Nine months ago, María Fernanda Espinosa Garcés, then President of the United Nations General Assembly, opened an event on Women in Power. Her message was stark: if we continue the way we are, it will take more than 100 years for us to achieve true equality. Over 90% of the world’s Heads of Government are male. So we have some distance to travel.
Where I call home: British politics and women
However, it seems like the world might be changing faster than we thought and in a more positive fashion. The UK has broken a new diversity record from the previous, back in 2017. We now have 220 female Members of Parliament, which makes up a far more healthy 34% of the current House of Commons. It seems we’ve come a long way from the tokenism of the awfully named ‘Blair Babes’.
What isn’t so great, however, is how many women stood down at this election, citing abuse and harrassment, a growing problem that our Prime Minister, Boris Johnson, seemed unwilling to address. Dame Caroline Spelman, a Conservative MP, came right out and said it was directly due to abuse. Many suggested her colleague, Tory Nicky Morgan’s decision to step down was motivated by the same troubles. In September, Jess Phillips, Labour MP for Birmingham Yardley, accused the PM of “stoking hatred” with his words after he appeared to roundly dismiss another MP, Paula Sheriff’s, appeal to tone down the lexicon of war and conspiracy. She referenced the death of MP Jo Cox, saying
“We stand here under the shield of our departed friend, with many of us subject to death threats and abuse every single day. And let me tell the Prime Minister that they often quote his words: surrender act, betrayal, traitor. I for one am sick of it. We must moderate our language and it has to come from the Prime Minister first.”
“I’ve never heard such humbug in all my life”, he retorted.
Just the day before, however, Jo Swinson had told how her children had been the recipients of disgusting death threats, saying “We have had the Attorney General earlier today joke about wife-beating. We have had the Government asked if they would bring forward the domestic abuse bill now that Parliament has resumed and they dismissed those requests. And we had the comments…recalling Jo Cox and the threats that MPs face on a daily basis – and I may add that I today have reported to the police a threat against my child – that has been dismissed as ‘humbug’.”
In Scotland, we have the fiery Nicola Sturgeon, who now has 80% of the Scottish Parliament, with 48 of the available 59 seats. Despite Boris Johnson’s insistence that he will not permit a second Scottish Independence Referendum, Sturgeon yesterday set out her stall in a 38-page document, stating that the case for a second referendum is “unarguable”. Sturgeon’s confidence in her essential goal to secure independence for Scotland, arguing that leaving the EU is ‘material change’ enough to warrant another vote is laudable. To borrow a word from Johnson, her “stonking” majority certainly suggests she has the mandate to follow through.
It’s not just Britain that struggles with misogynistic language, however. On 17th December, Estonian interior minister, Mart Helme decided to throw shade at new Finnish Prime Minister, Sanna Marin. At 34, she’s the youngest ever Finnish Prime Minister (and youngest current world leader), something that caused 70 year old Helme to call her a “shop girl”, referring to her humble beginnings as a department store cashier. It’s not just Marin who is young in the parliament of Finland, however; four fifths of her co-leaders of the coalition government are female and under 35.
Moving further away again, across the pond to the USA, US House Speaker Nancy Pelosi seems to be making headlines with her inimitable communication style. We all know the impeachment trial is unlikely to topple Trump, but her determination to see justice done is admirable. Trump’s long letter to her certainly didn’t stand him in particularly great stead, as it was widely criticised as “deranged”, “sick” and as a “wild tantrum”. Trump seems apoplectic with rage that a mere woman should dare to challenge him.
Julian Zelizer, CNN’s political analyst, said that Pelosi has done “what no one else could have” in “seiz[ing] back the public square from the Trump administration”. He explains: “Even though Senate Republicans will probably not join a vote to convict and remove the President, Speaker Pelosi will have made the case with greater clarity and force than Trump ever could have imagined. She has explained why so many Democrats see this President as such a dangerous presence in Washington, and why some Republicans are privately fearful of what is happening.”
Returning to Europe, finally, although not a politician, we have Greta Thunberg, whose tweet war with the aforementioned President of the USA have become news events of their own. Thrusting her into the political limelight, Trump’s missives have done more for the public awareness of her than he could have imagined.
Greta, the 16 year old climate activist, won Time Magazine’s Person of the Year on 11th December, to much criticism and equal celebration. Her contribution to the international conversation and action on climate change is epoch-defining – indeed there’s now a phenomenon named after her; The Greta Thunberg Effect. Having also been nominated for the 2019 Nobel Peace Prize, she has come under harsh criticism from so many world leaders that she must feel like she’s made a huge impact. They include, but are not limited to Germany’s Angela Merkel, France’s Emmanuel Macron, Russia’s Vladimir Putin, Australia’s Scott Morrison, Brazil’s Jair Bolsonaro and Italy’s Giuseppe Conte. They have suggested, amongst other patronising comments, that she is being used and manipulated, that she is “poorly informed” and called her a “brat”.
How the future looks
When I was a little girl, I was told that I was mocked by others because of jealousy; because I touched a nerve. I hope my own little girl, now approaching 4 years old, will grow up in a world better represented by women. I hope her world leaders will accurately represent the denizens of the globe. Named, as she is, for a visionary female Science, Technology, Engineering and Mathematical (STEM) hero of mine, Ada Lovelace, I hope that I can instil her with even just a little of the bravery of Greta Thunberg; the confidence of Nicola Sturgeon and the tenacity of Nancy Pelosi. That would be a legacy of female leaders I’d be proud of.