Jane Caro
Women’s entrappings of high office

The popular chant at Donald Trump’s election rallies was, invariably, “Lock her up! Lock her up!” So popular, in fact, it continues at his post-election rallies, now that he is United States president. The woman they want to lock up, of course, is his defeated Democrat opponent, Hillary Clinton.

It has become commonplace for those who oppose Clinton to claim she is corrupt and criminal. Appalling rumours have been spread about her for years, including that she was running a paedophile ring in the basement of a pizza restaurant. The credence given to this startling allegation about a mother and grandmother who wrote a book about the rights of children was bizarre. One poor deluded soul, Edgar Maddison Welch, turned up at the Comet pizza restaurant in Washington, DC, armed with a semi-automatic rifle and demanded the bewildered management release the non-existent victims from the basement. This man, according to a video he made prior to his misguided rescue mission, believed Clinton had “personally murdered children”.

We can shake our head pityingly at the delusions of some people, but there is solid evidence that this tendency to believe the very worst about female leaders is common.

As I write, there are about 20 nations in the world led by women from a high of 22 in 2014. If New Zealand Labour Party leader Jacinda Ardern continues her remarkable rise in popularity, the number may soon again approach the record.

This figure – 20-odd leaders in a pool of 195 – is often touted as evidence that anti-female bias is a figment of the feminist imagination. Apparently for some, a ratio of about 1:9 means equality has been achieved.

Perhaps one reason there are so few female leaders is that being a woman who dares to lead is particularly risky.

In the past few years, almost a quarter of the small number of women who lead nations have either lost office because of charges of corruption or other criminal behaviour, or are fighting such accusations, or have members of their families who have been similarly accused.

Could this be right? Could it possibly be true that so many female leaders are guilty of abusing their powers? Or is something else going on?

In Chile, President Michelle Bachelet’s son, Sebastián Dávalos, and daughter-in-law, Natalia Compagnon, have been accused of various acts of corruption, including influence peddling. Dávalos has resigned from an unpaid position in his mother’s office as a result. Bachelet’s approval, which had reached as high as 84 per cent in the past, has reversed to a disapproval rating of 61 per cent.

In March, former South Korean president Park Geun-hye lost the final appeal against her impeachment for corruption. She is both South Korea’s first female leader and the first leader, either male or female, to be removed from office. Having also lost her immunity, she now faces possible charges of bribery, extortion and abuse of power. However, the scandal surrounding her, according to Slate’s Joshua Keating, also includes “allegations over occult rituals, Rasputin-esque mind control, extramarital sex and dressage”. The last point relates to an allegedly dodgy scholarship for a friend’s horsey daughter. Scholarships for daughters obviously being a mark of high office across genders, pace Tony Abbott.

The first female president of Brazil, Dilma Rousseff, was impeached in 2016. The reasons why are not entirely clear, although they include accusations that she tried to obstruct an investigation into widespread corruption that has engulfed many of her political colleagues. Serious accusations are swirling around many of Brazil’s politicians, including Rousseff’s replacement as president, Michel Temer. While Rousseff has never been accused of taking bribes herself, many of the male politicians who led the charge against her have been. Indeed, Brazil’s previous two presidents, both men, faced similar or more serious charges without being impeached.

In neighbouring Argentina, former president Cristina Fernández de Kirchner has been formally charged with money laundering and criminal association. Her two children have been charged as well. She also faces separate charges for paying bribes and corruption. She has denied the charges and claims the cases are politically motivated.

Meanwhile, in an increasingly tumultuous Thailand, former prime minister Yingluck Shinawatra has fled the country after failing to appear in court. Yingluck faces a possible 10 years in prison if found guilty of mismanaging a rice subsidy initiative.

A few years earlier, the 10th and 13th prime minister of Ukraine, Yulia Tymoshenko, served time in prison after being accused of embezzlement and abuse of power.

