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Misogyny Didn’t Stop Them: The World’s Most Important Female Leaders


In August 2015: Angela Merkel, chancellor of Germany, left, with Dilma Rousseff, the president of Brazil at the time. WILSON DIAS/AGENCIA BRASIL/CREATIVE COMMONS

From Asia and Africa to Europe and the Americas, women remain important forces of change as government leaders in the modern era. Indira Gandhi, the daughter of Jawaharlal Nehru, India’s first prime minister after its independence, was one of the earliest — and the only woman in India — to hold that position, from 1966 to 1977 and from 1980 until her assassination in 1984. Golda Meir was prime minister of Israel from 1969 to 1974. Benazir Bhutto, the daughter of Prime Minister Zulfikar Ali Bhutto, became the 11th prime minister of Pakistan in 1988, the first woman to head a Muslim-majority nation.

Margaret Thatcher was prime minister of Britain from 1979 to 1990. Gro Harlem Brundtland served three terms as prime minister of Norway: in 1981; 1986 to 1989; and 1990 to 1996.

Mary Robinson was the seventh and first female president of Ireland from 1990 to 1997. Helen Clark was prime minister of New Zealand for three successive terms from 1999 to 2008.

In Africa, the first female leader in contemporary times, Ellen Johnson Sirleaf, has been president of Liberia since 2006. In South America, Michelle Bachelet was elected president of Chile in 2006 and re-elected in 2014, with a break between terms to serve as the United Nations’ first executive director of UN Women. The indomitable Angela Merkel became the first female chancellor of Germany in 2005. In addition, a cluster of women now leads nations in the Baltic region of Europe.

Women in Power: A Book Guide

“Indira Gandhi: A Personal and Political Biography,” by the eminent Indian journalist Inder Malhotra, is a tough and definitive account of the life and record of Gandhi (no relation to Mohandas “Mahatma” Gandhi). Indira Gandhi is remembered as a charismatic and sometimes ruthless leader who left a distinctive stamp on decades of history and cemented a family dynasty, which included her son and successor, Rajiv Gandhi, who was also assassinated.

“My Life,” by Golda Meir, is a personal account of the creation of the modern nation of Israel and the challenges that confronted her as the first woman to lead her new country with strength, determination and dedication.

“Daughter of Destiny,” by Benazir Bhutto, is an autobiography depicting her historical account of a tumultuous political era in Pakistan, which she led with passion and courage until her assassination in 2007.

“Margaret Thatcher: The Autobiography,” brings together her best-selling memoirs, “The Downing Street Years” and “The Path to Power,” covering her role as the first woman to lead a major Western democracy, including waging a war (with Argentina) and altering the course of the British economy.

“Madam Prime Minister: A Life in Power and Politics,” by Gro Harlem Brundtland, recounts how at age 41, a physician and the mother of four, she was appointed prime minister of Norway, the youngest person and the first woman to hold that office. She traces her meteoric career: a pro-choice crusader in the 1970s who entered politics as minister of the environment. She appointed eight women to her second 18-member cabinet, a world record. As a leading figure in the process that led to the Earth Summit in Rio de Janeiro in 1992, Brundtland headed the World Health Organization from 1998 to 2003.

“Everybody Matters: My Life Giving Voice,” by Mary Robinson, is an autobiography of the first female president of Ireland, who was also a former UN high commissioner for human rights.

“Helen: Portrait of a Prime Minister,” by Brian Edwards, is part oral history, part biography, tracing Helen Clark’s life and career from childhood through 2001. The book chronicles how the daughter of a conservative farming family in New Zealand became a left-wing activist and a leader who melded a disparate group of political factions into a cohesive governing coalition. Clark also led the UN Development Program from 2009 until early 2017, being the first woman to do so.

