MADRID, Spain — Here's an image Spaniards will not soon forget: their new defense minister, reviewing trim, crisply uniformed soldiers, with her baby bump on display.
The surprise appointment of Carme Chacon, age 37 and with no military experience, is the boldest statement yet from a Socialist government that has made gender equality one of its top priorities.
Prime Minister Jose Luis Rodriguez Zapatero, who won re-election in March, unveiled a Cabinet Monday that not only gives Spain its first female defense minister but also features nine women to eight men. That compares to a 50-50 split in his first term, when there were 16 ministers.
Photos of Chacon — who is seven months pregnant — reviewing the soldiers ran on the front page of seven national newspapers on Tuesday, and footage of the appearance dominated Spanish television. Her photo was also on the front page of the International Herald Tribune.
Although women's rights advocates have hailed Chacon's appointment, some conservatives have raised objections. A group of retired officers criticized her lack of military background while insisting her pregnancy was not a problem.
Gender equality on agenda
Chacon is now one of the most visible members of a government that has enacted sweeping social legislation designed to rid traditionally male-dominated Spain of gender discrimination.
It legalized gay marriage, streamlined divorce procedures, forced political parties to field more female candidates and passed a law designed to promote women in the workplace and pressure companies to put more of them in their boardrooms.
This time Zapatero even created a new department, the Equality Ministry, to press these goals. The portfolio went to a 31-year-old woman, Bibiana Aido.
Women's advocacy groups are delighted with the prime minister's choice of Chacon to oversee a military force that was not even open to women a generation ago. Now 15 percent of its 130,000 troops are women.
Feminists see a twin statement from the prime minister: Not only can a woman hold a senior position in government or business, but she can do it while expecting a baby.
"Perhaps the message is that even the highest responsibilities have to be compatible with the issue of individual and personal responsibility. That is the real political message behind this," said Marisa Soleto, vice president of a Madrid-based advocacy group called the Women's Foundation.
Female military boss
Chacon, who was housing minister in the last government, wore heels, a black pant suit and white maternity blouse as she reviewed troops Monday at a ceremony in which she officially took over her post. Her husband is Miguel Barroso, who in the past has worked in Zapatero's press office.
She called the troops to attention, ordered them to join her in saying "Long live Spain, long live the King," and gave a brief speech in which she said her appointment was a sign of progress.
"The fact that a woman is taking over responsibility for the Defense Ministry is proof of integration between Spanish society and its armed forces," Chacon said.
Spaniards are now wondering how the military will digest having a female boss.
A senior military official told the newspaper El Pais anonymously that "we receive her with the same respect as her predecessors, and with even more politeness."
The Association of the Spanish Military, made up of retirees, called Zapatero's decision a mistake — not because of her pregnancy but because it feels she is too inexperienced.
The conservative newspaper El Mundo said it has no problem with seeing a female defense minister, but a pregnant one raises all kinds of concerns, such as whether she will take all of the 16 weeks of leave she is entitled to when the baby is born in June.
The combination of a crisis situation among Spanish peacekeepers in Afghanistan or Lebanon and a defense minister on maternity leave would leave Spain in an "absurd" situation, it said an editorial. Plus, Chacon has no knowledge of military affairs.
"All signs are that Zapatero is using the armed forces as a guinea pig for a provocative experiment," it said. "Time will tell if this is major progress or nonsense."
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