The following excellent lecture was made by Katerina Sakellaropoulou, the first woman president of Greece, for G5+ in the College of Europe of Bruges on May 6th 2021. It is of high relevance for all current and past gender equality issues. In addition it refers to Europe and the pandemia. In her introduction, Federica Moghrini, the first woman Rector of the College of Europe, announced that the 2021/22 promotion of the college will be named after Eliane Voigel Polsky, an outstanding european.

Lecture by Katerina Sakellaropoulou: ”Gender Equality and Democracy”

Ladies and gentlemen,

It is an honour for me to address your conference in memory of Eliane Vogel-Polsky, and to speak on gender equality and democracy, a topic I am very attached to. A topic that implies the necessity to explore ways of strengthening the inclusiveness and the efficacy of our democratic institutions. The nature and degree of women’s participation is a key element and indicator of the quality of our democratic culture. Granting equal rights for all is the very essence of any democratic society. Democracy is not only about a multiparty system and free elections. It is profoundly based on human rights, participation and inclusion of all citizens. We must forward and implement these values into the social, political, and economic aspects of our society, so that women can fulfil their potential on an equal basis with men, whatever they choose to do.

Gender equality and democracy are strongly interconnected in a mutually constitutive relationship. In fact, there can be no true and effective democracy without gender equality.

On one hand, gender equality is a prerequisite for democracy. When women and men are equally involved in the exercise of power vested by people – this is a measure of democracy real for all. And when women participate fully and, on equal terms with men, in all aspects of social and economic life, this makes our democracies more inclusive and vibrant.

On the other hand, the ”deeper” the democracy, the easier it is for women to articulate their needs, pursue their aspirations, and realise their economic, social rights, political and civil rights. This makes gender equality real.

Over the years, gender equality has evolved into a fundamental European value and a core principle of our Treaties. Its genesis goes back to the 1950s. Article 119 of the 1957 Treaty of Rome established the principle of equal pay for women and men in the six founding member states of the European Community. Though, at the time, the incorporation of Article 119 occurred purely for economic reasons that had to do with concerns about wage dumping in sectors that relied weightily on female labour, a substantial body of ambitious policies and measures combatting gender equality was built on this single basis. The strong normative link between gender equality and democracy is formally established in the 1988 Declaration on equality of women and men adopted by the Committee of Ministers of the Council of Europe.

In the 1990s and the 2000s, equality between women and men gained dynamism, as the Maastricht and Amsterdam Treaties as well as the Lisbon Strategy and its European social agenda brought about significant institutional and policy-broadening changes.

Overall, efforts have resulted in a solid legal and policy framework at European level, combining hard and soft legal instruments with policy guidance, aimed at promoting the effective realisation of gender equality in Member States and beyond.

Article 153 of the Treaty on the Functioning of the European Union (TFEU) allows the EU to act in the wider area of equal treatment and equal opportunities in matters of employment and occupation, while Article 157 TFEU authorises positive action measures to empower women. Furthermore, Article 19 TFEU stipulates that appropriate action may be taken by the EU to combat all forms of discrimination, including on the basis of sex.

More recently, the Gender Equality Strategy 2020-2025 and the Action Plan to implement the European Pillar of Social Rights put forward comprehensive mandates to ensure that women’s empowerment and the values of inclusion, diversity and equity are actively addressed as core democratic concerns and policy priorities. At the same time, a number of initiatives and instruments such as the Digital Services Act, the Digital Education Action Plan and Updated Skills Agenda seek to place gender equality and the fight against online gender-based violence at the core of our collective efforts.

Apart from pursuing gender equality policies internally, the European Union has also played an important role in supporting global gender equality and fighting violence against women and girls. Ms Mogherini’s contribution has been decisive in setting a bold and ambitious agenda for gender equality and women’s empowerment in EU external action.

Ladies and gentlemen,

Sixty-four years after equal pay for male and female workers was first established in the Rome Treaty, we, Europeans, can be proud of the progress achieved. Gender equality is not only a binding rule of the EU but also a fundamental moral and political ideal that supports and transcends our democratic way of life, beyond any doubt. Nevertheless, achieving gender equality is always an ongoing and demanding challenge for both political institutions and civil society.

Gender equality and women’s rights have been embedded as important components of Social Europe and a crucial pillar of our democracies, thus forming part of the foundational identity of our European project.

This would not have been achieved without the driving role played by women, such as Eliane Vogel-Polsky – a woman of conviction committed to fighting for women’s rights and gender equality.

Vogel-Polsky’s visionary and transformative leadership acted as a catalyst in promoting Social Europe, strengthening European citizenship, and developing women’s studies. During her lifetime, she invested tremendous efforts in all these three fields.