“This Child Will Be Great: Memoir of a Remarkable Life by Africa’s First Woman President,” by Ellen Johnson Sirleaf. In early 2006, after Liberia had been wracked by 14 years of horrific civil wars, Sirleaf — Africa’s own Iron Lady — was sworn in as president, having been carried into office by a powerful women’s movement.

“Michelle Bachelet,” by Richard Worth, in the Modern World Leaders series, follows Bachelet, the daughter of a Chilean Air Force general, through family tragedy and exile in the wake of the 1973 military coup against Salvador Allende. The book traces Bachelet’s remarkable return to Chile and success in national politics.

“Angela Merkel: Europe’s Most Influential Leader,” by Matthew Qvortrup, is the tale of Merkel’s ascent from her youth in communist East Germany to her political career in a united country, during which she outmaneuvered her male colleagues and made Germany the strongest economy in Europe. The book describes how Merkel went from distributing leaflets to a seat in the Cabinet in Helmut Kohl’s government in less than a year.

“Evita: In My Own Words,” by Eva Perón, is extracted from a controversial document, “My Message,” purportedly written by Perón on her deathbed at age 33. The introduction to “In My Own Words,” by Joseph Page of Georgetown University, argues against doubters on the authenticity of the source and provides a guide to how Perón’s life and work, rising from poverty in rural Argentina, led to her marriage to Juan Perón, president of Argentina.

“The Lady and the Peacock: The Life of Aung San Suu Kyi,” by Peter Popham. While the story of contemporary Burma, or Myanmar, is changing radically and aspects of Aung San Suu Kyi’s life have been overtaken and clouded by events, this biography of the 1991 Nobel Peace Prize winner offers essential background reading now that the country, after decades of isolation and 15 years in detention for Aung San Suu Kyi, is again in flux and on the radar of the international agenda.

Don’t Overlook:

Two other women in power have yet to be the subject of books about their leadership. President Chandrika Bandaranaike Kumaratunga of Sri Lanka’s collected speeches, published in 2004 under the title “Paths to Freedom” is out of print. And Prime Minister Theresa May of Britain took office recently, in July 2016.

In a provocative take on powerful women through history, Mary Beard, the Cambridge University historian of the ancient world and uncompromising feminist of current times, delivered a sweeping lecture on Women in Power on March 3, 2017, at the British Museum. The London Review of Books published the text on March 16 with a podcast of the event:


We welcome your comments on this article.  What are your thoughts?

Joanne Myers is director of the Carnegie Council for Ethics in International Affairs’ Public Affairs Programs, for which she is responsible for planning and organizing more than 50 public programs a year, many of which have been featured on C-SPAN’s Booknotes.

Previously, Myers was director of the Consular Corps/Deputy General Counsel at the New York City Commission for the United Nations, Consular Corps and Protocol, where she acted as the liaison between the mayor of New York and the consulates general. Myers holds a J.D. from the Benjamin C. Cardozo School of Law and a B.A. in international relations from the University of Minnesota.

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Misogyny Didn’t Stop Them: The World’s Most Important Female Leaders
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Torild Skard
Torild Skard
6 years ago

The number of women in power has increased during the last decades, but they are still very few (only 5 per cent of the world’s presidents and prime ministers), so we need to learn more about how to get women into national politics and ensure that they can make a difference. Being Iron Ladies with Iron Wills has surely helped some rise to the top, and the recommended biographies of 9 of the women can give fascinating insights in individual careers. But they are too limited to provide a general analysis of the factors preventing or permitting women to acquire political power. I have therefore analysed all the women heads of state and government in the world from 1960 to 2010: 73 women in all in 53 states (see “Women of Power”, Policy Press and University of Chicago Press, 2015). This research presents a more complex picture including the extraordinary qualifications of women top leaders, the importance of a womanfriendly democratic political system and the role of active women’s organizations demanding women in power and rights of women. Hopefully this provides a basis for further action towards gender equality in national political decision-making. Senior Researcher Torild Skard, Norwegian Institute of International Affairs, Oslo.

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