Hillary Clinton’s surprise defeat in the US presidential elections means the United States is still waiting for its first female president. But for many Asian countries, having a woman as head of state is positively old hat, a state of affairs stretching back more than half a century.
When Sirimavo Bandaranaike became prime minister of Ceylon (now Sri Lanka) in 1960, it was not just a first for the region but for the world.
Like Hillary Clinton, the wife of former president Bill Clinton, all but one of South and East Asia’s 13 female leaders to date have been the wives, widows, daughters or sisters of former national presidents or prime ministers. (The exception is Tsai Ing-wen, Taiwan’s president since January, who is a single woman of Hakka and aboriginal descent who won election to the island’s highest office without a distinguished political pedigree or through marriage to a prominent politician.)
This is significant because they, like Hillary Clinton, started their political careers in the shadow of their husbands, fathers, or brothers.
One positive lesson that can be drawn from female leadership in Asia is that it reshaped thinking about political representation. Study after study shows women are seen as less powerful and influential than men.
Yet once the gender barrier is broken at the top, conceptions about leadership begin to change. Britain now has its second female prime minister, Theresa May, who was preceded by “The Iron Lady” Margaret Thatcher, whom no one would mistake as meek or mild.
In Asia, perhaps the most dramatic example is Bangladesh, where two female leaders, Khaleda Zia and Sheikh Hasina have almost continuously competed for power since 1991 and where it is said schoolchildren often think “prime minister” means female leader.
While Clinton failed in her effort to become the US president, even her running as the candidate of one of the two major political parties will help to change perceptions about future female leaders – perceptions that began changing long ago in other Western countries such as Germany and the Scandinavian states, where female leaders have become part of the political norm.
One distinguishing feature of Clinton’s campaign – compared to the legacy of many of her Asian and Western counterparts – was her strong commitment to gender-oriented justice.
Thatcher was a pioneering female leader who had no time for feminists, while few Asian female leaders have focused on empowering women. Even Benazir Bhutto, who oversaw some advances for women in her early period in power, was unable to challenge societal norms that left poor girls at home while their brothers went to school, or repeal laws that discriminated against the victims of sex crimes.
Most Asian countries which have had female leaders rank relatively low in gender-related indices as the results of the 2016 Global Gender Gap survey show. While the Philippines is a notable exception, ranking 7th out 145, Thailand is 60th and Pakistan second to last.
Clinton, by contrast, has long fought for women’s equality, declaring two decades ago “human rights are women’s rights, and women’s rights are human rights”. She promised during her campaign to close the pay gap, protect women’s reproductive rights, grant family leave, and work to end violence against women, the importance of which was underlined by Trump being caught on tape bragging about his sexual predation.
She also fought back against Trump’s fat shaming, defending women’s dignity in a way that may inspire a national conversation even now the elections are over. There is much still to do as the US is ranked a relatively poor 28th in the Global Gender Gap rankings, behind most other developed countries.
Clinton may have failed to break the glass ceiling long ago shattered by her counterparts in Asia. But those counterparts’ inability to significantly improve the lot of women and their reliance on their powerful political families point to the limitations of their leadership.
Nevertheless Asia’s female leaders have proved that the thinking on who is fit to rule can fundamentally change after the first breakthrough. With a pro-women agenda like Clinton proposed, future female leaders in Asia may aim to do more for women still facing discrimination and injustice in their countries.
Director of the Southeast Asia Research Centre at the City University of Hong Kong, Mark R Thompson is co-editor of Dynasties and Female Political Leaders in Asia: Gender, Power and Pedigree
Asia’s 12 female leaders (in chronological order)
1. Sirimavo Bandaranaike (the widow of an assassinated leader)
2. Indira Gandhi (India, daughter of Jawaharalal Nehru, country’s first leader)
3. Corazon Aquino (Philippines, widow of the assassinated opposition leader and mother of a recent president)
4. Benazir Bhutto (Pakistan, daughter of executed Prime Minister Zulfikar Ali Bhutto)
5. Chandrika Kumaratunga (Sri Lanka, daughter of Sirimavo)
6. Khaleda Zia (Bangladesh, widow of an assassinated president)
7. Sheikh Hasina(Bangladesh, daughter of the country’s first President Mujibur Rahman who was assassinated)
8. Gloria Macapagal Arroyo (Philippines, daughter of a former president)
9. Megawati Sukarnoputri (Indonesia, daughter of Indonesia’s first president, Sukarno)
10. Yingluck Shinawatra (Thailand, sister of former PM Thaksin Shinawatra)
11. Park Geun-hye (South Korea, daughter of former President Park Chung-hee)
12. Aung San Suu Kyi (Myanmar, daughter of Burmese national hero Aung San)