The mass mobilisations of women workers in Herstal in 1966, and their valiant struggle for equal pay, were her epiphany moment, and led to everything that followed. These events strengthened her conviction that the law could serve as an effective tool to support women’s struggle for rights and equality. She, therefore, encouraged women to stand up for their rights and fight gender discrimination through the law.

Her legal activism began with a very powerful idea – that there are opportunities for women to claim rights directly under European law.

And she was right.

Her strategic litigation journey was marked by the judgment of the second Defrenne vs Sabena case – a pivotal case, and one of key breakthroughs, that contributed to establishing the direct effect of European law and treaties’ supremacy.

The outcome of Defrenne II was highly consequential to women’s struggles. It opened the door for the development of new policies and Directives on women’s rights. And it helped embed gender equality and women’s rights in the European integration process.

By making European social law directly binding on relations between individuals, Defrenne II had the effect of expanding and pushing integration forward; it was, therefore, an essential channel to what Joseph Weiler has coined as ”integration-through-law”. Promoting and assuring equality is not only a political but also a day-by-day legal project.

Overall, Vogel-Polsky’s legal activism and strategic litigation played a crucial role in empowering social actors and organisations in realm of gender equality, and enabling them to take part in the developments that shaped Social Europe.

At the same time, throughout her life, Vogel-Polsky actively encouraged more women to get involved in European policy and leave their mark on Europe’s future: ”.. Women must build a Europe that is not solely economic and monetary, but that defends a social project in which there is room for social justice and the recognition and observance of equal opportunities for all citizens”, she once said.

Vogel-Polsky’s fight for equality and women’s rights is a lesson in perseverance that shows us the way to the future.

Her contribution is not limited to her brave activism, and the scientific and conceptual rigour of her work.

She should be remembered not only for her extraordinary achievements and commitment to deepening and furthering the scope of Social Europe, but also for her considerable influence in shaping European integration.

The example of Elaine Vogel-Polsky, a convinced ‘European’, reminds us how important it is to add a gender perspective to the historiography of European integration.

How crucial it is to enrich and gender European memory by uniting the Founding Mothers and Fathers of the European Union into a historical meta-narrative of Europe’s making and evolution.

The powerful stories of visionary women, coming from different walks for life, who have contributed to the construction of Europe in which we live today, must not remain on the sidelines.

As historical memory plays a crucial role in the shaping of our future choices as well as our individual and collective identities, it is critical to ensure that it is as inclusive and complete as possible.

Through didactic and informed social and political action, we need to bring to the fore and acknowledge women’s contribution to our collective history.

That is why I strongly believe that women’s rights and gender equality should be at the heart of the Conference on the Future of Europe. We must make sure that women, of all ages and backgrounds, from every corner of Europe, are encouraged to participate in the Conference. That they play a key role in setting its agenda. And that their voices are heard and integrated into the final recommendations.

Ladies and gentlemen,

Our fight for gender equality, just like our quest for a more integrated Europe, is an important and ongoing journey filled with hopes and challenges.

We have achieved a lot.

But now we have to redouble our efforts, as problems are compounded by old and new risks. During the last decade the economic crisis has challenged severely social integration and gender equality. Now-days, the COVID-19 pandemic has thrown socio-economic inequalities into sharp relief. In other words, as the broader context changes, our gender equality policies must be updated. As President of the Greek Republic, which for the first time in its history has a woman serving in this high position, i feel responsible for the struggle that women have given and are giving to respond to the very unfavourable conditions of this period.

Over the years, in my country, as in many Member States, considerable efforts have been made to ensure a more equal division of care responsibilities between women, men and society. Significant victories have been achieved in the area of women’s economic empowerment and participation in the labour market.

But the problems are many, and pressure is mounting.

The stakes are high. We are now facing the consequences of an unprecedented pandemic, but we should not forget what preceded it.

Women and girls were particularly hit by the global economic recession of 2008. The curtailment of welfare expenditures, particularly in the area of social and childcare sector, disproportionately affected working mothers, who had to struggle – not only with additional loads of unpaid care work – but also with abrupt income and job losses. The crisis’ adverse impacts on the female population, which varied in scale from country to country and took different shapes, have been difficult to reverse.

The 2008 economic crisis seems to be now behind us, but it has left its scars.

Today, we are again encountering manifold challenges. New setbacks in gender equality are underway.

It is now well established that the ongoing coronavirus crisis is not gender neutral. The evidence is crystal clear. All major international organisations report that gender inequalities have increased across the globe and that women are amongst those most adversely affected.

