Week 15: Global Women in Leadership


Photo of Wilma Mankiller, Former Chief of the Cherokee Nation
Wilma Mankiller, former chief of the Cherokee Nation (photo credit: James Schnepf).


“Global Women in Leadership” examines women who achieved the highest forms of political leadership outside of the U.S. polity. Women have become heads of state, including Indigenous nations, just not in the U.S. Such women offer diverse approaches to leadership, ranging from “iron ladies” to empathetic consensus builders. Some women in the Global South, particularly those from former colonies, come from a long trajectory of anti-imperialism and national liberation that shaped gendered political culture.


Secondary Readings

Women Leadership in the Global South (Mid-1900s to Present)

Prakash, Gyan. Emergency Chronicles: Indira Gandhi and Democracy’s Turning Point. Princeton: Princeton University Press, 2019.

Beginning in 1975, Prime Minister of India Indira Ghandi ordered nationwide censorship of the press and the suspension of constitutional and civil rights, elections, and judicial review of executive powers. With impunity, Indira Ghandi crushed her political opponents, arrested grassroots activists, demolished slums, coerced reluctant officials at all levels, and ordered mass sterilization to curb population growth. The 21-month period of repression under Ghandi’s regime is popularly remembered as “The Emergency.” In Emergency Chronicles, Gyan Prakash argues that the Emergency was not an aberrant deviation from Indian political culture; rather it was cloaked in a constitutional disguise. Prakash notes that Ghandi’s distortion of a democratic system must be “understood in relation to the larger history of postcolonial India” (38). Chapter two of the book shows that the challenges that riddled the founding moment of India—as a nascent republic emerging from British rule and World War II—laid the groundwork for Ghandi’s regime. According to Prakesh, independence leaders grappled to find a balance between the extent of state power and democratic stability. British India dramatically expanded state power during World War II, as colonial officials mobilized labor and resources through repressive policies. The process of independence also saw brutal conflicts, leaving people and leaders weary and in favor of a strong, centralized state that would unify “multiple tongues, regions, religions, and cultures” (51). In the context of post-war reconstruction, decolonization, ethnic and religious violence, and country-wide unrest, nationalist elites created a constitution that empowered centralized authority, which they hoped would unify and modernize India. Here, Prakesh asserts that embedded in India’s Constitution are “two voices—that of the sovereign people and that of the administrator”; the latter is meant to bring about social transformation but also “harked back to colonialism,” specifically the role of a colonial administrator (173). Under Indira Ghandi’s regime, the administrator voice of the Constitution trumped the voice of the sovereign people, as Ghandi overrode civil and constitutional rights to bring about her vision of social change.

Moghadam, Valentine and Fatemeh Haghighatjoo. "Women and Political Leadership in an Authoritarian Context: A Case Study of the Sixth Parliament in the Islamic Republic of Iran." Politics & Gender 12, no. 1 (2016): 168–197.

This article takes Iranian women’s political representation as a case study to shed light on women’s struggles within—and means of navigating—a male-dominated, authoritarian regime. Authors Moghadam and Haghighatjoo draw upon existing literature that show a direct correlation between women’s access to political power and gender equality in a given society. Moghadam and Haghighatjoo find that, similar to other cases, female political leaders in Iran have the capacity to effect social change and steer policies toward gender equality. The article also centers the political life of author Haghighatjoo and members of Iran’s Women’s Caucus to explore the ways women bring gender issues to the table, push forth actual institutional changes, and promote women’s political participation. The article offers a sobering view of the constraints and obstacles circumscribing Iranian women’s political participation but nevertheless gives a critical assessment of their achievements and legacies.

Htun, Mala N. and Mark Jones. “Engendering the Right to Participate in Decision-Making: Electoral Quotas and Women’s Leadership in Latin America.” In Gender and the Politics of Rights and Democracy in Latin America, edited by Nikki Craske and Maxine Molyneaux, 32-56. London: Palgrave, 2002.

This chapter analyzes quota laws (laws that establish a minimum level of women's participation as candidates in national elections) in twelve Latin American countries. These quota laws are the product of women's movement demands to have women gain access to decision-making power. The authors show two effects of quota laws. They have been mildly effective in increasing women's presence in legislatures. When quotas do work, women's increased presence in politics has shifted the terms of legislative debates. But broad-based political alliances, rather than quotas, are what have produced beneficial legislative action for women. These small and uneven gains in women's leadership are due to a failure to reform the institutions that make quotas work. Despite this, enactment of quota laws has symbolic importance.

Women Leadership in the Pacific Rim

Niu, Greta Ai-Yu Niu. “Wives, Widows, and Workers: Corazon Aquino, Imelda Marcos, and the Filipina 'Other'.” NWSA Journal 11, no. 2 (Summer, 1999): 88–102.

Niu’s article takes the public lives of Imelda Marcos and Corazon Aquino as starting points in understanding the ways imperialism constructs and perpetuates gender, class, and racial inequalities. In particular, Niu looks at the complicity of Marcos and Aquino in the promotion of sex-based tourism industries in the Philippines as well as the exploitation of Filipino workers’ labor abroad. As the wife of Philippine dictator Ferdinand Marcos, Imelda Marcos gained international prominence by also playing up her “exotic Asian feminine role” (90). Niu focuses on the ways Imelda Marcos used her image and Orientalized her body to maintain political support and power. On the other end of the spectrum is Ferdinand Marcos’s successor President Corazon Aquino, who calculatedly embodied the opposite of the extravagant Imelda Marcos. In spite of this, both women came from elite families who held political power since the Spanish era. As president, Aquino supported the interests of large export firms, perpetuating the Philippine economy’s reliance on exports and tourism. Niu argues that both elite women obscure the experiences of Filipina women who take on sex work and domestic jobs abroad; Marcos and Aquino also promote the exploitation of these workers’ bodies, either through self-presentation or actual policies. Niu also recounts the resistance to the imperialist and gendered construction and exploitation of Filipina women as she explores the work of GABRIELA, a women’s workers’ group that supports Filipina women throughout the world.

