Monday, November 5, 2007

Women At The Helm

One year before what could be what may be the most important election in American history, the people of the United States of America are faced with the real possibility their next leader, and the next leader of the world's only superpower, may very well be a woman.

A woman in charge is not necessarily a new concept to our nation; 20 States have elected women governors, including large states like Texas and New Jersey. Numerous large American cities such as Chicago, Houston, San Francisco, Washington D.C., Dallas, Kansas City and Atlanta have all elected women mayors. Women have been at the helm of powerful companies, including Hewlett Packard and Kraft Foods, but a woman at the head of everything, sitting in the Oval Office with the title "Commander-in-Chief?" The closest Americans ever got to having a woman in the White House was in 1984, when New York Congresswoman Geraldine Ferraro was chosen as the running mate of Former Vice President Walter Mondale, the Mondale/Ferraro ticket was soundly defeated that year by Ronald Reagan, carrying only the state of Minnesota. In 2000, former Secretary of Labor and current North Carolina Senator Elizabeth Dole made a short-lived run for the GOP Presidential nomination, but dropped out even before the primaries. It wasn't until 2007, when Nancy Pelosi became Speaker of the House of Representatives, that a woman became head of a branch of the federal government.

A recent poll shows a decent majority of Americans say the United States is ready for a woman president, but when you really dig into the psyche of Americans, you may very well find strong doubts that a woman can follow in the footsteps of the forty-three men who came before her. Is it the right time? Will our enemies take her seriously? Can she be strong and decisive? Perhaps it's our relatively short male-dominated political history that makes us reprehensible, but around the world, women have long proven to be strong and highly effective leaders, and like some of their male counterparts, others have proven to be complete flops.

Before the 20th Century, women in leadership roles were nearly nonexistent. That is, unless, they got their positions through their fathers, grandfathers, uncles or husbands, in the monarchies that dominated the world. In the first century, the Iceni tribe in Britain was ruled by a queen, Boudica. The tall redheaded British woman led the Iceni into battle against the advancing Imperial Roman armies, the most powerful in the world. Although the Iceni and Boudica were defeated and the Romans conquered the island of Britain, her courage and leadership forced Emperor Nero to consider withdrawing troops from Britain for a time. Boudica wasn't the only redhead British woman to show bravery in combat; a millennium and a half later, Queen Elizabeth I faced one of the greatest threats Britain had ever seen; an impending invasion by the navy and army of Spain, then the most powerful in the world. Before the underdog British set off to fight the Spanish, Elizabeth rallied her troops, telling them
"I know I have the body of a weak and feeble woman, but I have the heart and stomach of a king"
Russia's Catherine the Great, who ruled as Empress in the late 18th Century, is widely seen as one of the most powerful of all Russian rulers. Under Catherine's reign, Russia's status as a world power was cemented on the world stage. Catherine expanded her empire to include the Crimea, most of Ukraine and Lithuania, including the annexation of the Black Sea port of Odessa, which proved important for the Russians through the next century.

Even in monarchies, however, male dominance ruled. The kingdoms of Europe did everything in their power to prevent women from taking the throne, leaving daughters and nieces on the bottom of the list, behind any man left in the family. Famous female monarchs, like Queen Elizabeth I, Christina of Sweden, Anne of Great Britain, Maria Theresa of Austria, and Queen Victoria all got their thrones because no men were left in line. Still, monarchies like Spain and Japan prefer males over females, even if male heirs rank behind females in birth order.
Democratically elected women have shown leadership even in a time of military conflict. The Premierships of Margaret Thatcher in Britain and Golda Meir in Israel had mixed results domestically, but both led their countries into battles at a time when patriotism was at record lows. Thatcher's swift defeat of Argentina in the Falklands and Meir's leadership during Operation Wrath of God after the slaughter of Israeli citizens at the 1972 Olympics inspired faith and good feelings among their people. Eugenia Charles of Dominica, the first woman leader of a country in the Western Hemisphere, played a major role in the successful US-led Operation Urgent Fury against Grenada's communist-supporting military regime in 1983.

Women leaders also played major roles in countries that transitioned from dictatorships to free societies; Corazon Aquino of The Philippines, Violeta Chamorro of Nicaragua and Liberia's Ellen Johnson-Sirleaf all led their countries out of oppressive regimes and into free democracies. Benazir Bhutto of Pakistan took power in 1988 and became the first woman to lead a Muslim country, bringing democracy to Pakistan for a period of time. Burma's Aung San Suu Kyi was elected to bring her country out of a military dictatorship nearly two decades ago, but has yet to take power and is still seen as the legitimate leader of her country, despite her imprisonment by the Burmese military junta.

Currently, women govern Germany, Chile, The Philippines, Finland, New Zealand, and Ireland, with the latter two having elected two women back to back. Chancellor Angela Merkel of Germany has instituted economic reforms which have been fairly popular and successful. Irish President Mary McAleese, a native of British controlled Northern Ireland, has shown great success is building bridges between long-warring Catholics and Protestants. Finnish President Tarja Halonen has enjoyed high approval ratings throughout her term. Recently retired President Vaira Vīķe-Freiberga of Latvia was credited with moving her country out of their long history as a Russian protectorate and closer to the rest of Europe. Under her leadership, Latvia became a member of the European Union. Former President Chandrika Kumaratunga of Sri Lanka was fairly successful in keeping her country together, despite strong separatist movements from Tamil Tigers in the north of the country. The four largest Islamic countries, Indonesia, Pakistan, Bangladesh and Turkey, have all seen female leaders with varying successes. Recently, Argentina elected their first female president, the outgoing first lady Cristina Fernandez de Kirchner.

Like male leaders, some female leaders have had their criticisms and perceived failures. Canada's Kim Campbell became Prime Minister in 1993, but her perceived pessimism over the future of the Canadian economy caused her government to lose elections after just five months in power. Pakistan's Bhutto saw her government falls twice due to allegations of corruption that eventually forced her to leave Pakistan and live in exile elsewhere. Panama's Mireya Moscoso saw her approval ratings plummet before she left office in 2004 due to corruption charges. Megawati Sukarnoputri of Indonesia lost her 2004 reelection campaign because she failed to provide relief to her country's high unemployment and poverty problems. Indira Gandhi of India, who served as Prime Minister for all but three years between 1968 and 1984 held enormous power during her term, but her government was taken down in 1977 after a state of emergency was declared due to civilian upheaval that broke out when she refused to step down because of election fraud charges. In 1984, Gandhi lost her life to Sikh assassins after she ordered a military operation against Sikh militants in the sacred Sikh city of Amritsar, Punjab. Even Margaret Thatcher, whom is widely seen as a standard example of modern female leaders, saw herself fall from power due to failures and criticisms over some of her policies. Thatcher's position on European integration and high interest rates caused much division among her party and led to her ousting as Prime Minister in 1990.

Despite the prominence of women leaders in the last century, the United States is far from being the only western nation to never see a woman leader. Japan, France, Italy, Spain, Australia, and Russia have all never seen a democratically elected female at the helm. France had a chance at electing a woman last year, Socialist Segolene Royale, but she was narrowly defeated by Nicholas Sarkozy.

Hillary Rodham Clinton doesn't only hold a lead in the race for her party's nomination; recent polls show her four to six points ahead of her closest Republican rival. Although in politics, a year is a long time and a lot could happen, the junior Senator from New York looks to be the odds on favorite to succeed George W. Bush as leader of the free world. Before she can win the right to take the helm fourteen months from now, Hillary Rodham Clinton can learn a few lessons from the successes and failures from the women around the world wh came before her.

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