by L. Parkour
Australia long ago had its landmark first female Prime Minister, marked as it was by media commentary more concerned about her haircut, marital status and clothing choices than her policies, but still, we got there. A cause for celebration, considering that other Western nations are yet to elect a woman to the role and that many other countries around the world are still run by oppressive male dictators. But what can we learn from the political systems of those countries who have a woman in the top job? When we survey countries such as Britain and Germany, we are shown the attributes demanded of a female leader by the populace, and when we consider the current United States presidential campaign, it is evident that women are judged according to a completely different set of standards to those of potential male leaders.
Putting aside the debate that will ensue if I broach natural differences between men and women, the reality is that the general public assumes that differences exist and are biological, not social. Are the natural qualities attributed to women (nurturing, empathetic, compassionate) essentially at odds with the role of Prime Minister or President, and is this the reason we are so reluctant to elect them? Is this at the heart of why we make women work a hundred times harder to prove themselves worthy of the role? Is this why women who are seen as atypical of their gender are more likely to get the role? The irony is though, that once they are in the role, they face unending criticism as to why they do not conform to the behaviours and values expected of women.
Britain’s political history, with its ‘iron lady’, Margaret Thatcher, is a prime example of women who are anomalies; they have a steely determination, do not succumb to those sensitivities or hysterias that most women do and value rational, rather than emotional, decision making processes. Of course, once she was sworn in, the remarks about her being a cold-hearted bitch rolled in. Her lack of emotionality, admired in men for the rational approach it gives them to complex issues, was used against her, with those who opposed her stringent economic policies accusing her of being heartless and not considering the families of unemployed workers. The media also, predictably, relished the breakdown of her personal relationships, because, in a marriage, it is always the wife’s role to ‘fix’ things and her husband could not handle the power shift. She constantly apologised for the strain her job and her struggle to prove herself in the face of unequal expectations had placed on her marriage. Margaret Thatcher’s legacy to women is this message: female leaders are set up to fail.
Of course, the more modern Britain has done something similar to the political parties of Thatcher’s era. Brexit signaled a tumultuous time for England, littered with issues surrounding the economy, social policy and international obligations, which they were accused of breaching. After a considerable time in office spent destroying the country, politicians have now decided it is time to put another woman, Theresa May, in charge. This can be seen in one of two ways, both equally insulting. It could be the equivalent of giving a child licence to paint on a wall which has been identified as having a severe termite infestation within it and will be demolished anyway, the “have a go, you can’t possibly ruin it any more than it is” sentiment. Alternatively, she is being used as a scapegoat. This is an extremely difficult time in the nation and it is essential solid decisions are made to prevent further catastrophe. The state of the country they have passed over to her will not be taken into account should she mismanage one or more of these decisions.
In the lead up to the British election, a member of Theresa May’s own party, while endorsing her as candidate, called her a ‘bloody difficult woman’. Insulting? Settle down, Theresa, it was meant as a compliment, how could you not see that? The outrage that followed the comment was labeled an ‘overreaction’. Prominent women took to social media using the hashtag #BDW to show their support for women who were accused of being ‘difficult’, a quality which, in men, would be heralded as determination or ambition. Theresa’s grace in ignoring the media storm after the exchange was, of course, another quality in her favour. It remains to be seen whether she will face public scrutiny for not behaving in the fashion typical of females; having already been labeled ‘difficult’, will she also be heartless, emotionless and cold?
Perhaps the focus of the Western world, currently, is the US Presidential Election Campaign. After having elected its first African American president, obviously the voice of the left has been heard and the decision was made to thrust forward another candidate from a minority group, a woman. Hilary Clinton is no doubt the most qualified candidate for the position, having worked in politics at the right hand of the current president and been part of the political sphere for many, many years. It is, as has been suggested by many media commentators, insulting to Hilary that she has to carry on as if she has a viable opponent in Donald Trump, while he baits her with personal attacks. Instead of reacting as he does when anything does not go his way, blaming, hysterically insulting and terrorising, she responds in measured and calm tones, with rational and fact based material.
If Trump’s opponent in the election had been male, his party would not have endorsed him as their candidate. If his opponent in this election had been male, his behaviour would make him a laughing stock and no voter would seriously consider him as an option for president. It is only because Hilary is female, regardless of her notable experience and capability, that he has a chance in this election. It is condemnable that in the developed world, in a democratic country, a man of this level of ignorance, arrogance and stupidity is given credence simply because of his gender.
Thus, with an examination of Western politics and the way in which female leaders are disrespected, mostly on a personal level rather than fair criticisms leveled at their policies or decisions, reveals that the standards by which women are judged, both to reach positions of power and whilst they are in those positions of power, differ considerably to those by which men are evaluated. If we do not examine the systems and unwritten rules in place to determine our leaders, we will continue to elect men purely based on their gender and privilege the qualities we consider ‘male’.
Parkour teaches Literature and Language to high school students and writes fervently in her spare time. She loves a good story and a passionate argument. She currently lives in the country and longs for the buzz of the city.