A cursory look around the world today will reveal that there are many examples of female political leaders; however, many of them have also suffered setbacks in their political journeys.
In Europe, Angela Merkel of Germany and Theresa May of the UK are taking the centerstage. The Brexit process will become fodder for a contest between the two politicians. To save the European Union, Merkel has to mete out a harsh punishment to the UK for leaving the EU. Another female leader in Europe is Nicola Sturgeon, First Minister of Scotland, who is pushing for a second referendum for Scotland’s independence.
Asia has its fair share of women in politics too: Park Geun-hye, South Korea’s former president; Aung San Suu Kyi, Myanmar’s State Counsellor (de facto head of government, equivalent to Prime Minister); Tsai Ing-wen, Taiwan’s President; Hung Hsiu-chu, Chairperson of the Kuomintang; and Carrie Lam, Hong Kong’s first female Chief Executive.
Unfortunately, except for a few, most of these female politicians are not faring well in their respective roles. Park Geun-hye is currently being tried for corruption and abuse of power. The government led by Aung San Suu Kyi has just concluded its first year in power, yet it has already openly admitted that the ruling party has failed to live up to the people’s expectations. It even hints at the possibility of stepping down if the people feel that the ruling party is not living up to its promises.
The “ethnic cleansing” of the Rohingya, Myanmar’s minority Muslim community, has seen Aung San Suu Kyi come under an international backlash. Aung, once hailed by the Western media as a beacon of hope and democracy, is now walking on a tightrope. Taiwan’s Tsai Ing-wen has also hit numerous roadblocks since sweeping to power and she is barely able to keep her head above the water.
Why do female political leaders nearly always face endings that are poles apart from their elections, during which high hopes and fervent enthusiasm greeted the start of their political journeys? The most important, yet the simplest, answer is that the world of politics is still a man’s world.
Since the birth of modern politics, men have always dominated the political world, such that it has been ingrained in them. While women have the so-called “political genes” as well, they are adept in playing politics behind the scenes, in courts and palaces. There are only a rarefied few who have stepped into the limelight.
Empress Wu Zetian of the Tang Dynasty in China is a good example. Being a politician is already a tough job, and it is even more difficult for a female leader. Her success lies in employing extraordinary means — killing people using brutal and violent methods. Empress Dowager Cixi of the Qing Dynasty, while powerful in her own right, only managed to interfere with state affairs from behind the screen.
In the West, a number of factors, including a proliferation of thoughts and ideas, rising political consciousness in women, a greater acceptance of them participating in politics, and growing feminist notions, have supported the rise of female politicians in modern times. Ironically, while feminism in the West is riding at an all-time high, the wages of women are facing a downward trend.
In Asia and particularly in China, there was a policy that advocated “women holding up half the sky” during the Mao Zedong era. While it liberated women, it also brought about negative impacts on them as it ignored the difference between the two sexes. After China embarked on reforms and opening up in the 1970s, the status of women went downhill. There is very little female participation in China’s political arena today.
Under what circumstances will men give up the political space to women?
Firstly, when men could not decide who amongst them should become a leader, this leaves a gap for a female leader to emerge. In the fierce struggle for supremacy where there is no clear winner, men may try to save their own skin by giving up the prize to a woman. Sometimes, a female leader may be “fooled” by this pretense and think that she has achieved equality of the sexes. Hillary Clinton was surrounded by so many male politicians who cooed over and supported her that she became immune to her own failings. In the end, she lost the race to Donald Trump.
As in many other realms of life, women in politics tend to appeal to emotions more than men. It turns out that this could be a double-edged sword.
Secondly, when a female political leader does not pose a threat to the authority of men. In such situations, the female leader may be manipulated and lack autonomy. In contrast, Margaret Thatcher, former Prime Minister of the UK and Angela Merkel, Germany’s Chancellor, are two shining examples of female leaders who are in control of the bureaucracy and the country, winning the respect of male politicians and citizens alike.
Thirdly, when men do not want to change the status quo. When men find it a chore to defend their vested interests, they need women to help change their political image. This is the reason why there is an increasing number of female politicians (especially ministers) in the EU countries. However, with the bigger presence of women in the cabinets, these countries do not seem to achieve any real change. The vested interests are still intact, but the countries are mired in ever deeper crisis.
Fourthly, when women are needed to win votes. In this case, female politicians have become a “tool” for men to win elections. In Japan, good-looking women are known to be pushed onto the election stage in a bid to win over men’s votes. As for female voters, they are “duped” into thinking that the female candidates are their symbol of hope.
The factors that underpinned the rise of female political leaders could also explain why they have so far only achieved moderate, even abysmal results.
Firstly, in today’s complex world where there is a multitude of voices and opinions, politicians, no matter male or female, will find it tricky to achieve good results. In other words, whoever is in power will see his or her fair share of problems and obstacles. This is the reason why men are willing to temporarily give up the political space to women.
Secondly, the real power remains in the hands of men, as seen in Myanmar and South Korea. Korean women are known to have a very low status in society. Although the people elected Park Geun-hye as president, the establishment with its system of vested interests remained. When Park tried to meddle with the system, it’s when her downfall began.
In Myanmar, it is the military that is running the show. Although the junta lost the legitimacy to govern after Myanmar’s democratization, it did not bow out of the political stage. A female political leader in this situation may not have the ability to keep the establishment and the bureaucracy in check. They may not heed her words and will continue to dance to their own tunes.
Thirdly, the difference between reason and emotion. As in many other realms of life, women in politics tend to appeal to emotions more than men. It turns out that this could be a double-edged sword, as emotions could sway an election yet what is needed to solve practical problems are reasons. While emotions could be put to good use on the masses, calculation and manipulation are what’s needed to survive in the political inner circle.
What then lies ahead for female political leaders?
Firstly, they will continue to become political leaders around the world. Secondly, they will need to spend more energy to succeed in a political world that is built mostly for men. They will need to “reform” the existing structure and make it more “feminine.” Thirdly, they need to delve deeper, not just about their own political instinct, and also about men and their political nature. It’s still a long way ahead for female political leaders.
(Translated by Chean Chian Cheong)