From Liberia to Central African Republic, and towards Malawi; beyond continental ridges and yonder into South America, and in Eurasia, a few magnanimous figures are leading nations. It is not so unusual that a state has a leader; only that in this case they are all women — brought up to challenge the long standing aphorism that women are not cut out for leadership.
Angela Merkel, the chancellor of Germany, is said to be the most powerful woman in the world. She shoulders both political and economic needs of her country; a major — and arguably leading — player in Europe. Her stature is buoyed by immense power; so much that her moves on the world’s political chessboard could provoke cataclysmic ripples throughout the planet. That may get you wondering; is there a feminine instinct behind the smiley face Merkel?
“No one loves her, no one adores her, but she is very well-respected,” university professor Wolfgang Stock — her biographer — says of the woman who was raised by a pastor father and a mother who taught English in Germany’s small town of Templin, located just an hour’s drive north of Berlin.
Contrary to that opinion, Merkel, who only allows a tort of her brimming personal life to seep out, has a life beyond her chancellery duties.
She is married to her second husband Joachim Sauer who UK’s Daily Mail describes as “an eminent professor of Chemistry who likes his laboratory more than the limelight.”
Her first marriage to a fellow physicist Ulrich Merkel, barely lasted.
“It sounds stupid, but I didn’t go into the marriage with the necessary amount of seriousness,” she says.
Like her, majority of female world leaders seem to have struggled through marital hiccups; or forfeited marriage all together.
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Joyce Banda, the president of Malawi, is also married to a second husband after she fell out with the father of her first three children Roy Kachale. While living in Nairobi, she left her husband in 1981, citing domestic abuse.
The world’s first elected black female president and Africa’s first elected female head of state, Ellen Johnson-Sirleaf of Liberia, has also had her fair share of man-problems. She is divorced; which fact has never deterred her from pursuing her belief in human rights.
But just as much as light has been shed on that part of every successful woman’s life, there is equal — but mysterious — befuddlement at marital success stories that have shone from stalwarts such as Argentina’s Cristina Fernández de Kirchner.
Halfway through her second term now, Cristina is a perfect description of beauty and brains. She succeeded her husband to the helm of her country’s leadership in 2007.
She is among few women in the world whose husbands supported their ambitions into cutthroat politics.
The one outstanding hallmark of the likes of Cristina is their wonky exploits. She is an accomplished lawyer and lawmaker, having represented the region of Santa Cruz in the Argentine Senate for two terms.
Merkel, on her part, is a physicist who “was always leading her classmates from the time she was young,” according to reports.
Ellen Johnson studied Accounts and Economics in Monrovia, later on moving to the US to graduate with a degree from the University of Colorado.
Even though she had just come from prison, Brazilian president Dilma Rousef achieved her dream of becoming an economist; graduating with a bachelor’s degree in Economics from the Universidade Federal do Rio Grande do Sul in Porto Alegre.
Dilma exuded passion for human rights. As a teenager, she was associated with a left wing militant group. She even married a fellow activist, Cláudio Linhares, but the union did not last long. She spent three years in jail on the charge of subversion. While serving her term, she was subjected to torture by her captors.
Women who came first into the podium of leadership and politics like Margaret Thatcher, the 1979 prime minister of the United Kingdom, encountered a lot of resistance and had to evolve a thick knack to break the glass ceiling. Thatcher herself was sharp with words and was even said to be “headstrong, obstinate and dangerously self-opinionated,” according to Daily Mail.
“If you want something said, ask a man. If you want something done, ask a woman,” she said in a speech as an MP in 1965. She would later say with a no-nonsense attitude: “I don’t mind how much my ministers talk, as long as they do what I say.”
Even with a stunning macho-faced approach to prime-ministership, Thatcher was never very far away from her feminine virtues. She complemented her coiffured hair — which she preferred combed to style — with colourful suits, hats, handbags and light reflecting ornaments.
