Historical Badasses Gender Politics Inequality

Let’s look at female Presidential leadership in the United States vs everywhere else in the world

I remember it was a hot Texan summer morning during my semester abroad in 2016. The possibility of the infamous and impenetrable “Presidential glass ceiling” finally breaking was the talk of the town. In the progressive air of pre-Trump America, I sat as an international student in a political science class. A fervent discussion broke out; with a student saying “Hillary Clinton’s journey has been an unprecedented milestone in history. She has managed to do what no woman has ever been able to do.” “Well, no woman ever in the United States,” I thought to myself. Except, I was wrong. I later learned that the first female Presidential candidate was actually Shirley Chisholm, an African American who ran for election in 1972. But how conveniently does history leave out people of color? 

Anyway, fun history facts aside, the mention of no female President in American history was a shocking revelation. 

You see, hailing from a region where most public spheres are male-dominated, my country has already seen the tenure of a female Prime Minister. And if you think it was rare, check again. Research conducted by PEW shows that around 70 countries around the world have already had female political leaders. With Elizabeth Warren dropping out of the 2020 Presidential elections, the United States will now be lagging behind AT LEAST 65 years in political equality at the presidential level. 

So, are the electoral results a manifestation of the internalized misogyny? If so, how is it that so-called developing countries where the economic and health gender gap is greater, have still had female political leadership?

Let’s scroll through to see which inspiring women have rebelled against norms and convention to be trailblazers in such countries.

  1. Sirimavo Bandaranaike, Sri Lanka  

[Image Description: Sirimavo Bandaranaike 1960.] via The famous people
Sirimavo Bandaranaike was the first female Prime Minister of the World. When she first resumed office in 1960, the London Evening News wrote: “There will be a need for a new word. Presumably, we shall have to call her a stateswoman.” With her husband assassinated just a year before, she quickly transitioned from homemaker to politician to Prime Minister. Her opponents mocked her saying she will be running a “kitchen cabinet”. But her resilient legacy saw her serve three terms between 1960 and 2000.

2. Indira Gandhi, India 

[Image Description: Indira Gandhi during a visit to the US.] via the Bettman Archive, The Hindustan Times
Assuming office in 1980, her tempestuous personal life was often under public scrutiny. But how are you supposed to balance the personal and the professional when your very existence is political? She was the daughter of Jawaharlal Nehru, India’s first Prime Minister. She was born, bred, and raised into politics. She was immersed in the struggle for independence from an early age, shadowing her father. After several ups and downs of power, she was assassinated by her own bodyguards. Last year, Time Magazine included her in the list of 100 of the most powerful women of the past century. 

3. Maria Corazon Aquino, Philippines 

[Image Description: Corazon Aquino at her inauguration in 1986.] via Women’s
Envision this. The year is 1986 and the Philippines has been under a dictatorship for the past 20 years. The constitution has been suspended by the leader of the country. And through nothing but sheer resilience and peaceful persistence, Aquino, brings the history of martial law to an end. 

She has been immortalized as the Mother of Democracy by the international diplomatic community. But I believe it is important to humanize her legacy. Her journey from an introverted law student to a “plain housewife” to the first female President-elect was not an easy one. After her husband’s assassination just a year before, she became a widow at the age of 50. And it was in that very moment of vulnerability, she led the country and the People Power’s revolution to victory. 

4. Benazir Bhutto, Pakistan

[Image Description: Benazir Bhutto waves to the crowd during an election campaign meeting in Larkana, 23 December 2007]  via Asif Hasan, Newsweek
A military coup, her father’s execution, and exile – Bhutto experienced most trials a political figure can imagine. Elected as the Prime Minister in 1988, Bhutto shared her father’s penchant for charisma. When she spoke to crowds of people, she left them mesmerized. Years later, her slogan of “bread, clothes and shelter” for the masses continues to echo through people. And thirteen years after her assassination, she is still known as a martyr in the name of democracy.

5. Ellen Johnson Sirleaf, Liberia 

[Image Description: Ellen Johnson Sirleaf] via BBC
When Sirleaf assumed office in 2006, she became the first elected head of state in all of Africa. Her achievement was unprecedented. But so were her challenges. When she assumed office, the social fabric of her country was ravaged by war and the economy crippled with debt. In her 8 years of Presidency, she was congratulated for incorporating women into the peacekeeping process and won the Nobel Peace Prize in 2011

This history has been one of incredible resilience, some painstaking loss, and extraordinary courage in the face of social convention. Many of these women were products of political dynasties. But sexism can be unforgiving. Even to political insiders. Public skepticism for female leaders is pretty consistent. Yet these women from the past century showed us how the glass ceiling was broken in their countries.

And if it can be broken, then, it can certainly be broken now and again.


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By Safa Shoaib

Safa Shoaib is an educator and counselor turned entrepreneur, writer, and editor. She has a B.A. Honors in English Literature from the Lahore University of Management Sciences and has written for local publications such as the Express Tribune. She is a history buff who is equally passionate about literature.
In 2021, she co-founded Deja New Pakistan, the first of its kind marketplace of pre-owned fashion in Pakistan, pursuing the vision of sustainable fashion.