by Michael Curtis
Anything you can be I can be greater. Sooner or later I’m greater than you.
In spite of incremental changes for more equality in Western systems, the reality is that women are underrepresented at all levels of political decision making and that gender parity remains an aspiration. Surveying the contemporary world, 26 women serve as heads of state or government in 24 countries. About 21% of government ministers are women, mostly in positions dealing with issues of family, children, elderly, disabled, environment, and vocational training. Women constitute 25% of all national parliamentarians. Looking at the number of seats by women in the lower chamber of legislative bodies, the figures number UK 220 or 34%, France 228 or 39%, the U.S. 101 or 23%. In upper chambers, women are in France 33%, UK 26%, and U.S 25%.
But ladies are for turning, and some are the subjects of historic occasions. A few of the women presently holding leadership positions are evident: Angela Merkel, Chancellor of Germany since 2005, the most influential female politician, Julia Gillard, Prime Minister of Australia who took office in 2010, the first female PM in that country, Nancy Pelosi, Speaker in the U.S., Christine Lagarde, managing director of the International Monetary Fund, Janet Yellen, chair of the Federal Reserve, Ursula von der Leyen. President of the European Commission since 2019, and Dilma Rousseff in Brazil. The most dramatic recent illustration of change is the appointment on September 15, 2021 of Elizabeth, Liz, Truss as Foreign Secretary (Minister) of the UK.
For the moment she is sharing the spotlight with another meteoric female star. The newest British national treasure is Emma Raducanu, the 18 year old U.S. Open tennis champion, half Chinese, half Romanian heritage, and fluent in Mandarin. Born in Toronto in 2002, raised in London, this heroine of modern Britain wore colors of red, yellow, blue , the colors of the Romanian flag, and after her tennis victory recorded a video in Mandarin. Historic occasions can be applied to her. She is the first woman to win a Grand Slam title since 1977, the first tennis qualifier in history to win a Grand Slam and probably will be the highest earning female sports star, the first billion dollar sports woman . She is a global phenomenon, a gladiator armed only with tennis racket, who rose from virtual obscurity to stratospheric heights in one dazzling leap. Due to her personality radiating positivity and happiness in this Covid era, as well her dramatic meteoric rise, she can be considered a potential cultural ambassador for Britain.
Equally meteoric if less spectacular in public acclaim was the promotion of Elizabeth Truss on September 15, 2021 to be Foreign Secretary, the first conservative woman to hold that position, though there had been a Labour woman Margaret Beckett, in that position. Truss replaced Dominic Raab who insensitively failed to return from holiday to handle the Afghanistan crisis and was demoted to Justice Secretary, Lord Chancellor, and also Deputy Prime Minister. Truss is another illustration of a historic occasion. Though not a lawyer, she became Lord Chancellor, the first woman since Eleanor of Provence in 1253. At age 38, she became the youngest woman to be a member of the government Cabinet.
Truss lived in Yorkshire , in a left wing household, left of Labour, the child of a father who was a professor of pure math at the University of Leeds and a member of the Green Party, and a mother who was a nurse and member of CND, the campaign for nuclear disarmament.
Educated at Merton College. Oxford where she took a degree in politics, philosophy, and economics, she joined the Liberal Democrats and became president of the Oxford Lib Dems. She worked as an economist at Shell and Cable and Wireless, a management consultant, and deputy director of a think tank before entering politics as an member of Parliament in a safe seat in south west Norfolk.
Truss had a rapid political rise, battling low expectations, and often patronized because of her middle class origin , as a person who choose to become a conservative, and was not born one. She is a shrewd politician, choosing wisely, being the first minister to back Boris Johnson for leadership of the Conservative party and thus prime minster She was not handicapped by the revelation she had h been involved in an extramarital affair with another MP.
