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It is surely time to recognize what an immense improvement has been wrought in world standards of governance by the rise of female national leaders.

Golda Meir and Indira Gandhi were effectively the pioneers, among democratically elected leaders, though the genius of a considerable number of previous empresses and queens gave a foretaste of what the world was denying itself in excluding women from its highest public offices (and most other important positions). Queen Elizabeth I was the greatest British monarch; Victoria was certainly competent, and although such comparisons are odious, the present queen surely has better judgment than have most of the 12 British and 11 Canadian prime ministers who have served her.

Meir was a strong Israeli foreign minister and a tough prime minister, who though somewhat taken by surprise in the Yom Kippur war in 1973, made Israel a nuclear power and governed intelligently in the socialistic tradition. Indira Gandhi, after a brief interregnum following the death of her father, Jawaharlal Nehru, inherited the leadership of her country. She, too, continued the socialistic policies of her father and (unfortunately) the insufferably pretentious practice of sitting in the rose garden of the prime minister’s residence in New Delhi, fondling a flower and explaining that India was the moral arbiter of the world because of its secular spirituality and ethical exaltedness, despite its poverty, indulged primitiveness, hypocrisy and corruption.

She sliced Pakistan in two in 1971, created Bangladesh (greeted on the day of its founding by Henry Kissinger as “a basket case, but not our basket case”); promoted India’s nuclear program, but suffered temporary electoral defeat over her imposition of mandatory sterilization to combat rampant population growth (impossible in even a quasi-democracy). South Asia was a rough-and-tumble political environment, as Indira was assassinated, as were her protegé Mujibar Rahmin, the George Washington of Bangladesh; Indira’s son Rajiv, who succeeded her; and the next leaders of Pakistan — Zulfiqar Ali Bhutto, General Zia ul-Haq, and Bhutto’s daughter Benazir. Indira Gandhi’s and Benazir Bhutto’s perseverance in such an environment was remarkable, and their heirs rule their countries yet.

The real breakthrough in leadership by women in sophisticated democracies came with Margaret Thatcher in the United Kingdom. She had been education secretary in the government of Edward Heath (1970-4), who essentially continued what was called “Butskillism” (after Conservative deputy leader Rab Butler and 1950s-era Labour Party leader Hugh Gaitskell), whereby there were only marginal social policy differences between the two main parties, whatever rhetorical excesses they engaged in at each others’ expense at election time.

Thatcher opposed Heath at the party convention of 1975, when senior alternatives declined to bell the cat. She was elected leader of the opposition, slogged through four years in that role, and only narrowly won the 1979 general election over James Callaghan, although Britain was being closely monitored by the IMF; sluggish economic growth and a labour movement that shut down anything on a whim of local officials and was completely out of control. The metropolitan London garbage collectors and even the undertakers were on strike in the winter of early 1979, while London suffered extensive electricity brown-outs two and three days a week because of union industrial action. Despite the lamentable state of the country, Thatcher’s victory was narrow because of her radical program and, it is conjectured, because she was the country’s first major-party female leader. When she was elected leader, and went to the Conservative Party’s informal social headquarters, the Carlton Club, she was told that ladies were not allowed, other than as guests. “They are now,” she famously said as she sailed majestically past the concierge.

Margaret Thatcher cut personal income tax rates to 40%, required secret ballots for strike authorizations, reoriented the British work force to more modern industries by reducing or ending subsidies and massive privatization (including virtually giving public housing to its occupants), generated exhilarating economic growth, and expelled the Argentineans from the Falkland Islands, which they had illegally seized. (This produced the ancillary benefit of toppling the military junta in that country, and relaunching Argentinean democracy, which has recently re-elected a female president.)

