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 / 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.
Strikingly, we need to look away from the west to find examples of early female leaders—many of whom were thrown into positions of prominence amid the tumult of national liberation struggles.
The first woman with real executive power in the modern era was Yevgenia Bohdanivna Bosch, a Russian socialist of German-Jewish origin, who became acting leader of the Ukraine in 1917. The first directly elected woman prime minister was Sri Lankan, one corner of an Indian sub-continent which has seen a cluster of pioneering female leaders. Sirimavo Bandaranaike, like Hillary Clinton, started as part of a political power couple. Her husband, Oxford-educated barrister Solomon Bandaranaike, became prime minister in 1956, leading the Sri Lanka Freedom Party that they had co-founded. When he was assassinated three years later, she became its next leader. The impressively resilient Bandaranaike served three terms, from 1960 to 1965, returning in 1970 to 1977, and then making yet another comeback from 1994 to 2000.
“Women could soon call the shots in Berlin, London and Washington—once an unthinkable prospect”
In all patriarchal societies, including those on the sub-continent, nationalist insurgencies can create new openings. Probe a little deeper though, and an underlying pattern of political class privilege and proximity to male power emerges: the breakthroughs were often reserved for daughters or widows of male national founders. Indira Gandhi, Indian Prime Minister for 15 years between 1966 and her assassination in 1984 was the daughter of India’s first prime minister, Jawaharlal Nehru. Benazir Bhutto, twice the premier of Pakistan in the late 1980s and mid-1990s, was the daughter of former leader Zulfikar Ali Bhutto. It was the same with Aung San Suu Kyi, daughter of Burma’s founder and current de-facto leader of her country, and the Bangladeshi Prime Minister, Sheikh Hasina, another daughter of a famous father, the nation’s founder. (Her opposite number is the daughter of another former Bangladeshi leader.) Many of them no doubt gained sympathy and even political appeal from their populations by being a widow or mourning daughter.
Just as male leaders have often fallen into male archetypes, so have female leaders, willingly or not. Indira Gandhi explicitly identified herself as “Mother India,” and Merkel has been described both as Mutti (mum) and schwäbische Hausfrau (Swabian housewife) with her sense of the importance of living within your means.
Golda Meir, who became Israeli Prime Minister in 1969, channelled a different female model—that of the Athena-like female warrior. She was the first woman to be described as the “Iron Lady,” a label inherited by Margaret Thatcher when she became the first elected woman leader in western Europe in 1979. Thatcher, who was for the most part determined to play by male rules and was slow to promote other women, also deliberately pushed the idea of “housewife economics.”
This is not to underestimate the talents and achievements of the women who made it to the top, nor to discount the real obstacles they have often had to overcome to actually get their hands on the reins of leadership. Indeed there were often common features of their journey to the top. Avoiding overt ambition early on was often essential; likewise it was often important for them to demonstrate hard work over charisma.
Gandhi’s grandfather told her: “there were two kinds of people: those who do the work and those who take the credit. He told me to try to be in the first group; there was much less competition.”
In 1968, Shirley Chisholm was the first African-American woman elected to the United States Congress. She went on, unsuccessfully, to seek the Democratic Party’s presidential nomination in 1972. She spoke of having compiled voter lists, carried petitions, rung doorbells, manned the telephone and helped voters get to the polls: “I had done it all to help other people get elected. The other people who got elected were men, of course, because that was the way it was in politics.”
This is an experience shared by May, whose party career began stuffing envelopes in her local Conservative Association. Her CV before entering parliament reveals a solid record of hard graft for little glory. As she said at the launch of her leadership bid in July: “I know I am not a showy politician. I don’t tour the television studios. I don’t gossip about people over lunch. I don’t go drinking in parliament’s bars. I don’t often wear my heart on my sleeve, I just get on with the job in front of me.”
Clinton is similar: “When I got to the Senate,” she said, “I was not a show horse!” While plainly motivated—at least to some degree—by her 1970s-era feminism, Clinton casts herself as a pragmatic technocrat, rather than the winner of hearts and minds. Certainly, she is no radical. For her, good must be done with a thousand granular amendments, rather than by confronting prevailing traditions and vested interests—a natural approach, perhaps, if your early experience of political life has taught you that to project anything bolder than quiet graft is to invite derision.
Helen Clark, who was New Zealand’s Prime Minister from 1999 to 2008—and is currently the frontrunner to replace Ban Ki-moon to become the first female Secretary General of the United Nations—is another example of how essential it is for aspiring women leaders to present themselves as a safe pair of hands. She implemented a wide range of social and economic reforms with a sure touch, and currently runs the UN Development Programme. She also reflects another requirement of women at the top: repress your sexuality. French Presidents are virtually required to maintain a mistress or in the case of Nicolas Sarkozy at least a pin-up wife. Vladimir Putin can strip to the waist like a boy band star. But show a millimetre of cleavage at your peril.
