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Female Political Leaders of the 20th Century
From the twentieth century, women’s rights activists had found enough support that women in democracies in Europe and elsewhere gradually gained the right to vote. In 1919, for example, women were able to elect and be elected for the first time in Germany, which is a “matter of course” that had been wrongly withheld from women until then. During the twentieth century, it became increasingly difficult for patriarchate proponents to justify rule over women. In many European countries after the Second World War, equal rights were at least recorded in the constitutions.
The movement was composed of numerous associations and organizations that were founded, led, and dominated by women. These women’s associations were engaged in various fields to improve the situation of women, with which they wanted to achieve an overall social improvement. Some called for a say in municipalities and churches, the recognition of women’s familial benefits, better education and employment opportunities for women, and political equality. Others sought to alleviate the plight of poor people, organized the care and feeding of working-class children, engaged in better medical care for women and children, and fought against poor housing and working conditions, state-controlled prostitution, and alcohol abuse. And while Pope Francis considered the form of emancipation that, in order to occupy spaces, it has to take away from the masculine as dangerous, he did not want to “reduce maternity to a social role, to a task, albeit noble, but which in fact sets the woman aside with her potential and does not value her fully in the building of community” (McClory).
Margaret Hilda Thatcher was a British politician and the first female Prime Minister of the United Kingdom (1979-1990). She acquired the nickname of the “Iron Lady” due to her drastic economic and social reforms, as well as her intervention in the Falklands War. Born on October 13, 1925, in Grantham, Lincolnshire, England, she died on April 8, 2013, at the age of 87 in London. The “Iron Lady of the Western world, a Cold War warrior, an Amazon philistine, even a Peking plotter,” was a figurehead of the economic liberals, and a figure of hatred for the unions: Margaret Thatcher’s politics in the 1980s divided the population ideologically not only in the UK (iconic). The first woman as British Prime Minister polarizes to this day. Anyone who wants to understand the recent history of Britain cannot avoid the idiosyncratic politician who fundamentally changed the country and had something that is so often missing today: attitude.
In 1959 she was elected for a London constituency for the first time as a deputy to the lower house, and rose quickly in the party hierarchy thanks to her talent. In 1970, the conservative Prime Minister Edward Heath appointed Thatcher as his Minister of Education. Already in this office, she showed her determination to make unpopular decisions. When Thatcher pushed through the abolition of school milk that had been freely distributed to all school children in England for 20 years, a media storm broke out but left her unimpressed, as it had made her known nationwide instead (Cordon).
Even more controversial, however, was her domestic program after the Second World War. Thatcher, a proven financial expert, fought for a radical reversal in economic policy: away from the state with a debt-financed intervention policy, towards a state of free competition in the sense of monetarism. Her belief in the strength of the individual and her distrust of any collectivism culminated in the provocative statement: “And, you know, there is no such thing as society. There are individual men and women, and there are families” (Brittan). This was like a revolution, a revolution that was deliberately brought about by UK voters against the backdrop of a severe economic crisis of high inflation and unemployment in 1979: On May 3 of that year, Margaret Thatcher was elected the first Prime Minister in the UK, an office that she held for more than 10 years, until 1990.
When turning to the other part of the world, it becomes evident how female politicians would find their paths to leadership almost simultaneously. Corazon Aquino was the champion of democracy in her homeland, Philippines. In 1986, after 20 years of suppression, she replaced dictator Ferdinand Marcos with a peaceful revolution.
The former housewife stood up for the popular uprising against dictator Ferdinand Marcos from 1986 to 1992 as President of the Philippines. Her husband, Benigno Aquino, a prominent Marcos opponent, was shot dead in 1983 on his return from exile at the airport of Marcos-Schergen (Engel). After the murder, resistance to the dictator grew and culminated in the overthrow of the Marcos regime. Aquino stood in the front row of many mass protests after the murder of her husband. The alleged election victory, which Marcos had announced shortly after a completely obscured vote count, led to violent protests. Aquino became a new political figure embodying opposition to the Marcos dictatorship.
She released political prisoners from the prisons where her husband had been staying for years. But the inexperienced politician was also struggling with communist rebels and reactionary coups, rubbing shoulders with a new constitution and agrarian reform (Engel). In 1992, she did not reappear for election. Because she had brought back democracy to the Philippines, she not only enjoyed great prestige at home, but also internationally. The US news magazine Time made Aquino “Woman of the Year” in 1986, and in 1987 she was nominated for the Nobel Peace Prize.
