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
- Farida Jalalzai, “Women Political Leaders.”
- Fariyal Ross-Sheriff, “Women and Political Leadership.”
- Mona Lena Krook and Farida Jalalzai, “Beyond Hillary and Benazir: Women’s Political Leadership Worldwide.”
- Worldwide Guide to Women in Leadership