lip top 10: female political powerhouses
1. Margaret Thatcher – UK
She wasn’t nicknamed the ‘Iron Lady’ for no reason. As the first (and to date, only) female Prime Minister of the United Kingdom (1979 – 1990) she built a legacy around her conservative politics, to be later known as Thatcherism. Despite her popularity stooping lower than somebody that Gotye used to know only a year into office, she hung in there and lowered some taxes, reduced inflation, privatised industry and sold council houses to their inhabitants. That doesn’t really sound like the work of an ‘Iron Lady’, does it?
She also reduced the number of Asian immigrants allowed in so Caucasians remained the majority, cut funds for higher education, reduced the power of trade unions, cut 20,000 jobs from the mining industry and refused a bid from Northern Ireland political prisoners to win concessions over their conditions, resulting in the deaths of ten inmates from a hunger strike.
But how did she first earn that nickname? In 1976 she called the Russians bastards. Okay, I’m paraphrasing; she said it much more eloquently than that. But if you’re still not convinced of her ruthlessness take this: major rioting in England in 1981 due to both racial tension and discontent in the British working class had the media suggesting that Thatcher needed to do a u-turn on some her policies. Her response? ‘You turn if you want to. The lady’s not for turning!’ I’m still not sure how she managed to hold office for nine more years.
2. Aung San Su Kyi – Burma/Myanmar
On 1 April 2012, Aung San Su Kyi was elected to Burma’s lower house of parliament, 24 years after her campaigning for a democratic government and the human rights of Burmese citizens began.
Roadblocks that would have deterred someone less strong-willed: spending a total of 15 years between 1989 and 2010 under house arrest, seeing your husband 5 times between 1989 and 1995, not being able to be with your terminally ill husband when he died in 1999, being arrested for wanting to hold political meetings, having 70 of your supporters killed when your vehicle convoy was attacked in an attempt to assassinate you, having your phone line and postal service cut, and having to wait almost 18 months for repairs after losing the roof of your house and electricity in a cyclone.
Now that is tenacity.
3. Kah Walla – Cameroon
In 2011 Kah Walla was a presidential candidate in Cameroon, standing against the regime of Paul Biya, who had ruled for 25 years. Walla stood on the conviction that Cameroonians were ready for a change, using her experiences in grassroots activism and business as a pedestal that would revolutionise the way the country was run, thus ending Biya’s dictatorship and the increasing violence that surfaced as a result of the regime.
On the way she faced beatings from thugs, beatings from Biya’s soldiers and was doused in a mix of water and chemicals, sprayed from high pressure hoses.
She lost, but plans to do it all over again.
4. Frances Perkins – US
Frances Perkins was the first woman appointed to the US Cabinet, in 1933, and remained there until 1945, also making her the first woman to enter the presidential line of succession. She had a hand in bringing many Acts to fruition, establishing laws and benefits that many now take for granted, such as welfare for the poor, unemployed and elderly. She also contributed to laws against child labour, establishing a minimum wage and overtime, and tried to reduce workplace accidents.
While that’s all pretty cool, remember that she was doing it as the US was coming out of the Great Depression and right through World War II, which means she started doing this when spare change was harder to find than Craig Thomson’s credibility*, and kept doing while most resources and labour were going into the war effort.
5. Shirley Chisholm – US
You’re a black woman in the ’70s, born to immigrant parents. Do you think you’re going to get far in the white male political environment? Probably not. Unless you’re Shirley Chisholm. She was the first African American woman elected to Congress, in 1969. Pretty sweet. She stayed there until 1983. Even sweeter.
While in Congress she supported the improvement of opportunities for inner-city residents, spending increases in education, health care and social services, the reduction of military spending, and she vehemently opposed the draft.
She even made a bid in 1972 to be the Democratic Party’s presidential nomination, being the first woman to do so. She won three states, but lost the overall bid. Oh yeah, and during the campaign she survived THREE FREAKING ASSASSINATION ATTEMPTS! Sweetest.
6. Barbara Castle – UK
On a list of Thatcher’s, Aung San Suu Kyi’s and Bhutto’s, Barbara Castle doesn’t really stand in the same league, but I’ve included her here for three decisions she made as Britain’s Minister for Transport from 1965 to 1968.
