Book review of Torild Skard: Women of Power

Book review of Torild Skard: Women of Power: Half a Century of Female Presidents and Prime Ministers Worldwide

By Joanna Manganara
President of the International Alliance of Women

Torild Skard’s fascinating book on Women of Power is the first comprehensive overview of how and why women made it to the top of political leadership in the years after World War II till 2010. It presents 73 Presidents and Prime Ministers from around the world organized by chronology and geography.

A wealth of information is provided bringing in a broad historical perspective but also regional chapters offering an overview and assessment of how these women leaders accessed power in different regions. International developments, political, economic, social, cultural are also brought into the picture.

The study traces the life stories of these female leaders living in different economic and social contexts, their backgrounds educational, professional and family, growing up and environment, the influence of local community and national context, giving answers about their motives to rise in the hierarchy in the male dominated world of politics and their achievements. The aim is to get a picture as clear as possible of the various factors interacting that permit women to become national leaders.

Torild Skard moves constantly from the micro- to macro level trying to understand the interplay between global, national and individual levels as well as historical, institutional and political factors of relevance. Also providing information on how they rose to leadership positions, their difficulties as many of them came into power in periods of turbulence and crisis. These were periods of unrest and armed conflict, of transition from authoritarian to democratic rule and of depression with poverty and social distress. They also came into power in political environments that were prejudiced against female political leadership.

A number of concepts are clarified at the beginning of the book like feminism, state feminism, women’s movements, the different waves, formal political institutions that is political parties , parliaments and cabinets, economic crises and what they were about.
Also historical developments like the effect of the colonial rule that led to the Europeanization of the globe and the spread of Islam and Christianity contributing to the strengthening of male dominance in many societies.
The effect of different waves of decolonization on the formation of nation states which was accompanied by formal legal equality and secularization which expanded women’s political opportunities.

How the introduction of machines and factories during the industrial revolution and the integration of women into an emerging working class affected the rights of women.
The presentation starts with a description of the first women top leaders. They came into power in various parts of the world during the period 1960-75.

What were the general conditions that helped increase the number of female Presidents, and Prime Ministers after World War II ?

The first women came to power often as a result of family connections
S. Banandaraike and Isabel Peron were both widows of politicians while Indira Gandi was the daughter of the first Indian Prime Minister.
Out of the first five female pioneers only Golda Meir in Israel was elected on her own merits.

Most of women female leaders rose to the top after 1990 whereas 20 women became President or Prime Ministers during the 30 years from 1960 to 1990. This figure has more than doubled in the 20 years that followed from 1991 to 2010. A total of 53 women rose to the level national leaders.

According to Skard there were three paths for these women to struggle upwards a) as substitutes who take over a family member’s position of power b) as insiders or climbers in the political parties c) as outsiders who obtain a position of power on the basis of occupational activities, participation in NGO’s or at grassroots level outside the parties.
In 2010 19% of women top leaders had accessed power by being substitutes, 68% were insiders and 15% were outsiders. Asia and Latin America were the only regions with substitutes. On the other hand there were no outsiders there. The existence of substitutes reflects important family dynasties. In Latin America there were the same number of substitutes and insiders.

In the other regions the Eastern and Western industrial countries, the Caribbean and sub-Saharan Africa the women mainly rose to the top through political parties. The exception was 11 outsiders who were distributed among the four regions.
So more than half of women leaders made it by climbing within a political party. This was made possible as democracy expanded to more and more countries over the globe . One of the conclusions of this book is that a major factor to make it possible for women to become national leaders is a democratic political system as democracy is based on the principle that people are equal and it is the people that should govern. Women constitute half of the electorate so they should also participate in decision making at least in theory. The great majority of women national leaders came to power in countries characterized as democracies. There were 62 women leaders in 48 democracies both liberal and emerging but most in liberal democracies There were 37 women leaders in 26 liberal democracies and 25 women leaders in 22 emerging democracies. The difference was that the emerging democracies were less stable and civil rights were not as deeply rooted in the more established liberal democracies.

But if democracy is necessary it is not sufficient.
Another condition that played an other important role in making possible for women to access political power was socioeconomic development that has contributed to women getting better health, more education and participating in the labor market to a greater extent.
In 2010 40% of industrial countries have or have had one or more women heads of state and government. This has only been the case for about 20% of developing countries. Thus the conditions in industrial countries were more favorable for female leadership than in developing countries.

The women’s movement has been an other important factor which has affected women’s political representation.An international women’s movement arose during the 19th century in industrial countries and their colonies among others in Sri Lanka and India where S Bandaranaike and Indira Gandi became Prime Ministers. The movement focused on a number of women’s rights in particular the right to vote.

Inspired by a new wave of feminism in the 70’s women started to participate in formal politics. The second wave of feminism challenged the conventional notion of politics with its focus on the personal is political. It demanded representation of women in public life. Defined gender as a set of social meanings attached to the categories of male and female. It also defined patriarchy as a system of social structures and practices in which men dominate and oppress women that should be subverted.

