Rebel Girls: Three Dismal Truths We Hold to Be Self-Evident About Women Political Leaders

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Header by Rory Midhani

Header by Rory Midhani

Welcome back to our lesson on the women who have led nations! Last week, we met some of the first women to be elected or appointed presidents or prime ministers around the world in modern times who also happened to get mad shit done that mattered. This week, we’re going to expand our pool and talk about some of the commonalities that connect all women who have run shit in their countries — not just the firsts.

Y’all were correct to point out in the comments last week that some of the women featured were heads of state and some were heads of government. I’m choosing, in this post and in that one, to focus on women executives — presidents and prime ministers, in other words. It is true that these women held vastly different positions, and that the roles of presidents and prime ministers vary by country. But what these women all have in common is having been appointed or elected to one of the most important positions in their nation’s political systems — and, for all intents and purposes, this lesson is centered around the idea that the impact of them simply being there is massive.

Women’s influence at the highest levels of governance can never be dismissed as purely ceremonial, after all. Their presence and influence in these positions is revolutionary — no matter how much power they wield from their seats.

That being said, let’s dig in! Without further ado, here are three completely undeniable and incredibly depressing facts about women, executive political power, and glass ceilings — and cliffs! — around the world.

#1: For Women, Ascending to Executive Positions in Politics Remains Rare

There have been 45 presidents and 68 prime ministers who were women in modern history, including Tsai Ing-wen of Taiwan, who will not technically begin her term until May of this year. (One nation has had a woman chancellor — Germany, which is currently led by Angela Merkel, who I’m also going to include in my comparative work here.)

Some women have been both presidents and prime ministers, and though many of the women counted in those numbers were the first women to serve in their positions, not all were – which is why we haven’t seen women in executive political positions in 100+ nations, but a little over 60 instead, and most nations still have yet to elect a woman or see a woman appointed to an executive position.

Keep in mind, too, that those low numbers are realistically representative of even fewer “legitimate” terms of women’s executive leadership around the world. Many women served in temporary positions, were honorary presidents, and so on and so forth. Most held positions of power in dual executive systems, meaning they didn’t even get all the power to themselves — they shared it with someone else. And for women PMs, their power can often come with the underlying threat of being ousted at any minute by the lower-ranking members of their party.

Let this sit in your brain for a second: Only a little more than 100 women have ever ascended to the most powerful seats in their governments. 75 percent of these women came to power in or after the 1990’s. Only 13 have come to power through election by popular vote. And all of them did it only in the last sixty or so years.

At the core of the numbers and facts about women’s political leadership that we do know, one thing is for certain: We have a long way to go in changing the gendered nature of leadership and the political systems we operate under which foster covert and overt sexism. (And voting for a woman — though a noble and quite badass pursuit — is only one tiny step toward those changes.)

#2: One of the Most Common Pathways to Executive Power, for Women, is Familial Ties to a Man Who Already Has It

Hillary Clinton has always been somewhat of a paradox for feminists. Is she a ball-busting bad bitch on a mission, or a woman who rose to power on her husband’s coattails? The fact that the only woman to come close to the nomination for the presidency in a major party is a former First Lady is uncomfortable to some. But the truth is that Hillary’s not a paradox for marrying into her political career – she’s part of a pre-existing community of women because of it.

When I was digging through pieces about the first presidents and prime ministers to rise to power since the first firsts in the 60’s, I was struck by how many women’s biographies revealed that their condiut to political leadership was a family member. Often, they were former First Ladies in their own nation. (Sometimes, they even entered public life when they took over for their late partners.) Other times, they were sisters and daughters of men who had been president or prime minister or held positions of similarly important weight in their nation’s government.

In 2005, Farida Jalalzai collected and compared data on women executives throughout modern history, excluding those who served in temporary or incomplete terms or held office only ceremonially. In doing so, she found that 30 percent of the women who had become presidents or prime ministers by that year entered their office, in part, because of those kinds of familial ties with almost all being directly related to or married to a former president of prime minister.

Data shows us that it is much harder — and less likely — for women to be elected president than appointed prime minister. Electoral systems that center on popular vote disadvantage women out the gate, and in countries where a PM is appointed but a president elected, some women who were the former have failed to become the latter even after successful terms. However, parliamentary systems where women can rise in party ranks and ultimately become the leaders of those parties have higher rates of women serving in executive positions. (In addition, political instability — though it has meant women leaders face coups, threats, and charges of corruption from their opponents — ironically assists women in rising to power.)

