Female leaders are, at long last, becoming a normal part of the landscape. But will this new political era make any real difference for women?by Rachel Holmes / September 15, 2016 / Leave a comment
Published in October 2016 issue of Prospect Magazine
In an otherwise depressing time for international politics, the ascent of women leaders might be regarded as a cause for optimism. Following Angela Merkel, Chancellor of Germany since 2005, Theresa May became Britain’s second female Prime Minister in July. If Hillary Clinton wins the US presidential election in November, women will be in charge of arguably the three most powerful western nations.
But does this signify a fundamental shift in the way society treats women? Or is the gender of these three leaders—all creatures of the establishment—of purely symbolic interest?
Even if that’s true, symbols matter. Less than 100 years since British women got the vote, it is no doubt inspiring for the next generation of girls and boys to see women in charge as something normal. However, just as the rise of Barack Obama has not transformed the material conditions of most African Americans, it is worth questioning the extent to which women’s lives are automatically improved by having a woman at the helm.
All the more so when Merkel, May and Clinton are three leaders who all come from broadly centrist or right-wing traditions. Historically speaking, the left has been vocal in calling for female equality, and championing social policies which aim to bring it about. But—at first blush—the British left doesn’t seem to be so good at delivering when it comes to installing women at the top.
So how did we get here? The evolution of women into plausible political leaders is an after-effect of the egalitarian impetus of the 20th century, where the emerging forces of suffrage-based democracy gave rise to powerful female personalities who achieved their position for reasons other than accidents of royal birth or feudal entitlement.
Though we might instinctively think of the suffragettes and their sisters in Europe and the United States as the pioneers, when it actually came to getting women elected their progress in the western democracies was extraordinarily slow. Nancy Astor, elected as MP for Plymouth in 1919, was often an extremely lonely presence right through to the Second World War—even after the general election of 1935, it remained possible to count the number of women in parliament on your fingers. And with the single exception of Margaret Bondfield, who served as minister of labour in the ill-starred second Labour administration after 1929, there were no women at the top table of government until 1945.