Who will exploit the cracks in the glass ceiling?

Who will exploit the cracks in the glass ceiling?


    Has Hillary’s loss helped future female Presidential hopefuls?

I’ll start with a controversial premise: Hillary Clinton failing to win the Democratic nomination might well have been the best thing that could have happened, from the perspective of those who like the idea of living under a female President of the United States.

I have little doubt that Hillary Clinton would have beaten John McCain – largely because she was better equipped to secure Ohio, Pennsylvania, Michigan and Florida than Obama, and because I don’t think she would have ever signed up to Howard Dean’s “50-state strategy”. I suspect Senator Clinton would have aimed for “Gore/Kerry plus one state”, and was in that sense the safer choice than that which was made by the Democratic Party.

But therein lies the danger for all those who were anxious to see a woman in the Oval Office. ‘Great’ Women World Leaders have rarely managed to see other women follow in their footsteps – the examples that most readily come to mind being Margaret Thatcher, Golda Meir, Indira Gandhi, Soong Ching-ling, or Benazir Bhutto. None of them have (to date) been emulated by another female politician, and the pattern exists beyond just the major democracies.

Excluding ‘Acting’ Heads of Government or State and hereditory monarchs, of the thirty or so countries that have elected or appointed a woman as President or Prime Minister, only five (by my count) have since elected or appointed a second woman to that same position.

Cristina Fernandez de Kirchner has recently emulated Isobel Martinez de Peron as President of Argentina, though the latter was never elected, and Jenny Shipley handed over the role of Prime Minister of New Zealand to the incumbant Helen Clark. Mary McAleese directly suceeded Mary Robinson as President of the Irish Republic, Corazon Aquino has recently seen Gloria Macapagal-Arroyo follow in her footsteps as President of the Philippines, and Sheikh Hasina and Khaleda Zia have both been Prime Minister of Bangladesh. Only San Marino and Switzerland could claim to join this group, though their constitutional structures would stretch the comparison, given the absence of single executive leadership roles.

I would hypothesise that this says much about the powerful zeitgeist that appears to epitomise political trailblazers. Great Women World Leaders, whilst often despised by some in their own countries, also attract huge devotion from their followers. It stands to reason that by virtue of being the first woman to accede to the leadership of a country, that women like Indira Gandhi and Margaret Thatcher were in some way extraordinary. Consequently, any women seeking to follow in their footsteps lives with the burden of comparison to a leader who achieved greatness.

A friend once pointed out that any young black golfer would inevitably be labelled ‘the next Tiger Woods’, thus setting a completely unrealistic expectation from the very outset. He believed that such a label would crush an emerging talent, even if the subject had the capability to be a world champion – they would be undone by their inability to be undeniably ‘great’. This, of course, could well be true beyond gender in the political arena. If the Harriet Harmans and Tzipi Livnis of this world struggle under the weight of the comparisons with the great women who have held office before them, might an Obama Presidency make it less likely that an African-American President would become the norm over the next twenty years?

What Hillary Clinton, and equally Segolene Royal, have done in the US and France respectively over the last 18 months, has been to normalise the idea of a female Head of State in two nations where such a phenomenon has never occurred. Strangely for two mature democracies, neither country has ever come close to giving the highest office to a woman. Whilst some point to the concentrated power of the executive and Commander-in-Chief aspects of both roles as a reason voters may have been reluctant to elect a woman, it would be fair to say that neither country has distinguished itself in the representation of women in the national legislature either, at least until Nancy Pelosi’s election to Speaker of the House of Representatives in 2006.

I believe that the ultimately unsuccessful campaigns of Clinton and Royal may have done more good for the prospects of female Presidential candidates in those countries than their victories ever would have done. Many of the Great Women World Leaders were anomalous in rising to power when few other women were even being considered for moderately senior office, a feature which I suspect has led them to being accepted as exceptional (either magnificent or terrible), rather than ever forcing their electorates to come to terms with the notion of the gender of the holder of the highest office. As a result of long, high-visibility campaigns, attracting millions of voters, I believe Royal and Clinton have laid the path for other women to complete their journey, and to complete it as a matter of course.

A wealth of female political talent in the US and France, that might not previously have believed that they were able to rise to the very top, will take heart from the fact that Royal and Clinton acquitted themselves admirably, and that (in my opinion) neither lost because of their gender. Indeed, I believe that being women was an integral part of the way in which both women ran their campaigns, and that the electorates responded favourably to this in both cases.

Should Christine Lagarde, Michelle Alliot-Marie, Rachida Dati, Elisabeth Guigou, Martine Aubry or Rama Yade decide to follow M. Sarkozy in a decade or so, they will no doubt have Segolene Royal to thank in part. The same thanks will be owed to Hillary Clinton, should Condoleezza Rice, Congresswoman Stephanie Herseth Sandlin (SD-AL), Shirley Franklin (Mayor of Atlanta, GA), or Carly Fiorina (Chair & CEO of Hewlitt Packard) ever manage to secure their party’s nomination.

Why does this matter? Because it is so rarely talked about in these terms. A thousand stories a week will mention that Barack Obama might become the first African-American President, but few journalists ask who the second will be, and how Obama’s career (successes and failures) will impact upon that candidate. If Obama loses, or if he wins and disappoints, how will that affect the chances of Harold Ford Jr? What impact might President Hillary Clinton have had on the chances of a second female POTUS in the our lifetimes? And in case the betting implications aren’t clear, how might the legacy of Margaret Thatcher haunt the Prime Ministerial ambitions of Harriet Harman or Justine Greening?

Candidates are always assessed on their individual strengths and weaknesses, but I think it would be foolish to assess the chances of a female or ethnic-minority candidate in any country, without at least considering that nation’s abiding impressions of previous female and ethnic-minority candidates. One thing at least seems clear – an exceptional First does not imply that the Second and Third will necessarily have an easier time emulating that breakthrough achievement.


Wikipedia has a list of elected or appointed female Heads of State here, and female Heads of Government here.

The Forbes’ list of the world’s 100 most powerful women can be found here.

The White House Project’s “8 in ’08” press release [tipping potential female Presidents for this election, compiled in 2006] can be found here

Comments are closed.