- She introduced the breathalyser as a response to the then crisis of drink driving.
- She made the 70mph speed limit permanent (that’s approximately 110 km/h).
- She passed legislation that meant all new cars had to be fitted with seat belts.
I can’t even begin to speculate as to how many lives she may have saved.
7. Benazir Bhutto – Pakistan
Benazir Bhutto was the first woman elected to lead a Muslim state, serving twice as Prime Minister from 1988-1990, and 1993-1996. Her father also served as Prime Minister, but was removed from office following a military coup, led by the Chief of Army, General Zia. Zia then had him charged with conspiracy to commit murder. He was hanged in 1979, and Benazir and her family were held in a police camp for a month.
As a result of her efforts to force the government to drop the murder charges against her father, Bhutto and her family endured both house arrest and time spent in prison. This is how she described her time in solitary confinement in a desert prison, as written in her biography, Daughter of Destiny:
The summer heat turned my cell into an oven. My skin split and peeled, coming off my hands in sheets. Boils erupted on my face. My hair, which had always been thick, began to come out by the handful. Insects crept into the cell like invading armies. Grasshoppers, mosquitoes, stinging flies, bees and bugs came up through the cracks in the floor and through the open bars from the courtyard. Big black ants, cockroaches, seething clumps of little red ants and spiders. I tried pulling the sheet over my head at night to hide from their bites, pushing it back when it got too hot to breathe.
After her release she lived in exile, but the death of General Zia in 1988 opened up her political opportunities. However, in 1996 she was charged with corruption and lived in self-exile until October 2007, when she returned to Pakistan with all charges being dropped, only to be assassinated two months later.
8. Joyce Banda – Malawi
As the vice-president of Malawi, Joyce Banda’s ascendency to President after the death of then-President Mutharika should have been easy.
She started her career as Minister for Gender and Community Services in 1999 and pushed for a Domestic Violence Bill, as well as designing the National Platform for Action on Orphans and Vulnerable Children and the Zero Tolerance Campaign Against Child Abuse. In 2006 she took the position of Foreign Minister under President Mutharika, even though she was not part of his political party. In 2009 she ran alongside Mutharika in his presidential campaign. His win made Banda Malawi’s first female vice-president, however, at the end of 2010 she was fired from vice-president from her political party for ‘anti-party’ activities. Despite attempts by Mutharika to also fire her as Malawi’s vice-president, as well as take her government and block her from registering a new political party, the court blocked Mutharika on constitutional grounds.
When Mutharika died on April 5 this year, the Malawian cabinet tried to attain a court order to stop Banda from becoming president because she had formed her own opposition party. However the constitution dictates that the vice-president will ascend to president and Banda was sworn in on April 7.
In comparison to others on this list, Banda hasn’t faced great political hardship, but she hung in there when so many tried to push her out, and I am all for that.
9. Dilma Rousseff – Brazil
Dilma Rousseff is the current and first female President of Brazil, but you know what’s cool about her? Her political efforts started as part of a guerrilla group, fighting against the military dictatorship. Of course, being a part of a guerrilla organisation isn’t all roses. There’s the constant hiding, and once found, the arrest, torture and imprisonment.
This all ended in 1972, and Rousseff still fought the government, legally this time. She rose through the ranks of local government, becoming the State Secretary of Energy in 1990. From there it was to the Minister of Energy, to Chief of Staff in 2005, finally running for, and being elected, President in 2011. Not a bad turn around.
Let me pose a question: Do you think someone with the kind of criminal past Rousseff has could be elected Prime Minister of Australia?
10. Ellen Johnson Sirleaf – Liberia
Oh man, this lady makes me want to move to Liberia. As the President of Liberia, here are some of the things she has done: made education for all elementary aged children compulsory and free; signed into law a Freedom of Information bill; virtually got Liberia’s US$4.9 billion of debt written off within four years; and refused to sign into law two bills that would make homosexuality punishable by ten years in prison.
She is currently serving her second consecutive term as President, and was the first woman in Africa elected to be head of state in 2006.
I think she goes alright.
*If you’re reading this in 20 years time, look him up. It’s a saga, but I reckon it’s worth the joke.
(Image credit: 1)