Read about this woman. But think about all the rest. After the roll call of the states at the Democratic National Convention, Hillary Clinton became the candidate for President of the United States. She is the first woman to win the nomination of a major party, a milestone for America nearly a century after women won the right to vote there.
Today, many American states have women governors. The number of women in Congress is increasing. In Canada, when Justin Trudeau was asked why his Cabinet was 50% women, he answered “because it is 2015”.
All these rights had been won through the efforts of an independent and courageous movement of women, both American and global. American feminists have often taken support and inspiration from their foreign counterparts.
The first female head of state in the 20th century was in Little Khural (now Mongolia). In India, women participated actively in the freedom struggle and got the right to vote in 1947. Activists such as Kamladevi Chattopadhaya jumped on to the train to demand of Gandhi the right to make salt and break the British salt tax along with male colleagues at the end of the historic Dandi march in 1930.
England, which had once persecuted independent or knowledgeable women and midwives who performed abortions and taught contraception, now has Theresa May as prime minister, who has told her Conservative Party colleagues: “My pitch is very simple: I’m Theresa May and I’m the best person to be prime minister.”
A simple, unambiguous statement went not only unchallenged but was accepted as a truism by many. It is that May would be the best person to negotiate Brexit with her tough female counterpart German chancellor Angela Merkel. The United Kingdom has voted to leave the European Union to stop the influx of refugees, whereas Merkel took the decision to allow more than one million refugees into her country last year.
Merkel’s success as someone who stabilised the German economy, while not necessarily being a feminist, is well known. But she is certainly not Deutschland’s equivalent of Margaret Thatcher, who elected a cabinet of all men and cancelled milk subsidies in schools, acquiring the label “Thatcher, the Milk Snatcher”. Germany’s chancellor, as holder of the G-7 presidency, set out her priority for the G-7 summit: Improving gender inequality at the workplace. “We need to talk about the possibilities open to women around the world to establish their independence and ensure their advancement through safe and skilled labour. All the statistics show a reduction in poverty and inequality when more women play an active part in economic life. However, only about 50 per cent of all women are currently in gainful employment.”
Merkel has paved the way for women leaders. They are no longer accused of being tougher or more cruel than men. All the 22 women presidents, prime ministers and other heads of state today have carved out a corner to promote girls and women. Elizabeth Sirleaf Jones in Liberia has made education compulsory and free for girls. Sweden’s Margo Wallström has “promised a ‘feminist’ foreign policy when her Social Democrats formed the coalition government” in October 2014. She has criticised the lack of women’s rights in Saudi Arabia, with which, she has announced, Sweden will revoke a weapons export agreement in place since 2005. President Michele Bachelet of Chile has galvanised unlikely allies such as Bangladesh’s Sheikh Hasina Wajed, along with former Irish president Mary Robinson and former Norwegian prime minister Gro Harlem Brundtland, in the Council of Women World Leaders, an international network of current and former women presidents and prime ministers whose mission is collective action on issues of critical importance to women and equitable development. They have pushed the UN for Resolution 1325, asking for more women to be at the peace table.
Women leaders have come a long way from the time when Indira Gandhi was attacked for her commitment to reproductive rights and making “family planning (contraception) a centrepiece of her national policy”. Indian women leaders still face hostility and misogynistic attacks far worse than their counterparts in the West do. Recently, former UP chief minister Mayawati was described as a “prostitute” by a BJP functionary.
Clinton has been learning from her women counterparts both within the US and outside. She has consistently assured people that she would leverage her power to help women. She had attended and supported the Beijing Women’s Conference in 1995 as First Lady of the US and made popular the slogan “Women Hold Up Half the Sky”. As secretary of state, she mentored women’s civil society groups and political leaders.
Her team had asked Indonesian human trafficking survivor Ima Matul to speak at the Democratic National Convention and Matul fittingly said “before there were laws to identify and protect victims, even before I escaped my trafficker, Hillary Clinton was fighting to end modern slavery”.
Ruchira Gupta is visiting professor at New York University and founder of the anti-sex trafficking organisation Apne Aap Women Worldwide
The views expressed are personal