Visible Women

The trailblazing women making a difference in politics around the world

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Moya Crockett
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Visible Women is Stylist’s year-long initiative to raise the profiles of important women past and present, and to empower future generations to follow their lead. Here, we highlight the achievements of inspiring women working in politics in Europe, Africa, Asia, North and South America and Australasia.  

This year marks 100 years since some women – those over the age of 30 and owning their own property – were granted the right to vote in the UK, after years of struggle by the Suffragettes. Throughout 2018, Stylist will be celebrating the centenary of women’s suffrage with our Visible Women initiative.

However, voting rights are only part of the story when it comes to female participation in politics. For women to truly play an active role in a country’s political system, it is essential that some are also elected to positions of power.

In the UK, a record number of female MPs won seats at last summer’s general election, but women are still woefully underrepresented in parliament as a whole. Just 36% of MPs are women, and the cabinet is almost three-quarters male – putting us far behind countries including Rwanda, Iceland and Ecuador in terms of political gender equality. 

At Stylist, we believe that “you can be what you can see”: that shining a light on women’s achievements in the political sphere and elsewhere will encourage more women to follow in their footsteps. With that in mind, we’ve selected some of the most inspiring politicians from around the world that every woman needs to know about. 

1. New Zealand: Jacinda Ardern

Jacinda Ardern: not planning on proposing any time soon 

New Zealand’s charismatic Labour prime minister is also, at 37 years old, the world’s youngest female head of government. She entered the Kiwi parliament in 2008 at the age of 28, quickly rising through the ranks of left-wing politics to be elected PM in October 2017.

Raised a Mormon, Ardern left the faith due to its opposition to same-sex marriage. She is an avowed feminist who made headlines when she challenged a male interviewer on his stance on working motherhood, and has spoken frankly about her struggles with anxiety.

On 18 January 2018, Ardern announced that she and her partner Clarke Gayford are expecting their first child – making her only the second elected woman leader to give birth while in office in modern times. (Former Pakistan Prime Minister Benazir Bhutto was the first in 1990.)

In a post on Facebook, Ardern wrote: “I’ll be prime minister and a mum, and Clarke will be ‘first man of fishing’ and stay at home dad. I think it’s fair to say that this is a wee one that a village will raise, but we couldn’t be more excited.”

She later confirmed that New Zealand deputy PM Winston Peters will cover for her while she takes six weeks of maternity leave, during which time she will be “fully contactable”.

“I am not the first woman to multi-task, I’m not the first woman to work and have a baby,” Ardern told reporters. “I know these are special circumstances but there will be many women who will have done this well before I have.”

Key quote: “It is a women’s decision about when they choose to have children and it should not predetermine whether or not they are given a job or have job opportunities.”

2. Iceland: Katrín Jakobsdottír

On the other side of the world to New Zealand, another young female politician with eco-feminist environmentalist sensibilities has risen to the top of the political pile. Jakobsdottír, 41, was elected Prime Minister of Iceland in November 2017 and is the head of a coalition between two centre-right parties and the Left-Green movement (which she leads).

A former journalist with a masters’ degree in Icelandic literature (she wrote her graduate thesis on the work of crime writer Arnaldur Indriðason), Jakobsdottír has pledged to improve gender equality and LGBT rights, expand maternity and paternity leave, and invest in public healthcare and education. 

At the One Planet Summit in Paris in December, she announced plans to make Iceland carbon neutral by 2040, and has also been voted the country’s most trusted politician.

Key quote: “Everyone wants to be a feminist in Icelandic politics – even those who do not propose feminist policies… So we want to be feminist in action as well as in words.” 

3. Ecuador: Diane Rodríguez

Activist Rodríguez made history in early 2017 as the first openly LGBTQ candidate to run for elected office in her native Ecuador. Once a sex worker who has faced death threats, kidnapping and violence for her commitment to transgender rights, she is now a lawmaker in the National Assembly, the legislative branch of the Ecuadorian government.

Being elected to public office was the culmination of years of hard work carried out by Rodríguez on behalf of Ecuador’s transgender population. Last year, trans people in the Latin American country were able to vote under their chosen gender identity for the first time, a change that Rodríguez had campaigned hard for. She also made international headlines when she and her partner Fernando, a transgender man, had a baby together. 

Key quote: “Being a public figure comes at a price, but I see that cost is a sacrifice for younger generations so that they don’t have to suffer the same experiences that I have to suffer through now.”

4. France: Najat Vallaud-Belkacem

Born in Morocco to working-class parents, Vallaud-Belkacem moved to France at the age of five. Now a councillor for the city of Lyon, she previously served in several prominent positions in François Hollande’s government, including minister for education and minister for women’s affairs – where she frequently had to contend with racist and sexist abuse and rumours peddled by the far-right.

