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Female Heads of State, like Males, Often Rely on Nepotism and Money to Reach Highest Office - 2003-07-16


In 1953 Suhbaataryn Yanjmaa became President of Mongolia and the modern world’s first woman head of state. Since then, other more prominent women have been elected national leaders: Indira Gandhi of India, Golda Meir of Israel and Margaret Thatcher of Britain -- to name a few. Though they were powerful and influential leaders, other women did not quickly follow in their footsteps.

Michael Genovese, a political science professor at Loyola Marymount University in Los Angeles and editor of the book Women as National Leaders, notes that only in the past decade has the number of women presidents and prime ministers increased significantly.

“When I started doing research on this in the late 1980’s, early 1990’s,” he says, “I could name all the women who have headed governments in the world. The good news is that since the late 90’s, there have been an influx of so many that I can no longer name them.”

Since 1990, close to 30 women have become heads of state as opposed to only one in the 1950’s and six in the 1970’s. Some have served many years, others briefly or in acting leadership roles. Many were elected in their own right, and a few stepped in after the death of a father or husband.

“Another factor is that many of them emerged in times of stress, in times of social upheaval,” says Mr. Genovese. “For example, Corazon Aquino emerges as a leader at a time when the old regime has been discredited and overthrown, and so there’s a real shakeup in society.” In many countries, the struggle for women’s representation in political leadership started after World War Two and intensified during the 1960’s and 70’s. But the results came much later. Professor Genovese says it takes a long time to change a political system, and even longer to break down economic, cultural and other barriers facing women in politics.

“Old habits die hard,” he says, “and if you were raised to think in a very traditional, nuclear family setting where the woman was subservient to the male, than it is a hard habit to break. Women are increasingly in the work place. They are increasingly executives in businesses, layers doctors, etc. But you have to remember that is a fairly recent phenomenon. In historical time, it’s just a blip of a second.”

As a result, it is sometimes easier for women to become leaders when new countries or new governments are formed. Vaira Vike-Freiberga, for example, is president of Latvia and the first female head of state in the formerly Soviet controlled region.

Professor Genovese says since World War Two, Scandianavian women have achieved the most progress in the political arena.

“The Scandinavian countries are well ahead of the rest of the world,” he says. “And the reason being that in order for women to be considered as legitimate, potential leaders, you have to have what we sometimes call a ‘farm system’ or a training ground, which includes the local and state and regional offices that women hold so that they can use them as stepping stones. Kind of like the minor leagues where you earn your stripes, you prove yourself and then you can be a legitimate candidate for national office.”

But this has not been the situation in many countries that have elected female heads of state.

“There is an irony here,” he says, “in that more women have emerged as political leaders from countries that are not in the European model, not in the democratic model, not even in the advanced industrial model. One reason is most of the women who emerged as national leaders early on in the post-World-War-Two period came from very prominent political families.” Indira Gandhi of India, Benazir Bhutto of Pakistan, Sirimavo Bandaranaike and her daughter Chandrika Kumaratunga of Sri Lanka have all come from powerful political families. Mary Wilson, president of the White House Women’s Project in Washington, likens them to royal dynasties.

“I think it does have to do with the power of patriarchal families in those countries,” she says, “where there is not a man positioned, that sometimes the very family dynasty power is able to spread to the woman. I think sometimes dynasty trumps gender in some of these countries.”

On the other hand, notes Mary Wilson, a country that has had some powerful queens, such as Britain, has been very slow to give political leadership to women, with the exception of former prime minister Margaret Thatcher.

Many observers note that the United States, the country based on the principles of democracy and equality, has not yet had a female president or vice-president. It is not for the lack of trying says Mosemarie Boyd, president and CEO of California-based American Women for Presidents.

“Women have been running for the U.S. presidency for over a 130 years,” she says. “We had Victoria Woodhall who ran in 1872. She was the first woman to win the right to address Congress. Shortly after that, Belva Lockwood ran in 1884. She was the first woman to argue a case before the US Supreme Court.” These women had little chance to be elected in their time, but circumstances changed by the 1980’s when former U.S. congresswoman Geraldine Ferraro became a vice-presidential nominee of the Democratic Party. And in 2000, Elizabeth Dole, a former president of the American Red Cross, ran a creditable race for the presidential nomination of the Republican Party.

Despite this progress, American women still have a relatively small representation in politics compared to men, less than 15%. Analysts cite several reasons for this, including the American electoral system as well as the persistence of the traditional view that politics is a man’s domain. Laura Liswood, secretary general of the Council of Women World Leaders points to another limitation.

“If you look in other countries to see what pool they fish from,” she says, “you’ll see that women prime ministers have been doctors. They have been teachers. They have been scientists and from other disciplines. We basically only get our presidents and prime ministers currently from the vice-presidents and the governors.”

All agree money is a crucial factor in American presidential campaigns.

“As you know,” Ms. Boyd says, “our current president raised about $100 million for the 2000 presidential cycle and is currently planning to raise $200 million for the 2004 presidential cycle. So I would suggest to you that it is a pretty simple formula. When we raise the most money, we are very likely to be able to put that money behind the winning woman presidential candidate.”

Some political analysts, like Professor Genovese, say that day is not so far off. “A woman will be president in my lifetime,” he says.

A growing number of organizations raising money for women’s presidential campaigns may help make this prediction come true. After all, says Professor Genovese, women from ancient queens to modern-day heads of state have proved their ability to govern as well as men.

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