Women on top, or normalization by equal opportunity

Daily News Egypt
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What will Group of Eight summit meetings have American President Hillary Clinton and French President Segolene Royal join German Chancellor Angela Merkel in a formidable triangle of women’s power? The scenario is not altogether unlikely. Indeed, in the United States and France, there are even alternative female candidates for the presidency (Condoleezza Rice in the US and Michelle Alliot-Marie in France). Will this mean a new style of both domestic politics and international relations? The answer is not obvious. After all, some women have long had the strength and the will to make it to the top. Think of Indira Gandhi, Golda Meir, or Margaret Thatcher. All three were powerful prime ministers of their countries, though perhaps not the epitome of what might be regarded as feminine values. They all outdid men at their own game and had little time for what came to be called feminism. Indeed, another trend may be more significant as far as political leadership is concerned. When it comes to the formation of governments, women have managed to break out of the prison of their traditional domains, such as education and social affairs. Foreign policy in particular has become a female aspiration. Both the US and the European Union have women leading their foreign offices; so do half a dozen EU countries, including Britain. Has this changed the style, indeed, the substance of foreign policy? Undoubtedly, a shift in policy styles is occurring in many parts of the world. In a word, it appears that the Reagan-Thatcher period is over. While opponents of globalization still fight “neo-liberal policies, political discourse has taken a new turn. Words like “justice are back in fashion; there is concern about globalization’s losers and the “underclass. Likewise, the leader of Britain’s Conservatives, David Cameron, startled more old-fashioned supporters of his party by saying that people released from prison “need, above all, love. When Prime Minister Tony Blair described the next election as a fistfight in which the “flyweight Cameron would be carried out and the “heavyweight Brown victorious after a short bout, he got much applause from his supporters in the House of Commons, but the remark went down badly with voters. Somehow, people prefer “softer values than were prevalent in the last two decades. Yet it is not the leading women who above all represent these values. Merkel may have been softened by having to preside over a grand coalition, but her original stance was more of the Reagan-Thatcher variety. Yuliya Tymoshenko was clearly the most stout-hearted among the leaders of Ukraine’s Orange Revolution, and no one has ever described Hillary Clinton as particularly “soft. On the contrary, her possible Republican opponent in 2009, Senator John McCain, while a war hero, is also a man who represents to many Americans the new soft values. Merkel had a difficult time in the run-up to her recent party conference, because Jurgen Ruttgers, the minister-president of the largest German state, North-Rhine Westphalia, reminded the Christian Democrats of their historical support for strong social-welfare policies. Only Royal may be said to represent softer lines against the hard-liner of the governing party, Nicolas Sarkozy. So, have women at or near the top made no real difference to politics? Whatever change they have brought has not been obvious. In a sense, women’s advance is simply the normal consequence of the gradual move to effective equality of opportunity that began in the 1960s. It took decades to become real, and there are still countries that have a long way to go. Despite Tymoshenko’s leading role in Ukraine, it would be surprising to see Russian President Vladimir Putin replaced by a woman, and, while there is a female vice-president in China, there is no sign of a woman becoming Japanese prime minister soon. Even so, in many parts of the world, women have made considerable headway on the path to the top. Not infrequently this has been helped by explicit policies. David Cameron prides himself on a successful campaign to make 40 percent of all Conservative parliamentary candidates in Britain are women. But this is precisely the point. It is not the women at the top who have changed the scene. Rather, it is a more general trend, helped along by open-minded leaders of both sexes, that has changed the political climate in countries. No one, man or woman, can today aspire to setting the tone of public discourse without recognizing that politics is no longer only a man’s game. In other words, normalization by equal opportunity is itself the change. Whatever the particular values of leading candidates, this is undoubtedly progress. Ralf Dahrendorf, a former European commissioner from Germany, is a member of the British House of Lords, a former Rector of the London School of Economics, and a former Warden of St. Antony’s College, Oxford. THE DAILY STAR publishes this commentary in collaboration with Project Syndicate (www.project-syndicate.org).

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