Last updated 07:10, July 14 2016
OPINION: Here’s a thought worth clutching to in these trying times: By the time 2016 draws to a close, providing the voters of the United States don’t majorly screw it up for us all, the powerhouses of the western world will be dominated by female leaders.
Theresa May has become the United Kingdom’s second female leader since Margaret Thatcher put a small dent in the glass ceiling (before going on to shatter the working class). And in November, the world is expecting (and, let’s face it, mostly praying) that Hillary Clinton will win out over Donald Trump to become the first female President of the United States. These women join Angela Merkel as she continues her reign at the helm of Germany (and, ipso facto, her effective leadership of the EU).
Outside politics, there’s Janet Yellen at the head of the US Federal Reserve and Christine Lagarde at the head of the International Monetary Fund. A woman may head up the United Nations for the first time, too, if Christiana Figueres – currently the organisation’s climate chief – or former New Zealand PM Helen Clark, are successful in their respective tilts for the spot.
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* Helen Clark gets round of applause in UN secretary-general candidates’ debate
* Bernie Sanders endorses Hillary Clinton for White House in show of party unity
Of course, as a left-leaning feminist, witnessing the rise of these female politicians is bittersweet; and it can be tempting to dismiss the significance of the occasion as just another win for the establishment.
After all, every one of these female leaders sits somewhere to the right-of-centre; and they don’t necessarily identify as feminist. Theresa May uses the word, but then she’s voted to increase restrictions on abortion access and is threatening to deport established immigrants in the wake of Brexit; as a Tory, she belongs to the party of the privileged. Feminist credentials aren’t exactly strong there.
Clinton’s feminism is a major part of her personal brand, but there are plenty of feminists who feel unsatisfied with her capitalist-friendly brand of feminism; not to mention her unwavering support for questionable military operations including the Iraq war and Israeli occupation.
And although she’s had her moments, Merkel has been mostly reluctant to prioritise women’s rights; but at least she’s honest about her lack of feminist ethos.
“Perhaps [I’m] an interesting case of a woman in power, but no feminist,” she told a panel audience in 2013. “Real feminists would be offended if I described myself as one.”
Suffice it to say, this not what a feminist revolution looks like.
But that doesn’t mean feminists have nothing to celebrate, nor that there can be no good to come from the remarkable situation that we’re likely to find ourselves witnessing in coming months. Even if only in terms of the pure optics of having such a spike in female world leaders: It will be remarkable for a while, but we will adjust to the change. And creating a global environment in which it becomes normal for women to lead can only be a good thing for the feminism long-game.
As impatient as we have the right to be for a feminist revolution, realism dictates an evolutionary process. And evolution is slow, painfully so at times. It makes sense in a feminist evolution that the women who succeed first in infiltrating the halls of patriarchal power are those least likely to shake them. Women who are conservative at heart pose the least threat to the status quo and are most likely, therefore, to gain support. Women who enter politics with strong feminist ideals are likely to find their ethos compromised, or they will not last long.
Julia Gillard’s Prime Ministership in Australia is a case in point. Few could argue that Gillard is not a feminist, or that her political agenda wasn’t deeply informed by feminism and social justice. But despite her admirable efforts on climate change, education and disability reform, Gillard’s record on asylum seekers, single mothers and marriage equality were a huge disappointment to many feminists.
As that country’s first female leader Gillard was subject to ruthless, gendered criticism; and any efforts to draw attention to the sexism she faced were deflected with accusations of “playing the gender card”. She was unmarried, with a hairdresser boyfriend. A childless atheist. A witch and a backstabbing bitch. A redhead. A shame to her father. A frump with a droning, unfeminine voice. A feminist harpy. A cold, robotic and unprincipled politician.
In the immediate wake of her downfall, some commentators suggested her short reign had, if anything, taken Australian feminism one step forward but two steps back; and frightened young women away from politics. But others predicted that history would be kinder to Gillard, and if the sound of teenagers chanting her misogyny speech is anything to go by, they were right.
What’s more, while her time as Prime Minister brought out the misogyny of her critics, she was able to shine a light on it. Our heightened awareness of sexism in politics won’t stop future women running for office, but it does help us better recognise and call out such behaviour when we see it.
In the end, Gillard’s pragmatism was a poisoned chalice – but if she hadn’t been prepared to compromise, she may never had led at all.
This is the conundrum facing feminist leaders, and feminists looking for leaders in 2016. Misogyny means it can be easier for male leaders to take a feminist approach without attracting hate (Hi, Justin Trudeau), while the narrow window of opportunity for women means they have to conform and compromise if they want a role at all. But it follows that the more we get accustomed to being led by women, the less sway misogyny will hold over political discourse and public opinion.
That the women scraping at the glass ceiling end up cutting themselves, getting blood on their hands and showering the women beneath them with shards should not surprise us. And we certainly don’t need to laud every woman who clambers to the top as a feminist hero – especially if she does so on the backs of the disadvantaged and refuses to use her position to help other women and underrepresented groups get a leg up.
But with every woman who makes it, the hole in the ceiling widens a little for others who may not have squeezed through so easily before.
We don’t have to welcome our new female world leaders with feminist fervour. But if and when the western world wakes up to find itself dominated by women, I’ll celebrate the moment for what it is: a solid link in the chain of a feminist evolution.