Truss became environment minister in 2014, Lord Chancellor, and trade minister. Truss was one of the few members of the Cabinet who spoke against the increase in national insurance to pay for social care . Above all, she is notable for two positions. She is an advocate of free trade and free enterprise with libertarian views on economics and trade, one of the true capitalists in the Cabinet. Truss was successful in making trade deals with 63 nations. But she is also an opponent of cancel culture, and is critical of woke views on race, gender, and sexuality. Truss is widely popular in the Conservative party, giving rise to the slogan, In Liz we Truss.
That popularity will be tested in a few days when Prime Minister Boris Johnson has to decide whether Truss, foreign minister, or her demoted predecessor Raab, deputy prime minister, will be granted access to the 115 room holiday home in Kent, a country manor reserved for use by a senior minister, and usually bestowed on the foreign secretary.
Truss is joined in the present Cabinet, which is one quarter female, by a number of other rising women; among them are minister of international trade, Anne-Marie Trevelyan; culture, Nadine Dorries; home affairs, Priti Patel, Attorney General, Surella Braverman (Indian father), education, Michele Donelan, Leader of Lords, Baroness Evans. Dorries, successful novelist, former contestant in TV program, is a particularly strident politician, belligerently against cancel culture, has spoken of the “left wing snowflakes, who are killing comedy, tearing down historical statues, removing books from libraries, and suppressing free speech.”
The newest entry into the list of successful, ambitious women is Anne Hidalgo, Mayor of Paris, the first woman to hold that position, who has entered the race to become president of France in 2022: “Humbly aware of the gravity of this moment, and to make our hopes the reality of our lives, I have decided to be a candidate for the presidency of the French Republic.” Her ambition is to be the first female French president.
Hidalgo was born in Andalucia, Spain, near Cadiz, in 1959, of an electrician father and seamstress mother, who fled Franco’s dictatorship and moved to France when she was two. After being Deputy Mayor, 2001-2014, to the Paris Mayor Bernard Delanoe, born of a French-Tunisian father, who was stabbed by a Muslim immigrant in 2002, Hidalgo, a social democrat, became Mayor of Paris in 2014 and was reelected in 2020, though without an absolute majority.
She is trying to repeat the unique feat of Jacques Chirac who was Mayor of Paris for 17 years and directly moved from that position to be elected president of France in 1995.
Hidalgo has been an eco-minded mayor, pushing motorists out of center city in favor of cycling lanes and green spaces. She made the Seine riverside highway a pedestrian route during the annual Paris Plages event when in what becomes a virtual sea resort individuals can take part in leisure activities during the hot summer months. Hidalgo intends to enforce a ban on diesel vehicles in Paris by 2024, though she has said she is antipollution, not anti-cars. She has already introduced a 30 kilometer per hour speed limit in Paris.
Many observers have commented on the present state of the historic thoroughfare, Avenue des Champs-Elysees, often called the world’s most beautiful avenue, as having lost its splendor and charm, abandoned by many Parisians, and mostly populated by tourists, and with expensive cafes, luxury shops, car salesrooms, mass retail shops, constant traffic, pollution affecting the rows of elm trees, and noise. Hidalgo plans a transformation, converting the Boulevard into an extraordinary garden, roads in the area turned into green spaces, trees planted, and space for cars reduced. Motorists are becoming an endangered species, and she has angered the car lobby.
Hidalago as mayor has dealt with challenges: a series of terrorist attacks in 2015, gilet jaunes protests, 2019 fire at Notre Dame Cathedral, and Covet-19, but she took the world stage in Tokyo when she accepted the Olympic flag since she succeeded in bringing the 2024 Olympic games to Paris. Hidalgo is favored to win the Socialist nomination to be a presidential candidate though she is currently low in public opinion polls. Yet, she may bicycle to victory.
Though other women are also interested in the electoral race, the far right Marine Le Pen and center right Valeria Pecresse, Hidalgo is aware of the female problem, the gap between “who I am really and how I am perceived.” She understands the dilemma for women, “A man’s authority becomes a woman’s authoritarianism.”