It’s not just women who lead countries who have an apparent likelihood of being accused of corruption or negligence. International Monetary Fund chief Christine Lagarde was convicted in 2016 for negligence over a government payout. She was given a suspended sentence.

Are all these women guilty as charged? I have no idea. If they are, of course they should suffer the consequences. However, it is hard not to wonder whether at least some of them have been held to a higher standard than that required of their male counterparts. Indeed, Tymoshenko was eventually cleared of all charges by the European Court of Human Rights.

I can’t help wondering whether a woman in power is automatically seen as illegitimate, so electorates, media and opponents are quick to accept rumour and innuendo as fact because it confirms their unconscious belief that she was not worthy of her post in the first place. Julia Gillard, when she was prime minister, was dogged by rumours of a dodgy slush fund from her days as a young lawyer at Slater & Gordon. No wrongdoing on her part was ever proved – despite a royal commission and myriad other inquiries and public interrogations – but the dark mutterings continued.

Hillary Clinton has been tainted by the Whitewater scandal for the whole of her professional life, although, once again, no wrongdoing has ever been proved. Indeed, she is without doubt the most investigated candidate for president in the history of the US. As with Gillard, none of the accusations stuck, but that did not seem to matter to those who regard any powerful woman with suspicion. Given how many inquiries Clinton has faced, including congressional, the only logical conclusion is that Clinton is either a criminal mastermind or innocent. Call me crazy or even biased, but I’ll go with the latter.

Such is the sense of illegitimacy that dogs women who seek power that supporters of Clinton’s candidacy felt obliged to begin any positive statement with an apology. “Clinton isn’t perfect but…” was the almost obligatory opening to any social media post in favour of the Democrat candidate. Well, I have news for you – no candidate for the US presidency, or any other political office in any country anywhere, has been perfect, so the need to acknowledge that fact when talking about the only female one is striking.

The famous Heidi/Howard experiment revealed our unacknowledged bias against women of achievement and ability. The experiment gave male and female students identical case studies to assess. They were asked to rate them on skills and likeability. The only difference was some of the case studies bore the name Howard and some Heidi. Both Howard and Heidi were ranked identically for skills – as they should be, given they are identical. However, the higher the reviewers – both male and female – marked Howard for skills, the higher they marked him for likeability. When it came to Heidi, the higher they marked her for skills, the lower they marked her for likeability. In other words, the more accomplished a woman becomes and the higher she rises in the world, the more likely we are to think she is a bitch. No wonder so many voters explain their lack of support for Clinton by saying they find her “unlikeable”.

Could something of the same visceral and unconscious bias be operating against female leaders? Is that part of the reason so many of them come crashing down?

Women are not only less likely to lead countries in the first place – in the past 50 years only a third of countries have been led by a woman – but they often don’t last very long in the top job. In 31 of the 56 countries that have had a female leader, out of the 146 nations looked at by the World Economic Forum, the female leader survived for five years or less. In 10 of those countries, they lasted only a year. In 13 countries, the female leader lasted less than a year. The average tenure of male leaders is much longer.

There are exceptions, of course. Angela Merkel and Margaret Thatcher spring to mind. However, I cannot escape the conclusion that it is very risky for women to aspire to lead precisely because they must battle our ancient but unacknowledged prejudices about women who put themselves forward. Their very ambition is seen as a crime.

If you doubt me, remember that when Hillary Clinton was secretary of state under Barack Obama, her previous opponent in the 2008 Democrat primaries, she had an approval rating of 69 per cent. Apparently we can cope with a smart and powerful woman as long as she remains second in command to a bloke. When Clinton stood for president a second time, she went in record-breaking time from the most popular woman in America to Crooked Hillary, Killary and Hillary Rotten Clinton. Worse, the closer she got to a winning position, the louder the chants of “Lock her up” became.

A chant, sadly, that seems to haunt too many of the women who dare to lead.

This article was first published in the print edition of The Saturday Paper on September 16, 2017 as "Entrappings of high office".

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Jane Caro is a Sydney-based novelist, writer and documentary maker.

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