This explains why some of the nations we think of as leaders in women’s rights or most far ahead in the fight for them — including the US — have yet to see a woman in charge. But a glimpse into familial relation also goes far in explaining why Pakistan, Indonesia, and other nations around the world seen in western culture as hostile to women’s rights have elected or witnessed the appointment of a woman executive: Their familial status, in a patriarchal culture shaped by notions of family and the legacies of notable men, gave them a shot other women could never have dreamed of.

#3: The Glass Cliff Exists in Politics, Too

Remember when Reddit set up Ellen Pao to fail? She wasn’t the first woman in tech and won’t be the last to face off against the “glass cliff,” which is a term that refers to what can sometimes be the precarious place that comes after you crash through the glass ceiling. Women who are put on the “glass cliff” are given power in times of hardship or utilized as diversity figureheads — Look at us! We put a woman there! — and then ousted when things return to normal.

But it isn’t just women in tech, or women in start-up culture, or women in business, who sometimes get pushed off the glass cliff. One glimpse at the term lengths of some of the women presidents and prime ministers we’ve seen in modern history proves that it happens to them, too.

Of the 68 women to serve as prime ministers, nine served for a month or less. (One did so twice!) 28 served for a year or less. Of the 45 women who have served as presidents, five have done so for less than two weeks. 13 served for a year or less. Many of the women I learned about for our last lesson were women like these, and often they came into their positions of power with the expectation that they would oversee times of crises (and then politely let themselves out).

Women are more likely to be perceived as peacemakers, maternal figures, and compassionate souls, which plays inevitably into their political lives. That is why women are trapped in a realm of gender expectations that posit them as caretakers and babysitters, even when it comes to their work with adults. When nearly 50 percent of the women who have served as prime ministers and over 33 percent of women who have been presidents aren’t even given the opportunity to serve past a year in office, it goes without saying that their impact will be lesser and the work they can achieve is more limited. (It’s also worth questioning whether a woman not serving a full term in the role makes it more or less likely that the country will perceive women as more capable in the role, although we won’t be able to look into stuff like that until way more women have run for major office or come close to clinching one.)

Readings & Resources for This Unit

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Carmen spent six years at Autostraddle, ultimately serving as Straddleverse Director, Feminism Editor and Social Media Co-Director. She is now the Consulting Digital Editor at Ms. and writes regularly for DAME, the Women’s Media Center, the National Women’s History Museum and other prominent feminist platforms; her work has also been published in print and online by outlets like BuzzFeed, Bitch, Bust, CityLab, ElixHER, Feministing, Feminist Formations, GirlBoss, GrokNation, MEL, Mic and SIGNS, and she is a co-founder of Argot Magazine. You can find Carmen on Twitter, Instagram and Tumblr or in the drive-thru line at the nearest In-N-Out.

Carmen has written 919 articles for us.


  1. Those stats are dismal.

    I also wonder if this is why people talk more about wanting Michelle Obama as president than they do about Elizabeth Warren. Maybe neither woman wants the job, but either would be great at it. You hear a lot more enthusiasm for a Michelle presidential bid though. Not that she’s not accomplished in her own right, but (sadly) being attached to Barack would help her immensely. If she ever chose to run.

    • They are indeed dismal.

      I think the enthusiasm for Michelle has a lot to do with the symbolic desire to see a woman of color and a descendant of slaves as President, and even more that she’s fulfilled the traditional First Lady role of being more popular than her husband at all times very well. But First Ladies tend to be popular because they aren’t directly political–arguably there was strong backlash against both Nancy Reagan and Hillary Clinton for exceeding their proper place as wives and women.

      But also Elizabeth Warren has directly said that she doesn’t want to be president and can be much more effective fighting for the values she believes in as a Senator (which I think is 100% true), so people who talk about Warren as president tend to be signaling the fact that they don’t pay much attention to her or electoral politics. They seem to be thinking of the presidency in purely symbolic terms, rather than in what the job actually entails, and why Warren might be more effective elsewhere.

    • yes! yes to all of this. i thought about that a lot as i was writing this – there are so many brilliant and talented women in congress, or women who were governors, etc. so it’s telling that the one woman we think of to rise next to this level of electoral politics is a first lady. and i mean, yes, i do think a lot of it is about who michelle is and what communities she represents, but it’s also probably related to our culture’s depressing inability to perceive of women as belonging in the white house unless they’ve been married to someone and living in it already. (i also tend to think elizabeth warren’s fervor is an outlier, and not an indicator of more widespread notions of leadership as female. she gets people excited, which is great, but she’s not the only badass who we should be urging to run.)

