Common Denominators in Successful Female Statecraft: The Political Legacies of Queen Elizabeth I, Indira Gandhi, and Margaret Thatcher

By Wagner-Wright, Sandra | Forum on Public Policy: A Journal of the Oxford Round Table, Spring 2012 | Go to article overview

Common Denominators in Successful Female Statecraft: The Political Legacies of Queen Elizabeth I, Indira Gandhi, and Margaret Thatcher


Wagner-Wright, Sandra, Forum on Public Policy: A Journal of the Oxford Round Table


Introduction

The issue of whether women are suited to lead nations is largely one of perception and preconceived cultural constructs relating to the gendered natures of women and men. Literature on female and male leadership styles, of which Carol Gilligan's In A Different Voice is an early example, posits specific male and female behavioral characteristics and suggests that in western patriarchal society women's more nurturing, consensus-building skills are not valued in high stakes positions, particularly as a heads-of-state. Those women who attain upper level leadership rank in the political or corporate arena are said to have denied their feminine characteristics in favor of masculine attributes. (1)

More recently, Swedish researcher Sara Louise Muhr suggests that women who make it to the top are more than masculinized women. They are androgynous, or, in Muhr's words, "cyborgs" who transcend gender; outsiders who use their alienation from the dominant cultural-political context to develop a specifically individual leadership style--one that combines male attributes of efficient, intellectual ability and shrewdness while cultivating a feminine persona through their appearance and commitment to motherhood. A sort of male mind within a female body. (2)

Historically, few women have exercised leadership power in their own right, without male supervision or association. They thus present anomalies within heavily patriarchal political structures. These women seized opportunity when it appeared, exercised skill in political maneuvering, and negotiated their public image as strong, unique, capable individuals. Most importantly, they were single-minded and successful as national leaders.

This paper looks at three such women: one from the sixteenth century, two from the twentieth; one from South Asia, two from England. Elizabeth I, Indira Gandhi, and Margaret Thatcher were each unique in their time and place. Yet, they had more in common than it initially appears. All had strong fathers and comparatively passive mothers. All ruled without a politically active male consort. All pursued domestic and foreign policies that were mutually reinforcing to leave their nations on a stronger international footing when they left office than when they entered it. And all had two key elements to their political careers: duty and survival.

ELIZABETH I (1533-1603), Ruled 1558-1603

The issue of survival was particularly acute for Elizabeth I. Life started out badly, simply because she was born a girl. It got worse when her father Henry VIII (1491-1547) decided not simply to put his wife Anne Boleyn (1507-1536) aside but to execute her for adultery. After which Elizabeth was demoted from Princess to Bastard, and Henry took a third wife, Jane Seymour (1509-1537), who had the good luck to produce the desired son and die. In due course, Henry died leaving a physically weak son to become Edward VI (1537-1553). Before the young king's death at age 16, his advisors enacted harsh policies to eradicate the Catholic religion. In 1553 Elizabeth's older sister Mary became queen and developed a reputation for burning Protestants at the stake. Mary perceived that her half-sister was a focal point for the Protestant cause, at one time holding her in the Tower charged with treason. Elizabeth persuaded Mary of her loyalty and survived until Mary died in 1558. The new queen immediately moved to distance herself from extremism, utilizing two mottos: Semper Eadem (Always the Same) and Video et Taceo (I Observe and I Keep Silent).

In the sixteenth century it was aberrant to the natural order of things for a woman to remain unmarried. And, Elizabeth was the last of the Tudor line. It was important for Elizabeth to produce an heir, but she remained single her entire life. Certainly, her family's marital experiences had not been good. Her father went through another four wives after killing her mother. …

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