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Monday, March 27, 2017
- "A woman who enters politics changes; a thousand women who enter politics change politics," Chilean President Michelle Bachelet told the Spanish television channel TVE in a recent interview.
It is the former that seems to ring more true. Most powerful women, particularly though not only in developing countries, are or have been members of elite families: widows, daughters, wives of powerful men, in societies where women do not have equal access to most things.
The list of female rulers who have derived their leadership from men is a long and telling one.
Mireya Moscoso (president of Panama from 1999-2004) was widow of three times former president Arnulfo Arias (who was deposed each time by the military). Before her, Isabel Martínez de Perón was president of Argentina from 1974-1976, following the death of her husband, President Juan Domingo Perón. Argentina has just elected its second woman president: Cristina Fernández de Kirchner, who succeeded her husband Néstor Kirchner (2003-2007) in December.
The success – or succession – of women began in Asia in recent times with Sühbaataryn Yanjmaa, widow of Mongolian hero Sühbaatar. She was the equivalent of head of state from Sept. 23, 1953 to Jul. 7, 1954. "If we consider such a post as having a real ruling status, she would have been (excepting queens) the absolute first woman political ruler in contemporary history," says Zárate's Political Collections (ZPC), a record of worldwide leadership.
Corazon Aquino was president of the Philippines from 1986 to 1992, after her husband Benigno Aquino – the leader of the opposition against dictator Ferdinand Marcos – was assassinated. Chandrika Kumaratunga, Sri Lankan president from 1994-2005, followed in the footsteps of her mother Sirimavo Bandaranaike, three times prime minister, a rare instance of a woman taking leadership after another female family member.
Megawati Sukarnoputri, daughter of Sukarno (Indonesia's first post-colonial president 1945-1967), led the world's largest Muslim country from 2001-2004, and is expected to seek the post again in 2009. In Bangladesh, arch-enemies Sheikh Hasina and Khaleda Zia have both served as prime ministers and as heads of the two largest political parties. Hasina's late father and Zia's late husband ran the country at different times.
"These women share dynastic origins and 'inherited' political leadership," says the German government-funded research report ‘Dynasties and Female Leadership in Asia’.
Women leaders all, but not all leaders as women in their own right. "Someone who belongs to the elite has family connections, has also access to attention and power, and sex becomes less important," Charlotte Bunch, executive director of the Centre for Women's Global Leadership at Rutgers University in the United States, told IPS. "Hillary Clinton (wife of former U.S. president Bill Clinton), the women leaders in South Asia, wouldn't be where they are without their access to family connections."
Hillary Clinton's "gender card" and family connections are now hotly debated in the U.S. presidential race. It is a reminder also that political success can be just as hard for ordinary women in the United States as in the developing world.
"This question has made me think of New Jersey, where our office is based," says Bunch. "Until this last election at a state level, for many years, it was hard for women to get into politics here. It was a corrupt all-male system. Women would come into politics from civil society, with some idealistic notions, and couldn't get to the top."
"One reason why widows may sometimes have the chance to enter politics easier is that, with the death of their husbands, they don't have to go up through this male system from the bottom. They immediately have access to the top," she adds.
But that is not the way for the "one thousand women" Bachelet speaks of. "That notion," says Bunch, "indicates that most women at the top, without a larger political base of support, cannot make that much change in politics."
The question for women leaders becomes particularly potent in Islamic states. Claudia Derichs and Mark Thompson, authors of 'Dynasties and Female Leadership in Asia', write that "most surprising, given widespread stereotypes about Islam, is female leadership in the heavily Muslim states in Southeast and South Asia. Except for Afghanistan and Brunei, women lead, or have led, governments or opposition groups in all predominantly Islamic countries in this region (Bangladesh, Indonesia, Malaysia, and Pakistan). Women have both led struggles against dictatorships and participated in competitive, democratic elections."
Bunch says that "if you look at the countries where there are women heads of state, religion is strong, but they are not declared Islamic states." In Pakistan, she says, "with her (Benazir Bhutto's) family connections and party position, people overlooked her sex, there was a willingness to overlook that factor…A woman becomes a man, she is allowed to be the exception and cross over. The first Queen Elizabeth was allowed to do that too, she was viewed essentially as a man. That doesn't change the status quo."
That change could be a better bet through women who take leadership on their own, not under the shadow of displaced male relatives.
* Corrects portions of paragraphs 4,5 and 6. ** The first of a three-part report on women in leadership by IPS Editor-in-Chief Miren Gutierrez. ***Thanks to Caroline Keller in Rome for the charts.