Women at the wheel

| October 4, 2012 | 0 Comments

The world’s top-10 most powerful female politicians

By Wolfgang Depner

 

Why do so few women enter politics? This familiar, yet frustrating question looms large behind this list of the 10 most powerful female leaders currently holding office around the globe.

Some have blamed the absence of women in politics on pervasive patterns of social learning that emphasize the maleness of politics. Others, particularly, but not exclusively Marxists, have focused on economic explanations in blaming the traditional sexual division of labour for not ameliorating the ambitions and aptitudes of women. Sylvia Bashevkin, a University of Toronto political science professor and one of Canada’s foremost academic authorities on women in politics, has recently theorized that too many men and women feel viscerally uncomfortable about granting women genuine political power.

While modern voters may talk a good game about electing more women, she concludes that their actions generally suggest otherwise. Women who wish to participate in (elected) politics might never be able to satisfy the ever-changing expectations of the electorate, says Prof. Bashevkin, who draws on several Canadian examples to prove her equation that “women plus power equals discomfort.” Consider Flora MacDonald, who could have become the first woman to lead a major Canadian party in 1976, if only more of her male Tory colleagues had kept their initial promise to elect her leader.

Does this preceding commentary on the possible cause(s) of female under-representation matter? Yes, because it may point out the path towards possible remedies. Unfortunately, the size and scope of this survey will deny readers the benefits of discussing the pros and cons of possible solutions such as quotas. Nor will this survey attempt to offer a definitive answer to a question that might be as important as our opening query: If we accept the premise that men handle most matters of state, does their domination ultimately matter? Would human history have taken a different course if more women had been in charge?

While such questions encourage an element of speculation, only the most naive would query the point that women must play the political game by different rules than men, starting with certain biological realities. Women must also confront different expectations about their societal roles and physical appearance. Satisfying said demands is difficult in any professional context, but even more so in the political arena, a field as petty as it is unforgiving. It is, perhaps, no wonder then that women find it difficult to establish and maintain political careers that lead them to the very top. Bashevkin quantifies this relationship with a short, but insightful observation: “the higher, the fewer.”

Things, however, are changing, particularly in northern Europe, where the Scandinavian countries, Germany and the United Kingdom have had a long postwar history of electing women to the highest offices of their respective political systems. Comparable comments also apply (albeit to a lesser degree) to certain corners of the North American continent.

An evolution is also evident elsewhere. Consider Latin America and the Caribbean. “Once a caldron of machismo and gender inequality,” as The New York Times recently described the region, it now features a growing number of female politicians occupying top positions, including the respective presidencies of regional powers and rivals Brazil and Argentina. Other notable female politicians in the region include Josefina Vázquez Mota, the runner-up in the recent Mexican presidential election, Josefina Laura Chinchilla of Costa Rica and Portia Simpson-Miller of Jamaica, along with a host of others. This said, the recent Mexican elections emphasized the struggles women continue to face as a former Playboy Playmate, serving as an usher during a televised debate, stole the show.

Turning to Asia, parts of it have had a history of female leadership, with the proviso that these leaders have often benefited from being part of a political dynasty founded and headed by a powerful patriarch. Such has been the case in India, Pakistan and South Korea. The near absence of political rights for women in the Islamic Middle East and China is arguably far more indicative of the overall situation than any of the past success stories. Women have also played a part in the politics of Africa, but mainly as the unwilling victims of environmental destruction, starvation, rape and war. Often lacking the most basic resources to sustain themselves and their families in the face of prolonged, often brutal conflicts, African women have found it nearly impossible to make their voices heard. Notable exceptions include Wangari Muta Maathai, the late 2004 Nobel Peace Prize laureate.

Mindful of this reality, this list has tried to capture the current face of female leadership around the world. Criteria for inclusion include the importance of the post held by the person, the significance of the country as measured by its influence on global affairs, geographic diversity and other intangible considerations.
Consider, for example, Jóhanna Sigurðardóttir, the prime minister of Iceland. While Iceland hardly “matters” on the global stage, her unexpected rise as her country’s first female and openly homosexual prime minister says something larger about the struggles of women.

Also consider Sheikh Hasina and Khaleda Zia. Both women made this list because their invariably intertwined political careers have shaped Bangladesh — a country of 150 million people — for decades. Their story also clashes with the romantic concept that a world run by female politicians might be radically different.

 

Angela Merkel has been given the nickname “Madame Non” for her insistence on austerity measures in the EU.