She became the first prime minister in British history since the radical expansion of the franchise in the First Reform Act of 1832 to win three consecutive full terms. (Tony Blair has replicated the feat, but his party, unlike Thatcher’s, was defeated at the next election.) She is generally reckoned to be surpassed only by Winston Churchill as the greatest British prime minister of the 20th century. (Disclosure: she was my sponsor as a member of the House of Lords, and proposed a toast to Barbara and me at our wedding dinner, and I have been a vociferous supporter of hers since I arrived commercially in the U.K. 25 years ago.)Now the world is festooned with prominent women heads of government and public leaders. Angela Merkel, the seventh federal German chancellor, is the East German daughter of a Protestant clergyman; she has none of the glamour of Indira Gandhi and not much of the panache of Margaret Thatcher, but is an effective leader at a time when Germany is benignly returning to the role it held under Bismarck as Europe’s most important power. France held that honour in the ’20s and ’90s and the Soviet Union did from 1945 until its dissolution.Chancellor Merkel is rightly refusing to follow the American example of having the European Central bank (largely in fact a German bank in terms of the backing of its reserves) buy the Eurobonds of distressed countries or approve the issuance of Eurobonds whose proceeds would be funnelled to the needs of those countries. The fallout will be severe, but Germany will protect the integrity of the euro and enjoy the irony of many neighbouring countries who in living memory have fought the oppression and overlordship of Germany with desperate bravery, beseeching German economic suzerainty. (The welcome possibility has recently emerged that Merkel might approve such bond issues in the event of sovereign default and imposed programs of market liberalization and not just self-amplifying Scroogian austerity.)

Turning back to India, Sonia Gandhi, Indira Gandhi’s daughter-in-law, an Italian and a Roman Catholic, has guided the Congress Party from the socialistic economic wasteland of its founders and their early continuators, to a policy of deregulation, incentivization of economic growth, and the systematic reduction of poverty and growth of the middle class that has made Indian economic progress roughly parallel to China’s (though many corrupt government practices remain). It has achieved this while retaining a plausible democracy such as has never existed in China (other than in Taiwan in recent decades). She had the wisdom not to accept the proffered leadership of Congress, but to be party chairman, and is preparing to deliver the leadership, for the fourth consecutive generation, to her son. Sonia Gandhi is one of the world’s greatest and most under-recognized political strategists, in one of the world’s most important countries.

The Burmese democratic leader, Aung San Suu Kyi has been well-lionized in the West and awarded the Nobel Peace Prize, but few could appreciate the courage required to lead resistance through four years of imprisonment and approximately a decade of house arrest at the hands of one of the most obtusely despotic regimes in the world. She, aided by the greed and overbearing presumption of the Chinese, has brought the Burmese leaders to a stage of partial democratization, in order to facilitate a resumption of functioning relations with the West. This could be a democratic victory as important as, and comparably heroic to, that of Nelson Mandela, by a thoroughly westernized, very brave woman in an insular hermit country.

Thailand’s prime minister, Yingluck Shinawatra, is standing in for her brother, who made a huge fortune in computer software and cracked the national political monopoly of the generals, courtiers, and Bangkok rich by founding a rural-based people’s party (“Thais Loving Thais”), took office, began to liberalize (while abolishing capital gains taxes and selling his business at a huge profit), until he was sent packing by the military. Thailand has been laid low by floods, and the Prime Minister, wading through knee-deep water (in exiguous shorts), is fighting for her family’s position. She bears watching.

Finally, the Ukraine’s Julia Timoshenko is a beautiful woman and a fiery orator whose political and financial ethics are not above suspicion. She is now a political prisoner, on trumped-up charges, having narrowly lost the last presidential election. She has attracted the solicitude of Europe and much of the world, and claims to be suffering from a mysterious illness (so mysterious it has no known or identifiable symptoms, as she exhibits none). She is a Slavic Evita, with a non-political husband, and she will be back.

In light of all this, it is worth reflecting, generally, on what the world was missing, with a 50%-restricted talent pool, in competition for high public office, prior to about 1965. And one welcomes the day when a similar transformation occurs in those parts of the world — the Arab Middle East and sub-Saharan Africa, in particular — that so far have suppressed their own Ghandis, Thatchers, Meirs and Timoshenkos.

Conrad Black 
National Post
Dec 3, 2011

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