Spain's Pregnant Defense Minister

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Bernat Armangue / AP

Spain's defense minister Carme Chacón reviews troops in Madrid

When Spanish Prime Minister José Luis Rodríguez Zapatero's new cabinet members took their oath of office before King Juan Carlos on Monday, one of them, the recently-appointed Defense Minister, stood out from the rest. Literally. Carme Chacón, 37, is not only the first woman to head Spain's armed forces. She is also seven months pregnant.

By now, no one should be surprised by Zapatero's commitment to gender equality. In his first term, he passed a sweeping law against domestic violence, legalized gay marriage, eased divorce laws, and required political parties to practice gender parity. He also appointed equal numbers of men and women to cabinet positions, and named María Teresa Fernández de la Vega as his deputy prime minister.

This time around, the prime minister, who was re-elected on March 9, appointed more women than men to his cabinet. He also created a new Equality Ministry, charged with ensuring fairness in the workplace and continuing the fight against domestic violence. "For the Socialists, gender equality has become a sign of identity," says Maribel Montaño, secretary for equality during the previous administration.

But for all the preparation, the sight of Chacón inspecting troops on her first day in office, with her rounded belly covered in a stylish maternity blouse, came as a jolt. After walking firmly past a line of erect soldiers in their dress uniforms, the minister gave a brief, adulatory speech, then led the troops in a rousing cheer of "Viva España!"

For Spanish feminists, the small shock of that moment is exactly the point. "It's an important image precisely because it conveys normality," says Marisa Sotelo, president of the Madrid' based Women's Foundation. "It serves a pedagogic function: it shows that women can be and are everywhere."

And that's not the only lesson. By appointing Chacón (who lacks military training), Zapatero may also be making a kinder, gentler statement about the armed forces. The Prime Minister has been under pressure from NATO to add to the roughly 750 Spanish troops now deployed in Afghanistan, though at the recent NATO summit in Bucharest he maintained that current levels were sufficient. Among the largely pacificist Spanish population, support for military participation in combat is weak (over 50% of Spaniards support withdrawing their troops from Afghanistan altogether). But humanitarian and peace-keeping missions are another story: a 2005 poll by the Madrid-based Center for Sociological Research puts public support for those military efforts at more than 90%. The figure of a pregnant woman — "a woman in full womanhood," as Montaño puts it — only drives home that distinction. "It shows that the army doesn't just have to fulfill this masculine role of force," she says. "It can be more feminine, more humanitarian."

Although one conservative military organization, comprised largely of retired soldiers, lambasted Zapatero's choice as a display of "contempt," the armed forces' hierarchy itself has been characteristically circumspect. "We will receive her with the same respect as her predecessors," one high-ranking officer anonymously told El País newspaper, "and perhaps a little more delicacy."

Delicacy indeed, For now, the most pressing question is what Chacón will do when she gives birth in June. Thanks to Zapatero's efforts, Spanish women are entitled to 16 weeks paid maternity leave. But can a defense minister — especially a female one — afford to take four months off? Although the Socialist government recently increased paternity leaves to 15 days, it may soon find itself under internal pressure to extend those breaks for fathers as well.