Angela Merkel has been given the nickname “Madame Non” for her insistence on austerity measures in the EU.

1. Angela Merkel
German chancellor

Angela Merkel was once known as the “girl” of Helmut Kohl, the unifier of Germany, for many he was the first to discover her political talents after the demise of East Germany, where she grew up and studied nuclear physics. Fellow Christian Democrats now call this childless daughter of a Protestant pastor “Mutti,” the German diminutive of Mother.
The media, meanwhile, call her “Madame Non” for insisting on austerity measures during the current European sovereign debt crisis. Angry mobs in Greece have burned her in effigy wearing a Nazi uniform and insignia. The New Statesman has called her “the most dangerous German leader since Hitler,” depicting her as a Terminator, the cybernetic killing machine played by Arnold Schwarzenegger. Italian president Silvio Berlusconi has made unprintable remarks about her physical appearance. U.S. President Barack Obama has given her the Presidential Medal of Freedom and depends indirectly on her abilities to win his re-election campaign. International Monetary Fund director Christine Lagarde has bought her trinkets from Hermès and shares her taste for classical music.
Members of the German national football (soccer) team, wearing little more than towels, have looked sheepish when she visited their locker room after cheering them on with a degree of passion that departs so radically from her reserved, even dour, public image. In short, Angela Merkel can be many things to many people, an image she nurtures herself when she makes statements like the following: “Sometimes, I am liberal, sometimes, I am conservative, sometimes I am a Christian Social Unionist — that is the essence of the Christian Democratic Union.”
This ideological lightness is unbearable for many of her critics, particularly conservatives, because it seemingly reveals a philosophy of pragmatism devoid of intellectual vigour, ever subject to shifting opinions and circumstances. Perhaps. But this flexibility is also an undeniable asset, one that allows her to respond to new situations in a sufficiently fast manner.

 

U.S. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton ran a determined primary campaign to make it to the Oval Office.

U.S. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton ran a determined primary campaign to make it to the Oval Office.

2. Hillary Rodham Clinton
U.S. secretary of state

As this list shows, women now occupy some of the highest and toughest political offices around the world. But it is also apparent that the ascendancy of women to the very peak of political power remains abridged.
Perhaps nobody better personifies this particular condition than Hillary Rodham Clinton, the former first lady and current U.S. secretary of state, a position as prestigious and powerful as any, except for the U.S. presidency itself. She, of course, campaigned for this very position in 2008 after a brief, but distinguished senatorial career. And if it had not been for the historic candidacy of a certain Barack Obama, the first African-American president to occupy the Oval Office, she might well have made history after a determined, occasionally divisive primary campaign, which will likely never find an equal.
Other advanced western nations — most notably France, which arguably pioneered political equality from a philosophical, if not symbolic perspective — have also waited to task a woman with the top job in their respective political system. But it is one thing for French voters to elect a woman, as they nearly did in 2007 when Socialist Ségolène Royal lost to the since-departed Nicolas Sarkozy in the presidential run-off election; it is another one entirely if this important western democracy, in all of its occasionally confounding complexity, shatters the final glass ceiling. This observation neither complains about the circumstances that ultimately denied Clinton in 2008 nor caricatures the United States, and for that matter, France. Perspective reveals that Clinton strikes a historic figure in the firmament of female politicians well beyond this most recent chapter of her well-documented life. And yet one cannot help but imagine Clinton as a tragic traveller who made great personal sacrifices in overcoming great odds and obstacles, only to fall short of her goal.

 

Christine Lagarde combines guile and guts as head of the IMF.

Christine Lagarde combines guile and guts as head of the IMF.

