The stereotype of male, pale and stale is as old as politics itself, at least in the UK.
But after centuries of disenfranchisement, women are at the forefront of politics in many countries in 2014. Even in conservative parts of the world, despite opposition and hardship, female MPs can make up a significant proportion of parliament. Worldwide change has come slowly but surely, and although there’s still so much to be done to improve equality generally, prominent, positive female figureheads speaking about women’s rights can only add fuel to an already raging fire.
The contributions of women are just as important as they always were, but with the internet affording endless ways of connecting with a global audience, they now have the opportunity to gain significant traction and even more worldwide support. So who’s fighting women’s corner in politics today?
1. Ellen Johnson-Sirleaf, President of Liberia (2006 – present)
She was the first female President of an entire continent (Africa). She’s endured exile, imprisonment (twice) and the threat of execution. She shared the Nobel Peace Prize in 2011, recognised for her ‘non-violent struggle for the safety of women and for women’s rights to full participation in peace-building work’. Ellen Johnson-Sirleaf, in short, is a force to be reckoned with.
Now the mother of four sons and several grandchildren, the 75-year-old has had a political career spanning four decades and has campaigned for women’s rights and education to improve her country. She has won countless other awards for her work, and was a founding member of the International Institute for Women in Political Leadership. She is well-known for her speech to graduates of her alma mater, Harvard University, in 2011, in which she advised the following: ‘The size of your dreams must always exceed your current capacity to achieve them. If your dreams do not scare you, they are not big enough.’
Image: Africa Progress Panel
2. Aung San Suu Kyi, politician and chairperson of the National League for Democracy, Burma
The pro-democracy leader of Burma (Myanmar) spent 15 years under house arrest in her own house because she was fighting for Burmese people’s freedom and human rights in the face of a crushing dictatorship. Separated from her family, she made unfathomable sacrifices, missing her children’s developing years and the chance to say goodbye to her husband before he succumbed to cancer in 1999. She received a Nobel Peace Prize in 1991, lauded for her ‘non-violent struggle’ as ‘one of the most extraordinary examples of civil courage in Asia in recent decades’. She has become an international symbol of resistance.
Aung San Suu Kyi founded the National League for Democracy, and in 2013 announced that she wants to run for the presidency in Myanmar’s 2015 elections. ‘I’ve always tried to explain democracy is not perfect. But it gives you a chance to shape your own destiny,’ she has commented.
3. Angela Merkel, Chancellor of Germany (2005 – present)
As the first woman to hold this position and the first female leader of her party, the Christian Democratic Union (CDU), Angela Merkel is ground-breaking regardless of her political affinity. Having earned a doctorate in physical chemistry, she entered the world of politics 15 years prior to her election as Chancellor. Between 1991 and 1994, she was in office as Minister for Women and Youth, and has worked to improve women’s opportunities within her country, despite not aligning herself with feminism per se. Her role managing the financial crisis in Europe is indispensable, and it seems perfectly justifiable that she was named the most powerful woman in the world by Forbes in May 2014.
Image: Glyn Lowe
4. Cristina Fernández de Kirchner, President of Argentina (2007 – present)
Sometimes better known for her elaborate dress and cosmopolitan glamour, Kirchner embodies the aphorism ‘there’s more than meets the eye’. ‘Everything I’ve got is a result of my own achievements, and my own defects too,’ she has said, shunning the idea that she inherited political status solely from her late husband, Néstor Kirchner, who preceded her as President from 2007 until his death by heart attack in 2010.
She has become active in causes of her own, especially in defending women’s rights, and strongly advocated gay marriage in her own country. She signed it into law in 2010, an astonishing feat in a vastly Catholic country – making Argentina the first country in Latin America to legalize same-sex marriage.
