On Sunday, Michelle Bachelet was voted in as President of Chile for her second term. Constitutional electoral requirements made it so that she had to leave her position following her initial 2006-2010 term, during the course of which she successfully championed community services and economic and health reform. Chile’s first female president, she has given her all for women, too: for example, in a country with a high rate of teenage mothers living in poverty, Bachelet fought to make the morning after pill freely available. She followed that feminist work up by using her time between presidential terms to become the first executive director of UN Women. Given that Bachelet is a female world leader, and especially as one who has played such a substantive role in work advocating for women both in Chile and internationally, one expects a lot of scrutiny of her femaleness, as with Germany’s Angela Merkel and Australia’s Julia Gillard. Bachelet, however, is garnering a lot more respect than preoccupation with the novelty of a woman in power. What does this mean as we are seeing more women on the world stage?
There’s a pattern in how female national leaders are characterised. No one could call German Chancellor Angela Merkel less than a well-known international leader, especially as she is being sworn in for her third term this week. However, she’s always figured as a powerful female politician, not as a powerful politician governing a major economic power. She is figured, according to Alison Smale in the New York Times, as cautious and pressured, ‘trying to wean her country from nuclear power’. ‘Frugal, cold and boring,’ say her peers, according to CNN. The gendered tone here is unmistakable, but, if that wasn’t enough, the appointment of Ursula von der Leyen as the first female defence minister has given rise to rumours that she must of course be being positioned to replace Merkel as Christian Democrats party leader. It’s weird and unfounded, unless you are inclined to draw lines between powerful women in supposed cahoots.
At least Merkel’s image as appropriately demure and unambitious has kept her from the kind of vitriol that eventually got Australian Prime Minister Julia Gillard kicked out of office. I regret to say that things did not improve for Gillard after her drive, candor, and womanhood netted her the belittling treatment I reported on in my 2011 piece on the subject here at Global Comment. If you’re a female leader, you’re apparently too boring or too explosive, always viewed as incompetent or volatile in explicitly gendered terms.
What, then, happens if we move beyond scrutinising female leaders simply on account of their gender? I take my cue here from Bachelet herself, in a 2007 interview with Australian journalist George Negus:
GEORGE NEGUS: Can we finish on this note, ‘Forbes’ magazine described you as the number 17 on the 100 most powerful women in the world. How does that grab you, being regarded as an incredibly powerful person?
MICHELLE BACHELET: Well…the thing is clear because they choose women who were prime ministers or presidents or CEOS of big, big, big enterprises. And I think that, of course, to be a woman and to be in an important and relevant positions, unfortunately, it is still not the most frequent issue in our world. So still a novelty, a new thing, you know, to have women in powerful positions.
GEORGE NEGUS: So it would be better for you if women were included in the most powerful people in the world rather than the most powerful women in the world?
MICHELLE BACHELET: Yeah, yeah.
The circumstances of Chile’s latest election give us some tools to work with to see how Bachelet continues to garner respect and effectively govern, with a relative dearth of international negative scrutiny of her femaleness. For a start, Bachelet was running against another woman, conservative politician Evelyn Matthei. It’s hard to use misogyny as a tool to undermine one leader if your other one is also a woman. There’s room, then, to discuss the actual election issues at hand, like educational and corporate tax reform. This suggests that more women in power means more focus on the political work, on behalf of women and everyone in general, that matters. It’s an obvious way to go, particularly in contrast with silly posturing about women’s supposed incapabilities when it comes to governance.
There’s one more obvious point to make about how the circumstances of Bachelet’s second election shape the lack of gawking in favour of actual politics: this is her non-consecutive second term, which means the novelty of an initial woman in power was over. This opens up a space to see past surprise, or the regulation of appropriate femininity faced by Gillard and Merkel. There’s space for seeing all the kinds of sameness and difference and points of importance Bachelet brings to the table, not only as a woman but as an individual. What can this agnostic in a largely Roman Catholic nation contribute, what can this single parent advise, what can this experienced president enact, what can this survivor of torture under the former military regime do to help her nation forward?
Let’s see what a female leader can do when she’s respected on her own terms, not as an experiment in powerful womanhood. Bachelet, like her fellow female world leaders, has a world of potential and achievement in her past and still to come, and here’s hoping that the early signs are correct that she will not be misogynistically undermined in those ends.
Photo by Mark Scott Johnson, licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution 2.0 Generic license