The world loves a woman who puts herself second. We celebrate the female Deputy PM, Vice President, 2IC, Head of HR, Deputy Chair and the woman behind the metaphorical throne (nothwithstanding QEII). It allows us to pretend we are not sexist – after all, look how far women have come. However, the lie behind our smugness is quickly revealed when a woman dares to back her talents and put herself first.
We saw this most clearly when Julia Gillard went from very popular Deputy to Kevin Rudd to loathsome Lady Macbeth when she became the PM herself. Hillary Clinton was lambasted when she sought the Democratic Presidential nomination the first time round, then – when she graciously accepted defeat and the position of Secretary of State – she experienced a burst of popularity she had not seen before (or since). Remember funky Hillary with her blackberry? Ironically, that same blackberry is one of many weapons being used against her now she has had the temerity to stand for the nomination a second time. I expect the invective and accusations against Hillary to reach fever pitch the closer she gets to power. And if she becomes President? Hold onto your hats, ladies, its going to get awful.
After an astonishing wave of women becoming leaders in South American countries, the backlash against them is predictably harsh and unrelenting. Michelle Bachelet in Chile – a rare second term female leader – has seen her popularity plunge. Dilma Rousseff in Brazil is facing impeachment and the former President of Argentina Cristina de Kirchner has been indicted for endangering the nation’s finances. Even Angela Merkel’s popularity has undergone a battering due to her stance regarding refugees from Syria. And the previously saint-like (always a no-win position for any woman to occupy) Aung San Suu Kyi has fallen off her pedestal now she is wrangling with the realities of actual power.
Is this because all women who get into power are bitches? In it for their own ends? Are they all crap, useless, wicked and incompetent (while also being Machiavellian in their ability to manipulate)? Is it the women who gain power who are the problem? Or is it our expectations and beliefs about women that make the job so hard for any of them to complete successfully? Men are also useless, corrupt and indifferent leaders but they rarely seem to attract the same level of vicious condemnation for their failings.
And there is nothing new about this. Is it a co-incidence that witch hunting in England reached its peak in the reign of James I, the monarch who followed Elizabeth 1 onto the English throne?
The world sends very clear messages to women about what it expects from them. It expects us to take second place uncomplainingly. We are to walk two steps behind, staring adoringly at the man in front. We are to take the metaphorical ‘burnt chop’ in every situation and do so with a brave smile. Female sacrifice is to be celebrated. Female ambition despised. This is why feminism itself is regarded so warily. Feminism is a philosophy that puts women first.
And suspicion regarding female ambition is not restricted to men. Women absorb the same messages with their mother’s milk (which may be where this whole female martyrdom thing starts). That’s what women who say “I am not a feminist but…’ are trying to ward off. They fear the suspicion and disapproval copped by any woman who admits to putting herself first – which is what calling yourself a feminist declares. It’s also why I will fight any attempt to rename feminism ‘equalism’ or something similar. If we buy into that, we will just end up expected to put ourselves second yet again.
This does not mean that any of the female leaders I have listed above are perfect and without failures. But – and this is the really important bit – nor should they have to be. If we cannot criticize a female leader without hating her and somehow desiring her to be punished, we need to look at our own motivations rather than hers. It is sexist to expect women leaders to be better, nicer and more honourable than men and punish them more harshly when they turn out to be just as flawed. It is sexist to expect them to be perfect and to hold any mistake, stumble or human weakness as ‘proof’ that they are not worthy of the job.
It is not good enough to see each female leader in isolation, loudly decry her failings and then claim that her gender has nothing to do with her unsuitability – you know, the old ‘I don’t think all women make lousy leaders, just this woman’ excuse. When almost all the women who have ever dared to put themselves first (both literally and metaphorically) are despised for it, while the men who do the same get let off much more lightly, then it isn’t the women who seek power who are the problem. It is our expectations of them.