Breaking the glass ceiling and gender equality

By Suresh Kr Pramar

Two hundred and twenty-seven years after its birth a woman has been nominated by one of the two major political parties in America to contest the Presidency of the country. Women across the USA are celebrating the victory of Hillary Rodham Clinton as the first women to be nominated for President of the USA . Hillary, a former First Lady, in her acceptance speech said, we “ have put the biggest crack in the glass ceiling.”

According to reports Hillary’s nomination was greeted with great enthusiasm and emotion. Reports suggest that “ women were weeping and hugging and cheering confident that they were on the cusp of a major collective step forward. According to Sarah Kliff this is a prize which generations of women have dreamt about for one of their own.

For American women this is a major step to political empowerment. The right to vote came to them after a long struggle, starting from the decade before the Civil War, 1820-30.  It was only in 1920 that they were given the Right to Vote. There have been singular, powerful women in US politics since Jeanette Rankin, who became the first woman to serve in the House of Representatives towards the end of the First World War.

In the intervening century, there have only been another 299 female representatives in the United States  Women make up only one in five of the current crop. Each new generation of women has had to smash the same ceiling all over again, which makes it more like a membrane, self-healing through some immune system of the body politic that some have called “deep-seated misogyny”.

Women in India had their first shot at the glass ceiling well before the country attained freedom from British Rule. As early as 1917, Indian women raised the issues of universal adult

franchise. In 1920 Sarojini Naidu and Margaret Cousin led a group of women to demand equal rights of representation for the fair sex in the Indian Legislatures.

By 1929 women were given the right to vote on the basis of wife hood, property and education. In 1931 the Indian National Congress adopted a resolution in favour of women’s franchise and representation. The Act of 1935 gave all women, above 21 years, the right to vote.

After independence India adopted a new constitution in 1950 which guaranteed all its citizens, including women, Justice, Liberty and Equality It guaranteed equal political rights to both men and women. Many provisions in the constitution lay stress on equality between men and women. Laws have also been enacted by the Central and State Governments to protect the rights of women, and to provide equal opportunity for them.

During the years of independence the number of women, who have held elected positions, have increased. In the Lok Sabha, the percentage of women members has moved up from a mere 4.4 percent in 1952 and 11.26 percent in 2014. This does not show a very impressive picture considering that women make up almost fifty percent of the population of the country.

Year wise membership of women in the Lok Sabha and Rajya Sabha

Year LS Total Members Female Members LS % Female Members LS RS Total Members Female Members % Female Members
1952 499 22 4.41 219 16 7.31
1957 500 27 5.40 237 18 7.59
1962 503 34 6.76 238 18 7.56
1967 523 31 5.93 240 20 8.33
1971 521 22 4.22 243 17 7.00
1977 544 19 3.49 244 25 10.25
1980 544 28 5.15 244 24 9.84
1984 544 44 8.09 244 28 11.48
1989 517 27 5.22 245 24 9.80
1991 544 39 7.17 245 38 15.51
1996 543 39 7.18 223 19 8.52
1998 543 43 7.92 245 15 6.12
1999 543 49 9.02 245 19 7.80
2004 543 44 8.10 245 28 11.4
2009 543 59 10.86 245 24 9.79
2014 543 62 11.00 243 31 12.7


The first woman to be elected as Chief Minister was Sucheta Kriplani in October 1963 She was elected CM of Uttar Pradesh the largest state in the Union. Since then there have been 15 other women who have been elected Chief Ministers in various states. India got her first women Prime Minister, Indira Gandhi, in 1967 she held power for more than 15 years in two instalments. The first, and so far only, woman President, was Pratibha Patil who was elected to the high office on 25 July 2007.

Despite these firsts politics has not been kind to women, it still remains an inhospitable terrain for a majority of Indian women. The Indian Parliament continues to be divided over the issue of providing reservation for women in the Indian Parliament. The bill on the issue continues to remain pending because of opposition from some regional parties. It’s still a man’s world.

