Women in Politics: When is a Country Ready for a Female Leader?

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Belarus “is not ready to vote for a woman,” said Alexander Lukashenko on May, 29 referring to Svetlana Tikhanovskaya, who campaigned against him as the opposition candidate in the presidential election in August. He also criticized former Lithuanian President Dalia Grybauskaite (2009-2019), the first woman to hold the post in that country, saying that her job had been unnecessary, useless and unsuccessful, implying that the reason was her gender. Without diving too deep into the complicated political crisis in Belarus, it is worth critically examining the role that gender plays in electoral politics, and why it is so difficult for societies to accept women as leaders. These examples are representative of gender-based rhetoric, a longstanding and oft-invoked instrument, particularly in politics, that exploits deeply ingrained stereotypes used to question women’s capabilities and highlight their “weaknesses”. Paradoxically, in the middle of the 21st century women are still considered inferior to men. If you are thinking “that’s not true” let me tell you something: the fact that you do not suffer or perceive it does not mean it is not happening (privilege often blinds men from the brutal realities of gender politics).

I live in an extremely misogynistic country (Mexico) where feminism is criminalized while femicides are overlooked and impunity is the norm. Even though this may seem like an alien issue to the empowering title of “women in politics”, the reality is that it is a generalized problem that both goes beyond the gender-based political relations – through which men dominate women – and the permanent “glass ceiling” under which professional women are placed. The problem is rooted in a patriarchal system. Since there is no neutrality in politics, power and other “objective” rationalist conceptions, it is crucial to identify the causes and consequences of such unequal power relations between men and women over time, deconstructing sexist cultures through multiple levels of analysis, in order to put an end to them. So, as a feminist International Relations scholar, I would like to bring up this topic not only to highlight important events for women in politics, but also to expose errors of perception about feminism and gender approaches.

First, we must keep in mind that sex and gender are not the same. As Mónica Trujillo López points out, it is common, due to a lack of knowledge, to disqualify feminism, to equate ‘gender’ with ‘women’, or to have erroneous perceptions about the role of women in global politics. It is a common mistake to entertain the idea that just adding the word ‘woman’ to the study of politics (global or otherwise) is enough to understand the objectives and contribution of feminists. Moreover, as is often the case, general premises are attributed to all feminist thought ignoring its inherent plurality, and necessesary intersectionality.

In this regard, the integration of feminist perspectives into the discipline of IR is but a necessary first step toward centralizing the gender as an axis of analysis. Feminist approaches offer us new tools with which to question the exclusionary aspects of conventional theorization, such as classical realism, liberalism, marxism, as well as positivist theories that have constructed their analysis out of the behavior and experiences of men. By contrast, the different feminisms (liberal, critical, constructivist, poststructuralist, postcolonial, ecologist, to mention some) interpret global politics and profound gender inequality in different ways, both in theory and in practice. In general, “feminists deny the separability of gendered insecurities from those describable in military, economic, and ecological terms; such problems cannot be fully resolved without also overcoming the domination and exploitation of women that takes place in each of these domains.”

The relevance of current events such as the reelection of Jacinda Ardern in New Zealand and the changes in the World Trade Organization which is set to be run by a woman for the first time in its 25-year history, are thus especially important, since politics and diplomacy have been designed by and for men. The numbers show that globally in 2020, there is a growing recognition that women are marginalized from political and public life. More than giving them importance because it is a “trending topic” and beyond taking an ideological position (such as liberal feminism and/or institutional neoliberalism), these milestone events are little steps for women in politics that will help to eventually overthrow the patriarchal system in which electoral politics still base on highly gendered power relations, generating hierarchies in which the male vision prevails over the female vision.

Finally, I would like to add that knowing theories and concepts does not make you more feminist; this is a movement by and for women that we are strengthening together. Education and access to information are privileges that not all of us have, so for me it is important to share with other women what I have been learning, but also with men, since many call themselves “feminists.” However, we do not need “feminist men” who are only nominally feminist; if they really care about gender equality and supporting our movement they must start by working on deconstructing machismo and challenging their own relationship with feminity and masculinity. As many have chanted in the streets over the past few months, the revolution will be feminist, and as women occupy positions of authority in political and non-political spaces, we may finally move towards a world that lives up to the notions of equality that we claim to support.

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