Here are 5 women leaders fighting Europe’s toughest political battles


Angela Merkel may be outnumbered by men, but she isn't the only woman leading during a troubled time for Europe.


Eric Feferberg

BRUSSELS, Belgium — On International Women's Day and with the US abuzz with the prospect that Hillary Clinton might, possibly, get elected as the first female president, it's worth remembering that women have already made that political leap on this side of the Atlantic.

Since Britain's Margaret Thatcher became the first woman elected to run a European Union country in 1979, 17 of the 28 EU countries have had female presidents or prime ministers.

The United States sits in 72nd place in the international rankings for women in parliament, tied with Panama. Just 19.4 percent of seats in Congress are occupied by women. In contrast, 35 percent of lawmakers in the European Parliament are female.

In Sweden, Finland and Spain, women make up more than 40 percent of local lawmakers.

The European picture is not all rosy. Eight EU nations rank lower than the US for female representation. Bottom of the heap is Hungary, with just 10 percent. Greece's victorious Syriza party shocked left-wing supporters across Europe by including no women in the cabinet it formed in January.

The EU's foreign policy chief Federica Mogherini had just two female companions at a meeting of European foreign ministers that opened Friday in Latvia, and male leaders currently outnumber women 23-to-5 at EU summits.

Of course, the most powerful of them all is a woman — German Chancellor Angela Merkel. Here are five other women you may not have heard of, but who are playing crucial political roles at a troubled time for Europe:


Dalia Grybauskaite


Lithuanian president Dalia Grybauskaite and Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan walk together during an official welcoming ceremony at the presidential palace in Ankara.

When it comes to standing up to Vladimir Putin, few of Europe's male leaders can match the “cojones” of Lithuania's president.

A karate black-belt who speaks five languages, 59-year-old Grybauskaite is one of Europe's strongest critics of the Russian leader's muscling in on Ukraine.

Last year she denounced Putin's Russia as a "terrorist state" and compared him to Hitler and Stalin. Those are brave words for a country of just 3 million that shares a border with Russia and does most of its trade with its giant neighbor.

Yet Grybauskaite's tough stance goes down well with the Lithuanians — she was re-elected last year with 58 percent of the vote. Backing up the defiant language, Grybauskaite has in recent weeks overseen the installation of a giant floating gas terminal to reduce energy dependence on Russian imports, and she's just announced the reintroduction of the draft to bulk up the armed forces.


Cecilia Malmstrom

If the US and European economies get a $100 billion annual boost starting next year, Malmstrom may be the person to thank.

As EU trade commissioner, this Swedish former psychiatric nurse is leading the bloc's negotiating team in talks with the United States on a massive trade and investment deal which supporters hope will generate billions on both sides of the Atlantic.

The task, however, is daunting. Malmstrom has not only to strike a deal acceptable to negotiators and Congress in the US, but also to keep all 28 EU nations on board. There are many who doubt the benefits and are battling to protect key sectors against US competition.

As if French concerns that American exporters could flood markets with counterfeit camembert and hormone-bulked beef were not enough, Germany has emerged as a major obstacle.

A vocal lobby there worries that investment safeguard clauses would allow US corporations to run roughshod over European laws and safety standards.

Malmstrom is battling to win them over. Last week she flew to Berlin to address a skeptical center-left audience, promising the deal would make "government more efficient, and European values more protected not less so."

At 46, Malmstrom has a track record of dealmaking with European governments. The one-time liberal lawmaker previously spent almost five years coordinating the EU's response to immigration, terrorism and crime as the bloc's home affairs commissioner.


Ursula von der Leyen


A Mainz Carnival parade float themed 'Ready for Take-Off' satirizes the German minister of defense Ursula von der Leyen on Feb. 10, 2015. The parade is known for poking fun at politicians and celebrities and is heavily celebrated throughout the Rhine region.

Defense remains the male-dominated bastion in politics. The US has never had a female defense secretary. Among America's NATO allies in Europe, however, Germany's von der Leyen is one of five female defense ministers.

She's managed to build a stellar political career while bringing up seven children, making her name in national politics as social affairs minister. In that role she overcame opposition from conservatives in her own center-right party to improve childcare and extend parental leave.

Merkel appointed her as Germany's first female defense minister at the end of 2013, handing her an unenviable challenge.

After years of underinvestment Germany's armed forces have become something of a joke. Attempts to dispatch units to train Kurdish fighters and help defeat Ebola had to be curtailed last year when transport planes broke down en route; reports emerged last month that elite Panzer Grenadiers turned up at NATO exercises with black-painted broom handles because they didn't have enough machine guns.

At a time of revived military tensions in Europe, von der Leyen has to beef up the Bundeswehr (Germany's army) without upsetting the country's deep-seated post-war pacifism. If she succeeds, the 56-year-old will reinforce her position as a favorite to succeed Merkel as chancellor.


Nicola Sturgeon


First Minister Nicola Sturgeon marks hers first 100 days in office with a visit to Glaxo Smith Kline.

If you thought Scottish nationalism was buried with defeat in last September's referendum on independence, think again.

Sturgeon took over as Scotland's first minister and head of the Scottish Nationalist Party in the wake of that loss. Now the party is more popular than ever. In Britain's parliamentary elections in May, polls are showing the SNP could win 56 of Scotland's 59 seats in the House of Commons.

Elsewhere in the United Kingdom, the main Conservative and Labor parties are running neck-and-neck. That means Sturgeon's Scots could hold the balance of power.

Conservative commentators in London are fretting about a "nightmare" scenario where the SNP joins a coalition to put Labor in charge, pushing a left-wing economic agenda and insisting on more powers being devolved to the Scottish authorities in Edinburgh.

Sturgeon wants to go even further. She's hoping for a second referendum and, at 44, makes no secret of her ambition to lead Scotland into independence.  


Soraya Saenz de Santamaria

Even close supporters will admit that Spanish Prime Minister Mariano Rajoy is not the world's most electrifying political speaker.

So for many Spaniards, the face of the conservative government is vice-premier and cabinet spokeswoman Soraya Saenz de Santamaria, or SSdeS, as the 43-year-old former hotshot lawyer is widely known.

An impassioned, mile-a-minute speaker, SSdeS regularly scores as the most popular minister in an unpopular government.

With elections looming in December, she's expected to play a prominent role in selling Spain's gradual economic recovery after years of austerity as proof the Rajoy government is on the right track.

That won't be easy. With unemployment still at over 20 percent and leading conservatives discredited by a spate of corruption cases, the government is under attack from a youthful new leader of the opposition Socialists, the surging far-left We Can (Podemos) party, nationalists in Catalonia and the Basque Country and, most recently, a new center-right group called Citizens that's poaching votes from the right.

If it looks like Rajoy is not up to the task — particularly if the graft allegations get too close to him — there's talk in Madrid that the untainted and media-savvy Saenz de Santamaria could be called on to replace him in leading a conservative fightback.