Governments responded to the new feminist activism and the UN proclaimed 1975 as International women’s year. The first major international Women’s Conference was held in Mexico in the same year followed by other major Conferences in Copenhagen 1980, Nairobi in 1985 and Beijing in 1995.

These Conferences adopted Declarations, Plans of Actions and Recommendations acknowledging that discrimination against women was a persistent problem worldwide and calling for equality between women and men including the political representation of women.
From 1975 onwards the United Nations and the international women’s movement supported each other mutually. The women’s movement presented demands and formulated policies while the UN promoted change, collected data, organized debates and set standards. Together they put pressure on national parties and governments.

Finally one of the developments that has affected women’s opportunities in the political field has been the communication revolution over the past few decades that has increasingly made the world into one. People, knowledge and ideas move across borders with increasing speed.

The reporting of news, mass media and the internet are dominated by the West.
This can reinforce gender stereotypes and the discrimination of women but women activists also use national and international media and the internet to attract attention and promote an international women’s movement.

Did these top female politicians have qualifications and skills?
A first answer is that they had courage and perseverance. Women top leaders were often involved in tough power struggles.Another conclusion is that these women made it despite the labyrinth of challenges they had to face. Although men also faced obstacles in their struggle for top leadership, women faced many more. According to Skard this image of labyrinth is much more accurate than the glass ceiling which gives the impression that there is only a single barrier that stops women and once broken then it is done. Women constantly encounter barriers that they must overcome, take detours, go back ,search along hidden paths.

So it was not a coincidence that there were women available who were both well qualified and willing to assume office although chance did play a role in women’s access to top positions. Most women political leaders had extraordinary qualifications, high education and long professional careers. Women’s motivation to pursue an extremely demanding political career had rarely to do with the fact that they were women and they wanted to serve women. Some mentioned the family, others to serve the country or to follow the policies of the party.

How did it happen that some women rose to the top in the political hierarchies instead of men?
A considerable number of them rose because of their gender as the importance of democracy increased and women’s movements became stronger many male leaders saw the women’s gender as a positive aspect because they could appeal to women voters. So men politicians exploited gender to their advantage.

It was also an advantage for women that they stood outside the political struggles between men so they could play the role of mediators and be accepted by different male parties. There were also those that were often asked in cases when the male leaders disappeared. Others were asked in crisis situations on in the case of a change. Gender was also important in these cases.
A small percentage ran for election on their own and won.

Can women politicians influence policies and the political culture if they constitute a critical minority?
The fact that women obtain top leadership positions does not mean that policies necessarily become more egalitarian. The possibilities of pursuing women friendly policies have been severely limited and the top leaders had to resist significant counter forces to help strengthen the position of women.

Moreover regarding their cabinets only 11 female leaders had 20-29% women ministers and 14 had 30% and more. It was particularly in Western countries that there were women ministers.
Concerning parliament’s 13 women leaders experienced that the representation of women was 20-29% and only 11 that it was 30% and more.

There was a tendency that cabinets had more women ministers the stronger the impact that the top women leaders had on the appointments.Part of the answer to this question is the approach to power that these female politicians adopted and if their women ministers or parliamentary representatives adopted the same position in particular if there was a considerable minority of them.

If they adopted power as a resource for redistribution than this kind of power cannot challenge patriarchal structures. It can of course promote gender equality and women’s human rights to a considerable extent.

Power is not a thing that can be distributed and redistributed but a relationship. This distributive model tends to presuppose an atomistic understanding of power.As a result it fails to illuminate the broader social, institutional and structural context that shapes individual relations of power. The distributive model of power conceives of power statically while power exists only in action.

The French feminists Luce Irigaray and Helene Cixous urge feminists to question the definition of power in phallocratic cultures for if feminists aim simply for a change in the distribution of power leaving intact the power structure itself then they are resubjecting themselves deliberately or not to a phallocratic order that is to a cultural order that privileges the masculine. (Irigaray 1985,81) If we wish to subvert the phallocrartic order according to Irigaray we will have to reject a definition of power of the masculine type.The masculine power should be understood as domination or control that is as an unjust power over relationships.

What kind of power did female leaders exercise and what was the impact of it on gender equality and women’s rights?
Women rose to top leadership on men’s terms. On their way through the male dominated political institutions they were obliged to compromise and adapt in order to succeed. Women had to fight for issues that were prioritized by men so that they had limited possibility to promote policies in favor of women.

According to Skard women top leaders can be placed in three categories a) conforming to the norms and values of male dominated politics b) compromising between men’s and women’s interests c) challenging male domination and promoting women friendly policies, recruiting women, introducing gender quotas, passing laws or adopting measures supporting women. Only 1/3 of women can be described as challenging. However the vast majority did some things for women. It is important to note that no right wing leaders were challenging, only left wing and center leaders.

