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The Miss Representation Extended Trailer makes the claim, at 6:03:

The U.S. is the 90th in the world in terms of women in national legislatures.

The voice-over adds:

If people knew that Cuba, China, Iraq and Afghanistan have more women in government than the United States of America, that would get some people upset. -- Gavin Newsom, Lt. Gov, California

The on-screen stat and the voice over at minimum don't seem to really correlate to each other, as "in-government" could potentially mean anything including the cleaning staff at a government-owned gas station.

Is this claim that the U.S. is ranked 90th in the world in terms of women in national legislatures true? And if so, what does it actually mean--what metric is it measuring?

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    Of course, seeing how a lot of the countries in the top of that list have a completely impotent legislature (being a woman in Parlament in Belorus is sorta the same power as you get from being on PTA in USA), these stats are kinda meaningless. – user5341 Oct 19 '11 at 3:42
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    Add in countries where members of the House are selected by Ruling Elite instead of by citizens (Russia is a great example where a bunch of pretty celebrity women are chosen by Kremlin to popularize the party in power). – user5341 Oct 19 '11 at 3:48
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    Everyone, please refrain from posting off-topic political comments. – Mad Scientist Oct 19 '11 at 8:36
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    Why would that be a surprise? After all, 19th Amendment was ratified by all states only in 1984. – vartec Oct 19 '11 at 9:09
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    @Fabian, the comments may be political but are not necessarily off-topic. The question assumes there is some desirable level of "women in national legislature" and also that there is some way of measuring it (the question explicitly asks about this). Both of these assertions are political assertions. – Brian Hooper Oct 19 '11 at 20:50
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+100

TL;DR: The claim is true within reasonable rounding margin.

According to the Inter-Parliamentary Union, the US House of Representatives has the 69th-most women among all lower houses. In terms of ranking among nations, the US is ranked 89th in terms of female members of (lower) houses out of 188 countries. The US is also ranked behind Cuba (5th), China (51th), Iraq (35th) and Afghanistan (30th). Thus, the claim appears to be true.

Shouldn't we compare members in both houses, rather than just compare lower houses?

Well, if both houses were counted together, where applicable, the US would actually lose 8 ranks: Barbados, Antigua and Barbuda, St. Lucia, Bahamas, Grenada, Swaziland, Ireland, and Zimbabwe all would get more than 17% representation.

Shouldn't we compare the US to something more relevant than, say, Bhutan, or to places were parliaments have any relevance, unlike e.g. Belarus?

  • Compared to its direct neighbours, the US comes in third out of three. Mexico is #35 and Canada #41, when ties are counted as ranks (I didn't correct for combined houses).

  • Compared to the EU, the US comes in 21th out of 27+1. The US beats 6 out of the 27 member states if women in both houses are counted: Slovenia, Slovakia, Romania, Malta, Hungary, and Cyprus.

  • Just for fun: Compared to the Arab League, the US comes in 8th out of 21+1. Almost top third! Note that I didn't count Palestine, so there are 21 instead of 22 members. Honestly, I expected the US to do better here.

As an aside, this report compiled for the parliament of Canada mentions how election procedures can help or hurt women (and other underrepresented groups):

Canada’s electoral system is a “single-member plurality” or “first-past-the-post” system. In every federal electoral district, the candidate with the most votes wins a seat in the House of Commons and represents that riding as its Member of Parliament. It has been argued that this system tends to discourage the election of women and other under-represented groups.

BONUS TIME

Here's the distribution of everybody, and the EU:

enter image description here

If we split the EU into three groups (low, medium, high percentage of women in legislatures), then they're topping the bottom half of the low group. Really, in whichever way you turn this, the US looks bad - unless the US strives to be totally average (i.e on the level of Venezuela and Turkmenistan; also, I mean median here) in terms of representation of women in legislatures.

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    Interesting... and if you count the 18 ties that happen between 1st and 69th place, that bumps the U.S. to 88th place... which is a more accurate way of calculating ranks anyway. – Flimzy Oct 19 '11 at 1:58
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    Sorry, it makes no sense whatsoever not to count ties as multiple ranks. If there are two first places then the runner up has the third place. Indeed, if there are two gold medals then consequently there is no silver medal, only bronze. (Good answer though.) – Konrad Rudolph Oct 19 '11 at 9:22
  • @KonradRudolph: It make sense not to count ties if you focus on how many women there are, rather than on the ranking of countries. You will have the second most women in legislatures regardless of how many countries share the honor of having most women in legislatures. – Jonas Oct 19 '11 at 11:50
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    @Jonas If there are 88 countries (or whatever) with more women than you, you are 89th no matter how many ties. Any other answer strains the natural interpretation of the language. – matt_black Oct 19 '11 at 14:51
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    Jonas, you've gone well above and beyond the call of duty here... when this question is eligible, I think I may open a bounty so I can give you due credit :) – Flimzy Oct 19 '11 at 16:49

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