PETER WICKHAM: Coronations and political victories
THIS WEEK FEMINISTS like myself are celebrating the fact that we are one step closer to the day when that the world’s “most powerful man” will be a woman. There is a tremendous amount of symbolism associated with this moment, just as there was similar euphoria eight years ago when the Dems nominated a man of colour, and for the first time people who look like me could identify with what appeared to be a bastion of male white privilege and power. This symbolism was not lost on Hillary Clinton when she said, “if there are any little girls out there who stayed up late to watch . . . let me just say, I may become the first woman president, but one of you is next.”
There is an important place for symbolism as it speaks to what is possible for a disadvantaged section of any population, as it speaks to hope, optimism and inclusiveness. There is, however, a risk associated with an exclusive or disproportionate focus on symbolism which needs to be put in perspective.
As one reflects on the difference between the symbolism of Clinton’s gender and the extent to which she is the best qualified for the job at this time, it is useful to reflect on the suggestion that her rise would be akin to the coronation of a queen as distinct from the election of a president. The former is, of course, associated with royalty who are entitled to succeed based on their blood or marriage lines and not on account of any quality they might possess. The term has, however, also been imported into the political lexicon and has especially been associated with female leaders who are selected either as political window dressing or because influential persons think such a person is entitled to lead on account of either who they are or who their husband or father is/was.
The separation of genuinely good leaders who just happen to be women, from women who find themselves in leadership roles because of their gender is an important but delicate task. Sadly, there are an abundance of women who fall into the latter category. however, this focus is on persons like Clinton who belong to the former category.
There is an impressive list or female leaders who have distinguished themselves as leaders who have impacted on both national and global development, although not always positively. In the UK they have just installed their second female leader and the first was both loved and hated, but few would argue that she was a “token”, and the same can be said for Golda Meir who became the prime minister of Israel in 1969.
Here in Barbados, Mia Mottley was elected in 1994 after an unsuccessful attempt in 1991 and is now the leader of the BLP. Like Thatcher and Meir, Mottley is often criticised for her actions and indeed her “ruthlessness” but few would argue that she is a token who rose to leadership because she was a woman.
One critical determinant of the distinction between these two types of leaders is the manner in which they rose to office and here the Clinton case is interesting since her critics started to set her up months ago by suggesting that her election would be akin to a coronation. It is true that she was married to one of the better Democratic presidents of recent times and this has afforded her access to considerable resources to help her campaign.
It is also true that her vast resources and political connections frightened all but the determined Bernie Sanders, and while her rival was contending with several competitors. As one looks back on the campaign and the Sanders challenge, however, it becomes clear that Sanders was not in the race to window-dress a Clinton coronation.
Clinton, therefore, now comes to the election after fighting an intense battle with Sanders who gave no quarter on account of her gender and she can rest assured that Trump will respond to her similarly. The benefit is that she has been forced to make a case for herself on the basis of suitability, qualifications and a superior programme for the American people. She commented weeks ago that Sanders’ candidacy has helped to make her a better candidate and I agree entirely. Not only has she been forced to move her policy agenda to the left, it can also now not be claimed that her selection was akin to a coronation.
Like any true gladiator, she fought her battles and will hopefully prevail, proving that like her predecessor her distinguishing features were not the basis of her election, nor will these be an excuse for any shortcomings while in government.
Peter W. Wickham is a political consultant and a director of Caribbean Development Research Services (CADRES). Email: [email protected]