Even if a large percentage rose to political leadership on men’s terms the fact that women became part of the political leadership is important because they provide the role model that women can make it, that they are equally capable with men even more as they have to deal with a very resistant to women political environment.
A woman politician in South Africa once said: “I disagree with everything Margaret Thatcher stands for but if she could do what she wanted I can too.” In addition the majority of the women top leaders contributed to strengthening the position of women. They spoke in favor of women’s causes and supported measures benefiting women. However patriarchal structures still persisted.

Even in cases where women female leaders adopted an approach to power that challenged male domination that is in cases where they adopted a feminist kind of power and they had a critical minority of women ministers they did not succeed in completely subverting patriarchal structures.

This feminist understanding of power is actually a type of power that is distinct from male domination because it aims at empowering those over whom it is exercised. (Helen Cixous 1977, 483-84) It is an ability, a capacity, a transformational power.
Norway is an example of power exercised by female leaders and politicians that has challenged male domination. That is a transformational kind of power.
Norway has one of the highest percentages of women in politics. Already in 1986 Prime Minister Gro Harlem Brutland created worldwide sensation with her women’s cabinet in 1986. It was formed on the basis of a party decision demanding 40% women in decision making bodies.

According to Torild Skard Norway is often called a land of equality because it is among the countries obtaining the highest score in international rankings of gender development and gender gap indexes. But challenges remain despite the considerable participation of women in politics and women’s quota in boardrooms and a good gender balance in higher education. Gender stereotypes persist as well as male dominance and discrimination of women.
So even if female leaders adopted a feminist approach to power and they constituted a critical minority that was not enough to challenge patriarchal structures.

What should be done
For women many things have to come together, society must be prepared, the political system must be accessible. Women also need suitable skills and support from their environment.
To achieve this a women’s movement must exist that together with feminist women politicians as well as men questions the established gender system and promotes demands for change. It is also very important that all these voices are heard and that men are also implicated in these changes and that they support them.

Another important issue is the accountability of governments concerning the commitments they have undertaken by ratifying CEDAW and signing the Beijing Platform of Action.
The women’s movement should monitor the situation.
Accountability refers to the obligation of those in authority to take responsibility for their actions to answer for them to those that are affected. Accountability is also empowering people in particular women to articulate their priorities taking more control over their lives.

Torild Skard in her recommendations puts an emphasis on political institutions and political culture.Political parties, parliaments and cabinets which are strongly male dominated constitute the main obstacle to women’s equal political participation. She asks for institutional changes so that they become open, democratic, and inclusive and that they safeguard women’s interests on an equal basis with men’s.

She also asks for democratic governance with emphasis on human rights, participation and justice. Public and private institutions should be responsive, open and accountable, resources and services should be organized in such a way that there is a just access. Valuation of care work must be increased and men must assume their share.
Furthermore there must be an efficient state characterized by social justice and equality that has the capacity and resources to meet women’s needs, implement measures and be accountable for women friendly policies.

Torild Skard adopts the approach of the Beijing Platform of Action which changed the goal concerning the number of women in positions at decision making from a quantative to a qualitative one emphasizing that it was not women but institutions that had to change.
Gender mainstreaming was launched as a major strategy to empower women and transform structures of inequality.

Governments should revise the electoral system to make it women friendly.
They should increase social scientific research of the political system including gender dimensions to bring about institutional changes that will promote women’s needs.
However it is questionable whether these changes would help women to become equal citizens with men if traditional power relations between the genders are not changed.
Also an economic and human development that can ensure women as well as men satisfactory income, education and health is an important condition in order to have a women friendly democracy.

Other conditions are the financial support of women’s organizations to participate in political deliberations at all levels. Making known to the general public CEDAW and the Beijing Programme of action.

Finally Torild Skard is of the view that gender equality is unlikely to become a reality in societies where primarily neoliberal economic thinking and pressures determine policies.
The ongoing financial crisis and the related economic recession is having a differential impact on women because their economic position at the start of the crisis was not equal to that of men. As a result poverty has been feminized and violence structural and individual has been intensified. Women carry escalating domestic responsibilities and become integrated into a labor market that is increasingly precarious and unregulated.
Structural adjustment programs have not integrated a gender perspective while austerity measures do not offer sustainable solution to the crisis with disastrous effects on people’s lives, especially women’s lives. Such experiences serve to deepen women’s poverty, inequality, exclusion and violence.

At the same time feminism seems to be in crisis with prominent sectors of it that have become institutionalized and professionalized.
My conclusion is rather pessimistic as decades and decades after women started claiming political rights and the governments committed themselves to recognize and observe these rights there are still very few women in legislative and executive bodies. In 2010 they contributed 19% of the world’s members of parliament, 16% of the ministers, 8% of the heads of the state and governments.

However women continue to resist in both familiar and more inventive ways attempting in so doing to redefine the nature of feminism and politics and to challenge patriarchal and neoliberal orthodoxies.