Friday 2 December 2016

From Theresa to Angela: the march of the sisterhood

Published 24/07/2016 | 02:30

Smashing the glass ceiling: UK Prime Minister Theresa May
Smashing the glass ceiling: UK Prime Minister Theresa May
Arlene Foster
Angela Merkel
Nicola Sturgeon

Some see it as a sign that the proverbial glass ceiling hampering the progress of women to the top is being smashed to smithereens.

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Anyone who observes global politics cannot help noticing that, increasingly, it is women who are being put in charge.

It may not have happened in Ireland, south of the border at least, but internationally it has become a phenomenon.

Trump may have had the limelight this week with the razzmatazz of the Republican Convention, but Hillary Clinton remains the firm favourite to become President of the United States in November.

Theresa May became the UK's second woman prime minister and as she tries to work out what to do about Brexit, she will be dealing with Nicola Sturgeon, First Minister of Scotland, and Arlene Foster, First Minister of Northern Ireland.

Presiding over the future direction of the European Union is the elder stateswoman of international power politics, Angela Merkel.

And it is not just affluent Western nations that are appointing women as heads of state. Chile, Liberia, South Korea and Taiwan are among the growing number of countries that now have female presidents.

So is this just coincidence, or has it happened by design? And why isn't Ireland becoming part of what has been described by a British tabloid as "the dawn of a female world order"?

"There is some interesting research showing that when countries or political parties are in crisis, women tend to the come to the fore," says Dr Claire McGing, an authority on gender politics at Maynooth University.

Having been stereotyped as flighty and over-emotional in the past, women are now being credited with having cool heads in a crisis.

The London Independent columnist Janet Street-Porter summed up the feelings of many: "These are turbulent times. Who would you want to drive you through a blizzard - Donald Trump or Hillary Clinton?"

There is a strong gender narrative to the story of Britain in the Brexit era, and according to one popular view, we can blame the chaps for blundering their way into the crisis.

According to Julia Baird in the New York Times, it was all down to the "boys' club" who led Britain so clumsily to the Brexit door.

Britain's former business minister, Anna Soubry, also placed the blame squarely on the shoulders of men: "We've had enough of these boys messing about."

There was a similar atmosphere in Iceland when the country suffered a financial crash and Johanna Sigurdardottir took over as the country's first female prime minister in 2009. After the recent Brexit vote, Sigurdardottir quoted a poem that perpetuated the idea of women coming in to clean up the mess:

"A woman always arrives

to clear the table

sweep the floor and open the windows

to let out the cigar smoke

It never fails."

So, women who achieve power are now portrayed as cleaners, where once they were Iron Ladies in the Thatcher mould. How feminist is that?

There may have been a surge of women entering high office, but Claire McGing believes there is no room for complacency.

"Men still have a dominant position in political parties in Britain. There is an element of chance to what has happened recently, rather that signs of real equality."

Whatever about Western Europe and the United States, Ireland shows little sign of electing a woman to the most powerful position in the State.

"The closest is probably Frances Fitzgerald, but she is probably third in line in the Fine Gael party," says Dr McGing. "We are still a long way from having a woman as leader of Fianna Fáil or Fine Gael."

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