Lee, Young-Im and Farida Jalalzai. “President Park Geun-Hye of South Korea: A Woman President without Women?” Politics & Gender 13, no. 4 (2017): 597–617.

This article discusses President Park Geun-Hye’s efforts to advance South Korean women’s interests. Lee and Jalalzai explore the factors, such as her conservatism, that prevents Park from radically pushing forth women-centered policies. Nevertheless, the authors argue that Park’s presidency is more than a descriptive representation, where a woman leader only stands as a representative by virtue of her gender. The article looks at Park’s rise to power in relation to other women’s emergence as leaders on the global stage and examines her experience and career prior to becoming president. Park was primed to take on political office, coming from a family with means and political influence. Turning attention to Park’s policy proposals, the authors note that her current silence on women’s issues stands in contrast with her professed advocacy during her campaign trail and her administration’s increased funding for women-related policies. Park supports the Ministry of Gender Equality, building upon previous presidents’ efforts to undermine gender discrimination in employment and education. Park’s priorities include increasing women’s participation in the labor market by providing public funding for childcare and daycare services and expanding both maternity and paternity leave. In light of Park’s women-centered policies, the authors argue that, overall, Park’s administration “enhanced women’s substantive representation in some aspects,” even as she failed to nominate more women as cabinet members (612). Park was recently impeached at the time that the authors were writing the article, and, as a result, they note that their findings and assessments are preliminary.

Comparative Studies on Women Leaders

Jensen, Jane S. Women Political Leaders: Breaking the Highest Glass Ceiling. Palgrave Macmillan, 2008.

Jensen’s Women Political Leaders examines why there are so few women in politics as well as the experiences of women who have held the highest political office in their respective countries during modern times. Women have been historically socialized to eschew public and political engagement, but nevertheless, as Jensen reminds us, several women—from medieval times to the present—have strategically ruled kingdoms, empires, and nations. Jensen also discusses the changing attitudes toward women’s political participation, particularly how certain gendered beliefs have broken down to pave the way for women around the world to gain the right to vote. In places where there are deeply embedded traditions of egalitarianism, women enjoy greater access to political offices. Jensen asserts that Scandinavian states have high numbers of women’s representation in politics due to these states’ cultural and historical traditions that allow women to participate in the political arena. Moreover, the role of a woman leader’s family and upbringing is also an important factor. As such, Jensen explores how women politicians were primed to take on leadership roles and the challenges they faced in seeking office. Lastly, Jensen assesses the tenure of women leaders to shed light on how gender informs their experience and performance.

Guy, Mary E. and Samantha J. Larson. “Breaking the Mold: Women as International Leaders.” In Governing in a Global World: Women in Public Service, edited by Maria J. D’Agostino and Marilyn Marks Rubin, 48-74. New York: Routledge, 2017.

This chapter considers the key role the United Nations has played in providing a forum for making women's issues visible to the international community. It then includes biographies of ten "extraordinary" women, selected by the authors for their lasting legacies and influence that extended beyond their nations, and to represent diverse political, social, and geographic contexts: Eleanor Roosevelt (United States), Madeleine Albright (United States), Michelle Bachelet (Chile), Sirimavo Bandaranaike (Sri Lanka), Benazir Bhutto (Pakistan), Indira Gandhi (India), Ellen Johnson Sirleaf (Liberia), Golda Meir (Israel), Angela Merkel (Germany), and Margaret Thatcher (United Kingdom). Though the authors found no single pattern for all these women in their rise to leadership, all ten were either directly or indirectly linked to the UN.

Additional Secondary Readings

Skard, Torild. Women of Power: Half a Century of Female Presidents and Prime Ministers Worldwide. Bristol University Press, 2014.

Adler, Nancy J., and Joyce S. Osland. “Women Leading Globally: What We Know, Thought We Knew and Need to Know about Leadership in the 21st Century” Advances in Global Leadership 9 (2016): 15-56.

Montecinos, Verónica. Women Presidents and Prime Ministers in Post-Transition Democracies. London: Palgrave Macmillian, 2017.

Primary Sources

Lili‘uokalani, Hawaii’s Story by Hawaii’s Queen. Boston: Lee and Shepard, 1898.

Queen Lili‘uokalani, the last sovereign of Hawai‘i, authors the story of her life in this memoir and lays out her arguments against the annexation of Hawai‘i by the United States. She used this work to counter the racist representations of her and her people in the US during the debates around annexation.

Gordon, Beate Sirota. The Only Woman in the Room. Naperville: Sourcebooks Landmark, 1997.

Gordon recounts her involvement in drafting the new postwar Japanese Constitution in 1946, and how she included material on women’s rights and equality.

Mankiller, Wilma Pearl. Mankiller: A Chief and Her People. New York: St. Martin’s Griffin, 2000.

Mankiller (Cherokee) tells her personal history, interweaving it with that of her people. She traces her development as a leader, from her activism beginning in the 1960s to her time as the first woman principal chief of the Cherokee Nation.

Women Leaders and the Pandemic

Chamorro-Premuzic, Tomas, and Avivah Wittenberg-Cox. “Will the Pandemic Reshape Notions of Female Leadership?Harvard Business Review, June 26, 2020.

White, Tracie. “Women leaders shine during COVID-19 pandemic.” Scope, May 12, 2020.

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