In her journey towards political credibility, Clark went from so-called “sex bomb” trade unionist to “very dour” Labour leader. Like Clinton, she was accused of being “cold” and “aloof,” and also like Clinton, of adopting a public persona screening a more gregarious private personality.
In politics coming across as too feminine, or assuming an easygoing camaraderie with colleagues or the press, is fatal to the aspiring female leader, just as surely as it is an asset to a man. Just compare the different styles of Hillary and Bill Clinton.
Then there is the issue of children. Given the small number of women at the very top, the proportion who have not had children is marked. This is a world of workaholics, where even a man will be considered quirky for tending his allotment or following his passion for jazz. The social expectation remains that most women will have children. Except, perhaps, for the aspiring women politician—who is damned if she does, and damned if she doesn’t.
While a “family man” is, apparently, the ideal leader, any woman with a family will either be considered inadequately committed to meeting the demands of her job, or else a bad mother for pursuing such a demanding career. However, the treatment of single and childless Liz Kendall in last year’s Labour leadership battle illustrated why not being a mother is no answer to this conundrum. Helen Goodman, a fellow MP who was backing Kendall’s rival Yvette Cooper, took a calculated swipe: “Much, much more important to me than being an MP and shadow minister is that I am a mum. I have two children and although they are both grown-up (supposedly), once a mum always a mum.” Mothers, Goodman implied, have something the ambitious career woman will never have.
In this summer’s short Conservative leadership drama, it was not merely a cheerleader but a candidate who tried to pull the same trick. In a now notorious intervention, Andrea Leadsom, mother of three, compared herself favourably to May, who has no children, effectively suggesting that childless women are less empathetic and less invested in the future.
Jenny Shipley, New Zealand’s first woman prime minister, referred to her rival Clark as “the spinster of New Zealand politics.” Clark hit back: “From the time she became leader of the National Party I have been subjected to constant attack by her and the National Party in coded terms for not having children.” By contrast, she said, “[Jim] Bolger [Shipley’s immediate predecessor as PM], as we know, had a large family, was proud of them, never sought to use it for personal advantage in any way and never ever cast a personal aspersion on me, ever.” Clark’s observation that it is women, not men, who most often attempt to use their status as a parent as a form of leverage over political rivals sadly seems to hold up.
So will famous photographs of May shaking hands with Nicola Sturgeon, Scotland’s First Minister, Merkel and perhaps one day Clinton be looked back on by historians as evidence of a golden age of advances for womankind?
The important test here will be how far any of these formidable women are leading on a practical feminist programme. Have they significantly altered the thinking or policy of their own parties with regard to female representation? Leaving aside their position as role models, is there anything to suggest that our current crop of women leaders will be remembered more than any previous generation for their contribution to greater gender equality? And if not, why not?
On current form, Canada’s proudly feminist leader, Justin Trudeau, looks like he could prove more significant for women suffering from disadvantage than May. While there was talk about May achieving a gender-balanced Cabinet, it didn’t happen: Trudeau has delivered one. The Canadian Prime Minister has also made equal pay a priority, alongside other women-friendly programmes.
Different shades of disadvantage come into play here. While every woman leader is a beneficiary of the political rights the suffragettes fought for, such minimal rights—to enjoy the franchise, and to avoid being formally barred from particular trades or leadership roles—are a subset of the basic civil rights which every democrat, of the right and left, are content with in the 21st century. These rights, however, are distinct from feminist programmes that seek to restructure society and relationships between women, men and children.
To tackle the plight of women more fundamentally will involve going much further. The structures and assumptions about power relations will need to be remodelled. Only then will women be enabled to take their rightful place in the world.
This agenda requires a level of financial redistribution and state intervention that centrist and right of centre politicians will always struggle to embrace. How much can you achieve with formal equality in employment rights, if there is not also affordable childcare? Where are the teeth of anti-discrimination laws, if there is no legal aid? How is a woman supposed to develop the confidence to lead in the workplace, never mind the country, if she doesn’t feel safe or respected in that workplace, or indeed on the streets or in her home?
It might, therefore, seem strange that women are not notably flourishing on the political left, in Britain.
At Prime Minister’s Questions on 20th July, the Labour leader Jeremy Corbyn congratulated Theresa May on becoming the UK’s second woman prime minister. May lost no time in shooting back: “He referred to me as the second woman prime minister. In my years in the House, I have long heard the Labour Party asking what the Conservative Party does for women. Well—it just keeps making us prime minister.”
Given she is only the second woman leader in the 182 years since the Tory Party’s founding that was somewhat of an exaggeration. It is also true that the big steps forward in getting women into parliament—1945 and 1997—have both come in years when Labour did well. Still, May did have a fair point, given Labour’s inability to deliver a female leader, let alone prime minister, in its 116-year history. Margaret Beckett and Harriet Harman were both considered able enough to be deputies and acting leaders, but never got the top job.
