Why aspiring female presidents must have 'rooms' of their own

Azimio la Umoja Deputy Presidential candidate Martha Karua when she addressed the Jubilee Party National Delegates Convention in Nairobi's Ngong Racecourse on May 22, 2023. [Samson Wire, Standard]

English author Virginia Woolf argued in her 1929 book-length essay titled ‘A Room of One’s Own’ that a woman must have money and a room of her own if she is to succeed in writing fiction.

During her time, fiction was a dominant mode through which elites could express and expose themselves to society—it had the influence that mass media and the internet have today. If Woolf were to write today about politics and gender, she would argue that women need financial independence and a private space to succeed in politics. Let us explore some background so that I can offer advice to any woman who aspires to be the first president of the Republic of Kenya.

Early this month, former Senator Millicent Omanga suggested that Nakuru Governor Susan Kihika is fit to be President in 2032. Why not 2027? Well, she knows that their boss, William Ruto, will be vying. And that is my problem!

Women are ready to give men space to complete their terms. They are not prepared to stand out and challenge the status quo. Therefore, they defer their political dreams to allow men to have their share and then hand over leadership to them. That won't happen soon. In September 2023, in a TV interview, Jubilee-nominated MP Sabina Chege expressed her confidence that she would one day become Kenya's first female president. But she should have stated precisely when and her strategy to achieve that dream. So, who will make her President?

Although women have never had a smooth ride in Kenyan politics, the trajectory is promising. Towards the 2022 general elections, Martha Karua was chosen as the running mate to Raila Odinga, a front-runner candidate. Although they lost, seven women were elected as governors, an increase from three women governors in the previous regime.

Is there any woman who is ready to be President in Kenya? First, Woolf was of the idea that a 20th century woman who aspired to achieve artistic greatness needed money and space. Even today, a serene, quiet atmosphere is required to release potential. In politics, a woman must master her space and resources, including social capital. A would-be woman president must beat political patriarchal systems in society and rise above men and other women in all applicable spheres. This is not easy, but it is doable.

Second, Woolf argued that successful writers think beyond categories like gender. Likewise, the would-be first woman president must drop gender cards (think beyond gender) and compete with men and plan to beat them. Unfortunately, the only shortcut to this is a woman becoming President in the order of Tanzania’s Samia Suluhu.

Third, Woolf said that historically, society has kept gifted women from exploring their abilities. However, society has changed, but women have remained restrained from exploring their gifts outside the help of men. Women must stand and claim their space. As such, any woman who wants to be President must establish and stabilise their political party. Men's political parties will never help them rise to the presidency. Fact!

Woolf’s fourth argument was that men use power to uplift their gender over women. To rise to the level of presidency, women must elevate their gender over men. It means that women must reverse the claim that “women are their own worst enemies”.

Woolf’s fifth point was that even successful women writers still face the limitations of social realities. Likewise, even the elected female governors and other women leaders in our political spaces are constrained. Society seemingly has reservations for women at some levels of political leadership.

Only women can deconstruct such social perceptions and set new realities in their favour—I know this is general and ambiguous, but the point is home. Finally, Woolf believed that women could use fiction to break new artistic ground. Thus, how can Kenyan women use their political influence to break new political possibilities, disrupt social realities and change perceptions?

Is that possible? Yes, but women must be ready to pay the price! They must create their space and a ‘political room’.

Dr Ndonye is a senior lecturer, the Department of Mass Communication, at Kabarak University

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