From the bedroom to the presidential boardroom: The slow rise of women in power

Something curious has been happening in Zimbabwe of late.

The nation’s First Lady has been holding rallies in various provinces. These rallies look and sound like campaign rallies to me, anyway. Though there’s nothing she could be campaigning for. She was already voted to head the ZANU-PF women’s league. So what could be going on here?

These rallies don’t have a name or a coherent purpose most resemble a presidential campaign. The First Lady, and indeed the party, is very coy with the reason for these events (not a campaign rally). I do not blame them; No one knows whether Grace Mugabe even intends to run. Her supporters’ rallying call is “Munhu wese kuna Amai” (Everyone to the mother [of the nation]), but they aren’t saying she is the proverbial heir to the throne. At the same time, rumour or fact, other political parties are silent on whether they think Grace will run for office. Confusion all round!

Amai 1

Indeed, the First Lady hasn’t declared any presidential aspirations; so nobody can really come out in an official capacity and comment on this development, even within the party itself. Some quarters of the political sphere say she has no political qualifications. Were she to run, despite her lack of political background, she has access to the state machinery and is the spouse of the nation’s leader, thus an unfair advantage.

I am particularly interested in the precedence, worldwide, of women who are either married to presidents or former presidents or related to them who have ascended to the highest office and what that can tell us about our society. Interestingly, most of the female presidents in recent history have had fathers or husbands who have also held the highest office.

Sirimavo Bandaranaike from Sri Lanka was the world’s first female Prime Minister (1960-1965; 1970-1975; 1994-2000). She was the widow of previous Prime Minister Solomon Bandaranaike.

Isabel Peron of Argentina was the world’s first female President (1974-1976) and the widow of President Juan Peron; she served as president following his death. Incidentally, even the current Argentinian President Kristina Fernandez de Kirchner, is the wife of a former president Nestor Kirchner (2003-2007).

The first female Prime Minister of Pakistan was Benazir Bhutto (1988-1990; 1993-1996). Her father Zulfikar Ali Bhutto was a former Prime Minister.

Indira Gandhi was the first female Prime Minister of India (1966-1977), her father, Jawaharlal Nehru was a former Prime Minister.

Park Geun Hye is the first female President of South Korea, her father Park Chung-hee is a former President.

In the United States, Hillary Rodham Clinton is running for the office her husband Bill Clinton once occupied.

Examples abound and this is the case also in countries like The Philippines, Guyana, Panama, and Bangladesh that have had female leaders.

As much as we may be progressing in women’s rights with notable achievements such as getting the right to vote, and participation in the political process, it goes without saying that politics is still very much the preserve of men.

There is still very minimal women’s participation is in politics on a global scale. According to UN Women, only 22% of all national parliaments worldwide were women as at August 2015. In 37 countries, women account for less than 10% of parliamentarians in single or lower houses. Only 11 women served as Head of State and 13 served as Head of Government. Furthermore, a mere 17% of government ministers are women, with the majority overseeing social factors such as education and the family.Women in power

There are a lot of varying factors responsible for the hampering of women’s political inclusion. Whatever the reasons, I believe that it is easier for women to get into politics if they are associated with a male figure such as a spouse or a father who preceded them. Our patriarchal society doesn’t embrace female leadership and is more tolerant and accepting if this said woman has seemingly been ‘vetted and approved’ whether through a spouse or father who has previously held office and that is seen as perhaps a sign of her competence to hold office. Not to say that it’s a walk in the park for such women to land the top job, but they are spared some of the harshness that ‘anonymous’ female aspirants may have to face.

The First Lady, like it or not, does have a commanding presence. She kicked off her whirlwind entry into active politics by blasting corrupt party members, even naming names, and firing long standing seemingly invincible party and government officials. She has influence over political leaders who are in office and she speaks her mind. Candidly.

We haven’t seen this in our political landscape and what surprises me the most is that I remember how she was treated by the media when she first got introduced to the nation as a the President’s bride.

“She doesn’t have a university education,” they said.

“She needs to go to finishing school.”

“She isn’t intelligent.”

“She is not eloquent.”

All this was part of the usual diatribe used to describe women society finds ‘unworthy’ of admiration. She was quickly tossed into the category of ‘beautiful but dull’. So for me to see this resurgence of a now powerful woman unapologetically speaking what is on her mind, ruffling feathers, demanding action, does leave me slightly baffled. I think she has probably gotten her hands on a copy of 48 Laws of Power by Robert Greene and has completely reinvented herself and I must admit, I have a grudging admiration of sorts.

Then again, perhaps I have an overactive imagination helped along by a national press that is obsessed with everything political, where rumours are reported as facts and our First Lady is in fact, only just going around the country meeting citizens. Whatever the case, if this was a presidential campaign by any other name, there is precedence; First Ladies have indeed ascended to being Commander in Chief.

Thando Khumalo-Mtembo

[Guest Contributor]

tlkm avatar

Thando is an enigmatic woman with a passion for women’s empowerment and trying to solve life’s mysteries

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