“How is a woman supposed to develop the confidence to lead, if she doesn’t feel respected at work—or home?”
If modern-day Labour has a distinct woman problem, it may be partly because of the way that a reputation for radicalism, or other markers of difference, will compound the considerable obstacles already confronting any woman when she steps onto the political stage. Just compare the press treatment of May with that of Diane Abbott, the veteran Labour MP, former leadership candidate and current Shadow Cabinet Minister. Both have experienced sexism in the form of preoccupations with their tone of voice and appearance. But Abbott’s left-wing politics and Afro-Caribbean background make for a far less balanced media reception. Unlike the US, neither Britain nor any other country in western Europe has yet elected a black leader, let alone a black woman.
The media’s problem with “difficult women” may not be the whole story, however. Christabel Pankhurst observed over a century ago that left-wing men are just as chauvinistic as their right-wing equivalents but also set greater store by political power because they had to fight harder for it and so are perhaps less willing to give some of it up to “their” women. Judging by the current report card, this male power-hogging still prevails on the left.
What would have happened if Ed Balls had urged his wife Yvette Cooper to stand for the Labour leadership in 2010 instead of him? Why was the so-called “unity candidate” in Labour’s summer civil war not a woman? Leadsom withdrew from the Tory leadership after her comments about May, who could not have children. Labour MPs though, had no similar scruples about continuing to support their standard bearer when he made divisive play of the family card. Barely a month after Leadsom’s gaffe, Labour leadership challenger Owen Smith told an interviewer: “I am normal. I grew up in a normal household. I have a wife and three children. My wife is a primary school teacher.” His leadership rival at the time, Angela Eagle, while also in a settled partnership, is a lesbian with no children. In the past, similar nods and winks were the backdrop to homophobic 1980s legislation which described same-sex partnerships as “pretended family relationship.” No wonder liberal Labour supporters were infuriated, but the incident had no bearing on Smith’s continuing candidacy. It seems that dinosaurs still wander Westminster’s corridors.
Perhaps the special difficulties facing women on the left are the result of the need that aspiring women leaders face to prove themselves a safe pair of hands.
A radical female leader will be judged against higher standards by her own feminist sisters, and will—inevitably—also be more likely to disappoint. This is not a problem faced by Merkel or May. They score points simply by rising to the highest tiers of political power, and then bonus points for steadying the ship and appearing sober in contrast with their flashier male counterparts.
That they are role models will be seen as progress enough by many in the centre and on the right. No further debt to womankind is owed, and there is certainly no expectation of any disruption to the status quo. Indeed there have been women leaders—such as Thatcher—who have seemed almost at pains not to be associated with further female advancement.
Then there is the ideological and factional nature of the left, which contrasts with the ruthless survival instincts of the right. When the left chooses its leaders there are so many Judean fronts to contend with, that there is often little room for a pro-women’s bloc: feminists will often be told that their cause is a distraction from socialism. By contrast, women of the right have less clear ideological factions to choose between. So why not, their male colleagues may occasionally calculate, boost a woman for a change?
Women, then, face formidable obstacles in achieving power, and even greater barriers to getting there if they intend to effect radical change. It cannot be assumed that the once-unthinkable prospect of women giving the orders in Berlin, London and Washington at the same time will transform opportunities for their sex.
But if there is reason for caution here, there is no reason at all to despair. The great influx of “Blair babes” in 1997, the media phrase which spoke volumes about all that still stood in the way of the new generation of MPs, did not revolutionise women’s conditions overnight. A generation on, however, it is possible to identify the establishment of domestic violence and childcare as issues on the political agenda, and to reflect that this progress might not have been wrought without more women at Westminster.
In Scotland, Sturgeon is popular and admired. Her unapologetic attitude on questions of gender was evident in the tweet that she posted immediately after being photographed meeting May: “Politics aside—I hope girls everywhere look at this photograph and believe nothing should be off limits for them.” Her openness about her miscarriage in 2011, which she has spoken about in the last few weeks, was a new step for a female politician.
And if Clinton and Clark end up leading the US and the UN, it will certainly be a dream moment for summit photographers. Through her social policy programme in New Zealand, Clark has already demonstrated that a committed feminist of the left can make a real difference. She set up the public Kiwi Bank, improved access to pensions (especially for women) as well as cash benefits for families. She increased the minimum wage, which always sets the rate for more women than men, kept New Zealand troops out of Iraq, and created an emissions trading scheme. She also emphasised art and culture in a country obsessed with sport.
Just maybe with more women leaders clearing the barriers that stand in their way—barriers set all the higher for women who want to challenge the status quo—then more will at long last be able to shake up their own societies for the good.