Are we undermining female leaders with our expectations?
Updated: Mar 19, 2021
Regardless of what century they live in, female leaders just can’t be their own person in the public eye, can they? Cleopatra or Clinton - she’s either a hero, a villain, or a victim. Women have to labour this cycle to achieve their leadership ambitions, burdened by the weight of expectations, not just as a leader, but as the ideal feminist, forever tethered to her gender. The same scrutiny is hardly ever applied to men in similar positions of power. Simply by virtue of being a minority in a powerful role, we give women in power the quest of undoing years of inequality. We place their gender before their leadership and individuality. They’re powerful, but powerful women after all.
We put female leaders on a pedestal and make them a bastion for comparison for all women who follow them. They become the battleground for debate, more so than their male contemporaries. Take Margaret Thatcher for example. Forever remembered as the UK’s first female Prime Minister, she was immediately put in the unforgiving position to represent other (or all?) women as soon as she assumed the role. To this day we’re still debating on whether she was a feminist or not - a question also applied towards Theresa May almost 40 years later. Not just that, people compared everything about them, from the way they speak, their leadership styles, challenges they faced, and the way they dressed. We hardly do this for men though. They don’t have to bear the brunt of representing the rest of their gender.
Of course, this could also be attributed to the fact that female leaders are seen as an exception, and not a rule. The female leader heightens our senses, and suddenly we become so aware and perceptive of them, because it’s not often that we get a woman in such a high position. Their femininity becomes central to their leadership - how is she leading as a woman? The press focused on how Thatcher weaponised her gender, using femininity to flirt and boss around the multiple ‘sycophantic and adoring male admirers who would dance to her tune.’ At other times, they touted the glorified image of her riding in a tank with the Union Jack proudly by her side, where she became a female caricature of male brevity and brawn. Some have even gone as far to say that her policies were more male-oriented, unnecessarily gendering politics like they do with products these days:
‘She likes what macho, sexist, patriarchal men have always liked: war, the defence of the status quo, established power, entrenched inequality, heavily rigged individualist competition and absolute freedom.’ - Bidisha, Margaret Thatcher: A Feminist Icon?, January 5 2012, The Guardian.
Recently, rumours were circulating that Kim Jong-Un had died, and his sister, Kim Yo-Jong was poised to take the helm, becoming North Korea’s Supreme Leader. Like Thatcher, she would have been the first woman to lead in a male-dominated society. Except, misogyny is basically on steroids in North Korea. Naturally, Twitter erupted with fancams and fan art of her, calling her a ‘dictator queen’.
Obviously some are ironic, but for those that aren’t, they are happily glossing over the fact that whilst she, being a powerful woman, might represent female progress in a misogynistic society, she does not cultivate it. She’s been largely complicit in allowing things to carry on as they are in a country where sexual violence in the work and public sphere are ‘so common that it has come to be accepted as part of ordinary life’. Yet, we want to neutralise the burn of how corrosive her leadership could really be.
Margaret Thatcher is another example of someone who represents female progress, but doesn’t necessarily champion it. She was certainly aware of gender inequality, saying that the male population was too ‘prejudiced’ which would make it difficult for a female leader to be elected. Yet, once in power, she famously said ‘I owe nothing to women’s lib’. She then went on to cut child benefits and also suggested that women with children should leave the workforce.
Of course, in an ideal world, a female leader would be feminist, but by expecting this, we are essentially just reinforcing the subjgation of women that we want to eradicate. As a society, first, we made the female leader a victim, creating extra obstacles for her to overcome if she wanted to be viewed as a leader who is as worthy as her male counterparts. Think: promotion bias, gender-assigned (family) responsibilities, and institutional sexism.
Then, we give them the title of a hero when they do become a leader, but by doing so we put their gender before anything else. Margaret Thatcher is the first female Prime Minister, and that precedes anything else about her, both as a woman and as a leader.
“Thatcher is remembered for her achievements, but more for a presence, which was wrapped up with being a woman. Several strong women on the continent have risen to the top, but this British woman, in Britain of all places, became a phenomenon, first, through her gender.” - Hugo Young, Margaret Thatcher left a dark legacy that has still not disappeared, April 8 2013, The Guardian.
Priti Patel is a prime example of someone who we want to be our hero. She is the first non-white woman to become Home Secretary in the UK. As a woman of colour, she represents minorities in an environment where they have previously been oppressed. With that comes the expectation that they will be better equipped to undo that oppression. The expectation imposed on her stemming from both her gender and her race intersect to create a basket of expectations that will only weigh her down further. She’s not the only example of how race also affects how we hold our leaders to account. As the first black President of the US, Barack Obama’s leadership will always be scrutinised with ‘what did Obama do for black people?’. It’s the same reason we want minority representation and role models in films, books, and media. They closely resonate with our own experiences, and we believe that they can help us better share and help others understand that experience.