3. Christine Lagarde
Managing director of the International Monetary Fund

Back in 2005, Christine Lagarde faced a defining choice: continue her 25-year-long career with Baker & McKenzie, one of the most prestigious and powerful international law firms, whose client list includes Microsoft and Sony; or become secretary of state for the Department of Foreign Affairs and Trade in her native France under then-Conservative prime minister Dominique de Villepin, who gave her about one hour to decide.
Lagarde, perhaps to the benefit of the teetering global economy, chose the second option. This lateral entry into the political world has since turned into a breathtaking ascent into the “stratosphere of global governance,” as Vogue put it in profiling Lagarde. Her outward appearance certainly projects the elegant elitism that is favoured by high-end fashion magazines. Standing a perfectly poised five-foot-ten, she exudes confidence and charm. One would likely be stunned to see the glamorous Lagarde shop for her own groceries in the very same suit, she had just worn to a European summit, as German Chancellor Angela Merkel once did.
While a daughter of privilege, Lagarde is also a self-made tribute to discipline; raising two sons while jetting around the world for work. A member of the French synchronized-swimming team during her youth, Lagarde maintains a daily fitness regime of yoga and functions on five hours of sleep. Her strength is also evident in her willingness to speak her mind freely, a tendency that earned Lagarde the title “Madame La Gaffe” from French media while in government, where she served as, among other things, France’s first female finance minister.
Lagarde’s tendency to ruffle feathers has not abated during the European sovereign debt crisis as she displays rare traits among the technocratic elites of France: a willingness to express and embrace differing opinions, as Lagarde does by holding out-of-box dinners with individuals outside her own social class, and a certain frankness more common among American elites, a trait she likely picked up during her time in the United States, which included a Congressional internship. Nicknamed l’Américaine, it is uncertain whether Lagarde will succeed as the first female head of the IMF. But her combination of guile and guts could be powerful enough.

 

Brazilian President Dilma Rousseff is decisive and distant with staff.

Brazilian President Dilma Rousseff is decisive and distant with staff.

4. Dilma Rousseff
President of Brazil

The daughter of a Bulgarian immigrant, Dilma Rousseff has given her office an occasionally frantic nature that merely reflects the dynamic pace of development in Brazil. Once derisively tagged as the “country of the future,” Brazil has emerged as a genuine global actor with ambitions to match its continuing rise. While accounts of this accomplishment have frequently credited Rousseff’s predecessor, Luiz Inácio Lula da Silva, as its central architect, Rousseff has hardly shied away from putting her own stamp on affairs. Yes, Rousseff has undoubtedly benefited from her close association with da Silva, who remains a popular figure. And yes, she has attempted to advance a comparable agenda that places economic growth and development ahead of other considerations, much to the chagrin of environmentalists. But the status quo has not satisfied Rousseff, the first woman to head Latin America’s largest country. She has stepped out of Lula’s shadow by distancing herself from his jovial style. Rousseff — who once wanted to be a nun — has a preference for working long, solitary hours at her desk in stark contrast to Lula’s habit of seeking out admiring and adulating crowds of ordinary citizens, à la Bill Clinton. In dealings with staff and other politicians, Rousseff is said to be distant and decisive, rooting out incompetence with ruthlessness, when necessary. One year into her government, Rousseff had changed seven cabinet members, including six on various corruption charges alone. While this action angered the male patriarchs of her governing coalition, Rousseff prevailed. In fact, she is remaking Brazilian politics through the appointment of women into cabinet and her inner circle. “If she has a choice between appointing an equally qualified man and woman, she will prefer the woman,” Gilberto Carvalho, chief of the presidential office, told Der Spiegel earlier this year.

 

Myanmar’s Daw Aung San Suu Kyi is one of the most courageous politicians of her time.

Myanmar’s Daw Aung San Suu Kyi is one of the most courageous politicians of her time.

5. Daw Aung San Suu Kyi
Democracy activist and parliamentarian in Myanmar

The ”Lady” as millions call Daw Aung San Suu Kyi, has lived a life without compromises to become one of the most courageous politicians of her time, whose power lies in her personal example. The daughter of Burmese independence hero Gen. Aung San, Aung San Suu Kyi has spent the better part of two decades under house arrest for her role in leading a pro-democracy movement in her home country, now known as Myanmar, against its ruling generals. Her commitment to the cause of democracy has come at a great personal cost.
In returning to Burma from the United Kingdom in 1988, she left behind a comfortable existence and her children, Alexander and Kim, who grew up largely under the care of their father and Suu Kyi’s husband, Michael Aris, an Oxford professor. And when Aris fell ill with prostate cancer, the ruling junta persistently refused his requests to visit her, on the cynical hope that she would leave the country to look after him. Suspecting that the generals would not allow her to return home, Suu Kyi decided to remain in Myanmar, a decision her late husband had consistently supported before he died at the age of 53 in 1999.
Released from house arrest in November 2010, shortly after the ruling generals had staged elections to give their military rule civilian legitimacy, Aung San Suu Kyi has since seen her personal and political freedoms expand as Myanmar attempts a sharp, but still uncertain, transition towards democracy and the western world, away from China. In April 2012, Aung San Suu Kyi led her National League for Democracy to victory in parliamentary elections, as it won 40 out of 45 available seats, in large part on the strength of her astonishing popularity, which even extends to would-be supporters of the regime. Aung San Suu Kyi’s transition from world-renowned dissident to “ordinary” politician bears dangers. Instead of protesting conditions, she must propose solutions. As The New York Times said, she is “placing some of her hard-fought prestige on the line.”
The world witnessed her appeal in June 2012 when she could finally accept her 1991 Nobel Peace Prize for her promotion of democracy and human rights. Delivering a modest, but touching speech to an audience that included the Norwegian royal family, Aung San Suu Kyi thanked the Nobel Committee in her own way. “When the Nobel Committee chose to honour me, the road I had chosen of my own free will became a less lonely path to follow.”

