The leadership of women is certainly not new. History of the world is full of references to queens who have reigned independently and as co-regents to shape the fates of their nations. Ancient Greece, Egypt, India, and many other civilizations document the wisdom and success of their women leaders. The 20th century saw the rise of some exceptional women such as Coco Chanel, Eleanor Roosevelt, Julia Child, Madonna, Marie Curie, Mother Teresa, Rosa Parks, and many others. Most of them went on to become successful leaders. Does gender have anything to do with leadership, though? We attempt to take a look.
The Age of Queens
The history of the world has been shaped by some very exceptional queens who were known not only for their judicious administration but also for their strategic acumen and able leadership.
Queen Victoria (1819-1901), the monarch of the United Kingdom and the head of a vast British Empire, may well be considered the most powerful woman in the history of the world. Besides having inspired the golden age of art and culture - the Victorian Era, the queen's empire spanned across six continents and was home to about 425 million people. Victoria was best known for her support of sweeping socio-economic reforms across the empire and the abolishment of slavery.
Empress Catherine the Great (1729 - 1796) reigned over and expanded her Russian empire between 1762 and 1796 - an exceptional woman of grit and power in the eastern part of the world. Born a minor Polish princess, Catherine married Peter III and overthrew her husband, an immature monarch, to assume the throne in 1762. Catharine led conquests that expanded the Russian Empire from the Baltic Sea (west) to the Pacific Ocean (east) and Arctic Ocean (north) to Black Sea (south). Besides administering sweeping reforms and throwing open the country to western culture, Catherine dealt with the Pugachev Revolt with an iron hand.
Queen Elizabeth I (1533 -1603), better known as the Virgin Queen is known for her victory over the Spanish Armada. The last Tudor monarch, Elizabeth was instrumental in introducing both Protestantism and Renaissance in England. Her encouragement of great thinkers, musicians, writers, and artists is cited as the primary reason why the United Kingdom grew to become an intellectual hub.
Eleanor of Aquitaine (1122 - 1204) is considered to be one of the most powerful queens of the Middle Ages. Besides being the Duchess of Aquitaine by birth, Eleanor reigned as queen-consort of France and later became the queen of England. When Richard I, her son, joined the crusade in 1190, 68 year old Eleanor became acting regent.
Isabella of Castile (1451 - 1504), the Spanish queen is perhaps best known for commissioning the voyage of Christopher Columbus despite much opposition. This was of major significance in Spanish colonization and in Spain's ascent as a major world power. Along with her husband Ferdinand, Isabella initiated the Spanish Inquisition which led to the conversion of thousands of Jews and Muslims and the persecution of thousands as well.
The pages of history speak of numerous other queens from every part of the world, who have wielded power to make or mar the futures of the people. From Queen Hatshepsut (1508 BC - 1458 BC) to Queen Maria Theresa (1717 -1780); from Razia Sultan (1205 - 1240) to Empress Theodora (500 - 548); from Empress Wu Zetain (625 - 705) to Rani Sada Kaur (1762 - 1832); from Empress Dowager Cixi (1835 - 1908) to Rani Mangammal (1689-1704), women have assumed political and military leadership cutting across ages and geographies.
Despite having been ruled by illustrious queens, women's rights were often subject to restrictions such as marital status, economic background, and race, and were altogether denied in many parts of the world. By the late-18th century France voiced the need to enforce women's suffrage - the right of every woman to exercise her franchise and to run for office. This sparked off an almost global movement to gain woman's suffrage.
By the late 19th century women in nations like Britain, Finland, and Sweden, were successful in gaining limited rights. The International Council of Women was set up in 1888 and the International Woman Suffrage Alliance in 1904. New Zealand became the first country to extend women the right to cast their mandate in 1893. The very next year South Australia also granted women the right to vote and the right to run for Parliament. The first female members of parliament in the world were from the Grand Duchy of Finland in 1907.
By the end of World War I many other countries including France (1944) and Switzerland (1971) adopted women's suffrage. In 1979 the United Nations adopted the Convention on the Elimination of All Forms of Discrimination Against Women and emphasized the need for women's suffrage.
Taking Up Political Leadership
From having been denied suffrage to taking up the reigns of administration and heading states/governments has been the most significant achievement of women in most parts of the world. Here's MapsofWorld's compilation of some of the most iconic women political leaders of the modern world. Margaret Thatcher (UK) -
The first and only female Prime Minister of the United Kingdom, Margaret Thatcher, served three consecutive terms. A dominant figure in European and world politics, Thatcher was known for her radical foreign policies and advocacy of sweeping economic reforms.
Indira Gandhi (India) -
The second woman to head a state in the world, Indira Gandhi served three consecutive terms and a fourth term between 1966 and 1984 as the Prime Minister of India. Controversial at the least, Indira was known for a ushering in major electoral, industrial, and agricultural reforms in the country. Her foreign policy was radical and she headed India through turbulent political times. She was known to be the only Prime Minister to have declared a State of Emergency in India.
Benazir Bhutto (Pakistan) -
Known for her tough stance with regard to foreign policies, Benazir Bhutto was the only woman Prime Minister of Pakistan. A politically astute leader, Bhutto implemented many state capitalist policies in Pakistan.
