PORTER Magazine: Are we ready for the most powerful person in the world to be a woman?
In 1974, the possibility that a woman could lead one of Britain’s political parties, let alone become Prime Minister, seemed so remote that bookmakers set the odds at 50-1. Since the woman in question was Margaret Thatcher, those brave enough to gamble a large wager walked away with a fortune.
Today, when there are 19 female world leaders including Germany’s Angela Merkel, Brazil’s Dilma Rousseff, and South Korea’s Park Geun-hye, the shock and awe provoked by Thatcher’s election victory seems almost quaint. Which makes it all the more surprising that the two countries with the world’s largest economies – America and China – have yet to follow suit. There have been more than 400 US cabinet secretaries since women won the vote in 1920, but only 27 have been female. As for China, no woman has ever been admitted to the ruling Politburo Standing Committee.
For America, at least, that anomaly could be about to change with the allbut-declared candidacy of Hillary Clinton for the White House race in 2016. The timing of her new book – a memoir of her years as the US Secretary of State – is surely no coincidence. For Clinton to secure the prize that eluded her in 2008, she must first persuade Americans that she is somehow different from the woman they rejected six yeas ago.
But if America – let alone the world – was not ready for a female President then, what has changed? Clinton herself is cautious on the subject. In many of her speaking engagements, she has joked that her memoir ought to have been titled: “The Scrunchie Chronicles: 112 Countries and It’s Still All About My Hair”. However, Clinton’s personal story from wife to politician to leader is the story of women’s leadership in the US. Clinton is also the living embodiment of the wider transformation that has happened to the politics of gender. When she was a senator from New York with presidential aspirations, she confounded doubters who feared a female president would be incapable of standing up to foreign threats by donning a ‘warrior queen’ mantel, voting in favor of every military exercise and defense bill that came her way.
The problem with her I-am-astough-as-the-next-man strategy was it played directly into the stereotype that a female leader had to act like a man in drag to be taken seriously. The more she played up her toughline stances, the more she called them into question. During the Democratic presidential primary in 2008, despite many female voters (including myself) cheering at the idea of a woman in the White House, she came across as a woman who wanted power not a powerful woman who wanted to lead.
However, her defeat turned out to be an unexpected opportunity to push the reset button on American notions of female power. When she became Secretary of State, for the first time in US history there was a woman in high office whose alleged military strengths or weaknesses were not the question of the day. Clinton had voted in favor of the resolution to invade Iraq in 2002. She had shown herself ready to fire the metaphorical gun. Armed by her own record, she had the breathing space to create a new paradigm for female leadership.
Eschewing the grand gesture, Clinton chose to concentrate on the major social issues of our era. She traveled almost a million miles to defend the right to freedom of expression, as well as women’s rights, gay rights, and equitable economic development. Many of her achievements will only become measurable when the beneficiaries of her vision are old enough to vote.
One of Clinton’s most notable successes in the State Department may never even merit a mention in the history books. But it is absolutely emblematic of the profound difference that female leadership – the authentic not the conforming to male expectations kind – can make to people’s lives. In 2012, she secured the release from house arrest of the blind Chinese civil rights activist Chen Guangcheng. A toxic confrontation between unyielding superpowers was brewing. Her solution was not to threaten, bluster, blackmail, or strategise. Instead, as many women do in their own lives, she looked for the practical elements of the problem. Clinton revealed in a subsequent interview, “I had to say [to the Chinese]: ‘This is in your interests and it is in our interests, and there’s got to be a way we can work this out.’” Clinton’s success in moving the Chinese on a seemingly immutable subject is all the more significant given China’s own history of female leadership. The last and only woman ruler of China was Empress Wu Zetian who lived from 625 to 705AD. Through her 15-year reign, she focused on bringing order and prosperity to her 50 million subjects, reducing taxes, cutting military expenditure and fighting against entrenched interests by introducing a meritocratic civil service that remained until the 20th century. In international affairs, she displayed a preference for security through trade rather than might, and prevented China from becoming embroiled in foreign wars, while at the same time opening her court to ambassadors from as far away as Byzantium.
The narrative that binds Empress Wu and Hillary Clinton – two women leaders separated by almost 1,500 years – is that gender can be transformed from a point of weakness to a platform of power. There is no doubt that among democratic countries the battle for women’s political participation at the highest level is settled. The sheer number of female leaders has permanently altered the landscape. There is, though, a new debate that needs to be won: the issue of female empowerment. Tearing down the barriers to full economic participation is the final challenge. The real question is not are we ready for the most powerful leader on earth to be a woman, but are we ready to act on her message. As Clinton declared in 2011: “We need to unlock a vital source of growth that can power our economies in the decades to come. That vital source of growth is women.”