Monday, January 07, 2008
This Explains It:
It Takes a Family (to Break a Glass Ceiling)
By KERRY HOWLEY
Published: January 5, 2008, New York Times
SOME women, even progressive ones, are surely celebrating Hillary Clinton’s third-place finish in the Iowa caucuses. Those of us who think 43 male presidents in a row is quite enough, thank you, still sometimes question whether a woman whose greatest political move was her marriage deserves to be the first woman in the White House.
But while there are plenty of reasons not to vote for Mrs. Clinton (as an antiwar libertarian, I could happily list them for you at length), her marital journey to power is not one of them. The uncomfortable truth is that political nepotism has often served feminism’s cause well.
Like it or not, the road to female advancement often begins at the altar. History books are thick with examples of women who broke political barriers because their family connections afforded them the opportunity.
If you’ve ever wondered why India, Indonesia, Myanmar, Pakistan and the Philippines seem readier to elect women than does the United States, here’s your answer: Societies that value a candidate’s family affiliation, and therefore have a history of nepotistic succession, are often open to female leadership so long as it bears the right brand. Benazir Bhutto, Indira Gandhi and Daw Aung San Suu Kyi, among many others, slashed through gender barriers on the strength of their family names.
Social psychologists have found that women in leadership roles are typically seen as either warm, likable and incompetent, or cold, distant and competent. To be a strong, competent woman is to be something culturally unattractive, which probably says something about why few American women even aspire to political office. Worldwide, even popular female politicians — Margaret Thatcher, Golda Meir, Angela Merkel — are slapped with the moniker “iron lady.”
Granted, women who rely on their last names to ascend to power are not especially likely to pursue explicitly feminist policies. They may even be less likely to do so, in order to seem worthy of office.
No mother wants to tell her daughter that she can aspire to the presidency only if she snags the most gifted politician of her generation. But Hillary Clinton’s rise to power, unsettling as it is, follows a time-tested pattern for the breaking of gender barriers.
The great feminist promise of a Hillary Clinton presidency amounts to this: If we elect a political wife now, perhaps we won’t have to later.
Kerry Howley is a senior editor at Reason magazine.
Painting by Raul Guerrero