Golda Meir (Israel) -
Nicknamed "The Iron Lady of Israeli Politics", Golda Meir assumed the office of Israel's Prime Minister in 1969 at the age of 70. Her austerity and honesty made her the most popular woman to represent her country. David Ben Gurion referred to Meir as the only man in the cabinet.
Johanna Sigurdardottir (Iceland) -
In 2009 Johanna Sigurdardottir was elected Prime Minister of Iceland. Sigurdardottir is the first openly gay woman to be chosen head of the government in the world. She is also the only leader to have wed a same-sex partner while in office.
Sirimavo Bandaranaike (Sri Lanka) -
The world's first woman Prime Minister, Sirimavo Bandaranaike served as the Prime Minister of Sri Lanka thrice. Between 1994 and 1995, Sri Lanka came to be the only nation with both female Prime Minister and President. During this period, Sirimavo Bandaranaike was the Prime Minister and her daughter Chandrika Kumaratunga was the President of the country.
The Golden Age of Women's Leadership
The 21st century seems to be the time for women's leadership to truly come of age. Women now not only head states and polities but also global businesses and multinational corporations. According to the Forbes, the 10 most powerful women of 2011 were -
Angela Merkel (Germany) - The first woman Chancellor of Germany, Merkel is often referred to as the de facto leader of the European Union. Merkel also served as the President of the G20 states and of the European Council (2007). She has been a prominent figure in the management of the Euro zone crisis. In 2010, Forbes called her the most powerful woman in the world.
Hillary Clinton (USA) - The 67th United States Secretary of State, Hillary Clinton had also been the First Lady of the US between 1993 and 2001. Clinton, The New York Senator between 2000 and 2009 has in her current office been the face of US foreign policies and leadership amidst the Arab Spring and Libyan crisis.
Dilma Rousseff (Brazil) - The first woman President of Brazil, Dilma Rousseff, is an iconic woman instrumental in leading one of the fastest developing democracies in the world. Rousseff's rigid anti-corruption stance has been the highlight of her tenure.
Indra Nooyi (United States) - Heading the largest food and beverage business in the United States is no mean feat. Indra Nooyi, however, has been at ease as the CEO of PepsiCo, which boasts of an annual revenue of $60 billion, greater than the GDP of some countries. Nooyi oversees PepsiCo's staff of about 300,000 across the world.
Sheryl Sandberg (United States) - After having served as the Chief of Staff of the United States Department of Treasury and the Vice President of Global Online Sales and Operations at Google, Sheryl Sandberg joined Facebook as the COO in 2008. In June 2012 she was elected to join the board of directors.
Melinda Gates (United States) - The co-founder and co-chair of the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation, Melinda Gates is the wife of Bill Gates and among the most influential women in the world.
Sonia Gandhi - Widow of the former Indian Prime Minister Rajiv Gandhi, Italian-born Sonia Gandhi is one of the most influential, and powerful politicians of the Indian sub-continent, despite her continued refusal to herself take on the Prime Ministerial office. Gandhi has been listed as the 11th most powerful person in the world. Her health has been a matter of speculation, recently.
Michelle Obama - Wife of the incumbent President of the United States, Barack Obama, First Lady Michelle Obama is more popular in the US than the President himself. An anti-child obesity activist, the First Lady is known for her excellent fashion sense and love of travel. She has undertaken many official visits and undertaken relationship building exercises.
Christine Lagarde (France) - The former French Minister of Economic Affairs, Finances and Industry, Christine Lagarde, was the first woman to head the economic affairs portfolio of a G8 nation. Lagarde is currently heading the International Monetary Fund and has been rated the 9th most powerful woman of the world by Forbes.
rene Rosenfeld (United States) - The CEO and Chairman of Kraft Foods, Irene Rosenfeld holds a PhD in marketing and statistics and is an astute leader. Rosenfeld has recently announced a split of Kraft Food into a snack business (est. revenue $32 billion) and a grocery business (est revenue $16 billion).
The past few years have seen the rise of women in every sphere - from Lady Gaga, Beyonce, and JK Rowling in arts and entertainment to Oprah Winfrey and Jill Abramson in media and Susan Wojcicki, Anne Sweeney, and Ursula Burns in business. About 20 nations currently have women heading either the state or the government.
A Matter Of Perception
In 2008, the Pew Research Center conducted a Social and Demographic Trends survey of 2,250 American adults. While about 69% of the respondents thought that both men and women make equally good political leaders, about 21% said men make better political leaders while only 5% were inclined to believe that women made better political leaders. Surprisingly, in the same survey, about 50% respondents thought women are more honest than men while only 20% believed men are more honest than women, 38% thought women are more intelligent but only 14% thought men are more intelligent, a staggering 80% believed women were more compassionate than men, and over 62% agreed that women were more creative than men. The belief that men make better political leaders seems to stem from a social perception that men are more decisive, says the survey.
In 2011, when Joseph Folkman and Jack Zinger did a research study of 7,280 leaders and subsequently conducted a survey, they found that out of sixteen leadership traits women were perceived to clearly outdo men in over twelve. Two significant traits where women scored far above men in the survey were driving for results and taking initiative. This, perhaps, reflects the change in perception in traditionally masculine behavioral traits. Despite a number of countries such as Saudi Arabia denying women basic rights such as the right to drive, women have successfully taken on leadership in almost all fields. Is this the golden age of women's leadership?