 

Australian Prime Minister Julia Gillard

Australian Prime Minister Julia Gillard

6. Julia Gillard
Prime minister of Australia

Female politicians frequently encounter the patronizing expectation that the political game would be less confrontational and more caring if only more of them would dare to enter the field. The implication of this perspective is apparent: women cannot succeed in an adversarial environment.
Australian Prime Minister Julia Gillard has most certainly defused this view during the course of her elected political career, which began in 1998. The daughter of Welsh immigrants who arrived in Australia when she was four years old, Gillard has not been shy about being heard on her way to becoming the country’s first female prime minister in June 2010. Notably, she occupied the office as part of an internal Labor party coup against none other than the then-sitting prime minister, Kevin Rudd. Deemed to be disloyal by some, Gillard fought a dogged election campaign in August 2010, defeating Conservative Tony Abbott to retain her hold on power, albeit as the leader of a minority government dependent on support from two independent legislators. Gillard showed her steeliness once more in February 2012, when Rudd renewed their personal vendetta in challenging her (just as she had done) for the office of party leader and prime minister. This “ugly” political showdown turned into a resounding victory for Gillard, who continues to mix up the macho world of Australian politics.
Consider the following anecdote: Campaigning in a shopping mall, an older would-be male voter made a crack about Gillard’s election poster. “Taken on a good day, wasn’t it love?” he asked. Her reply was prompt. “And you’d be bloody Robert Redford, would you, mate?”

 

Argentine President Cristina Elisabet Fernández de Kirchner is one of many female heads-of-state in Latin America and the Caribbean.

Argentine President Cristina Elisabet Fernández de Kirchner is one of many female heads-of-state in Latin America and the Caribbean.

7. Cristina Elisabet Fernández de Kirchner
President of Argentina

No region except northern Europe features more female heads of state (five) and a higher share of female parliamentarians (22.5 per cent) than Latin America and the Caribbean, according to the 2012 Women in Politics survey conducted by the Inter-Parliamentary Union and UN Women.
Argentines can justifiably take some credit for this condition, starting with their unceasing reverence for Eva Perón. Whatever one might think of the personality cult that continues to envelop Perón, she undoubtedly blazed a trail for women across her country and continent. This trendsetting has continued under Argentina’s current president, Cristina Elisabet Fernández de Kirchner. The first elected female president of her country, de Kirchner has since repeated her election victory of 2007 by becoming Latin America’s first re-elected female head of state. While it would be a stretch to draw any comparisons between Perón and de Kirchner, both share some biographical commonalities. Both of their careers have unfolded adjacent to powerful men — in the case of de Kirchner, her late husband, Nestor, whom she met when both were activists in the political movement of Perón’s husband, Juan.
A lawyer by trade, observers expected that de Kirchner would be a stand-in for her husband, who had been barred from running for another term. But his death following a heart attack in 2010 gave de Kirchner a chance to carve out her own legacy. While her tenure has not been without controversies — claims that she was suffering from thyroid cancer proved to be simply false — de Kirchner has led Argentina through a relatively prosperous period featuring record employment growth and shrinking poverty rolls. Others, however, will decide whether her reign will be memorable.

 

Icelandic Prime Minister Jóhanna Sigurðardóttir returned to politics after Iceland’s economy tanked.

Icelandic Prime Minister Jóhanna Sigurðardóttir returned to politics after Iceland’s economy tanked.