Vallaud-Belkacem describes herself as a feminist and a “non-practising Muslim”, and denounced the “burkini ban” imposed in France after terror attacks in 2016 (although she has faced criticism from some quarters for not doing enough to tackle Islamophobia). Hotly tipped to run for the position of leader of the French Socialist Party, she instead announced in January 2018 that she would be taking time out to focus on editing a collection of political essays.

Key quote: “I have always advised young people to get involved in politics. The best way to be happy with your future is by playing a part in it. If you’re just a spectator of collective fate, you’re bound to feel frustrated.”

5. US: Maxine Waters

Waters found international fame in July 2017, after she refused to let Steve Mnuchin – Trump’s treasury secretary – evade her questions during a committee hearing. Every time Mnuchin tried to wriggle out of answering a question directly, Waters shot him a withering look and pronounced that she was “reclaiming my time.”

The phrase was swiftly meme-fied, adopted by women and minority groups as shorthand for ‘I’m not going to let you fob me off’. But the iconic phrase isn’t the only reason for the Democratic politician’s prominence. Waters, a representative from California, is a vocal (and very funny) Trump critic who has been a staunch advocate for African-American concerns throughout her career – even accusing Barack Obama of not doing enough to help underprivileged black communities.

Key quote: “I believe in empowerment. I have a great sense of what’s unfair. This is what I do.”

6. Spain: Iratxe García Pérez

In March 2017, the usually sedate environs of the European Parliament were rocked when Polish MEP Janusz Korwin-Mikke proclaimed that the gender pay gap exists because women “are weaker, they are smaller [and] they are less intelligent”.

In response, García – a Spanish MEP and member of the Spanish Socialist Workers’ Party – stood up and said: “I think I need to defend European women against men like you.”

García’s retort went viral, but this was not the first – or last – time that she has stood up for women’s rights. Previously the chairwoman of the European Parliament Committee on Women’s Rights and Gender Equality (FEMM), she has called on the EU to help El Salvadorian women who are prosecuted for having miscarriages, and spoke out in support of the #MeToo movement in parliament.

Key quote: “I probably would not have had the opportunity to be in the European Parliament raising my voice for the right of women, if there had not been generations before mine that worked for equality and political participation.”

8. Algeria: Zahia Benkara

Benkara was elected mayor of the Algerian town of Chigara in December 2017, becoming one of only four women in the country to have risen to that position. A former teacher and activist who has long worked to support vulnerable people in her community, particularly rural women, her victory was made even more striking because of the hostility she faced during the election from both sides of the political divide.

Some secular Algerians were wary of Benkara because of her membership of the Movement of Society for Peace (MSP), Algeria’s main Islamist political party. At the other end of the spectrum, many conservative Muslims argued that her gender should block her from political participation under Sharia law. Despite all this, Benkara succeeded, largely on the basis of her proven track record in supporting the people of Chigara.

Key quote: “I will prove my people were right to vote for me. I will fight nepotism, corruption and mismanagement. I will work for the people of my town as I have always done.”

9. Australia: Penny Wong

A member of the Australian Labor Party, Wong is currently leader of the opposition in the Australian Senate and shadow minister for foreign affairs. Originally trained as a lawyer, she cut her teeth working for a trade union in the Nineties, fighting on behalf of poorly-paid female migrant workers, and advising the government on environmental issues.

However, Wong is perhaps best known for the series of ‘firsts’ that has made up her career. She was the first Asian-born and the first openly gay member of an Australian cabinet, and was also the first openly gay woman to serve in parliament. In November 2017, a video of Wong bursting into tears – after it was revealed that Australia had voted ‘yes’ to same-sex marriage – went viral.

Key quote: “Equality must be fought for, and it must be won. It was true of women fighting for suffrage… it is true of Australia’s first peoples… and it has been true for LGBTI Australians fighting for equality before the law.”

10. Taiwan: Tsai Ing-wen

Taiwan’s first female president made headlines in December 2016 when she called Donald Trump to congratulate him on his election victory – but don’t let that put you off. In reaching out to the then president-elect, Tsai appears to have been making a tactical effort to strengthen relations between the US and Taiwan (an island nation which is ruled by China, but where many people want independence).

This savviness is characteristic of Tsai, whose pragmatic, socially progressive approach to politics has made her hugely popular in Taiwan (in January 2016, she won an election with 56% of the vote). She is vocally pro-marriage equality, and has thrown her support behind initiatives to support women, the poor and other marginalised groups, including Taiwan’s indigenous communities.

Key quote: “Gender used to be a barrier for women to overcome if they wanted to be in politics, but today in Taiwan the situation is somewhat different. I think there is even a preference for a women candidate.”

To find out more about the Stylist Visible Women initiative, click here.

Images: Rex Features