WOMEN’S EQUALITY FORUM: Daddy, can a man be Prime Minister?

By Gwendolyn Beetham*

When I was in graduate school in London, one of my professors told a cute story about his daughter, born during the Thatcher era, who as a small child had asked him whether a man could be Prime Minister. The point that my professor was trying to make was that having more women in positions of power does make a difference in how women’s roles are perceived by society at large.

Since Thatcher’s time, the idea that more women in the political arena will “change the face” of politics has grown in prominence. In my area of work – international development – one of the most common indices used to measure women’s ‘empowerment’ is to measure the female share of parliamentary seats. (According to the 2007/2008 Human Development Report, the top two countries were Sweden and Rwanda, with women holding 47.3 and 45.3 per cent of the parliamentary seats respectively. U.S. women held 16.3 per cent at the time.) Many organizations have also focused on getting more women into politics at the national and local levels.

While having more women (and other marginalized groups) in positions of power does help to change societal perceptions of what politics looks like, I think that there is an assumption that having higher numbers of women involved in politics will automatically lead to a change in what politics is. This is based, first, on the identity-politics-based notion that women politicians will be interested in fighting for the rights of women and, second, the idea that women are more “moral” or “ethical” than men and thus will clean up “dirty” politics. Unfortunately, these assumptions are not all that they may seem.

Firstly, women elected officials will not automatically have the rights of other women in mind (one needs only to think of Lady Thatcher herself here). Secondly, Anne-Marie Goetz argues in her recent article addressing the myth of women as the “political anti-corruption force” because women have never been a critical mass in the political realm anywhere in the world, we just don’t know what exactly women will do when they are in that position. In fact, given the opportunity, women could be just as corrupt as men in the current political environment (not to mention the fact that such an assumption places an undue burden on women as “political cleaners”). Goetz argues that, in order to have “a transformation of public institutions in the interests of gender and social equity”, we should address the roots of political corruption instead of promoting women as “incorruptible” forces.

On this Women’s Equality Day, the quest for “political equality” should move beyond the push for greater numbers. The push should instead be for a politics that is inclusive of all races, genders, sexualities, and abilities, and one with “zero-tolerance” the corruption inherent in “politics as usual”. Some women politicians might lead the way, and others might not be the incorruptible do-gooders that many of these myths frame them to be. But with such a shift in the political arena at large, a transformation in gender equality would surely follow.

*Gwendolyn Beetham is a PhD student at the Gender Institute of the London School of Economics where her research focuses on gender and international development. She has worked and consulted for national and international organizations, including the National Council for Research on Women and several United Nations agencies. She blogs on international issues regularly at Girl w/ Pen.

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