Guyana Leader Was Always Her Own (Jewish) Woman
By J.J. Goldberg
Published April 01, 2009, issue of April 10, 2009.
Born in Chicago: Guyanese President Janet Jagan addresses the U.N. General Assembly in 1998. In a 1997 interview, she linked her ‘interest in the underdog and helping out the impovervished of the world’ to her Jewish background, particularly her father’s experience of antisemitism.
One of the most colorful chapters in American Jewish history ended on March 28, with the death, at age 88, of Janet Jagan, former president of the South American country of Guyana. Born Janet Rosenberg in Chicago in 1920, she was one of only three Jewish women ever to lead a modern nation. The other two were Golda Meir of nearby Milwaukee, and Ruth Dreifuss, a former member of the Swiss Federal Council representing the Geneva canton, who held the rotating presidency of the Swiss Confederation from January 1 to December 31, 1999.
Jagan (rhymes with Reagan) is remembered, too, as the first woman — Jewish or otherwise — ever freely elected as president of a South American country (as distinguished from various wives of Argentine dictator Juan Peron). She was the first white person ever elected to lead Guyana, and was the country’s longest-serving legislator. And she was probably the only American Jew ever chased out of public office by both the British marines and the American CIA.
Most important, she was a dominant force for six decades in the politics of the former British colony. Together with her husband, Caribbean political legend Cheddi Jagan, she helped found Guyana’s independence movement. She was an iron-willed pillar of South American radicalism and a major preoccupation of American foreign policy at the height of the Cold War. Time magazine once called her “the most controversial woman in South American politics.”
Jagan grew up in a middle-class Jewish family on Chicago’s South Side. “They were very assimilated,” said a cousin, New York historian Suzanne Wasserman, who made an award-winning documentary film about Jagan in 2003. “They even had a Christmas tree.” According to Wasserman, the Rosenbergs lived in an Irish Catholic neighborhood, far from Chicago’s dense Jewish strongholds. “Her parents were conservative Republicans, which was very unusual among Chicago Jews in the 1930s,” she said.
During Janet’s teenage years, her father changed the family name to Roberts to avoid job discrimination.
Like many Depression-era teens, Janet outraged her parents by taking up communism. Unlike most, she spent her life in the struggle. In 1942, she met and fell in love with Cheddi Jagan, a son of Indian-Guyanese sugar cane workers. Nearly every biographical account dwells on the instant spark between the “beautiful Jewish” student nurse and the “dashingly handsome” foreign dental student.
They were married in August 1943. Her father cut off contact with his daughter, vowed to disown her and threatened to shoot the dark-skinned, non-Jewish Cheddi, Janet would recall. In the fall of that year, the couple moved to what was then British Guiana. Cheddi opened a dental practice, and Janet worked as his assistant. Together they began meeting with other radicals to discuss independence.
Guyana, on the north coast of South America, is one of the poorest countries in the hemisphere. Its English-speaking population is divided between descendants of African slaves who once worked British sugar plantations and descendants of indentured servants brought from India to work the cane fields after Britain freed its slaves in 1834. Cheddi’s grandparents had come as indentured servants.
In 1950, the Jagans and Afro-Guyanese activist Forbes Burnham formed the colony’s first modern political party, the People’s Progressive Party. Janet became party secretary. Cheddi was elected chief minister of the colony in 1953, on a platform of independence for the colony and workers’ rights. The same year, Janet was elected deputy speaker of the parliament. But they served only 133 days. That summer, the British prime minister, Winston Churchill, fearing Soviet influence, sent warships to disband the legislature. Cheddi and Janet spent five months in prison and two more years under house arrest.
In that same summer, the CIA, with British backing, overthrew the elected government of Mohammed Mossadeq in Iran. In Vietnam that fall, the French army began preparing for the final battle that would end in its defeat and expulsion the following May by Ho Chi Minh’s communist rebels. A month after that, a CIA coup in Guatemala overthrew the elected government of leftist Jacobo Arbenz. But the Jagans survived.
In 1955, the British colonialists encouraged their party ally, Burnham, to form a breakaway party built on Afro-Guyanese ethnic resentment. The colonial office reorganized the electoral system repeatedly, seeking explicitly to boost Burnham and unseat the Jagans. But they won an election in 1957 and again in 1961.
By then, the British had come to respect the Jagans’ resilience and integrity — and to fear Burnham’s violent racial provocations. But now, the Jagans found a new enemy in the newly installed Kennedy administration in Washington. Kennedy feared that Jagan would turn British Guiana into a second communist beachhead after Cuba, and he was determined to prevent this.
The American press pilloried Cheddi and Janet, the “strident Marxist” who was his “brains and backbone,” as Time magazine put it. She was rumored — falsely — to be a relative of Ethel and Julius Rosenberg, the Jewish New Yorkers executed for alledgedly spying for the Soviet Union in 1953. The rumor circulated for years, even appearing in The Washington Post’s obituary for Cheddi in 1997.
In 1961, Cheddi visited Israel, which was then working closely with Third World liberation movements. Foreign Minister Golda Meir argued his case to the British, who were now defending the American position, and Israeli ambassadors in South America lobbied Washington. In the end, the State Department warned that Israel risked being “regarded by the U.S. public as strengthening militarily” a communist regime.
At home, Janet was serving as minister of labor, health and housing, launching major public works and welfare programs and reinforcing her popularity. But the colony was plagued by CIA-funded strikes and riots led by Burnham, according to Stephen Rabe’s 2005 book, “U.S. Intervention in British Guiana: A Cold War Story,” so Janet sent her and Cheddi’s two children abroad for safety.