8. Jóhanna Sigurðardóttir
Prime minister of Iceland

The first openly lesbian head of state knows a thing or two about turbulence — be it political or otherwise. A former flight attendant with the national airline, Jóhanna Sigurðardóttir was readying herself for retirement after more than three decades in elected politics when the gale-force winds of the unfolding global financial crisis suddenly shifted the course of her career in early 2009. As the country careened into a deep spin following the collapse of its banking system, Sigurðardóttir found herself in charge of a caretaker government cobbled together after angry citizens had pushed the ruling Conservatives out of power.
Critical of the celebrated financiers (the so-called New Vikings) who had caused the calamity in the first place, Sigurðardóttir won a mandate to wipe away the mess in April 2009 and became Iceland’s first female prime minister. Yet for all the tumultuous circumstances that have led to the rise of Sigurðardóttir, her sexuality has hardly caused a stir in Iceland, one of the first countries to decriminalize gay sex (1940) and approve civil partnerships (1996). In fact, it has not mattered at all. But her calm, competent manner has, for now, given Icelanders the confidence that their small country might make it through after all, as its economy shows signs of recovery, a rare development in Europe.
Iceland has also become the first country to criminally prosecute one of its former leaders for his part in the financial meltdown — Geir Haarde, Sigurðardóttir’s disgraced predecessor.

 

Sheikh Hasina is the current Bangladeshi prime minister.

Sheikh Hasina is the current Bangladeshi prime minister.

9. Sheikh Hasina
Current Bangladeshi prime minister
Khaleda Zia
Former Bangladeshi prime minister

One of the poorest countries in the world, with a wretchedly long history of man-made and natural disasters, Bangladesh is the surreal setting for one of the most searing conflicts between two competing political clans, each side led by a woman whose gentle outward appearance belies the ferociousness of their fight.
This “Punch-and-Judy show” as The Economist has called it, revolves around former Prime Minister Khaleda Zia of the Islam-conservative Bangladesh Nationalist Party and around the current office-holder, since 2008, Sheikh Hasina of the ruling secular Awami League. Alternating in power through the 1990s and 2000s, except for a period of military rule, their names are irrevocably linked to the tragic past and uncertain future of their country and its 150 million inhabitants.

Khaleda Zia is the former Bangladeshi prime minister.

Khaleda Zia is the former Bangladeshi prime minister.

Hasina is the eldest daughter of Sheikh Mujibur Rahman, the leading initiator of Bangladesh’s drive for independence from Pakistan, achieved in 1971. Four years later, Hasina and her sister, Sheikh Rehana, escaped the bloodbath during which dissatisfied officers killed all of their family members.
Zia also suffered at the hands of the military when her husband, a former general who ostensibly benefited from the assassination of Hasina’s father in 1975, was killed during an unsuccessful military coup in 1981. This history looms large in the rivalry between these two women, which has unfolded against an ever-evolving tapestry of political intimidation, corruption and violence, as both parties seek to preserve their spoils and discredit their enemies. Attempts to break this dynastic power duopoly have so far failed. Muhammad Yunus — a pioneer of micro-financing and 2006 Nobel laureate — has discovered this for himself, when his attempt to launch a “third force” in the country’s politics ran into obstacles from the government of Hasina, who remains the “undisputed leader of her party and the nation,” according to U.S. State Department diplomatic cables, sent by diplomat Nicolas J. Dean, released through Wikileaks.

 

Ellen Johnson Sirleaf is Africa’s first democratically elected head of state.

Ellen Johnson Sirleaf is Africa’s first democratically elected head of state.

10. Ellen Johnson Sirleaf
President of Liberia

Africa’s first democratically elected female head of state, Ellen Johnson Sirleaf has been inspiring and divisive, perhaps not unlike the original Iron Lady, Margaret Thatcher, with whom she has been compared. Ma Ellen, as Liberians know her, assumed office in January 2006, a truly momentous occasion dignified by leading diplomats from around the world, including then-U.S. first lady Laura Bush and then-U.S. secretary of state Condoleezza Rice. This moment marked the end of a rather unlikely path to power.
Born in Liberia’s capital of Monrovia, Sirleaf enjoyed rare access to formal education and political power, privileges that eventually led to a master’s in public administration from Harvard. But if Sirleaf benefited from the circumstances of her birth — she has lighter skin because her grandfather was German — she also exhibited personal strength and determination in surviving an abusive husband while studying in the United States and working as a waitress to finance her own way through Harvard. Such survival skills also proved to be vital during the 1980s and 1990s as the political sands of Liberia frequently shifted. Indeed, at one stage, Sirleaf supported since-convicted war criminal Charles Taylor in his bid to gain power during the first Liberian Civil War, only to break with him later.
Alternating between her home and foreign exile during this unsettled period, Sirleaf eventually returned to Liberia after the second Liberian Civil War to contest and win the presidential election of 2005. But if her subsequent reign has earned her admirers around the world, her tenure has not been without controversies. Her decision to run again in 2011 broke a promise made in 2005. Worse, the opposition boycotted the campaign, as charges of cronyism and corruption continued to follow her government. And not a few of her fellow citizens resent Sirleaf’s status as a Western darling. In fact, some suggest that Sirleaf co-won the 2011 Nobel Peace Prize as part of a Western conspiracy to re-elect her. Notwithstanding such fictitious charges, few would deny Sirleaf’s historical significance.

