91 Other Nations Have Elected a Woman to the Highest Office. What About the U.S.?

91 Other Nations Have Elected a Woman to the Highest Office. What About the U.S.?
“Each time the United States has a new first,” writes Michaud, “I wonder how many more countries have pulled ahead of us with a female chief executive. Seven were elected last year.” (Gage Skidmore / Flickr)

The election of Kamala Harris to the vice presidency has been greeted by a welcome, if predictable, flood of accolades. I’ve come to think of them as a chorus of firsts. First woman, first Black woman, first South Asian American and first mom … to hold this lofty post.

People say that their daughters can now picture themselves in Vice President Harris’s place, achieving similar heights.

Forgive me if the chorus of firsts leaves me a bit glass-half-empty. Wikipedia lists 91 countries where women have been elected as heads of state, heads of government, or both. Little girls growing up in Panama have been able to picture themselves leading that nation since 1999. That’s when Mireya Moscoso took office as president.

If Vice President Harris, who was born in 1964, had lived in Sri Lanka, she would have been governed by a female prime minister, Sirimavo Bandaranaike. She led what was then known as Ceylon from 1960 to 1965.

I think about this list of women leaders from time to time. Each time the United States has a new first—first woman running on a major party ticket (Hillary Clinton), six women vying for their party’s nomination (2020)—I wonder how many more countries have pulled ahead of us with a female chief executive. Seven were elected last year.

I nurse a suspicion that there is something different about American politics, or our society, that makes it so hard for a woman to break through. Is there some cowboy-ness that haunts our national psyche? Some macho bootstraps rugged individualism threading through our fabric that suppresses women?

Harris’s “Chorus of Firsts”

As soon as President Joe Biden announced his choice of Harris, crude remarks about her began showing up on internet chats. People coined the term “heels up Harris,” in reference to her years-ago relationship with then-California Assembly Speaker Willie Brown. They made snide remarks about her sleeping her way to the top.

Brown did appoint Harris to two commissions: the state Unemployment Insurance Appeals Board and the California Medical Assistance Commission. However, she went on to win election and then re-elections as San Francisco District Attorney; election and then re-election as California Attorney General; and election as a U.S. senator from California in 2016. Willie Brown did not personally twist the arms of 7.5 million California voters.

The chorus of firsts has risen to Harris’s defense, but in a way that undermines her at the same time. In my opinion, they are focused on the wrong things.

Take the February print cover of Vogue, for example. Harris is depicted in street clothes: a dark blazer, black ankle-length pants and Converse Chuck Taylor sneakers. Vogue chose this photo over another of Harris in a pale blue power suit, which the magazine published with its online story.

Writer Karen Attiah argued in The Washington Post that the photo choice revealed a white patriarchal power elite uncomfortable with Black accomplishment.

Granted, politicians of color face special hurdles in the United States. I covered the New York City mayoral race as a reporter in 2005, and I heard this story from candidate Fernando Ferrer’s advisers about his photo shoot at the New York Times. He arrived wearing a Guayabera, a traditional style for men in Puerto Rico, and posed for a couple of pictures. Then he changed into a business suit for the bulk of the shoot. The Times ran the Guayabera shot.

That said, I find the focus on women’s clothing distasteful. Quick, what’s the first thing you know about White House coronavirus honcho Deborah Birx? The scarves, right? Commentaries on Hillary Clinton’s hairstyles and pantsuits have emptied barrels of ink.

Much less attention goes to the recently passed Senate bill Harris co-sponsored, to help border regions identify the remains of missing migrants—a matter of far more weight. I admire the symbolism of women wearing white to commemorate suffrage or black in support of #MeToo. But let’s maintain a sense of proportion. 

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International Women in Power

Talking with a colleague, I voiced my suspicion that American politics is especially anti-woman. She dismissed my idea, which was something she often did on principle. She enjoyed debating, and for that we had to go to our separate corners. “It’s because other countries have different systems,” she said.

