photo by numlok
Wives/daughters of rulers have been elected for years all over the world. In 60 year old Sri Lanka it’s already happened twice. Today the President is a former first lady, and the power of dynasty is so strong that even the Italian wife of Rajiv Gandhi is the leader of India’s Congress party. Add the late Benazir Bhutto and Khaleda Zia and Sheikh Hasina of Bangladesh and the whole subcontinent has been ruled by Queen Regnants. The positions aren’t a triumph of modern-day feminism, they’re a testament to the ancient power of dynasty. There have been women in power from Cleopatra to Queen Elizabeth. They’re were all either daughters or wives of Kings and not independent women per se. The only stand-alone female rulers I can think of are Golda Meir and Margaret Thatcher. Hillary Clinton didn’t shatter a glass ceiling for women as much as ride a gilded carriage into a brick wall. Whatever the merits of her candidacy, feminism wasn’t one of them.
In Sri Lanka politicians get blown up a lot, and it’s pretty common for their wives to take over. When SWRD was killed, Srimavo took over. Her daughter later went on to rule as well. That’s dynasty, and it’s been going on all over the world since pretty much forever. I think the technical term is Queen Regnant and many monarchies allow for succession via women, though male sons are often prefered. In the case of someone like Cleopatra they were able to just marry their brothers, simplifying things.
In a modern electoral context the system still works, probably for the reasons that made it salient in the first place. There is a great brand equity to family and insomuch as most people voting are checking off a name, name recognition helps. Most voters in India or Sri Lanka (or anywhere really) don’t know that much about the vaunted issues and they seem to go with what they know.
In America this hasn’t happened as much, but it did happen with George W. Bush, and almost happened with Hillary Clinton. These are people who wouldn’t likely be running for President without their last names. The latter because she’s long lacked the charisma and social touch, and the former because he didn’t have the resume or intelligence. Mirror opposites kinda. Only difference is that he won, and she has now lost the nomination.
In her withdrawal speech Hillary framed he progress as a victory for women and a hope for daughters, but it’s pretty much the same hope any female has had throughout history. Marry a powerful guy, hang around, and maybe inherit the power. That’s how it works in Sri Lanka, India, whatever. Most women end up getting a deal they never wanted – dead husband and power – but it works out for some. That is not to say that they’re necessarily bad leaders. Aung San Suu Kyi of Burma, for example, is the daughter of a major independence leader. They are not, however, champions of the abstract cause of feminism (whatever that’s worth).
Feminism is a lot of things, but it generally means women having some equality with men. And dynastic women are not really equal. For one thing, they can’t really get power till their husband/father is dead or abdicates. That is, the men eat first. Feminism is also about women not being denied opportunity for the way they are born and having control of their sexuality and reproduction. Dynasty, however, is part of an age-old system (generally patriarchal) of very tight genetic control which denies people rights based on their birth. That is, even the women who gain title and power are still part of a system that they can’t really get out of because of blood or marriage. Get kicked out of the family or divorced and the power goes too, regardless of how capable you are.
Female are effectively placeholders in a much larger system operating at the family level, not liberated individuals. In Asia that family system is far more operational than in the West, perhaps why you see many female rulers here, and yet not much women’s rights. Marriages (especially arranged) operate here on a family level, and family often trumps individual.
Anyways, this system of dynasty is very old and, on the whole, kinda bad. Elections make it palatable, but it is generally better for a society when a broader base of the population has opportunity rather than hoping to get lucky with the crib or bed-mates of the few.
Getting back to Hillary Clinton, she rode on her years with President Bill Clinton as a sign of her own experience, and on her name and that ‘Clinton’ brand. Not so much on the stuff she’d done on her own, but the patina of the Clinton years. She’s certainly very capable, but many Queen Regnants have been. She had more opportunity than her individual condition merited (by whatever abstract metric) – enough dynastic force that it definitely outweighed any drag from being a female. She ran as a Clinton more than a woman, and her campaign was more about dynasty than feminism. I don’t think she broke any glass ceilings that ancient Egyptians, Victorians and modern Sri Lankans haven’t already passed through. The wife of a former ruler running for office is nothing new. Hearing it framed as feminism is.