Features Editor and Writer
Hillary, Angela and Theresa. The three most talked about women in politics today. Three remarkable women with three different stories of how they came to be the most popular, powerful and influential women in modern day public service. We looked closely at what drives them, defines them and how they are perceived today.
“A grandma writing history”
What many people don’t realise is that Miss Rodham did not need to become Mrs Clinton to kick start her impressive career in public service. Hillary, a talented legal mind, initially a Republican before moving further left, was interning for Capitol Hill in the late 1960s; long before she ever met Arkansas-born Bill. She is currently ranked as the second most powerful woman on the planet according to Forbes, beating current female Presidents Tsai Ing-Wen of Taiwan and Michelle Bachelet, billionaire entrepreneurs Melinda Gates and Sheryl Sandberg, and even the reigning monarch of the United Kingdom.
A lot of faith is being put in Hillary Clinton and her administration, not least after the emergence of her rather infamous Republican rival, who has (by entirely his own doing) become a living caricature of political campaigning and the subject of heavy criticism. Trump’s go-to attack on Mrs Clinton generally revolves around his view that she relies too heavily on playing “the woman card”, and courting the female vote. In fact, in June, the New Yorker presented an expose on the history of women in American politics, highlighting the moral “crusade” they brought with them, and the history of Clinton’s own take on feminism. Regardless of this, and the fact that women were at the heart of the rise of the GOP, it is perhaps rather ironic that the female votes matter the least to Mr Trump. As Jill Lepore explained, even in the 1850s, when the concept of a female vote stretched to the furthest realms of the imagination, women were writing campaign literature and speeches on behalf of the GOP, oftentimes on behalf of their own husbands.
While the New York Times clearly state their opinion that Clinton seems to be relying predominantly on executive action and is interested, first and foremost, in ‘making history’ as the First Female President of the United States, it is only fair to point out that she is as prepared for the job as one can realistically be. An Ivy League law school graduate (much like the incumbent First Lady Michelle Obama and the President himself), and former Senator and Secretary of State, she knows the ins and outs of the job better than anyone. She already has an established network of political connections and alliances and holds a definite experiential advantage over Mr Trump. However, of course she does not come without her flaws, such as being known to bond with political opponents over drinks in an ‘intimate’ style of politics reminiscent of Ronald Reagan. As with all aspiring presidents, she believes that she would be able to do a better diplomatic job than the current administration and could be able to find more common ground with her political opponents should she find receptive counterparts. That, however, raises a simple question: wouldn’t we all like to work in such an idyllic, receptive environment? There is no doubt that even Obama would love such an audience.
The US is certainly under no circumstances a pioneering nation of putting women in powerful positions – in fact, the US lags behind many other countries with a far better track record of powerful female leaders. Rwanda, for example, albeit with a male president and prime minister, is one of only two countries to have a majority of women in parliament, where 63.8% of seats are occupied by women (compared to a measly 19.4% in the US). Two decades after the Rwandan genocide the country is finally picking itself up and many people, including Bill Clinton, are singing praises of its economic growth. Therefore, one can appreciate Mrs Clinton’s endeavour to raise the female profile in the most powerful country in the world, especially when it is compared to many of its economic rivals such as the UK, Canada, Australia, and even small countries like Slovakia or Singapore.
The question now facing us is whether Mrs Clinton really can prove her worth in terms of achieving the goals she has set out for her administration, and whether or not the crucial points regarding immigration policy, infrastructure spending and foreign policy become overshadowed by too much focus being placed on the simple fact that she is, indeed, a woman.
“Wir schaffen das!”
Angela Merkel, the ‘Quiet German’ as the New Yorker calls her, rules Europe’s superpower, Germany. A degree in physics accompanied by a doctorate in quantum chemistry may not be the first background that springs to mind when considering the experience that the Chancellor should possess. However, Merkel has managed to achieve unparalleled success in her political career and is now the leader of the largest creditor of Europe and of its parliament, which in its efficiency presents the antithesis to an exceptionally polarised and dysfunctional US Congress.
While Merkel is undeniably a less attractive character for today’s consumer culture than Clinton, the lack of focus on her public appearance can be traced back to her childhood, when, as she alluded on many occasions, she learnt to ‘keep quiet.’ The image of a disciplined, diligent, and hardworking girl who grew up behind the Berlin wall may lack the composed image that Hillary has maintained ever since the story of an intern named Monica Lewinsky broke, however she more than makes up for it with her systematic and deliberate decision-making.