Let’s take a look at that. In the United States, the president serves three functions: head of state, the head of government and commander-in-chief of the armed forces. That’s a lot of power distilled into one role.

The German chancellor, Angela Merkel, is the head of the government, the head of state and commander-in-chief of the German Armed Forces. No difference there. And, by the way, she leads the world’s fourth-largest economy.

Theresa May in the United Kingdom was head of the government but not head of state or commander-in-chief. Those roles fall to the monarch: the queen.

India has had a female prime minister, Indira Gandhi, as well as a female president, Pratibha Patil. The prime minister heads the government, while the president is in charge of the armed forces.

These other countries, and many more, invest women leaders with significant power.

Presented with this evidence, my sparring partner shifted her argument. Leaders of other nations aren’t always directly elected by citizens, she said. Some are chosen by a governing committee or parliament. Other prime ministers or presidents are appointed. Some women rise to power when their presidential husbands die.

Okay—so let me present Vigdís Finnbogadóttir. She is a divorced single mother who was elected in 1980 as Iceland’s—and Europe’s—first female leader. She was the first woman leader in the world to be democratically elected.

Ellen Johnson Sifleaf beat out a slate of male candidates in Liberia’s presidential election in 2005, becoming Africa’s first democratically elected female head of state.

I am now mentally slapping my hands together as if to swipe chalk dust from my palms. This argument is concluded.

But if we can’t blame the absence of a woman president on the system, then how to explain this lack in the United States?

Sexist Harassment of Women Politicians

I had a front-row seat to the sexist name-calling as someone who moderated news readers’ comments online throughout the 2020 election cycle. People commented the Democratic ticket was “Joe and the ho.” People say her laugh is a “cackle.” They speculate about the odor of curry that will emanate from the vice presidential residence.

The comments are churlish, but they’re not uniquely American. A Canadian legislator—a woman—taunted a female colleague, attributing her success to being “a very pretty lady.” Brazil’s first female president, Dilma Rousseff, has had her likeness imprinted on car stickers that fit around the gas tank, depicting Rousseff with legs splayed and inviting drivers to penetrate her every time they fill up.

A member of Tokyo’s Metropolitan Assembly, Ayaka Shiomura, was jeered when she tried to introduce a motion for better government measures supporting infertile women or women who need assistance when pregnant or raising children. One colleague shouted that Shiomura, age 35, must get married as soon as possible. Another asked whether she was capable of bearing children.

These kinds of antics are, thankfully, being reported more regularly by press around the world, and each report raises awareness—though, the news stories often miss an important intent of the ridicule: The taunts are a way to diminish one’s opponent. Sexism in politics is about bare-knuckled maneuvers to tip an adversary off-balance.

Americans have just witnessed Exhibit A in this style of gutter fighting during the four long years of Donald Trump’s presidency, when he invented subversive names for every foe: Little Marco, Sleepy Joe, Low Energy Jeb, Mini Mike Bloomberg. And the women: Crooked Hillary, Phony Kamala, Crazy Nancy, Pocahontas.

Barbara Buono, a 20-year New Jersey state legislator, has written:

“By the time I ran for governor in 2013, the sexism I experienced was recalibrated in remarks to intimidate, humiliate and handicap me to ensure this would be the last time I ran for the highest office in our state.”

Perhaps as the most powerful nation on the planet, the United States is home to some of the most vicious power politics. The higher one rises, the more relentless the onslaught. Unmasking the power games is a step toward a future where women in politics can compete on a more even plane.

Editor’s note: Using multi-winner districts and ranked-choice voting in U.S. elections is another tried and true way to dismantle the white male status quo in politics and help elect more women and people of color.

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Anne Michaud is a journalist, essayist and author. Her book, “Why They Stay,” explores the motivations of women who stay with politician-husbands after they cheat. A new chapter on Melania Trump, “American Czarina,” was published in April 2021 and is available on Amazon.