 

TOP 5 HISTORICALLY POWERFUL FEMALE LEADERS

1. Margaret Thatcher
Prime minister of Britain (1979-1990)
Rightly or wrongly, the original Iron Lady has become a standard against which other female leaders must compete. Her foreign policy successes during the dying days of the Cold War alongside U.S. president Ronald Reagan (who called her “the best man in England”) have made Thatcher synonymous with determined leadership in the face of perceived and real aggression, as was the case during the Falkland War with Argentina. Yet her domestic record continues to spark divisive debates in England. Many still remember her for breaking its trade union movement and promoting a laissez-faire entrepreneurialism that energized the economy, but also exaggerated class divisions. Public interest in Thatcher, now 86 and suffering from dementia, recently intensified with the release of The Iron Lady starring Meryl Streep. As The New Yorker noted, reactions to the film and its subject have varied. “In the States, The Iron Lady is a movie, but in Britain it’s a litmus test.”

2. Indira Gandhi
Prime minister of India (1966-1977; 1980-1984)
As the daughter of Indian independence leader Jawaharlal Nehru, Indira Gandhi first witnessed the historical struggle for freedom from British rule up close, often at the side of Mahatma Gandhi (no relation), then shaped the post-colonial path of India in various capacities, including almost two decades as prime minister. During this period, Gandhi inexorably advanced the development of the world’s largest democracy by improving agriculture at home and pursuing a range of independent policies abroad. She also remains a revered figure in Bangladesh, which, in large part, owes its independence to her. And yet her name also invokes other more complex emotions. Her commitment to democratic rule was not always unwavering and her assassination at the hands of Sikh bodyguards sheds light on the violent side of her legacy, which includes the smouldering sectarian conflict with Sikhs and the outright war with Pakistan in 1971 that led to Bangladesh’s independence.

3. Golda Meir
Prime minister of Israel (1969-1974)
A young victim of the late 19th-Century anti-Semitic pogroms, which so chillingly previewed the catastrophe of the Holocaust, Golda Meir not only survived, but also shaped the events leading to the formation and flourishing of Israel. Uncompromising in her commitment towards the cause of a Jewish homeland from an early age, Meir belonged to the founding generation of Israeli politicians, holding various cabinet posts, including foreign minister, before becoming the first and only female prime minister of Israel in 1969 after a spell in political retirement.

4. Gro Harlem Brundtland
Prime minister of Norway (1981, 1986-89, 1990-1996)
A trained physician, Brundtland has become one of most important voices on global issues. Known perhaps first and foremost for her groundbreaking as the head of the Brundtland Commission on Sustainable Development, Brundtland has also served as the director-general of the World Health Organization. Global leaders continue to seek the advice of this leader, whom Norwegians revere as the “mother of the nation.” Last year, she narrowly escaped assassination at the hands of Anders Behring Breivik.

5. Sirimavo Bandaranaike
Prime minister of Sri Lanka (1960-65, 1970-77, 1994-2000)
The modern world’s first elected female prime minister, Bandaranaike’s leadership of Sri Lanka (formerly known as Ceylon) had more than its fair share of personal and political drama. Known as a “weeping widow,” Bandaranaike raised the international profile of her island nation when she was chosen to head the non-aligned movement in 1976. Her domestic policies, however, proved to be less popular as they led to economic decline (particularly during the 1970s) and the Tamil insurgency. In and out of favour with voters and the justice system, Bandaranaike also competed for power against her own two children, a fight she eventually lost to her daughter, Chandrika Bandaranaike Kumaratunga, who served as president from 1994 to 2005.

— Wolfgang Depner

Wolfgang Depner is a doctoral candidate at the University of British Columbia-Okanagan.

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