And when the woman leader fails to do that, she becomes a villain. In this article, the South Asian author lovingly reminisces how her father used to celebrate seeing brown people on screen, but now, she says ‘When my dad turns on his TV and sees Priti Patel or Sajid Javid on screen, he doesn’t call anyone to join him. The house stays still in the silence of shame.’
Of course, Priti Patel’s time in office has been peppered with controversies of bullying and harassment, and ultimately her views are pretty right-wing. She voted against same-sex marriage as recently as 2013, used to hold the view that capital punishment should be reinstated, and has supported prisoner disenfranchisement. But they’re *shockingly* right-wing because they come from a brown woman. We want to convince ourselves that as a woman of colour, Priti Patel should align to a specific type of political stance, which in our eyes would be progressive. In an ideal world, Patel would be accepting of LGBTQ+ communities. As a woman, and particularly a woman from an ethnic minority, her outlook on immigration would be to make the country more open. She would help other women, people of colour, and disadvantaged people to progress. But this isn’t the case, and that makes us angry.
Conservative contemporary Sally-Ann Hart has pandered to far-right sentiments, more so than Patel. She ‘liked’ a Nazi slogan on Facebook and endorsed an anti-Islam blog post. Little has been said about these controversies. In fact, if you Google her, you’ll see that on the first page, only two results reference these incidents. Google Priti Patel, and the results are littered with news articles examining everything she does. It could be because Priti Patel is Home Sec and Sally-Ann Hart is an MP, but the ruling party’s criticisms should not just be limited to the front-runners who represent them.
The same author who says her dad once celebrated brown people on TV says that ‘Patel is used as a pawn in white supremacy and takes it in her stride,’ and that she shows that ‘success is achieved when you bend to whiteness’. Juxtaposed with her racial heritage, we are served with criticisms of her that show that we expect her to behave in a certain way, and try to justify it with an attack on her identity when she doesn’t bend to our expectations. People of colour are allowed to have political views that are right-wing, and by reducing Patel to a ‘pawn’, we deprive her of autonomy and completely disregard and dismiss the fact that she is an individual with her own opinions.
Whilst Sajid Javid is also criticised for the same thing, the leadership of men isn’t burdened with as many expectations as a woman’s is. To begin with, men don’t represent the rest of their gender. Boris Johnson will seldom be compared to any of his predecessors, and although he is compared to Donald Trump, this comparison doesn't revolve around the fact that they are men. We don’t debate whether male leaders are feminists. Even though there is an expectation that male leaders would push the cause for female progress, we don’t hold them to it. In fact, research has suggested that men actually get penalised for being a feminist. They don’t have the experience of sexism, discrimination and subjugation, so we don’t just don’t expect them to understand like we expect women to. We also don’t romanticise male leaders. It’s because male leadership is expected, and it is normalised.
When we celebrate female leadership, we fail to normalise it. And as long as this remains the case, we will never look upon female leaders with the same relative impartiality that we bestow upon male ones. By saying ‘omg yes queen’ every time a woman gets power, we put the pressure on her to act like that ‘queen’. The celebration places her gender before anything else, tying her to the notion that she, as a leader ‘queen’, needs to align with our notions of what makes a good female leader. Celebrating female leadership can be encouraging, but also damaging when you tie expectation to it. We need to normalise female leadership so that it thrives on individual views, rather than have it become an echo chamber of projected personalities that leaves no space for debate. As time goes on, the exception needs to become the norm. And we don’t celebrate the norm.
In a way, we attach a woman’s power with the expectations we place on them, and by doing so, deprive them of their autonomy. It’s a situation where wanting other women to be feminist becomes anti-feminist in itself, because we don’t give them the freedom to make their political choices freely. We think that because she’s a woman, she needs to represent the best of women, even though men aren’t expected to do the same for their gender. In the name of feminism, we disallow women to represent their own views, because we so desperately want them to be progressive for the sake of their gender. We place more emphasis on the female, rather than the leader. We reduce female leaders down to ‘strong women’, regardless of what that strength implies. We dissociate strength from character. Female, but not feminist. These notions co-exist, and we can only accept that when we can separate expectation from reality.
Cover painting is The Cave of the Storm Nymphs by Edward Poynter.