Women in politics
(Originally published in Guyana’s Stabroek News on 07 January 2011)
Mrs Mara Thompson, the widow of the prime minister of Barbados David Thompson, announced last week that she was contesting the January 20, 2011 by-election for the St John parish seat which became vacant on the death of her husband in October last year. The announcement was apparently unexpected in Barbados since some 12 candidates – from the Democratic Labour Party which the late David Thompson had led – had earlier expressed interest in contesting for the constituency, but certainly not surprising around the world; Mrs Thompson has simply joined the ranks of women who have either stepped up their activity, or entered the political arena following the deaths or resignations of their husbands or fathers.
It has been generally held that the women in the lives of male political figures, particularly their wives or daughters, would be in the best position to know the plans these men would have had and perhaps best suited to carry them forward. This was certainly the vibe coming from Mrs Thompson when she announced her willingness to serve the people of the St John parish.
It would have also been for this reason that Sonia Gandhi, widow of Indian Prime Minister Rajiv Gandhi was prodded by his peers in the Indian National Congress party to take his place. Mrs Gandhi only did so six years after her husband’s death, but hers has been a success story. She has been president of the party for 12 years as well as chairperson of the ruling United Progressive Alliance, though she declined the post of prime minister for altruistic reasons.
Here at home, there was of course Mrs Janet Jagan’s accession as prime minister after the death of her husband the then President Cheddi Jagan in March 1997; her subsequent election as president in December 1997, and her resignation and anointing of Bharrat Jagdeo in 1999.
In other countries there have been several female contenders for leadership roles. For instance, there was the unsuccessful bid by Maneka Gandhi, Sanjay Gandhi’s widow, for her brother-in-law Rajiv’s seat in Parliament. There was also the so-called wives’ duel in Argentina between current President Cristina Kirchner and Hilda Gonzalez, the wife of the former President Eduardo Duhalde in the 2005 congressional elections, which Mrs Kirchner won.
In Guyana, in contrast, Mrs Joyce Hoyte retreated into the shadows after the death of her husband, the late President Hugh Desmond Hoyte.
Most people, when they choose a career, ultimately aim to one day rise to the top and politicians here are no different. At present some eight of them consider themselves as fit, able and the best man for the job. However, apart from Mrs Jagan and with the exception of Dr Faith Harding local female politicians seem peculiarly shy of gunning for the big job. It would appear that they lack the gumption, have absolutely no confidence in themselves, or, God forbid, have been bitten by goats. What might be closer to the truth though is that any woman with presidential aspirations, unless she forms her own political party, may as well keep them to herself. The electoral arrangements which currently obtain, place women at a huge disadvantage. The party list system in the first instance, allows the representative – usually the leader of the party – to select who will fill the parliamentary seats that have been won at a national election. At the next level, those in the ruling party must wait on the whim of the ‘winner’ to appoint them to top Cabinet posts and once there, dare not step on his toes.
The sad reality is that politics in Guyana is an old boys’ network in which a man, any man, seems to be preferable as a leader to a woman – even to women. Never mind the fact that women leaders are generally more empathetic, flexible and strong in interpersonal skills because they genuinely understand and care about where others are coming from. Never mind that total domination, the current leadership style, is frowned on; it would take a woman with Herculean mental strength and a hide as thick as a rhinoceros to really make a difference. It is to be seen whether any such woman exists.