Is there a common theme among the strongest female leaders of world history?
May 3, 2008
Hatshepsut was the only woman to rule as a female pharaoh of Egypt for 20 years, 3,480 years ago. Her mummy was identified on July 6, 2007, by a tooth and verified by DNA tests.
She had disappeared for almost 3,000 years because of the vengeance of her nephew/stepson, Thutmose III, who ordered her images destroyed.
Today Hathshepsut is regarded as an extraordinary ruler who enabled Egypt to become a world power (she may have led a military campaign herself) and is extolled for ruling over a period of great artistic creativity and innovation during long peaceful periods. There is androgyny in the statues and carvings that depict her, with some female and male symbols, including a false beard — the symbol of royalty.
It was sometimes necessary and often life threatening for women leaders to wear male attire. Joan of Arc, who saved France from the English during the Hundred Years’ War and was burned at the stake in 1431, was accused of heresy and witchcraft by both the church and the state.
She was nineteen. Among her crimes was wearing a suit of armor, like a man. In 1920, the Catholic Church restored Joan of Arc’s reputation, as well as its own, by declaring her a saint.
Five English queens have held the throne and wielded power equal to that of any king, until the throne lost its glitter in the 20th century. Today, Queen Elizabeth II, who was crowned in 1952, serves in a ceremonial role, largely supported by British sentiment for the “royals.” Her predecessors were powerful: Queen Victoria ruled for 64 years (1837-1901).
Many believe that Margaret Thatcher was elected prime minister in 1979 without much fuss over her gender because the English had long ago become accustomed to female rulers. For two decades, Thatcher was the only woman to lead a major Western democracy.
She was no feminist. “I owe nothing to Women’s Lib,” she said. And yet she once declared, “In politics if you want anything said, ask a man. If you want anything done, ask a woman,” and added, “Any woman who understands the problems of running a home will be nearer to understanding the problems of running a country.”
The distinction of becoming the world’s first female prime minister belongs to Sirimavo Bandaranaike of Sri Lanka, who was elected in 1960.
Forty-four women have been elected leaders of their countries since then, ranging from virtual unknowns such as Jennifer Smith (premier of Bermuda, 1998-), to world leaders such as Indira Gandhi (prime minister of India, 1966-1977, 1980-1984), and Golda Meir (prime minister of Israel, 1969-1974).
Gandhi’s ascent to power was made possible by her father — she was the daughter of Jawaharlal Nehru, who was India’s first prime minister for 17 years after independence from Britain. She had to “show one is not merely a daughter but also a person in her own right.”
“Of course, being a woman you have to work twice as hard as a man,” she said. When she first became prime minister in 1966, politicians called her a “dumb doll,” who they thought would be easy to manipulate. They soon found out how wrong they were when she went to war with Pakistan.
After her assassination in 1984, her reputation in India remains mixed — she is both revered for having forged India into a democracy and reviled for having threatened that same democracy during a period of emergency rule. Today many Indians look upon her as an incarnation of Shakti, the Hindu goddess of power.
Golda Meir became prime minister of Israel at the age of 70. When David Ben-Gurion described her as “the only man” in his cabinet, she was amused that he thought this was the greatest compliment he could pay to a woman.
“I very much doubt,” she said, “that any man would have been flattered if it had been said about him that he was the only woman in government.”
Not exactly a feminist, she nevertheless observed, “There is a type of woman who does not let her husband narrow her horizons.” She was often torn about her conflicting responsibilities.
“At work, you think of the children you’ve left at home. At home, you think of the work you’ve left unfinished. Such a struggle is unleashed within yourself, your heart is rent.”
A name of a new future female prime minister has emerged in Israel: Tzipi Livni. A New York Times Magazine cover story, entitled “Her Jewish State,” described Livni — now the foreign minister — as a daughter of Zionist militants, an ex-spy “and a rising political star.”
It is hard to tease out generalizations about these women, except to note that many of them have been called too tough or too soft and easily manipulated by the men around them — a double bind.
Some 13 female heads of state have been called “Iron Ladies” or similar nicknames (Asian women are “Dragon Ladies”). Most famously, Thatcher was given the title by the Russians because of her staunch opposition to communism.
Corazon Aquino, known affectionately as “Cory,” had a softer image. She came to power as the first woman president of the Philippines (the first Asian president) after the assassination of her husband. She is remembered for bringing democracy to her country following the dictatorial rule of Ferdinand Marcos.
She said, “It has often been said that Marcos was the first male chauvinist to underestimate me.” Struggling against violence throughout her term, she vowed, “As I came to power peacefully, so shall I keep it.” Today, a second woman is president of the Philippines, Gloria Macapagal-Arroyo.
Editor’s Note: This is an excerpt from Madeleine M. Kunin’s “Pearls, Politics & Power”. Published by Chelsea Green publishers and reprinted with the permission of the publisher.
It is hard to tease out generalizations about women leaders, except that many of them have been called too tough or too soft and easily manipulated by the men around them — a double bind.
When David Ben-Gurion described Golda Meir as "the only man" in his cabinet, she was amused that he thought this was the greatest compliment he could pay to a woman.
Indira Gandhi had to "show one is not merely a daughter but also a person in her own right." "Of course, being a woman you have to work twice as hard as a man," she said.
Margaret Thatcher said, "Any woman who understands the problems of running a home will be nearer to understanding the problems of running a country."
Madeleine M. Kunin
Former Governor of Vermont Madeleine M. Kunin is currently a Marsh Scholar Professor-at-Large at the University of Vermont. From 1985 to 1991, she served as the first woman governor of Vermont. Ms. Kunin also served as the Deputy Secretary of Education and Ambassador to Switzerland under President Bill Clinton. In addition, she is the author […]