In her acceptance speech for a 2007 Emmy Award, actress Sally Field boldly declared, “If mothers ruled the world, there wouldn’t be any God-damned wars in the first place!”
And there it is. We’ve all heard it. Another variation on the famous quote, “If women ruled the world there’d be no more wars.” I heard the same thing on the bus the other day and have since tried to find its source, but can’t. The truth is, whoever coined the phrase couldn’t have been up on their history (nor was Sally Field). History is full of women rulers (and mothers) who not only went to war, but whose cutthroat politics would put them in good company with many a male autocrat. That’s probably the reason why no serious scholars today argue for ‘women only’ leadership. It doesn’t make sense given all we know about human nature – men or women.
But what about the general public, how do we perceive women leaders? Interestingly, studies show that many of us consistently rate women much more favourably than men in most key leadership traits.
So why the mix-up between history and our view of female leadership? Part I of this article looks at a few female stereotypes and compares them to examples of women leaders throughout history. Part II tackles a new stereotype I call the Cult of the Goddess and argues for a more realistic and constructive consideration of modern women. Here we go!
Part I: If Women Ruled the World
Women are inherently good. They’re morally superior and don’t hurt people. They smell pretty too.
You don’t believe this crap do you?
There’ve been women political leaders throughout history. Like their male counterparts, some were good leaders, others weren’t. It’s a myth that women possess an inborn trait that makes them ‘good people’, simply because ‘good’ is a matter of character, not gender.
Irene of Athens (8th century): had her son blinded so she could become empress of the Byzantium empire. (Um, not so ‘good’)
Isabella I (15th century): expelled all Jews and Muslims from Spain; re-conquered Grenada; began the colonization of the New World; initiated the Spanish inquisition, killing thousands through torture and burning at the stake. (Yay!)
Mary I Bloody Mary (16th Century): burned thousands of religious dissenters at the stake; waged war in Ireland and France. (Now we’re talkin’)
Nzinga Mbandi (17th Century): had her brother killed so she could ascend the throne of Angola.
Catherine the Great (18th Century): engaged expansive military campaigns through central Asia and Eastern Europe; brutally quelled rebellions throughout the Russian empire.
Empress Dowager Cixi (19th Century): killed political rivals; may have killed her own son to ascend the throne; her penchant for fine luxuries almost broke the Chinese state treasury. (Need a few more?)
Golda Meir the original Iron Lady (20th Century): considered Palestine a British fabrication and famously declared, “There is no such thing as a Palestinian people”; refused to stop expansion of Israeli settlements.
Indira Gandhi (20th Century): led India in war against Pakistan; waged an internal campaign against Sikh communities in India; imprisoned political foes and censored the press; tested nuclear weapons.
Margaret Thatcher the Iron Lady (20th century): launched the Falklands war; contributed to the Cold War build-up of nuclear weapons in Europe; bombed Libya; supported foreign dictators like Augusto Pinochet; privatized many British social services and national industries; ate unions for breakfast. (and a mother no less, yikes!)
Benazir Bhutto (20th Century): removed twice from office of Pakistani Prime Minister on grounds of corruption; allowed intermediaries to smuggle uranium enrichment data to North Korea; adamantly opposed abortion; supported the Taliban’s rise in Afghanistan.
Condoleezza Rice (20th Century): as National Security Advisor of the United States she pushed for the 2003 invasion of Iraq (based on its supposed possession of WMDs); authorized the use of illegal torture techniques such as waterboarding on detainees.
Of course, there’ve been lots of inspiring female leaders throughout history too like Grace O’Malley, Joan of Arc, Zenobia, the Trung sisters, Queen Victoria, and Boudicca, to name a few. And because I don’t want to paint these historical characters in black and white, it’s good to note that some of the women on the list above also did great things during their reign. Catherine the Great, for example, was a large financial supporter of arts and culture, while Nzinga Mbandi helped resettle former slaves during the Portuguese slave trade. What the list highlights, however, is that the notion of women as good and benign rulers is historically a false stereotype. It’s not true.
Emily White, author of the book, Fast Girls: Teenage Tribes And The Myth Of The Slut, explains where the idea of the benevolent female ruler might have come from:
What [Gloria] Steinem and many of her peers in the Second Wave feminist movement preached was that women were innately, intuitively opposed to war. At the height of the Vietnam era, the women’s liberation movement and the antiwar movement were cross-pollinating, forming hybrid ideologies. The idea that grew from this period and gained ascendency in popular media representations of feminism and 'women's lib' - the versions of feminist zeitgeist I saw on TV as a girl - was that women were natural pacifists. If women had been running the world, the argument went, the war would have never happened.
White claims her own belief in a utopian world ruled by women was slowly eroded during her years working for a feminist press. “It was not a happy or peaceful place to work. Among the women of the all-female staff, power struggles flourished unchecked. My boss, who looked like a sweet earth mother, was petty and cruel, full of mixed messages and little jabs.” (Br. TJ explores this idea of infighting among women in greater detail, here.)
The point isn’t that women are terrible people and that working for them is some sort of rotten experience. On the contrary, some women are very kind, gentle and all-around great people. But there’s no reason to believe that putting ‘good’, benevolent women in charge is going to lead us to a cultural transformation.
