“That idea that power cannot be accompanied by notions of compassion and kindness and empathy. That’s something that I refuse to accept.”
‘Picture a leader of a country and, chances are, you’ll picture a man.
This isn’t surprising. The majority of world leaders are men, so our ideas about the characteristics of leadership are so deeply ingrained, it’d take someone pretty outstanding to change them.
Far-right, ‘strongman’ rulers are on the rise around the world. But not in New Zealand, where Jacinda Ardern, the 39-year-old progressive prime minister, is challenging perceptions of what a leader should look like and showing us that society is ready for change.
This prime minister is showing the world that leadership isn’t a male trait. It’s a human one
Imagine a powerful person. The prime minister of a rich country, say, taking the stage for a press conference. Think of the voice, the dress sense, the way a prime minister speaks and sounds. Who do you see in front of you? Let me guess.
A man in a suit.
This is our reflex, our stock idea of a prime minister. It’s an image that plays tricks on many female politicians. Take Senator Elizabeth Warren, a prominent candidate in the Democratic primaries to select a challenger to Donald Trump, the US president, in elections in November this year. After a promising start in autumn 2019, Warren’s campaign has been plagued by loud speculation about her “electability”. She’s a woman, after all.
According to Warren,It’s a claim that Sanders has denied, but the grounds for such opinions are easy to find. In the 2016 presidential race, Hillary Clinton fought Trump in a tough, often sexist campaign. For all her political experience, the word went around that a woman was not “presidential” and hence not “electable”. The same assumptions have hurt Warren’s campaign.
Governments in Hungary, United States and Brazil are led by macho misogynists. In New Zealand, the opposite happened.
Is it credible in 2020 that women are still not electable to the highest level of power? If you follow the news, you’ll understand the roots of this question. Trump won in 2016 despite – or perhaps, thanks to? – numerous accusations of sexual misconduct and an audio recording of his infamous “Grab ’em by the pussy” comment during a tour of a television studio in 2005.
In New Zealand, the exact opposite happened.
Since 2017, the New Zealand government has been led by a woman who is still (until July) under 40 years old. Ardern’s victory can be compared to other recent political insurgents Barack Obama, Justin Trudeau and Emmanuel Macron.
It is a measure ofthat “Jacindamania” has entered the political lexicon. At the same time, however, the same political climate has rained hatred upon Ardern. Her personal style has upset millennia-old ideas about men, women and power: ideas made visible by the sexist reactions which follow her.
The phenomenon of New Zealand’s second female prime minister shows how the prevalence of these ingrained cultural ideas and, thanks to Ardern and others, how such thinking can shift.
Her message is that people depend on one another – not on money, numbers or achievements.
Mary Beard, a British classicist, cites this incident in her 2017 book Women & Power, a history of misogyny from Athens and Rome to today. She begins with an account of Homer’s Odyssey, in which Queen Penelope, wife of Ulysses, is silenced in public by her newly grown-up son because “speech is a man’s business”. To Roman orators, high (female) voices expressed “cowardice”. For too manyfemale voices resembled the mooing of cows or the braying of donkeys, sounds which polluted language.
Sharp, too high, unpleasant – the voices of female politicians or leaders would have ‘no authority’
Beard’s book describes a serial smear campaign against the female voice. She shows how prevailing ideas about eloquence and rhetoric are rooted in a classical tradition which dismissed female voices as an aberration. To this day, women are much more often said to be squeaking, whining, squawking, screaming or cackling. Or that their voices are “just uncomfortable” to hear. Like Warren’s, described by a journalist as