It’s been 70 years

Carmen Sammut

Carmen Sammut

As the Central Bank issues a coin commemorating universal suffrage, Roxanne Cristiano interviews Carmen Sammut on how the role of women inMaltese society has changed since they gained the right to vote.

Universal suffrage – what do we understand exactly by the term and why is it called so?

The term ‘universal suffrage” refers to voting rights for all adults in political elections. In Malta this right came, after heated debates, with the MacMichael Constitution of 1947, which extended the electorate by over 70,000 voters and opened the way for political rights for all.

For the first time in history, Maltese women earned the right to participate in the political life of the island. The case of women’s enfranchisement in Malta is an illustration of a struggle that became intertwined with the efforts to achieve sovereignty and the subsequent social, political and economic advancement of the nation. It was an effort that gathered momentum under colonial rule and continued in the post-colonial years.

The Central Bank’s commemorative coin.The Central Bank’s commemorative coin.

Why is this 70th anniversary important for Malta and need to be commemorated?

The Central Bank’s tribute to the 70th anniversary of universal suffrage is a symbolic yet compelling appreciation of women’s formal and informal contributions to Malta’s development. Very often the trajectory of women’s emancipation is omitted from the prevailing narratives that reinforce our sense of nationhood. This commemoration attempts to redress the prevalent collective amnesia about women’s place in history.

How did Agatha Barbara change the face of politics in Malta, both when she was an MP, minister and also as President of Malta?

In 1947 there was no stampede of female candidates to contest the election; in fact there were only two. One was Hélène Buhagiar, who contested with the Democratic Action Party. She was one of the women who fought for female suffrage in the National Assembly that drafted the Constitution. She came from a privileged background and was among the educated women who felt entitled to the vote because they already enjoyed a degree of status. Together with Josephine Burns de Bono, she represented the Women of Malta Association.

Agatha Barbara was then a 24-year-old teacher, raised in a big family from solid working-class roots in Żabbar. She was worlds apart from the elite circle of women that formed the Association. In 1947 she became the first female parliamentarian because she inspired working-class voters from the inner harbour area. She broke many stereotypes, and the path must have not been easy – I would say that politics came at a great personal cost. She later became the first female Cabinet minister (1950) and first woman President of the Republic (1982). In 1947 she served as an inspiration to female first-time voters who constituted a numeric majority. Her party, Labour, obtained 59.9 per cent of the votes, its biggest electoral victory ever.

How do you view the fact that the involvement of women in politics is still considerably low, and how do you see this issue being addressed nowadays?

History shows that we need to shake the tree, and change may only happen by means of temporary positive measures

We have the lowest female participation in Parliament in the whole of Europe. Gender balance in politics was desired, but still representation in Parliament has remained stuck more or less at around 10 per cent since 1950. The Inter-Parliamentary Union Index (2017) ranks Malta in the 148th place out of 193 countries. Across the years Malta slipped down this index; while other countries advanced, the participation rate in Malta remained frozen in time. We can claim that the death of female representation amounts to a democratic deficit.

A situation evolved where Maltese women were not contesting elections in good numbers, and so they were not being elected even when they were as active as men at a grassroots level. Within party structures, positive measures were introduced in the late 1990s, and especially when parties experienced degrees of Europeanisation after EU membership in 2004. But many still argue that the status quo is self-inflicted: “Why don’t women vote for women?”, “Why aren’t there more women who come forward as candidates?”

Indeed, until the last general elections of this year, parties in Malta still struggled in their last-minute attempts to encourage female candidates to run for elections. There are structural and cultural reasons that need to be addressed.

I strongly believe in temporary positive measures to address this deficit… and this requires principled leadership. While we should take this anniversary as an eye-opener, we need to keep in mind that without some sort of intervention and plenty of good will, things are not going to change.

In domestic politics, Malta is far from achieving the required critical mass of 30 per cent that is deemed essential to register regu­lar and unassisted advancement, let alone the gender-balanced representation in Parliament, where both sexes need to have a minimum of 40 per cent representation.

Moreover, Malta has made national and international commitments in this regard, and these include Goal 5 of the 2030 Agenda for Sustainable Development, adopted by world leaders in September 2015, which pledges to “ensure women’s full and effective participation and equal opportunities for leadership at all levels of decision-making in political, economic and public life”. History shows that we need to shake the tree, and change may only happen by means of temporary positive measures, a topic that is now on the national political agenda.

The Central Bank of Malta is giving this event’s anniversary so much importance that it felt the need to issue a commemorative coin. What are your views about this?

As I said earlier, it is most commendable. The dearth of female representation in the public sphere has been reinforced by the invisibility of women in the narratives that are transmitted through national commemorations, rituals, mo­nu­ments, texts and the images that people are exposed to.

Collective memory is mirrored in discourse, literature and the media that shape our perceptions of past events, which we did not directly experience. Hence, we often end up adopting the interpretations that may have suited previous generations but that do not necessarily sa­tisfy the needs and aspirations of the contemporary and future generations. We need to construct new symbols that are rele­vant for a fast-changing society.

The Central Bank’s commemorative coin contributes to the cele­bration of the role of women and their continuing challenges in Malta’s political and constitutional trajectory.

Carmen Sammut is the pro rector for student and staff affairs and outreach at the University of Malta.

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