But wait, just because they’re not ‘good’ doesn’t mean they’re still not better leaders than men. Women around the world today hold major positions of leadership – from Christine Lagarde at the head of the IMF, to Mary Schapiro Chair of the Securities & Exchange Commission in the US, and numerous heads of state, in Germany, Brazil, India, and Australia. With so many women now in visible positions of power, how do we perceive their ability to lead?
The public thinks very highly of women leaders
A recent 2008 study by the US based Pew Research centre, found that public perceptions of women leaders was much more favourable to that of men in key leadership traits. Respondents (2,250 were polled) said that women were more compassionate, honest, and creative than men. In policy matters they were “widely judged to be better than men at dealing with social issues such as health care and education” and in job performance skills women received higher marks when measured for “standing up for one's principles in the face of political pressure; being able to work out compromises; keeping government honest; and representing the interests of ‘people like you’”.
And here’s where it gets juicy: In the eight leadership traits deemed most important by respondents, women were judged to have greater capacities in five (intelligence, honesty, outgoingness, compassion, and creativity)! In two traits (work ethic and ambition) men and women were judged equal, and in just one trait (decisiveness) men came out on top. As a man, I cannot say this bodes well for my gender.
Even though women are rated higher in leadership qualities, they still don’t outnumber men in positions of leadership (even in America where the Pew survey was conducted). The reasons for this are many and have been explored exhaustively elsewhere. There are, for example, social and systemic barriers limiting women’s access to higher office, as well as cultural expectations such as child rearing duties and pregnancy, which conspire against women being hired on equal terms with men. These issues are troubling and must be addressed. The focus of this article, however, is not the barriers to women’s office but the cultural stereotypes surrounding their abilities.
Online comment sections give anecdotal, fly-on-the-wall evidence about public stereotypes of women. In a 2008 article in the New York Times, reporting the popularity among men of US vice-presidential candidate Sarah Palin, the comment section reveals some interesting takes on the nature of women. An insurance agent from Indiana asks rhetorically, "Who can't trust a mother?" A former truck driver in North Carolina says, "They bear us children, they risk their lives to give us birth, so maybe it's time we let a woman lead us." He went on, "The sexual drives and big egos of male leaders have gotten in the way of politics in this country." Another adds, "Women don't have big egos and ambition.” Academic perspectives are often (not always) more nuanced than this, but in many ways public perception seems to hold generally positive stereotypes concerning women leaders.
So why are women leaders considered more compassionate, honest, and compromising when historical evidence suggests that’s not actually the case?
Even many of our modern women leaders can’t standup to the Pew stereotypes of outgoingness, honesty, compassion, and intelligence. Sarah Palin’s ‘outgoingness’ didn’t limit her polarizing rants to American society nor her uninformed version of small town politics. The ‘compassion’ of Ana Palacio, Spanish foreign minister in 2003, didn’t change her UN Security Council ‘Yes’ vote in favour of invasion in Iraq. Bangladeshi Prime Minister, Sheikh Hasina’s, ‘honesty’ didn’t stop her from sacking women’s rights advocate and Nobel laureate, Muhammad Yunus, from the Grameen Bank, in what is widely regarded as umbrage for his short entry into politics. And unfortunately, the ‘intelligence’ of Dambisa Moyo has only helped bolster her neo-liberal leanings and better advocate for less foreign aid to Africa.
Something’s going on here. I’d like to argue a groundbreaking point: not all women are created equal.
Women are not all the same.
Women are a large and diverse group. As a segment of society they naturally express varying motives, political beliefs, and personalities that run the entire spectrum of human nature. In the anthology, Dropped Threads, Margaret Atwood describes it like this:
Women are not Woman. They come in all shapes, sizes, colours, classes, ages and degrees of moral rectitude. They don’t all behave, think or feel the same, any more than they all take size eight. All of them are real. Some of them are wonderful. Some of them are awful. To deny them this is to deny them their humanity and to restrict their area of moral choice to the size of a teacup. To define women as by nature better than men is to ape the Victorians: “Woman” was given “moral superiority” by them because all other forms of superiority had been taken away.
In many cases the differences between two women can be even larger than the differences between a given man and woman. This is true in biological traits like body size, strength and hormone levels, and it extends to personality types and political preferences too (they're not all anti-war liberals!). This all seems obvious enough; yet apparently we still hold general assumptions that women are a homogenous, inherently trustworthy and compassionate group.
In our quest for social equality among men and women, we’ve perhaps gone a step too far and equalized all women as inherently good, morally superior, or better than men. Equalizing all women is not the same as creating an equal society. Equal rights are different from equal abilities. Stereotyping equal abilities among women – and highly positive ones at that - implies that there’s not so much work to be done in terms of personal growth. Everyone’s fine just the way they are. I see this theme arising in the narcissistic, self-congratulatory culture of what I call The Cult of the Goddess. Which brings us to part two: (to be posted Nov. 16, 2011)
 Compassionate: 80% of respondents say women, 5% men; Creative: 62% said women, 11% said men; Honest: 50% said women, 20% said men.
 A UN sponsored study in 2008 found that worldwide women accounted for only 4.5% of head of state positions, and occupied only 11% of parliament seats. In the US, where the Pew study was taken, women CEOs command just 2% of the top fortune 500 companies and about 16% of congress and senate seats. And although the study found that 69% of respondents believed that women were at least equal leaders to men, there’s still a large gap between opinion and actual employment.