She has stood unchallenged as Chancellor for the past 10 years and is by far the most influential player within the European Union, rumoured to be respected even by Putin as the only world leader he can speak to in his mother tongue. She leads the grand coalition of Christian Democrats and Social Democrats with 503 out of 630 seats in the Bundestag and as such, Merkel does not need to rely on female support quite as heavily as Clinton per se: she is supported by men and women alike. Merkel matches Clinton in all statehood skills, leading an extremely successful foreign and internal policy, even if she is considered a rather dry but very effective speaker. She personifies a mature politician who relies upon results far more than image.
The apparent unison within the Bundestag sometimes referred to as the ‘Merkel consensus’ has recently been threatened by her Willkommenpolitik. While initially she was heralded as a good Samaritan in the midst of the ongoing Syrian refugee crisis, and her approval ratings with the German public skyrocketed, after recent rare but serious incidences of violent and disturbing criminal activity, this crisis is slowly but surely dividing the country. Even someone as level-headed and disciplined as Merkel may have bitten off a bit more than she can chew this time. Many have noted her confidence as bordering on arrogance what with her confidence in her overwhelming majority in the Bundestag and her proclamations that there is no alternative way of leading the country. This is all the more ironic considering that after the slush fund scandal of previous chancellor Helmut Kohl, in her campaign she branded herself by that very word: “alternative”.
There are certainly not many politicians in history as effective, hard-working and dedicated to the job as Angela Merkel. Germany has produced a fantastic stateswoman with a fearless approach to leading the country to prosperity and trying to rehabilitate a lot of its violent past with a gesture of kindness. It would be a shame if Germany lost this calm and reasonable politician that affirmed the country as a key player worldwide in the next election.
“Boring and competent”
The rise of Downing Street’s newest inhabitant was, on the outside, a relatively quiet one. Making her Commons debut in 1997, May rapidly worked her way up the ranks, filling a range of roles, from Shadow Transport Secretary, to Minister for Women and Equalities. Before being elected as leader, she was the longest standing Home Secretary of the last 50 years.
Much like Merkel, as a geography graduate, she may not have initially been the obvious candidate to eventually lead the country, however she praises herself on her ability to “just get on with the job in front of [her]”, and puts her success down to her unwillingness to partake in Parliamentary gossip. This is, after all, the women whose approach was referred to by the Guardian as “boring and competent”. Perhaps not the most complimentary of descriptions, and by no means as sensational as any headline left of the Atlantic, but arguably correct. In the political minefield that is 2016 Britain, well-established careers can be reduced to tatters almost instantly should the carefully constructed façade slip (read: Boris Johnson post-Brexit).
Perhaps it is no coincidence that only the second female PM in history is from a background strikingly similar to that of her predecessor, the “Iron Lady” Thatcher. Those who are yet to notice the parallels running between the two are few and far between, with Kenneth Clarke observing that “We have had [a bloody difficult woman] running the country before; we need another”.
A tough feat indeed, and that is before looking to the omnipresent dark cloud hanging over her head. As a prominent Remain campaigner in the lead-up to June’s EU referendum, there was heated debate amongst Conservative leadership candidates over Mrs May’s suitability to lead the country through a period of economic and political instability, and to negotiate appropriate exit deals within Europe. Her team has recently acknowledged that her “absolute priority” will be to control UK immigration. An Ipsos MORI poll conducted in June 2015 placed immigration at the top of British voters’ concerns, with 45% citing it as “one of the most important issues facing Britain”. Regardless of her own views on Brexit, it is clear that May understands that the key to her success as an unelected prime minister lies in rapidly tackling the imminent concerns of the electorate.
While she has maintained a relatively low profile during her first few weeks as prime minister, her track record as Home Secretary could be described as anything but passive. May was involved in a number of high profile cases during her time in office, including the deportation of radical cleric Abu Qatada, and by reforming police stop and search powers in 2014. She is a divisive politician, having amassed support from her party colleagues and even a little respect from her opponents; others have criticised her as being unwilling to tarnish her own reputation in the face of adversity, but quick to pass the buck.
It is still too early yet to truly determine May’s success in her new role. As far as global influence goes, she lags behind Clinton, Merkel, Rousseff and perhaps even Michelle Obama. However, regardless of one’s own personal opinions of the Tories and their new leader, you’d be far stretched to argue that May is not by far one of, if not the most experienced and qualified politicians in the country. And that is where we find the common thread tying these Western female leaders together: in a profession that remains extremely male-dominated, the most successful women have paved their way thanks to their determination, vast experience, and unfaltering intellect.