Are women political leaders finally coming into their own? Are they not only winning more elections, but also finally able to campaign and govern with no more – or less – scrutiny, scandal, and mockery than their males peers?
Superficially, it may seem as if we have reached that breakthrough moment at which gender is no longer the most important issue. In the United States, Hillary Clinton is preparing for her second run for the presidency, and Janet Yellen is the first woman Chair of the US Federal Reserve Board – widely regarded as one of the world’s most powerful offices.
Moreover, TV shows that feature women portraying top political leaders are filling America’s airwaves, including “Madame Secretary,” starring the improbably comely Téa Leoni as US Secretary of State, and “Veep,” with Julia Louis-Dreyfus as a charming, comical vice president. The central issue in these television programs is not that the main roles are played by women. Character, not gender, drives the narrative.
Outside of the United States, women have already reached the highest level of power. In Germany, Chancellor Angela Merkel, having won three general elections, is respected or resented for her austerity policies, not for her gender. Argentina’s President Cristina Fernández de Kirchner is attacked for mismanaging the economy, and by US banking interests for forcing debt restructuring on her country’s creditors, not because she is a woman. In Israel, hawks attack Justice Minister Tzipi Livni for leaning slightly to the left on Palestinian statehood – just as they would attack a man in her position. And women have achieved the premiership in all Scandinavian countries except Sweden.
Most intriguingly of all, Brazil’s first female president, Dilma Rousseff, is now in a neck-and-neck race with another woman, Marina Silva. Rousseff’s popularity has plummeted in the wake of public protests over spending on the World Cup, together with a sharp economic slowdown. Now Silva is drawing broad support, including from evangelical Christians – a bloc not known for backing women leadership contenders anywhere.
So has democratic politics around the world reached the point where voters judge politicians, male or female, strictly on their merits? Certainly, many of the women now in power, or running for office, are doing so on the basis of their track records. The last three decades have yielded a cadre of women leaders even where women otherwise lag far behind in terms of opportunity – for example, South Korean President Park Geun-hye, Ukraine’s two-time former prime minister, Yuliya Tymoshenko, and Presidents Ellen Johnson Sirleaf of Liberia and Joyce Banda of Malawi.
But the sad irony is that women are finally finding their moment in the political sun at a time when the nation-states they are leading are finding their ability to forge national solutions to their problems extremely limited. With increasing frequency – as, for example, with international trade treaties, such as the Trans-Pacific Partnership – private actors are taking the place of governments, legislatures, and heads of state in setting policy.
Some even suggest that women are emerging at the top because men do not want to take the blame for impending failure. Senior executives – those who are drawn to the arguments presented in such groundbreaking analyses of the workplace as Sheryl Sandberg’s Lean In – know that corporate realpolitik can include calling in a woman when the ship is sinking. This reflex might explain the presence of a woman at the helm of GM during its current damaging recall of defective cars, for example.
Similarly, African-American leaders sometimes joke wryly about gaining the reins of municipal power just when a city is about to go bankrupt. Powerful white men, it is suggested, do not like to sign their names to projects or enterprises in trouble, and they are often happy to have the cosmetic benefit of a female – or nonwhite – face at the helm, when the real power may be draining away behind the scenes, or moving on elsewhere.
But, though nation-states and their politicians are more constrained than ever before, the records of women like Merkel and Rousseff suggest that individual leaders remain a potent force, for better or worse. Most international business leaders bitterly oppose the austerity program that Merkel has imposed on the European Union. And Rousseff’s use of revenues from the Brazilian energy giant Petrobras to fund domestic social programs has caused the firm’s share price to halve – alienating oil investors.
So are today’s women leaders the real deal or just figureheads? The answer is likely to be the same for men and women. Leaders either lead, or they don’t.
Naomi Wolf played a leading role in so-called “third-wave” feminism and as an advocate of “power feminism,” which holds that women must assert themselves politically in order to achieve their goals. She advised the presidential campaigns of Bill Clinton and Al Gore. Her books include The Beauty Myth, The End of America and, most recently, Vagina: A Biography.