Something special is happening in Barcelona. At the local elections in May, the citizen platform Barcelona en Comú (Barcelona in Common) could snatch control of the city council. If it succeeds, the consequences for the women of Barcelona and, perhaps, cities all over the world, could be radical.
A victory for Barcelona en Comú would catapult anti-eviction activist Ada Colau into the mayoralty. The election of the city’s first female mayor would be a landmark event in itself, but in the case of Colau it would have special significance. After her rapid rise to national prominence in 2013, Colau turned down offers from traditional parties to stand on their tickets. Only with the apparition of Barcelona en Comú (initially known as Guanyem Barcelona) did she decide to make the leap into electoral politics.
The platform’s roots in the city’s neighborhood associations and social movements, in which women have historically played a leading role, are allowing Ada Colau and the women working alongside her to shape the initiative in their own image, rather than playing by the rules of the male establishment. They are developing new forms of horizontal, networked leadership that stand in stark contrast to the hierarchical models typical of traditional politics. Barcelona en Comú is showing how urban politics can be feminized from the bottom up.
Barcelona en Comú’s first significant victory in this regard is the fact that, in the sometimes tortured negotiations about how to draw up the platform’s electoral list, the principle of gender equality came through unscathed. Just over half of the platform’s candidates are women, with Ada Colau heading up the ticket. This is hugely significant for both Catalonia and the ‘new politics’ that is emerging all over Spain. A study by the Catalan Association of Women Journalists on the representation of women in local government has shown that the region is one of Spain’s worst performing, with women making up just 14% of mayors. A woman taking up the office of mayor in the Catalan capital would help to redress this imbalance and serve as a model for women in other cities.
Increasing the representation of women in elected office was one of the main goals identified by the indignados who occupied the public squares of Spain on May 15, 2011. However, despite this consensus, the principle has proved difficult to put into practice, with men taking a leading role in the political movements that followed. Despite its commitment to equal representation on its party lists, the post-15M party Podemos has found itself with a party dominated by men at the highest levels. There are only three women among Podemos’ 16 regional secretary generals, and the percentage of women leading the party municipal level is just 16%. Barcelona en Comú is bucking this trend and demonstrating that achieving gender equality is nothing more than a question of political will.
Many of the women of the Barcelona en Comú candidacy, such as neighborhood activist Gala Pin, urbanist Mercedes Vidal Lago and nursery school teacher Marta Verdejo León, are stepping into electoral politics for the first time. They, and the dozens of women working in the platform’s neighborhood and policy groups are combining precarious labor, study and childcare with their activism, and bringing these experiences to bear in the construction of the project. One of the first steps taken after renting the Barcelona en Comú headquarters was to set up a play corner where parents, including Ada Colau, who has three year old son, could leave their kids while they worked.
But Barcelona en Comú isn’t just about feminizing politics — it’s about feminist politics. The platform and its candidates, both women and men, agree that if their “democratic revolution” isn’t feminist, it won’t be deserving of the name. Its gender and sexual diversity group has criticized the fact that the city dedicates just 0.25% of its budget to tackling gender inequality. It argues that “the gender equality initiatives are drops in the ocean, used to compensate for inequalities reproduced by public policies themselves, rather than transforming public policy to stop these inequalities emerging in the first place.”
Rather than laying the responsibility for women at the door of a single agency, Barcelona en Comú advocates ‘mainstreaming’ gender across the work of all local government departments. This means that all policies would be developed taking into account their impact on both men and women. The platform wants to see the city budget, urban planning, and all public services designed with the goal of gender equality in mind.
Barcelona en Comú is bringing issues like women’s sense of security in public spaces, the division of domestic labor and the feminization of poverty into the mainstream. Thanks to Ada Colau’s media profile, issues once the reserve of feminist policy-wonks are being discussed in the national press and on Saturday night TV for the first time. Time will tell whether she can make them the priority of the Barcelona government too.
Kate Shea Baird lives in Barcelona where she works in international advocacy for local governments. She tweets about politics in Catalonia and Spain at @KateSB.