Britain’s Theresa May recently took office as the first woman prime minister since Margaret Thatcher. This week, Hillary Clinton will become the first American woman to receive the Democratic Party’s nomination for president.
These examples, along with others around the world, seem to indicate that women are making solid progress in global politics. But the most recent United Nations report on global women leaders concluded that much can be improved.
There are currently 16 women who head governments around the world, according to the UN Entity for Gender Equality and the Empowerment of Women (UN Women). While a few have stayed in office for a long time, many others only served a short time.
Julie Ballington is a policy adviser on political participation for UN Women. She says although the number of women in elected positions has doubled over the past 20 years, much more can be done to keep the trend moving. “Overall the message is that progress is being made, but it’s very slow.”
She says cultural and social norms, including gender discrimination, are holding women back from top leadership positions.
“Another major one is the candidate selection process of political parties and the political machinery itself,” Ballington said. “Women typically have less access to resources than men, and they are less connected in the circles where the fundraising takes place, and that certainly has an impact.”
According to the UN Women report, the percentage of women appointed to government cabinets is lower than women elected. The report also noted that more women rise to power in parliamentary systems than in direct presidential elections.
Women as leaders of major world powers
One of the longest serving is German Chancellor Angela Merkel, who was elected in a parliamentary process as the country’s first woman leader in 2005. Merkel grew up in communist East Germany and her political career was launched shortly after the 1989 fall of the Berlin wall.
Merkel has been one of the most influential leaders in Europe over the past decade and was named Time magazine’s 2015 Person of the Year. The magazine praised her leadership on the Greek debt crisis and for her policy to accept tens of thousands of Syrian refugees despite much public opposition.
The world now has two women leading major powers, Merkel and newly elected British Prime Minister Theresa May. It would be three if Hillary Clinton won in November. In addition, six out of the 12 of candidates vying to be the next UN secretary general are women.
“Personally I see this as a turning tide," Ballington said. "If you had the UN, US, UK, and Germany headed by women, it definitely sets a new era we would be heading into in terms of high-level decision making. It’s symbolic. It shows that now women can be considered for the highest leadership position in three of the top five economies in the world.”
Rachel Vogelstein is the Director of the Women and Foreign Policy Program at the Council on Foreign Relations. She said the world will be closely watching the moves of May and Merkel, as both their nations and Europe as a whole, enter crucial times.
“They are both considered to be pragmatic problem solvers and women who kind of put their heads down and get to work. They will have an interesting relationship, particularly given that May will be presiding over Brexit negotiations at the same time that Germany will head into its 2017 election for a new government.”
Merkel called May to congratulate her on becoming prime minister and to wish her success in the new job. A spokesman for Merkel said the two leaders “agreed that cooperation in the spirit of proven friendly relations between both countries should be continued, including in the forthcoming negotiations on Britain's exit from the EU.”
Vogelstein, who also advises the Hillary Clinton campaign, said recent progress in electing women leaders globally is encouraging and does indicate an upward trend.
“But we really do need to see more women at the top to accelerate the pace of change in this area. And I think having a woman at the head of the UN could really send an important signal to that effect.”
One of the candidates for UN secretary general is Helen Clark, who served as prime minster of New Zealand for nine years. She is also the first woman to head the UN Development Program
Vogelstein said no matter which candidate is elected the next UN secretary general, he or she will face major world conflicts, including the global refugee crisis and terrorism. “There is a growing body of evidence that women’s leadership is critical to sustainable conflict resolution. I hope we’ll get a chance to see what a woman at the helm of the UN can do.”
France could also be led by a women if Marine Le Pen, leader of the far-right National Front party, mounts a successful challenge to Francois Hollande in next year’s presidential election.
Of course the rise of women leaders is not new in world history, with many examples to demonstrate this.
Other woman leaders in history
Margaret Thatcher was one of the most influential women leaders in modern times. She was Britain’s first female prime minister, serving from 1979 to 1990. She was also the first woman to lead a major Western democracy.
She was known as the “Iron Lady” for her direct language and tough negotiating skills. She ran for office during political and economic turmoil in Britain. She was elected on a platform of fighting the recession and dealing strictly with labor organizations seen as causing unrest.
Other major political figures were Golda Meir of Israel and India’s Indira Gandhi.
Meir was Israel’s fourth prime minister and the first woman to hold the post. After Israel gained independence in 1948, she was appointed ambassador to Russia and was later elected to parliament.
A major challenge during Meir’s five-year tenure was handling the Arab-Israeli War of 1973, also known as the Yom Kippur War. Syrian and Egyptian forces attacked Israel. Even though Israel quickly won the conflict, Meir’s government was criticized for underestimating the threat and she resigned in 1974.
Indira Gandhi came from a family of politics and became the first prime minister of an independent India. She served three terms from 1966 to 1977 and was elected to a fourth, but was assassinated in 1984.
In the beginning she was popular for policies that helped the poor and transformed the country’s agriculture system. But later she became known for her authoritarian leadership.
Going back to ancient times, Joan of Arc was a French peasant girl who rose to become a martyr, military leader and saint. She believed she was acting under divine authority when at age 17 she led the French army to victory in the Battle of Orléans.
In Vietnam, the Trung Sisters – Trung Trac and Trung Nhi – were major figures in the Vietnamese independence movement. The two women led the first national uprising against forces of China’s Han dynasty. The courage and strong leadership of the sisters have been cited by scholars as evidence of the respect and freedom given women in Vietnam, compared to China and India.
I’m Bryan Lynn.
Bryan Lynn wrote this story for VOA Learning English. Additional information came from the Associated Press and Reuters. Hai Do was the editor.
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Words in This Story
era – n. a period of time associated with a person or event
crucial – adj. extremely important
accelerate – v. to move fast, pick up speed
turmoil – n. a state of confusion or disorder
authoritarian – adj. enforcing strict policies by an authority, especially a government or leader
martyr – n. a person killed because of their religious or other beliefs
oust – v. to remove or cause someone to leave a position of power
autocratic – adj. relating to a ruler who has absolute power