With First Minister For Scotland and head of the Scottish National Party (SNP) Nicola Sturgeon in the running for our next General Election, Rhian Morgan examines the female politicians who are ruling the world
One minute fighting hordes of ancient warriors, the next negotiating with one of Britain’s early kings, Earl Ingstad of Hedeby, played by karate black belt Katheryn Winnick, is the standout star of the History Channel’s Vikings – and is based on early Saxon shield maiden Lagertha. A contemporaneous account describes her thus: “[She] fought in front among the bravest, with her hair loose over her shoulders. All marvelled at her matchless deeds, for her locks flying down her back betrayed that she was a woman.”
Current Norwegian head-of-state Conservative Party leader Erna Solberg may not be a black belt (though Lithuanian President Dalia Grybauskaite is) but she is still following in the Scandinavian tradition of strong women. Solberg became Norway’s second female Prime Minister in 2013. Half her cabinet posts are filled by women. And predictably, like many other female world leaders, she is nicknamed the Iron lady.
However, since the original Iron Lady, Margaret Thatcher, female candidates to run Britain have been thin on the ground. Our most influential contender is recently appointed First Minister of Scotland, and head of the SNP, Sturgeon.
Sturgeon is looking to build her power base through alliances, most notably with Labour’s Ed Miliband. She says, rather diplomatically: “I’m manifestly not the same as [predecessor] Alex Salmond. I’m a different gender, for example… I’m being flippant but maybe this is a partly gender-driven difference: I’m very keen that we find a way of reaching out across party divides to find things we agree on, as well as the things we disagree on.”
Yet, in terms of global power then Angela Merkel, Germany's first female Chancellor, leads the way. She was named the world's most powerful woman in 2014 by Forbes, and the second-most powerful person globally in 2013. Even though she is a world leader, and a doctor of chemistry, a one-time President of the European Council, and chair of the G8, as well as the major influencer on global fiscal policy, and the de facto leader of the European Union, she has still been criticised by sexists like Italian PM Silvio Berlusconi.
Another woman power broker to be ridiculed or sensationalised for her looks is Danish Prime Minister Helle Thorning-Schmidt. She set the internet afire, as well as sensationalist US rag the National Enquirer, last year when she posed for an infamous selfie with David Cameron and Barack Obama at Nelson Mandela’s memorial. During the campaign, her stylish appearance earned her the nickname ‘Gucci Helle’.
Women leaders do seem to fall into either of two camps in the world press – glamour puss or iron lady. Like fellow chemist Thatcher, Merkel has that moniker, as does karate-kicking Grybauskaite, and Brazil’s first female president, Dilma Rousseff. However, she certainly has earned her credentials as a tough woman. Apart from infamous public dressings-down of her ministers, she held her ground when subjected to torture during her three-year imprisonment in 1970, after she joined the left-wing underground movement against Brazil’s military dictatorship.
While fellow Iron Lady Ellen Johnson Sirleaf is Africa's first elected female head of state, gaining power after Liberia's 14-year civil war ended in 2005. In 2011, she won the Nobel Peace Prize. Another woman making political strides in Africa is Catherine Samba-Panza. She was appointed Mayor of Bangui in 2013 and elected interim president of the Central African Republic soon after, making her the first woman to hold the post.
And it’s surprising how many women are seizing the reins of power in traditional bastions of male domination. Controversial Argentinian President Cristina Fernandez de Kirchner is the first head of state to legalise same-sex marriage in Latin America. While lawyer and member of the Peruvian Nationalist Party Ana Jara served as Minister of Women and Social development before becoming the sixth prime minister of the country in less than three years.
Bangladesh’s Sheikh Hasina was sworn in for a third term as prime minister in 2014 after victory for her Awami League party. And if we look at Eastern Europe, Atifete Jahjaga was elected Kosovo’s first female president by parliament, thereby becoming the first female head of state of the modern Balkans. At 39, she's also the youngest to be elected to the office. Laimdota Straujuma's centre-right coalition was elected in 2014, amid fears of Russian intervention in Ukraine. Ms Straujuma, an economist by training, became Latvia’s first female prime minister. While Polish Prime Minister Ewa Kopacz is a former paediatrician and GP. Croatia’s President, Kolinda Grabar-Kitarovic, was appointed in February.
Sworn in in 2013, Park Geun-hye - the first female head of state in North-East Asia’s modern history – now leads the country with the highest level of gender equality in the developed world – South Korea. She has promised to redistribute wealth, reform big conglomerates, and engage with North Korea.
Portia Simpson-Miller is the first female Prime Minister of Jamaica. But even more impressive is Kamla Persad-Bissessar, who became Trinidad and Tobago’s first female prime minister after a landslide victory and grew up in a Kingston ghetto – something our country should take note of because, with Etonians currently ruling the roost in Britain, and social mobility dismal, it is unlikely anyone who grew up on a council estate, especially if they are black and female, will ever make it to the corridors of power.
So if, like Lagertha before them, you dream of wielding ultimate power, take lessons from these women. Though maybe it would be best to forget the pillaging but instead keep the shield aloft to parry any blows from the Berlusconis of the world.