Since Thatcher’s time, no power-puff girl has shied away from making headlines and just ‘living their lives to the fullest’. Denmark’s Prime Minister Helle Thorning-Schmidt comes to mind. The glamorous 47-year-old caused a stir when she cheekily pulled in Barack Obama and UK’s David Cameron into a ‘selfie’ at Nelson Mandela’s memorial service.
In 2011, her British husband of 15 years, Stephen Kinnock, was accused of homosexuality, allegations to which she let a downpour of emotions, saying: “It’s really uncomfortable, also for my family and my children. It’s so grotesque.”
Miss Schmidt juggles her state roles with motherhood; shepherding her two girls as they grow in the shadows of power. Perhaps they will grow to emulate a thing or two from their mother’s interstellar career in politics.
To be a woman in power has proven costly for some. In public, their motherly instinct to nurture and offer hope created a soft underbelly for misogynistic targets. Even though they understood the danger of rising above men in a patriarchal society, India’s Indira Gandhi and Pakistani’s Benazir Bhutto pursued the electorate with zeal.
Both rose to be prime ministers but would later lose their lives to assassins. To express the passion she had for humanity, Gandhi told her supporters just a day before her death that she doesn’t “mind if my life goes in the service of the nation. If I die today, every drop of my blood will invigorate the nation.”
Bhutto, on her part, carried around a mind of steel. After going through violent murder of her father and two brothers as a result of politics, she still ventured out with hope of leading Pakistan. Her supportive husband and three adult children supported her fully, even in the face graft accusations. In the UK, where she grew up cushioned by the moderate western culture, she was known as a party girl who loved the joys of freedom.
A Mail Online reporter described her in 2007 as “glamorous, clever and undeniably brave”. She eventually paid the ultimate price for the bravado.
The latest entrant to the league of powerful women is Central African Republic’s Catherine Samba Panza. A married mother of three grown-up children, she has been acclaimed as a maverick, a connoisseur of legal tender and an avid supporter of fighting corruption.
A women’s website describes Samba Panza as a “gentle, affable woman with a ready smile.” However, other news sources caution that those who know her say she is ‘exacting’ in her work and life and ‘does not readily bend to authority’.
As they walk afloat five inches of stilettoes, powerful women leaders have a point to make; it takes twice the energy a man needs for a woman to rise to power.
They are uniquely ferocious. Thatcher would say: “Defeat? I do not recognise the meaning of the word.”
Is Kenya ready for a female president?
Just prior to International Women’s Day this year, a poll conducted by Infotrak research group pointed to good fortunes for women as it showed that majority of the country believes that Kenya will have a woman president.
The results, released by Infotrak’s CEO Angela Ambitho, showed that 54.9 per cent of the population expressed optimism that a woman will take residence at the State House. Further, 64.5 per cent said they would be fine to vote for a woman to lead the country.
To date, since birth of the Kenyan nation, only two women — Charity Ngilu in 1997 and Martha Karua in 2013 — have shown the audacity to grit against the status quo.
“The question is never if women are ready for leadership; there is nothing male about leadership. Just like a man, a woman has the capacity to lead — and with prosperity. The biggest stumbling block is the political culture that is alive with us even today,” says Maria Nzomo, a professor at University of Nairobi’s Institute of Diplomacy and International Studies.
While she is of the opinion that the installation of a woman president in Kenya is in the offing, she points out that the political ambience is still hostile and largely impervious to women with political ambitions.
She says: “Kenyans may be ready for woman president — because of widespread awareness — but mindsets are still based on a culture that elects leaders based on ethnic blocks — supported by the financial mass of the contenders. Despite having all the right qualities, a woman stood a very slim chance of wining.”
In the Infotrak poll, it also emerged that as many as 80 per cent of Kenyans believe that women face great odds compared to men. As they wad through the murky political field, they are weighed down by culture, domestic responsibilities and lack of support.
Compared to men in powerful positions, 55 per cent of those who were interviewed said a woman would make a productive manager compared to a man.