  2. Thanks for this article, it was really informative. At the moment in Scotland all three major political parties are led by women, and there’s an election happening soon. I’m interested to see if this changes the tone of the election process at all.

  3. I remember when I was a weird little baby dyke and I thought I didn’t know enough about feminism to engage in discussions about it. All I wanted was Carmen Rios to explain it all to me. Years later, I now get the privilege of having Carmen Rios explain everything I’ve ever wanted to know about women and feminism to me and it totally rules.

  4. I did let that sit in my brain. Wow, I didn’t even think it was that bad. I guess ’cause NZ had a lady PM who lasted more than a year. And she was mercilessly picked on for her shade of lipstick :(

      • Remember in Australia when Julia Gillard got picked on for the size of her earlobes?…. fun times. Clarko at least managed to last much longer through.

        • Not to mention the size of her behind and that was Germaine Greer doing the bitch talking.

          Julia did manage to achieve a huge amount during her time as PM though and in spite of an extremely hostile Opposition.

  5. Love the international perspective on this, which is sadly lacking in a lot of conversations about this topic in the US.

    Your point about marrying into power is hugely important. I recently was in a group of bisexual USian women were deliberating who they would vote for, and was surprised to hear several people say that their main or only objection to Clinton was that they opposed the idea of political dynasties.

    To me this felt like a creepy example of double sexual standards–because like it or not, that’s how women access the political arena. It’s one thing to object to Clinton’s policies or actually like Sanders better; to oppose her for following the path that best serves women in politics (finding a partner who shared her interest and working with him) feels a bit too much like opposing her because she’s a woman and has to strategize around sexism.

    Also I would bet good money that every single woman in that group had voted for a Kennedy at least once, and most of them multiple times.

    • I feel suspicious of that argument, too.

      Hillary didn’t inherit her political weight, and her career wasn’t handed to her out of nepotism. She was building a strong resume of her own before she married her husband; she was a key member in building the Clinton name when she helped Bill go after the presidency; and she’s done SO MUCH since then to demonstrate her own competency and merit as a politician.

      When people give Hillary’s political accomplishments a sweeping dismissal simply because her husband’s career? Yeah. That’s sexism.

      • yes! and not to mention, being part of a “dynasty,” has, in many ways, contributed to the caricature of hillary we see so often today: shrewd, shrill, manipulative, and downright scummy. when people see hillary as a lizard queen, it’s so intertwined with the right-wing attacks on her dating back to her role as first lady of arkansas that it’s impossible to parse that out. being married to bill has totally been a boon to her – but it’s also been a challenge to her that being a kennedy or a bush never was for a man.

  6. This question is more related to your article “Voting For Women Isn’t Enough”, but what’s your opinion on gender quotas in politics?

    Bolivia has this kind of law and you can find 53,1% Congresswomen and 47,2% women Senators.

    • i actually read in many of the pieces i cited for this piece that quotas and parliamentary systems were huge elements in creating political equality for women – so i’d have to say that i’m a big fan of them, to be honest. i think carving out specific spaces with a specific intention of using them to level the playing field is what equity – not just equality, but true equity – looks like. i’m also an affirmative action superfan, so. i also think what we’ve maybe learned, thus far, from quota systems is that they erase all possibility for the non-response of “we just don’t know any women qualified to run” or “nobody wants to run” or “a woman just didn’t win sorry.” like, making quotas makes people have to stand up and push women to run – which, as we talked about in that other lesson, is pivotal, key, literally the most important thing we can do for women. so!

      • My country, Argentina, has a gender quota law since 1991 (first country in Latin America with such a law) and we’re ranked 28th in the world about parliamentary representation of women. Let me say that the law is, in my opinion, on the weak side, with a 30% quota enforced by law. But even with this limitation it allows a greater representation of women and our issues.

        “We just don’t know any women qualified to run”. This is a very important point. I want to show with one example with my country how important public knowledge is and how much can influence our decisions.

        One of your links, the one about former First Ladies, shows Cristina Fernandez de Kirchner as a former First Lady that later became President. First I want to clarified a little detail, she was the wife of Nestor Kirchner when he was elected President in 2003, but at the time she was also a Senator, a position she held until she was elected President in 2007. And here is my key, in the 2003 Presidential election Nestor Kirchner was a Governor but I didn’t know much about him, I did know a lot about her wife, because she used to be a Congress woman and, as I said, she was a Senator. I think almost every person in my country knew a lot more about CFK than her husband.

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