Women Leaders on Top?


This article first appeared in Gafencu magazine, November 2105


November 16 next year may see the first-ever female president of the USA. Could it happen? Carly Fiorina certainly thinks so, and the more she continues to bitch about Hilary Clinton the more she believes it will. If such a historical landmark is attained it will also give rise to another important question. If America gets its first Madam President, who will pick the new curtains and soft furnishings for the Oval Office? See? Only one paragraph in and already two cheap, stereotypical jibes about women in high political office chalked up, which pretty much sums what they’re up against.

In some ways, in an era where many voters contend that all politicians are useless, it could be considered a rather redundant exercise to explore whether female politicians are more or less useless than their male counterparts. But that’s avoiding the point of this article: Has political gender equality finally been achieved?

The 20th century was well into its second half before a woman took high office, Sirimavo Bandaranaike being sworn in as Prime Minister of Ceylon (now Sri Lanka) in 1960. Indira Ghandi of India in 1966 and Golda Mehir of Israel in 1969 followed her into this exclusive club. Exclusive club? That’s putting it mildly in statistical terms. If the number of male versus female political leaders over the course of history were to be represented as a pie chart, the distaff side wouldn’t even look like a cut in the pastry.

But over the past fifty years, things have changed. Right? Not really. Margaret Thatcher, Benazir Bhutto, Helen Clark and Joanna Siguroardottir have all served as notable PMs, while mould-breakers such as Vigdis Finnbogadottir, Mary Robinson and Cristina Fernandez de Kirchner all bucked the trend in being appointed President of their countries. But both those lists of female top-jobs are relatively small, and don’t really get going until the 1990s, confirming the suspicion that women leaders are not only a rare phenomenon but a recent one as well.

Women actually had a better chance of wielding real power when monarchies ruled the roost, in the days when a Royal could still cock a snook at a pesky politician and say ‘off with his head’.   Nobody in their right minds would want to get on the wrong side of potentates such as Cleopatra, Catherine the Great or the Empress Dowager Cixi, all of whom wielded maximum power with maximum effect.  Elizabeth I, Gloriana, is still revered as one of the most capable and mighty rulers ever, ushering in a Golden Age for England with her accomplishments in the areas of religious tolerance, an emphasis on science and discovery and her encouragement of art and literature. And then there was that small matter of seeing off the Spanish Armada.

But even the Virgin Queen had to play the game of apologising for being a woman. Before sending Philip II’s fleet to the bottom of the Solent she proclaimed, ‘I know I have the body of a weak and feeble woman; but I have the heart of a king, and a king of England, too.’ This carefully scripted Tudor soundbite acknowledges that the only way she could assert her authority, and achieve credibility as a leader, was to point out that despite outward, unavoidable appearances, she’d bloody well take anybody who disagreed with her outside and give them a good bashing. Well, it was 1588, but has much altered in the intervening 400-plus years?

‘The Iron Lady’. There it is again. A woman, but not a woman. Margaret Thatcher obviously, but also the soubriquet applied to virtually every female politician and leader. In actual fact, the epithet lazily bestowed upon every female who pushes herself to the top of whatever tree she happens to be climbing. Because, as the name implies, they wouldn’t have managed their ascent by acting like a woman – they’ve only achieved success because they’ve ‘manned up’.

If we are to believe the popular assertion that men are from Mars and woman are from Venus there’s little doubt that the Parliament building is situated on the red planet. Are there specific feminine traits that colour a female politician’s demeanour and therefore impact on their prospects of high office? Angela Merkel, flying the flag for women leaders for the past ten years, has recently won praise from some quarters for her ‘humane’ response to the current refugee crisis in opening up Germany’s borders to migrants from Syria, Iraq and Afghanistan. Is having a heart exclusively a feminine trait? Is expressing sympathy while shutting the door in someone’s face exclusively a male one? Obviously, it’s ridiculous stereotyping, but nevertheless these ‘tags’ persist.

When she’s not being called ‘The Iron Frau’, Merkel is more commonly referred to as ‘Mutti’ (meaning ‘Mummy’) in Germany. Hang on – that’s a bit of a contradiction, isn’t it? How can she be hard and soft at the same time? Maybe it’s the Greeks who see her as flinty and unbending, and the UN Refugee Agency as caring and considerate. Possibly she’s so successful because, like all politicians would like to be, she’s mastered the art of being all things to all men at the same time.

