Consul General’s Corner
August 8, 2011
Last Friday, Thailand made history by electing its first female prime minister. Subject to royal approval, Yingluck Shinawatra will be the first woman leader of this country. Although the United States came close during the last presidential election – with Hillary Clinton as a viable contender for the Democratic nomination – we have never enjoyed a female president.
This made me wonder how rare a female head of state is in the modern world. There have been female rulers throughout history, of course, from Cleopatra in Egypt to England’s Queen Elizabeth I. But how many women have been elected as head of state in democratic countries?
I was surprised to learn that the first woman elected as a minister in a democratic country was in 1924, when Nina Bing became Denmark’s Minister of Education. That was only four years after women in the United States were given the right to vote. The world waited another 36 years, until 1960, to see the first female prime minister: Sirivamo Bandaranaike in Sri Lanka. The first female president was Isabel Perón of Argentina in 1974. According to the website Guide2WomenLeaders.com, currently only 15% of United Nations members are ruled by women. Ms. Shinawatra was already included in their statistics as one of 11 female prime ministers and the only female ruler in Asia besides Australia’s Julia Gillard.
Ms. Shinawatra is also in the minority in the Thai government. Before July’s parliamentary elections, only 10% of Thai Members of Parliament were women. This figure seems even lower because women comprise nearly half of the Thai workforce. Politics have traditionally been viewed as a man’s domain, with women staying at home to look after their families or facing societal resistance to their activism. In the 1990s, when Thai decentralization policies replaced predominately male appointed officials with locally-elected ones, 10% of candidates were women. They lacked the national political networks enjoyed by men, however, and still faced doubts about their ability to lead in a crisis. Less than 1% of them were elected.
Nepotism is also a dilemma for women leaders. Having a relative connected to political networks can increase their profile and secure support, but they might be seen as not otherwise qualified for the job. This was the case for Corazon Aquino in the Philippines, Hillary Clinton in the U.S., Cristina Fernandez de Kirchner in Argentina, and now Ms. Shinawatra in Thailand.
To help encourage greater female participation in local Thai politics, the USAID-funded Sapan Program held a women’s empowerment workshop in Chiang Mai at the end of June. I was pleased to deliver welcome remarks at the event, giving me a chance to discuss the U.S. experience of female participation in government and politics. I was able to cite U.S. Ambassador to Thailand Kristie Kenney and her deputy, Judith Cefkin, as role models, along with Secretary of State Hillary Clinton and former Speaker of the House Nancy Pelosi (then the third most powerful individual in the U.S. government). The Sapan Program plans to expand its outreach on women’s empowerment – organized with the “Friends of Women” non-governmental organization -- to Thailand’s Northeast and South as well. Hopefully that will encourage more Thai women to become involved in politics, giving them a greater say on policies that affect them directly.
I hope that Ms. Shinawatra will be a role model for all of them.
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