Women are better represented  in the Panchayati Raj Institutions as compared to the state Assemblies and Parliament. According to the Ministry of Panchayati Raj, in 2008  Gram Panchayats had 37.8 percent  women members, the Intermediate Panchayats had 37  percent and the District Panchayats 35.3 percent. There are about 10 lakh women in Panchyati Raj Institutions across India constituting about 37  percent of all those elected. Of these about 80,000 were Pradhans.

One major reason for this is the reservation of seats for women. Article 243D of the Indian Constitution, mandates at least 1/3rd (33 percent) of the seats in all tiers of the Panchayat be reserved for women. An Amendment to raise the reservation of 50 percent was defeated However some states such as Bihar have 50 percent reservation for women in the Panchayati Raj Institutions.

Putting a crack in the glass ceiling does not necessarily guarantee equal political rights for women. In the USA Hillary Clinton has been nominated for the Presidency of the country but that is no guarantee that she will break the glass ceiling and  become the President. Sections among American males are not reconciled to the fact that a women should be President of the country and the Commander in Chief of the country’s Armed Forces.

Voices have been raised across the country questioning whether women have the ability to take hard decisions. There are a sizable number of voters who strongly believe that women have no place in the White House as the President of the nation.

Male opposition in India is possibly as strong as in the United States of America. Studies in India have shown that while there have been stories of great successes by women Panchyat members there are as many or more negative stories about the ability of women. One reason why, despite discrete male opposition, women have found a place in the Panchyats in large numbers, is the fact that they have reserved seats.

District Panchayats 537 11,825 41
Intermediate Panchayats 6,097 1,10,070 43
Village Panchayats 2,34,676 20,73,715 40


A nation-wide study on EWRs by AC Nielson ORG-MARG in 2008 revealed that amongst the 1,039,058 EWRs, 4/5ths were elected from reserved seats. Reservation was an important motivator facilitating first-time entry into politics for nearly 83 percent of EWRs. Also, reservation was critical for the disadvantaged groups as of the total EWRs 26 percent were Scheduled Castes and 13 percent were Scheduled Tribes. In a study by the Centre for Women’s Development Studies 1999, it was revealed that 95 percent of women surveyed believed that they would not have been elected had it not been for the reservation.

Despite these achievements, constraints to women’s political empowerment remain large and widespread. The cases of politically motivated violence against women have seen an increase. They are beaten, raped, or even murdered. They are also subjected to torture  Women belonging to disadvantaged sections face double oppression.

A tribal female sarpanch was stripped while unfurling the national flag on 15th August 1998 in Rajasthan. In another case, a tribal women pradhan was stripped in a Gram Sabha meeting in Madhya Pradesh as she was not consulting the leader of the dominant caste before taking decisions. Also, it is commonplace to find a woman dalit sarpanch sitting on the floor during a panchayat meeting while the upper caste men sit on chairs.

Acceptability of women as elected representatives is also an issue. Male members try to create hurdles in the smooth functioning of the Panchayat taking advantage of the woman’s illiteracy or ignorance. Also, officials with whom the EWRs must work can act as impediments in their work. Another infamous subject is that of sarpanch patis, where the husband of the woman sarpanch manages the affairs of the Panchayat and she is only a proxy candidate. This is a practice which is diminishing and women are depending lesser on their sarpanch patis for decision making.

The crack in the glass ceiling will require time to shatter and fall. This is what women in American dearly hope. Having waited for more than 200 years they are now a witness to a possible reality that one among them will be elected to the highest office in the land. That however will not mean that the struggle for betterment and empowerment will end.

Women in India also face a similar future. Step by step they are creeping towards their goal of gender equality not only in politics but in all aspects of life. There are still pockets of opposition among people and political leaders who are still not willing to give women their rights. Women’s rights, as Hillary has said, are Fundamental rights. Let us remember that the struggle is not limited to America or India, it is being waged in all parts of the world. Women in India are likely to watch with interest the turn of events in the United States of America.

(Suresh Kr Pramar is a renowned journalist and consultant writing on CSR issues. He can be reached at

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Disclaimer: The views expressed by the author in this feature are entirely his own and do not necessarily reflect the views of India CSR.