When New Zealand’s president Jacinda Ardern shed tears in a press conference after the Christchurch shooting massacre, there was something different that the world sensed and praised her for. When German Chancellor Angela Merkel welcomed refugees in a grand humanitarian move, she was anointed as ‘Mama Merkel’ and German citizens were moved enough to follow their leader’s footsteps, and welcomed refugees with flowers in their hands.
When the US President Donald Trump made a racist attack on four female lawmakers, namely, Reps Ilhan Omar, Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, Rashida Tlaib, and Ayanna Pressley, it garnered criticism even from his party members. It also garnered responses that were not aggressive but nevertheless measured and appealing to the higher faculty of citizens. Although, these leaders have attracted racist, sexist, and misogynist attacks from all quarters, for things ranging from as superficial as their sartorial choices to their leadership styles, nevertheless their fresh approach towards their leadership is too conspicuous to be ignored. It is a seed of change which is sporadic yet powerful. This article is not from the perspective of people and how they perceive these female leaders, but just a glimpse of how these new set of female leaders have perceived themselves and have approached their positions.
Women have been a part of the political scene for a very long time. However, as a voter and an active participant their entry date is as late as the 20th century. Their participation in politics and leadership has been much older, dating back to the times of Cleopatra as well as Queen Victoria, although it’s too sporadic and unevenly spread out and mostly confined to their role as leader’s wives and chaperone.
South Asia has produced a number of female leaders, such as Indira Gandhi in India, Benazir Bhutto in Pakistan, Sheikh Hasina and Khaleda Zia in Bangladesh, and Sirimavo Bandaranaike in Sri Lanka. England had Margaret Thatcher, the United States has Hillary Clinton, Condoleezza Rice to name a few. However, one thing that was common among most of these leaders was their approach towards their leadership.
It can be said that these female parliamentarians in a parliament full of male members were compelled to or, better to say, resorted to, more often than not, overtly masculine and testosterone-fueled behaviour, which is generally identified as aggressive, conservative, nationalistic, and always ready for a war. This kind of behavioural pattern resembles the much-fabled ‘Napoleon Complex’ which is defined as a kind of inferiority complex generated due to a person’s short stature where latter resorts to overly aggressive and dominating social behavior to compensate for their seemingly harmless appearance. To be taken seriously, many female leaders had to resort to this kind of aggressive behavior, though a coincidence of them actually possessing such aggressive attitude cannot be denied, but a widespread prevalence and people’s fascination with the term ‘Iron Lady’ makes it a fair assumption.
India’s former, and deceased, prime minister Indira Gandhi’s journey from being anointed as a ‘goongi gudiya’ (dumb doll) to an ‘Iron Lady‘ who oversaw a victorious war against Pakistan. However, the binary of ‘doll’ and ‘lady’ is too blatant to be ignored.
Harvard Business Review, in one of their assessments on “The different Words We Use To Describe Male And Female Leaders” found that there are more negative than positive attributes assigned to female leaders as compared to their male counterparts. And the most positive term assigned to female leaders was “compassionate” while it was “analytical” for male leaders. However, this display of ‘compassion‘ by female political leaders has been either largely missing in action or seen as a weakness on the leader’s part.
Drury Stevenson used the example of Hillary Clinton and Madeleine Albright and their reactions to their husbands’ (Bill Clinton and Joe Albright respectively) cheating scandals to show how “Women in power are expected to project an image of remarkable self-control and wisdom despite the silliness going around them, while the men in power can excuse their most notorious failings by appealing to a pure lack of self-control or too much-stifled emotions.”
The pressure on women to be and act ‘rational’ is way too real, where rational is identified as a manly attribute as opposed to ‘emotional’, which is identified as a feminine one. Women leaders have to walk a tight rope in this patriarchal setup to avoid succumbing to the hysterical female stereotype that is naturally unfit to rule.
In this backdrop, the rise of leaders like Jacinda Ardern, Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, Ilhan Omar, and Angela Merkel is a breath of fresh air. It could be seen as a result of the growing acceptance of feminist movements worldwide which has removed the negative connotations attached to emotions as well as the burst of the much-hyped bubble of ‘rationality’ after the failure of a war on terror, in the name of which everything violent and aggressive stood justified.
Hannah Arendt in her book “The Human Condition” pointed out the irrationality that guided the actions of educated bureaucrats and managers behind the Vietnam War. The futility of it was exposed even after the numerous attempts by the leaders to hide behind terms like “collateral damage” and “fog of war.” However, the Vietnam War is just a shining example of this obsession with rationality gone wrong, as not even a single expert, not even Robert McNamara from the RAND Corporation, famously known as a “Whiz Kids” included, could stop the war from turning into a humanitarian and political disaster.
Perhaps, it’s time that we realise that human problems need humane solutions and that the time is ripe for more empathetic leaders. The article is not advocating for ‘irrationality‘ but the obsession with ‘rationality’ that leads to much more inhuman and irrational actions. The new female leadership should be seen as a dawn of a new era and a beginning of a new narrative so that it gets the power of changing how people look at politics, and how politicians conduct themselves.