Image: Daniel Ivoskus
5. Hillary Clinton, U.S. Secretary of State (2009 – 2013)
Summarising Hillary Clinton’s achievements is no easy task. A self-described ‘Wife, mom, lawyer, women & kids advocate … author, dog owner, hair icon, pantsuit aficionado, glass ceiling cracker’, she also holds such accolades as Democratic Presidential Candidate in 2008, former Senator and former First Lady of the United States. There are rumours that she will return to run the 2016 presidential race as the Democratic Candidate once more, and we’re eagerly awaiting the announcement.
A pivotal moment in her career was one which produced the infamous quote: ‘it is no longer acceptable to discuss women’s rights as separate from human rights,’ at the Fourth World Conference on Women in Beijing in 1995. This sentiment is still being echoed almost two decades later. Clinton has since been an avid advocate of reproductive rights, welfare, and gender equality.
6. Portia Simpson-Miller, President of Jamaica (2006 – 2007; January 2012 – present)
Portia Simpson-Miller was the first woman to be elected as Jamaica’s President, and has done so in two non-consecutive terms after a long political career beginning in 1974. She was named one of the World’s Most Influential People by Time Magazine in 2012, and is revered for encouraging full civil rights for gays and lesbians.
Image: OPM Jamaica
7. Rosie Corrigan, Britain’s youngest ever female mayor (May 2014 – present)
While she may not be of the same international fame as many of the other women on this list, Rosie Corrigan is worth mentioning for her youth and drive, and she’ll undoubtedly go on to do great things. While still a student at the University of Hull, the young Labour supporter was elected as Mayor of Selby in North Yorkshire aged just 21, having already served a year as Deputy Mayor. This makes her the youngest ever female mayor in Britain.
She had previously founded Selby Youth Council in order to channel her interest in politics, and now juggles her mayorship with her degree. Speaking to the Hull Daily Mail, she said: ‘I want to use this role to promote the fact that if children put their minds to it, they can achieve great things.’ Hear, hear.
Fiercely articulate, Queen Rania of Jordan is a fearless campaigner for girls’ education. She co-chairs 1Goal, which campaigns for children’s education across the world, and she pushes for an end to premature marriage and childbirth. Queen Rania is Eminent Advocate for UNICEF and Honorary Chairperson for UNGEI, as well as being founder of her own NGO, the Jordan River Foundation, which helps impoverished children in her home country. As if this wasn’t enough, she’s also a New York Times bestselling author, having written three works of fiction. She is mother to four children.
On her website, she says: ‘I just wake up and feel like a regular person. At the end of the day you are living your life for the people that you represent. It’s an honour and a privilege to have that chance to make a difference – a qualitative difference in people’s lives – and it’s my responsibility to make the most out of that opportunity.’
Image: Queen Rania official
9. Michelle Bachelet, President of Chile (2006 – 2010; March 2014 – present)
Michelle Bachelet was the first woman in Latin America to be appointed minister of defence. A lifelong activist who faced exile to Australia as a young woman, she eventually rose to become Chile’s first female President in 2006, and after leaving office, was appointed the first executive director of the newly created United Nations Entity for Gender Equality and the Empowerment of Women (UN Women). Women’s political, economic and reproductive rights have been a central tenet to her presidency, so expect more to come. She also happens to be a qualified doctor and speaks multiple languages.
10. Shirin Ebadi, human rights activist and lawyer, Iran
Although not actually a politician, Shirin Ebadi’s political work in the face of a tough government is staggering. As a lawyer, Ebadi has embraced many controversial cases in which she has defended political dissidents, resulting in her arrest numerous times; she was also one of the first female judges in Iran, although she was dismissed from her post during the Islamic Revolution of 1979. She is an internationally-recognised human rights advocate and has also established many NGOs in Iran, including the Million Signatures Campaign, which demands an end to legal discrimination against women in Iranian law.
As another Nobel Peace Prize recipient – in 2003, for ‘efforts to promote human rights, in particular, the rights of women, children, and political prisoners in Iran’ – Ebadi was the first Iranian and the first Muslim woman to be honoured with the prestigious prize.
Image: Olivier Pacteau