Across Europe, women working on the frontline – making up 76 per cent of healthcare and social care workers – such as nurses, caregivers, and midwives – have faced unprecedented health risks and workloads, according to the 2021 Report on Gender Equality in the EU.

Care workers continue to face heightened vulnerabilities to covid-19 and yet they experience precarious labour conditions characterised by low salaries, temporary or zero-hours contracts, and excessive work overload.

Covid-related restrictions have significant impacts on unpaid care work and work-life balance. According to a recent United Nations report, lockdowns have resulted in a larger increase in unpaid work for women than men, who had to take on more childcare and domestic duties. At the same time, those who had to shift to telework faced enormous pressure to achieve and maintain a healthy work-life balance. Single mothers, in particular, have been experiencing acute mental and physical strains.

The lockdowns have also intensified the barriers that women faced in the labour market even before the pandemic, rendering them more vulnerable to unemployment, poverty and exclusion.

The implications are far-reaching.

Gains in women’s and girls’ economic empowerment, voice and agency – painfully achieved in the 21st century – are therefore in jeopardy. There is sufficient evidence to demonstrate the fragility of gender equality and the need for intervention. Equality is not a static norm or a stable situation, it is constantly depending on material conditions and social relations.

We must act now. We cannot stay still.

The future must be fairer and more inclusive. Adversity should breed opportunity.

A big reset is therefore necessary.

The pandemic has underscored the need for a more gender equal world of work.

It is time to act decisively to address entrenched gender inequalities in unpaid care work, job precariousness, and an ongoing casualisation of labour that is particularly affecting women who face multiple and intersectional forms of discrimination, such as women of colour, women with disabilities, migrant and refugee women, older women.

And it is time to close the enormous gap between the value that the frontline and essential workers – the majority of whom are women – create and contribute to society and the low wages they earn in return.

It is also important to ensure that gender equality is central to European recovery and resilience, as a recent report of Gender Five Plus highlights.

Ladies and gentlemen,

The world will no longer be the same for women after the covid-19 crisis.

The need to build forward better grows louder. Yet, progress, especially when it comes to institutional reform, is not always a smooth path, because it threatens the very foundations of patriarchal society. Stereotype lodges itself too deeply in the impersonal structures of institutions. And institutions matter because they affect men and women differently.

Our welfare states and social policies are a case in point. Women’s and men’s roles have long been defined by the ”public/private dichotomy”, according to which women are associated with the private sphere of the family and domestic life, while, men, on the other hand, are primarily associated with the public spheres of economic activity. The development of the post-war welfare state, especially in Continental and Southern Europe, was based on the idea of the protector-breadwinner male and the house-working child-bearing female. In this arrangement, women shoulder a greater share of burdens than men, but a lesser share of benefits than men.

European welfare states have adopted significant reforms in recent decades, which have enabled shifts in normative and policy assumptions about the role of women and men and the social organisation of care.

But a lot still remains to be done to ensure a more equal sharing of paid and unpaid work between men and women.

Today we have a chance.

Though concerted and collective effort, we need to use the space we have to rethink our current systems in a way that places gender equality at their core.

Removing barriers to women’s participation in the labour market requires that we invest in the care economy — health care, aged care, child-care and education. The International Labour Organisation has estimated that, if an additional 3.5 percent of GDP were invested in the care economy, it would lead to the creation of 269 million extra jobs by 2030 (compared to 2015) and would enable countries to achieve the Sustainable Development Goals targets for gender equality, education, and decent work, inter alia.

When women are enabled to realise their potential, we are all better off.

The life and accomplishments of Eliane Vogel-Polsky prove change is possible.

She defied the odds, and she defied resistance.

Inspired by Cornelius Castoriadis, she believed that ”Society must be structured and it must function.” But to function properly, equal treatment will not suffice. Parity is key.

As she draw inspiration from the 1992 Athens Declaration and the ideals of parity democracy passionately advocated by Simone Veil, Mélina Mercouri, Miet Smet, and Édith Cresson, Vogel-Polsky wrote: ”If parity representation is recognised to be a necessary condition of democracy rather than a remote consequence, then the rules of the game and social norms will have to change. This could radically transform society and allow for real gender equal relations.”

In recent years, there have been some advances in women’s political participation and representation in Europe. But we have a long way to go to ensure equal participation, representation, and voice for women. There are still more men than women everywhere – in all EU Member State national parliaments, regional assemblies, and local and municipal councils. More and more evidence shows that increased women’s political participation leads to higher chances of successful negotiations, and increased cooperation across (traditional) political and ethnic lines.

