Women and politics: The West vs. Asia
The attention to women as US presidential candidates appears puzzling at first sight. Observations that women did not yet penetrate the top layers of business and science to match various statistical educational attributes notwithstanding, there is no doubt that women pursuing careers outside the home have had far more options than in others countries. IBM, Xerox, Yahoo, HP, the Fed, US government departments, national advisers, never mind fashion and cosmetics – all have or had women at their helm.
True, not surprisingly these are all relatively new industries: established manufacturing companies do not have women at their helm, which is predictable. “Newcomers,” whether women pursuing careers outside the home, immigrants or once discriminated minorities, penetrate new industries more easily. (The fact that a woman is leading GM does not appear to be a significant since the car industry had to be reinvented the last few years).
Yet, vice presidency and presidency appears to generate endless debate about whether not having had women in that position necessarily reflects prejudice or skepticism that women cannot lead the American tribe or something else. Which brings up the question: If the UK could have Margaret Thatcher (and Queen Elisabeth and Victoria in the past); Germany – Angela Merkel; constantly under-threat-of-war-and-terror Israel – the late Golda Meir – why cannot by now US have a woman as President? Is it the case that none of the women running for the presidency appear adequate, or there is something else going on?
I distinguish the above three women in Western type societies from the large number of women having been elected in Asian and Latin American countries (India, Bangladesh, Pakistan, Philippines, Myanmar, Argentina etc.), since these women were either daughters or wives of fathers and husbands who presided over troublesome, traditional societies, and not “self-made.”
By “traditional” I mean that the role of women was confined to the home, having kids, raising them, cooking etc., that in poorer countries are far more time consuming endeavors than in richer ones, requiring women to dedicated themselves to the task (since, due to giving birth, they have to stay home anyway). The visibility of daughters and wives of men in political power in these societies was thus not based initially on them having played particular roles, or having had proven track records, but of marrying the right men and the right time. Once their men were in power, they were visiting hospitals and doing charity for the poor, or as Juan Peron did, appoint Argentina’s best known export – his “cry for her”-wife-Evita – to run the Ministries of Labor and Health, the charitable Eva Peron Foundation, and the Female’s Peronist Party (did the Clintons learn from this experience?)
Whether in Asia or Latin America, the women rarely have any achievements before getting to power. They were the electorate’s extrapolations of expectations that they would follow in their strong men in their lives’ steps, and would be able to manage the transition until new strong men appear on the horizon. Having stayed in the background and extrapolating from the status of women in these societies, the public expects less from them than they do from the strong men’s male relatives, sons in particular – unless these male members proved themselves to be worthy of succession.
Briefly: the electorate gives these women temporary blank checks until either the strong men surface, or the country defaults on its debts – see Argentina now for the latter case. Recall India few years back, when the Congress party preferred Italian born Sonia Gandhi to lead (though not much was known about her), rather than her son: women get elected in these traditional non-Western societies to submit themselves to their men’s tradition, not deviate. The evidence is overwhelming: none of the women elected in these countries did anything that departed from their husbands’ or fathers’ policies and ways to govern – corruption included (cry one more time, Argentina, India has done its share too since Indira’s non-reforms).
Now what about the American tribe?
In contrast to the aforementioned Asian and Latin American societies, women have had far more opportunities open to them than anywhere else for the last 40 years. It appear though that just as 40 years were required to get rid of the generation with slavery mentality when the Jews escaped Egypt and made rounds in Sinai, forty years were insufficient to persuade the US electorate to vote for women to lead their country – one where they would be unconstrained so strictly by either tradition or threat of murder (think India and Pakistan).
A look back at the 1970s shows why roughly 40 years – two generations – may be a relevant number. Since then, increasingly, women moved away from two traditional out-of-home endeavors: teaching and nursing. Recall that public schools worked well until the 1970s (as was the case elsewhere too: Until the 1970s, French public schools provided far better education than private ones. Public schools threw out underperforming students, who then went to private ones).
One reason public schools did well was that highly qualified women working outside the house could either be teachers or nurses, not much else. Women accepted relatively low pay, difficult working conditions, and gave their best. Women’s liberation opened up new opportunities for women, and, over time, some of the best left teaching (bringing about a gradual decline in the quality of schooling, since schools remained under government control, with limited opportunities for the very talented women staying on to pursue careers establishing chains of schools, manage them well etc.). Legal changes – no fault divorce in the 1960s – speeded up the transition, as women could no longer count on just “death tearing them apart” from their husbands, and expecting to not depend on anyone.
Gradually women gained experience in fields such as accounting, finance, technology, science, management – managing armies and military conflicts, less so, even though two Western-type society women leaders mentioned above presided over wars. Thatcher did so over the successful Falkland war (over an island with more sheep than people), and Golda Meir, a disastrous Yom Kippur war during its first week. Her male ministers, with great military experience, all gave her the wrong advice. Though she had the right “woman” intuition about getting better prepared, she acknowledged that she failed to stand up to her “experts’” advice. Huge blunder. Perhaps one has to be 17 years old, as Joan d’Arc was when leading France to victory, to stand up to such pressures.
Which brings us to the US’s electorate’s not quite articulated feeling about women candidates for the top political job. Drawing on experience, they may perceive that while forty years are enough to have many women acquire great business, financial, political negotiation skills, and forty years are not enough to acquire those not easily definable skills to be in position of standing up to “experts” in all fields, military in particular. This is, for the moment, the obstacle that women in the US running for the top political position in the land may be facing, even if in other respects voters trust them to qualify – though the latter does not quite appear to be Hillary’s case.
Reuven Brenner holds the Repap Chair at McGill University’s Desautels’ Faculty of Management. His last books are Force of Finance and World of Chance.
The opinions expressed in this column are the author’s own and do not necessarily reflect the view of Asia Times.