Indira Gandhi is not related to the famous Mahatma Gandhi. Since 1966, she had been governing India’s largest democracy in the world and had been responsible for the country like a mother. She said the following during her election campaign, on hundreds of stages through many dusty villages:
…my burden is manifold because crores of my family members are poverty‐stricken and I have to look after them. Since they belong to different castes and creeds, they sometimes fight among themselves, and I have to intervene, especially to look after the weaker members of my family, so that the stronger ones do not take advantage of them. (Gordon)
At this point, it is of importance to mention that Gandhi’s father initially paved the way to the top. Specifically, Jawaharlal Nehru was a devoted freedom fighter and the first Prime Minister after independence; he had the vision of a socialist state with a particular economic form. Of course, Indira Gandhi had been affected by his worldview and continued his policy. This included five-year plans, bank nationalizations, and the disempowerment of the princes (“The Economics of Indira Gandhi”). This also included celebrating the poor and condemning conservatives in their Congress party. The woman who had been mocked as a dumb doll was taking more and more responsible decisions. In 1971, the Indian army beat their archenemy Pakistan within a few days, which resulted in the birth of the country of Bangladesh, which can be considered Indira Gandhi’s biggest triumph.
During her rule, India achieved international respect, also as a nuclear power, and Indira Gandhi was referred to as a national hero. However, she used her considerable influence for diverse purposes. Thus, as a dictator, she disempowered parliament and the judiciary, censored the press, and arrested critics (Sinha). In 1975, the prime minister took up her last weapon, the state of emergency. She spoke of a conspiracy of hostile forces trying to throw India into chaos. In fact, there were protests and strikes nationwide. The reasons were manifold, including inflation, unemployment, starvation, low wages, corruption, and a controversial family policy which included forced sterilization (Roychowdhury).
In light of the important women who have gained political influence, it becomes evident how the twentieth century has brought about the onset of the rise of women to political power, and proving neither better, nor worse, leaders than men. Instead, such stories of great female politicians bring home the idea that there is more to a leader than gender; it is about the personality and worldview of the person, which affects his or her country in terms of politics.
Brittan, Samuel. “Thatcher Was Right – There Is No ‘Society’.” Ft.com, 2013, https://www.ft.com/content/d1387b70-a5d5-11e2-9b77-00144feabdc0.
Cordon, Gavin. “Thatcher Tried to Stop One of Her Worst Policies Going Even Further.” The Independent, 2016, https://www.independent.co.uk/news/uk/politics/margaret-thatcher-regretted-snatching-milk-from-school-children-for-two-decades-a7500171.html.
Engel, KeriLynn. “Corazon Aquino, Revolutionary President of the Philippines.” Amazing Women in History, 2011, https://amazingwomeninhistory.com/corazon-aquino-revolutionary-president-philippines/.
Gordon, Leonard. “Indira Gandhi.” Nytimes.com, 1976, https://www.nytimes.com/1976/07/25/archives/indira-gandhi-a-biography-by-zareer-masani-illustrated-341-pp-new-y.html.
Iconic. “Margaret Thatcher’s Iron Lady Speech.” 2010, Youtube, 8 Nov. 2010, https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=oAgM6YHioxI. Accessed 18 Feb. 2019.
McClory, Robert. “Pope Francis Struggles with Women’s Role.” National Catholic Reporter, 2013, https://www.ncronline.org/blogs/ncr-today/pope-francis-struggles-womens-role.
Roychowdhury, Adrija. “Four Reasons Why Indira Gandhi Declared Emergency.” The Indian Express, 2018, https://indianexpress.com/article/research/four-reasons-why-indira-gandhi-declared-the-emergency-5232397/.
Sinha, Suchetana. “15 Photos from the Emergency, the Darkest Phase in Independent India’s History.” Scoopwhoop, 2016, https://www.scoopwhoop.com/Photos-Darkest-Phase-Indian-History-Emergency/#.l90z8jez1.
“The Economics of Indira Gandhi.” BW Businessworld, 2015, http://www.businessworld.in/article/The-Economics-Of-Indira-Gandhi/19-11-2015-88463/.