If you want a dramatic rendition of the conflicts facing a female Prime Minister, then Danish TV’s Borgen is recommended viewing. Fictional PM Birgitte Nyborg is the premier juggling affairs of state with family life, and bringing a female perspective into a male dominated world. It succeeds because it doesn’t really deal in happy endings. It also succeeds because, well, Birgitte gets to wear lots of nice clothes… That’s not another crass joke – viewers and critics alike cheerfully tuned in to see that Ms Nyborg was wearing and then endlessly discussed it. If it is a crass joke then it’s one that sees art mirroring life, because it is an unwritten rule that no female politician can be assessed on her leadership qualities until her wardrobe has been fully scrutinised.

Mutti is a ‘frump’. Margaret Thatcher was a ‘power dresser’. Hilary Clinton favoured ‘scrunchies’. Teresa May is known for leopardskin kitten heels far more than for anything she’s ever done in politics. With the exception of Michael Foot’s donkey jacket, no male politician gets dissected (and criticised) for what he wears to such a degree. Judge me on my Record? Fat chance if you’re a woman it seems. At least, in an age where male politicians wear more ‘slap’ than the average photographic model, there’s slightly more equality for women when it comes to discussing make-up.

Women in politics face an unenviable task, it’s true, but nowhere as challenging as when having to deal with their own sexist peers. David Cameron’s ‘Calm down, dear,’ jibe to Angela Eagle could probably be expected from a man who is alleged to have placed a private part of his anatomy into a dead pig’s mouth during a student initiation ceremony, but such chauvinism isn’t exactly reserved to the alumni of England’s public schools. How about a heckler repeatedly urging Hilary Clinton to ‘iron my shirt’? Or Cecile Duflot being wolf-whistled in the French national assembly? Shall we even mention Silvio Berlusconi?

Julia Gillard, Australia’s first female prime minister, regularly faced comments over her lack of children (definitely not nicknamed Mutti, then) and offensive questioning over her sexuality. Gillard’s approval ratings did, however, shoot up after delivering a passionate speech in parliament branding her conservative opponent, Tony Abbot, as a sexist and a misogynist. Even Australian male voters approved of her broadside (no doubt admiring her ‘Iron Lady’ fortitude).

To date, Gillard (serving from 2010 to 2013) remains the only female to have held the role of prime minister in Australia, which begs the question are some countries more disposed to women leaders than others? Step forward the tiny Principality of San Marino, which has had fifteen female heads of state since 1981 (albeit they have a strict six-month rotation of the office). Switzerland, who only granted full women’s suffrage in 1971 (that’s not a typo by the way) have since weighed in with seven heads of state, although the complex Canton system adds a multiplier effect to that example.

It’s pretty slim pickings, with no obvious geographical trend, but what is clear is that the process of women leaders has started, and is beginning to spread. Argentina has had two female heads of states, as has the Republic of Ireland, and they’ve been joined recently by other large countries breaking through the Presidential glass ceiling for the first time, notably in South Korea (Park Geun-hye), Brazil (Dilma Rousseff) and Chile (Michelle Bachelet).

Ultimately, are these actual titles meaningless in power terms? What about the old saying, ‘behind every successful man there’s a woman’? Human Rights pioneer Eleanor Roosevelt could possibly lay claim to such a description (as might be expected from the woman who gave us the famous – and appropriate for this article – quote: ‘no one can make you feel inferior without your consent’).

Do women have to actually hold high political office to be influential and powerful? Forbes’ annual ’The world’s 100 most powerful women’ table currently features only 21 names associated with politics, and of these only eight are heads of state or prime ministers (albeit Mutti is up there at number one). It’s the fields of Development, Finance, Business, Media and Technology that are driving global change today, and women here are pushing the boundaries as hard as in politics.

It’s more than arguable that non-political roles held by women carry far more weight than many a country’s designated head (whether male or female). Forbes’ is a formidable list, including Mary Barra, CEO of General Motors, Sheryl Sandberg COO of Facebook and Philanthropist Melinda Gates – and that’s before you get to the real female powers of today: Oprah Winfrey, Beyonce, Anna Wintour and Angelina Jolie.

A century on from ‘Votes for Women’ it has taken a ridiculous amount of time for women to start being treated as equals in the political world, but at least this is now beginning to change, if ever so slowly. Affirmative action, or positive discrimination, forcing equal number of female candidates as male into key political roles could see that happen more quickly, but don’t expect it any time soon if it’s left to the Mr politicians to make it happen. No, the next milestone towards political equality will be reached if and when a Madame President takes up residence in the White House.

Could that be next year? Time will tell. But even if it does, it’s over the next hundred years that the true test will come, and accusations of tokenism can be ruled out. Of the next twenty US presidents will ten be women? Will we see an equal trend at Downing Street, the Elysee Palace, The National People’s Congress and the Kremlin? Only then will sisters be doing it for themselves.