Sunday 18 August 2019

Mary Kenny: Hillary's wifely power path

Dynastic power is increasing - and it often helps women

Mary Kenny
Mary Kenny
Mary Kenny

Mary Kenny

By this month next year, there may be a woman in the White House leading the American nation, and by implication the free world. And what's so special about Hillary Clinton? Lots of things, no doubt, but there are two aspects of Hillary's life that I'd like to underline: firstly, she's not only a woman - she's an older woman.

Germaine Greer believes there's as much ageism in the world as sexism, and older women are particularly sidelined, ignored and patronised. Hillary will be 69 by November of 2016, so she'll be a torch-bearer for old dames as well as a pioneer for her sex.

But the second aspect of Hillary Clinton's career is also worth consideration: it's being said that another Clinton in the White House is an example of a drift toward dynastic power in world politics. Mrs Clinton succeeding her husband is compared to Indira Gandhi succeeding her father, Nehru, or Benazir Bhutto following her father, Pakistan's late leader, Zulfikar Bhutto.

Then there's Justin Trudeau in Canada - newly burst upon the scene - and son of former PM Pierre; Xi Jinping leader of China, son of deputy leader Xi Zhongxuan; the notorious Kim Jong-il, dictator of in North Korea, son of the former Kim Il-sung; and in Kenya, the ruler is Uhuru Kenyatta, son of the nation's founder Jomo Kenyatta.

Monarchies are obviously based on the hereditary principle: republics are, supposedly, not. And yet in a country like America, which deliberately rejected the old European aristocratic order, clans and dynasties are much in evidence. It's been calculated that the son or daughter of a senator in the US is 8,500 times more likely to succeed in politics than the son or daughter of a butcher or baker. And so you have the Bushes, (George H, George W and, possibly, now Jeb), the Kennedys, the Roosevelts - famed clan names in American politics.

Strict republicans think this is a worrying trend. Justin Trudeau's electoral success in Canada was met with some jeering remarks about his Daddy's - and Mummy's, Margaret Trudeau was quite a celeb in her day - brand name. Yet in some ways, dynastic traditions are almost inevitable. Professions run in families: it is not unusual for a farmer to be the offspring of a farmer; not strange when a doctor comes from a long line of medics; hardly remarkable that showbusiness runs in families - from the Redgraves to the Cusacks, new theatrical talent appears in each generation (Beth Cooke, Sorcha's daughter, being the latest flowering of the Cusack DNA). So why shouldn't politics run in families? It's entirely predictable.

And, as far as women are concerned, dynastic values are almost certainly a good thing; they give women more access to power. Equality may be exalted as a feminist ideal today, but historically, women were much more likely to get their hands on the levers of power in aristocratic - and dynastic - systems. From Eleanor of Acquitaine to Elizabeth I of England, from Catherine the Great of all the Russias to the mistresses and blue-stocking "wits" of 18th-century France, women ruled through dynastic influence.

Even the great Abbesses and Saints of Mediaeval Europe often controlled land and power because of their dynastic connections. One of my favourite saints, Brigid of Sweden, advised kings and popes: but she got into position through a wise dynastic marriage in the first place.

I'm not saying Hillary Clinton doesn't deserve to be where she is on her own merit: she does. But her partnership with her husband was part of her road to power; and his political power would not have been achieved without her shrewd stewardship of the Clinton brand.

In fact, Hillary is a prime example of what Diane Coyle, Professor of Economics at Manchester University calls "assortative mating". These days, Prof Coyle claims, spouses come from similar educational backgrounds, and have similar levels of professional status. In traditional Mills & Boon stories, the doctor married a nurse: but nowadays, the doctor will probably marry another doctor. Lawyers wed lawyers, and I must own that journalists marry - and beget - journalists.

There is a downside: more mating between social and intellectual equals may mean less social mobility. In the Victorian period, it sometimes happened that a Lord or an Earl would marry a chorus girl - the Earl of Clancarty, in the Ballinasloe area of Co Galway famously married a beautiful music hall actress. Today, a rich or titled man will veer towards someone of his own financial or social level. The days when the poor-but-honest governess got to be the chatelaine of the great house are over. George and Amal Clooney are interesting examples of "assortative mating": they're at a similar level of accomplishment and even beauty (and he claims she's brighter than he is).

Dynastic power doesn't always prove enduring: the younger generations of Kennedys or Churchills may not live up to the founding name. Chelsea Clinton may or may not be a future politico. Whether the De Valera name will carry political kudos in Irish politics in the future remains to be seen. (The Lenihans, the Fitzgeralds, the O'Malleys have all made a dynastic contribution to Irish politics - and Enda himself is the son of a well-established politician.) Dynasties can bring advantages. They may take a longer-term view than the politician who just wants cheap popularity; and they have always opened more doors for women, as the arc of Hillary's career demonstrably shows.


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