women’s rights have not been passed despite the major increase of women in Argentinian politics seems to be due to the fear of women in power losing their position. Overall, there seems to be a trend of women who stand up for women’s rights and support women’s rights bills getting discarded and set aside as irrelevant (we delve further into this perception in the following section). As explained by Franceschet, “women remaining feminine or female-focused lose the status required to legislate successfully” (Franceschet 400). Out of fear of losing their power and not being re-elected, many female, or male, legislators do not support women’s rights bills despite the fact that they may desire to. “Legislators may develop an attachment to quotas in order to preserve their power, but they will not necessarily develop commitments to women in civil or political society” (Franceschet 403). Thus, the support for women’s rights in the legislative branch has dwindled.

Marianismo Challenged?

Despite the quotas being unsuccessful in certain aspects of the government, it is important to consider whether Ley de Cupos has changed the views of the general population. Overall, it is safe to assess that the quota law has not combated the overall sexism and/or anti-feminism in Argentina. This has a lot to do with the fact that the quota law is just that: a law. It is required for these women to be on the ballot; therefore it is not necessarily the will of the people for the women elected to be the peoples’ representative. And anything mandated by the government tends to be a sensitive topic to many Argentinians because of Argentina’s history. “For many, quotas represent a return to the bad old days of state corporatism, where vertical structures gave different groups in society their place” (Craske Chapter 4). With this bad taste in many peoples’ mouths, it can be very difficult for the women elected as a result of the quota law to be respected or taken seriously, which, as mentioned previously, has not only resulted in the lack of women’s rights bills being approved, but has also not changed, or may have even worsened, the attitude towards feminism in the country. The mandated quota creates doubt among the general public and fellow legislators about women legislators’ job competency. Quotas often reinforce the already present stereotype of women in office. “In all cases, the nomination practices can create the demeaning notion that ‘quota women’ are unnecessarily privileged, less capable, and blindly loyal to male party bosses” (Franceschet 403). While these notions are often unfounded, it is a major concern that the quota law has worsened an issue already common in Argentina: nepotism. Unfortunately, the mandated law has or is perceived to have made the problem of nepotism in Argentina’s government worse than before. “The quota law gendered the already-common practice of nepotism in Argentina, as reports emerged that political parties complied with the new law by replacing male candidates with a female relative” (Franceschet 406). This has also been founded in Waylen’s research (Waylen 778). Additionally, to make stereotypes worse, Craske has pointed out that there have been many famous women, rather than qualified women, selected as candidates on the ballot (Craske Chapter 4). Because of these practices, and simply because of the overall attitude of the country, women in the legislative have been perceived to need “special treatment” by their male colleagues, despite the reality that they do not (Franceschet 395). Because of these negative stereotypes being reinforced, the overall population of the country has yet to significantly change its attitude towards women. “Electing women to political office has not yet brought about the end of gender discrimination. Many women continue to face significant obstacles to living safe and productive lives” (Baldez 319). In fact, many women have even begun to defend the concept of marianismo “in a country that has little sympathy for [feminism]” (Craske Chapter 4).

Entering the New Decade: Reflection and Moving Forward

Argentina was the first country in the world to establish a mandatory quota law regarding women in politics in 1991. This was a very exciting time for many, especially for women in Latin America. But it appears that the bill has let down the expectations and excitement for many of those women. “‘In a quantitative study that compares data from 17 countries, Zetterberg finds no evidence that quotas ‘foster women’s political engagement’” (Baldez 328). Craske suggests that the trend of quota laws throughout the region is “a relatively easy way of demonstrating commitment to women’s issues and acknowledging women as political actors without devolving power or shifting political priorities greatly” (Craske Chapter 4).  However, not all hope is lost for the country. In early 2019, the country passed a bill that finally legalized abortion in cases of rape or when the mother’s health is in danger. While this is conservative compared to many western countries, in Latin America, this would be considered a liberal policy. But Argentinian women have not given up, and there are many other ways the government can promote women’s rights, including “rhetorical commitment to women’s issues; the introduction, adoption and implementation of legislation; budgetary allocations for gender-related programs; the degree of women’s involvement in the policy process; and the allocation of resources to ensure equitable access to policy benefits” (Baldez 325). While the quota law was a good way to allow women into government roles initially, I believe it may be time for the law to be reversed and allow women to pave their own, independent paths into government. As stated by Franceschet, “‘The quota increased the number of women [in the Congress]; it hasn’t increased their power” (Franceschet 418). It is time to increase the power of women in Argentina. If Argentina pioneers major bills towards women’s rights, many other Latin American countries and Latin American women may be inspired to do the same.

Works Cited

Baldez, Lisa. “Gender.” Routledge Handbook of Latin American Politics, by Peter R. Kingstone and Deborah J. Yashar, Routledge, 2016, pp. 319–332.

Craske, Nikki. Women and Politics in Latin America. Polity Press, 2005.

Franceschet, Susan, and Jennifer M. Piscopo. “Gender Quotas and Women’s Substantive Representation: Lessons from Argentina.” Politics & Gender, vol. 4, no. 03, 2008, doi:10.1017/s1743923x08000342.

Schmitter, Phillipe C. “What Democracy Is… and Is Not.” Journal of Democracy, by Terry Lynn Karl, 3rd ed., vol. 2, 1991, pp. 75–88.

Volden, Craig, et al. “How the Record Number of Female Lawmakers Will — and Won’t — Change Congress.” The Washington Post, 23 Jan. 2019.

Waylen, Georgina. “Gender and Democratic Politics: A Comparative Analysis of Consolidation in Argentina and Chile.” Journal of Latin American Studies, vol. 32, no. 3, 2000, pp. 765–793., doi:10.1017/s0022216x00005939.Winn, Peter. Americas: The Changing Face of Latin America and the Caribbean. third ed., University of California Press, 2006.

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