MERCER-GOLDEN: Iron ladies

Meditations

Over break, I visited the National Portrait Gallery in London, which is full of paintings of England’s most famous citizens, including many women. I was struck by how many strong female leaders England has produced, not least Elizabeth I. I had also recently seen The Iron Lady, about Margaret Thatcher, the powerful if problematic prime minister of Great Britain in the 1980s.

I then thought their about American counterparts and was reminded — not for the first time — of the relative scarcity of past and present powerful American women. There are some: Madeline Albright and Hilary Clinton, Nancy Pelosi and Condoleezza Rice, a slew of former first ladies and members of Congress, social reformers and political revolutionaries.

But America has yet to have a female leader as powerful as Elizabeth or Margaret Thatcher. And while the United States is younger than England, we have still had more than enough time to promote women into positions of power.

Women currently make up 17 percent of the Senate and 18 percent of the House of Representatives, rates lower than those of Sweden, India and Rwanda. According to a 2010 United Nations report, just 14 women served as the heads of state or government in the world’s 192 countries. In only 23 countries did women comprise more than 30 percent of their national parliaments, and on average one in six cabinet ministers was a woman. This trend of under-representation at the highest levels of decision-making carries over into other spheres: Only 13 of the 500 largest corporations in the world had a female CEO.

As a young woman who has yet to decide if she will run for political office, I find these statistics disturbing. England may have a history of strong female leaders, but they were few and exceptional. The British parliament is only 22 percent women at present, and there has been no female prime minister since Thatcher. Both the United Kingdom and the United States — two of the most progressive countries in the world — have a dearth of women at the top who serve as advocates and role models for future generations including my own.

The national conversation about women’s reproductive rights signals the fallout from this crisis of female leadership. How can a congress that is only 17 percent women adequately characterize and defend the status of women? The conservative men who feel entitled to make moral judgments for American women about abortion and contraception can enforce their opinions because there aren’t enough other perspectives in the positions that matter to stop them from talking.

The example of Rush Limbaugh raises another challenging question in the discussion about female leadership, which is that of public intimidation. Defend a woman’s right to choose or her right to cheap contraception and you are liable to be labelled a slut for the world to hear.

Limbaugh’s remarks reflect the comfort many commentators have with disregarding the voices and opinions of American women. Young women in America face a climate that gives them few role models, fixates on what they do with their bodies and then makes them feel guilty for doing what men can do easily: have sex without fear of the long-term consequences.

So, Mr. Limbaugh, if you and your conservative henchmen in Congress have your way, women in this country will have more babies. They will have sex — probably less of it, but they still will have it — but they will have sex less safely and under a cloud of recrimination. And because more women will have children younger (having never had access to sexual education in middle and high school, because you are against that as well), they won’t complete their education and they won’t run for Congress. Not in the numbers we need to make a difference and to change the tone of the conversation about women’s rights in America.

I idolize Elizabeth I and have tremendous sympathy for Margaret Thatcher, but one died the Virgin Queen and the other spent her political career navigating criticisms of her ability to lead. Their lives are a testament to how hard it has been and still is to be a woman in power.

Yet their male colleagues managed to sow their wild oats (see the too-common sex scandals of men in politics), get married and have children without apologizing for it. Without more female role models who have led balanced lives in the public arena, I hesitate to enter politics. And if I don’t — if other women don’t — we will remain stuck at 17 percent, quiet-voiced and unable to decide our own fates, political or otherwise.

Zoe Mercer-Golden is a junior in Davenport College. Contact her at zoe.mercer-golden@yale.edu.

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