Women Presidents of the General Assembly: An Uneven Past

Article excerpt

WHEN SHEIKHA HAYA RASHED AL KHALIFA of Bahrain was appointed President of the sixty-first session of the UN General Assembly, she became only the third woman to occupy the prestigious post (see UN Chronicle Interview on page 10). The other two--Vijaya Lakshmi Pandit of India, who presided over the eighth session in 1953, and Angie Elisabeth Brooks of Liberia, over the twenty-fourth session in 1969--each had to chair during uncertain times for the United Nations. An examination of their pasts offers a telling portrait of how far the world Organization has gone in the last half century and how much further it has to go in promoting gender equality.


Although these two women may have come from very different backgrounds, there are striking similarities. Both came from developing countries with close ties to the English-speaking world. India was one of the first countries to gain independence from its European colonizer during the tumultuous post-Second World War period, becoming a sovereign State in 1947. Liberia, founded in 1847 by former slaves from the United States, was the first independent African republic. Both countries have a long history of women's empowerment.

When Indira Gandhi, a niece of Mrs. Pandit, was appointed Prime Minister of India in 1965, she became one of the first Heads of Government for an Asian country, continuing the tradition of Sri Lanka's Sirimavo R. D. Bandaranaike, who became the first woman Prime Minister in 1960. Similarly, Ellen Johnson-Sirleaf became the first female leader of an African nation when she won the 2005 Liberian presidential elections. Mrs. Pandit and Ms. Brooks were trailblazers in women's rights in their respective countries, laying precedent for future generations of empowered women in the civil and governmental services.

The General Assembly President, while not nearly as much of a public figure as the UN Secretary-General, occupies a significantly different leadership role. Sheikha Haya may have to preside over a transforming Assembly--one that in recent years has been increasingly vociferous in asking for a bigger say on how to reform the United Nations. After her appointment, her first and most pressing task when the sixty-first Assembly session opens in September is to help preside over the election of the next Secretary-General. Seen at times simply as a "rubber stamp" on ratifying Security Council decisions, the General Assembly has stressed recently the need to play a bigger and more active role in the UN decision-making process.

While many, including Secretary-General Kofi Annan, have applauded Sheikha Haya's appointment, hoping that she will propel forward a period of heightened visibility for women in the United Nations, one must understand the past to be able to help create a brighter future. Thus, the personal voyages of Mrs. Pandit and Ms. Brooks, two unique luminaries in UN diplomacy, is of utmost importance in comprehending the vital contribution of women to the Organization. As Eleanor Roosevelt stated in the 1946 declaration on the participation of women in the work of the United Nations--"[women must] recognize that the goal of full participation in the life and responsibilities of their countries and of the world community is a common objective"--and nowhere is that more important than in the United Nations.

Feminine Figure for Decolonization

Vijaya Lakshmi Pandit, the younger sister of India's first Prime Minister Jawaharlal Nehru, grew up in a family steeped in politics and firmly engaged in the struggle for independence. The second UN Secretary-General, U Thant, summed up her lifelong achievements: "This civilized and worldly woman, who achieved so many 'firsts'--first woman cabinet minister, first woman ambassador, first woman to head a United Nations delegation--also became the first woman to preside the United Nations General Assembly". Prior to her work with the United Nations, Mrs. …