Persistent imbalances in political representation constitute a serious democratic deficit.

Quotas may add women to parliaments, but they do not disrupt prejudice and gender binaries that perpetuate the power inequalities that gender roles are based on.

Sexism and other forms of othering have long lurked beneath the surface of our democracies, serving as bulwarks against demands for equal representation and inclusion.

Obstacles are structural, they are political and cultural.

To achieve actual equality, we must ”work simultaneously in all domains..”, Vogel-Polsky once said. And it is only through parity democracy that such a transformative vision is possible.

In conditions of parity democracy, equality is achieved through the redistribution of power between genders and the elimination of obstacles faced by women. This has to be holistic: it should encompass both the procedural and the substantive components of democracy as well as formal institutions and semi-autonomous social fields where manifest or latent practices of domination and exclusion are at work.

The time has come to decide.

Either we go backwards or we change mindsets and re-embed democracy in political culture and institutions free from prejudices and gender stereotyping.

We choose forward.

But our way ahead is not without its hurdles.

I am extremely worried about the fact that violence against women has been increasing exponentially across Europe and beyond. The United Nations have described the unprecedented increase in domestic violence since the onset of the pandemic as a “shadow pandemic” alongside covid-19.

Women are regularly subject to threats of sexual and gender-based violence, harassment, and abuse, online and off. Analysis conducted by the Advisory Committee on Equal Opportunities for Women and Men of the EU Commission shows that, while the digital revolution is opening new opportunities for gender equality in areas such as political activism and employment, it comes with a resurgence of misogyny, cyber harassment, and sexist forms of hate speech that can be barriers to women’s participation.

We cannot turn a blind eye on these phenomena.

Gender-based violence is a violation of human rights; it is an affront to our inherent dignity as human beings, as affirmed in the United Nations’ Universal Declaration of Human Rights.

We all have a responsibility to act.

In my country, as elsewhere in Europe, the ”silence breakers” — the women and men behind the #MeToo and similar movements — epitomise change and vision.

We could not be prouder of all of them. We could not be more impressed with their courage, boldness, and determination to seek justice.

In breaking the norm of silence, they have come to embody a larger commitment to transforming long-lasting male-dominated power hierarchies and the structural conditions that enable men’s dominance over women. It is now time to ensure their voices are acknowledged and reckoned with.

I am also deeply concerned about the recent backlash against gender equality and against women’s rights and freedoms. Women’s bodies have become a political battleground, and the direct locus of social control and political oppression.

Opposition to gender equality is rising globally. Pro-natalist policies are being advanced in the name of demographic security. Controls over women’s bodies have gone hand in hand with border securitisation practices fomented by xenophobia, anti-liberal sentiments, and the nativist fear of the Other.

The issue of gender equality and women’s rights has become an important test for our democracies. Processes of democratic backsliding have gone hand-in-hand with attacks on women’s right to bodily autonomy and reproductive rights, and with opposition to LGBTIQ rights.

Regressive forces are at play everywhere.

As we draw from these pernicious practices, let us not forget that human rights and the rule of law are the bedrock on which our democracies are based.

And that if democracy is to be realised, an understanding of how it intersects with gender equality is crucial. Without actual equality, democracy remains an unfinished project.

Women constitute more than half of Europe’s population and deserve the dignity and respect of equal treatment, to have themselves reflected in the social and political structures around us, and the opportunity to lead a life in dignity.

It is crucial that the EU Member States and the European Commission act in solidarity, step up to support women’s rights and gender equality and to use this moment to move Social Europe forward, as Eliane Vogel-Polsky would have wanted.

The clock cannot be turned back. The future must be brighter and more humane.

Now, more so than ever, is it vital that we stay vigilant in our efforts to promote gender equality. And deliver it safely to the next generation of Europeans.

As we navigate through these stormy waters, international instruments and declarations – such the Beijing Declaration and Platform for Action, the Istanbul Convention on violence against women, the Nairobi Statement on ICPD25 calling for the protection of the right to bodily autonomy and integrity, as well as our global commitments within the framework of the 2030 UN Agenda – should be our guiding lights.

Ladies and gentlemen,

Europe can only be at its best when genuine gender equality becomes a reality, everywhere.

As we honour the life of Eliane Vogel-Polsky, let us commit ourselves to carrying on her legacy, and ensure that her passionate vision for a strong Social Europe never ceases to inspire.

That, in my view, is how we can best thank her for her path-breaking contributions to the fight for social justice within the broader goal of building a better democracy.

Let’s work to ensure that the legacy of Eliane Vogel-Polsky lives on in the heart of the European project.

Thank you.




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