Finally, in 1964, the Jagans were ousted in an election held under new, American-backed rules.
The British granted the colony independence in 1966 under Burnham, who spent the next quarter-century lurching from socialism to capitalism and back while the economy collapsed.
Janet’s father had died in 1957, while the British still barred Janet from leaving the country. Father and daughter had reconciled after the birth of Janet’s first child, Joey, but they never saw each other again. Her father never met her husband, something she often said she regretted. She had kept up with her mother throughout, writing weekly letters and sending pictures of the children.
After Burnham died in 1985 in Moscow — where he was mummified for posterity — international pressure mounted for free elections. In a 1992 election monitored by Jimmy Carter, Cheddi was elected president and Janet took on the unfamiliar role of first lady and national hostess.
In 1997, when Cheddi died, Janet was named prime minister under a new president in an interim government. She was elected president herself later that year, but stepped down two years later after suffering a heart attack.
Janet Jagan never talked much about her Jewish identity, though it came up constantly in her public life. “Jewishness wasn’t much of a factor in my life,” she told me in a phone interview in 2000. “There’s no Jewish community in Guyana.”
Wasserman prodded her on the topic when she visited in 1997 to shoot her documentary. They sat for hours, discussing the family and leafing through an old family album. At one point, Wasserman said, Jagan lingered over a photo of her husband reviewing Israeli troops during his 1961 visit. “She was very proud of that,” Wasserman said. At length, Jagan conceded that her Jewish background had sparked her “interest in the underdog and in helping out the impoverished of the world,” not least because of the antisemitic discrimination her father had suffered.
I had phoned Jagan in June 2000 because of a political battle in Peru. Novice politician Alejandro Toledo was headed for his country’s presidency, and his Belgian-Israeli-American wife, Eliane Karp, was primed to become, as I planned to write, South America’s second American Jewish first lady. I wanted to talk to Jagan about her experiences as the first of the breed.
She wasn’t amused. “I wasn’t just the first lady,” she growled indignantly, nearly melting the telephone line. “I was the president. I was elected in my own right. I was always my own woman.”
An article on the death of former Guyanese president Janet Jagan (“Guyana Leader Was Always Her Own [Jewish] Woman,” April 10, 2009) should have noted that in addition to Jagan and Golda Meir, a third Jewish woman has led a modern nation: Ruth Dreifuss, a former member of the Swiss Federal Council representing the Geneva canton, who held the rotating presidency of the Swiss Confederation from January 1 to December 31, 1999.
Contact J.J. Goldberg at firstname.lastname@example.org
Some of my reflections on Mrs. Janet Jagan, "Mother of the Nation"
by Mani Singh (President of the ACG-Canada)
I feel very blessed and fortunate to have been able to travel to Guyana to witness the State Funeral of Mrs. Janet Jagan, a true Freedom Fighter of Guyana. She was also a former First Lady, former Prime Minister and former President of the Republic of Guyana. My attendance at her funeral brought back many memories of twelve years ago, in March 1997, when I had again traveled to Guyana to witness the State Funeral of her late husband, Dr. Cheddi Jagan, the first democratically elected President of the Republic of Guyana and Father of our Nation.
It was only last year August when I was traveling to Guyana to attend the 29th Congress of the People’s Progressive Party (PPP), that I had the great honor of sitting next to Mrs. Jagan along with my 14 year old daughter, Jitisha, - who I was taking along with me for a visit to Guyana. I will never forget the long and detailed conversations I had with Mrs. Jagan on that trip. I asked her many questions relating to the political and social conditions in Guyana, dating back to the early 1950s, and her arrival in Guyana in 1943 and she patiently answered all the questions I posed to her.
Mrs. Jagan, at age 87 then, just amazed me with her intellect and her capacity to remember in detail all those events that occurred so long ago. We also talked about her and Dr. Jagan’s early involvement in British Guiana’s politics and what motivated them to start the political struggles for Independence and again for democracy in Guyana. I asked her questions about all the early players of Guyana’s politics, including: Forbes Burnham, Peter D’Aguiar, Balram Singh Rai et al.
The direct flight from Toronto to Guyana was supposed to have lasted approximately six hours. Instead, the trip took about twelve hours as the plane could not land at the Airport, due to a terrible rain/lightning storm that had knocked out power at the Cheddi Jagan International Airport. The Pilot tried to land a couple of times but was unsuccessful. The plane eventually had to return to Piarco International Airport in Trinidad for re-fuelling. We went back to Guyana only to find out that the emergency power had come on for a short while and then got knocked out again. When we could not land for the second scheduled arrival time, the Pilot announced that we were now to go to Barbados to overnight as no-one knew when the power would be back on at the Airport, so severe had been the storm.
Throughout all this, although numerous other passengers and I were getting very nervous and “panicky”, Mrs. Jagan remained extremely calm and composed. I remembered her wondering aloud “why are they taking us to stay overnight in Barbados and not to Trinidad”? She also mentioned to me that in over sixty years of traveling, she had never experienced this kind of delay on a plane.
As the Plane was making its way to Barbados, words came that the power was back on at the Airport. The Pilot quickly turned around the plane and we eventually landed at the Cheddi Jagan International Airport at approximately 7:30 P.M. instead of 1:30 P.M. that day! Just imagine sitting in a plane for 12 hours straight…. and not one complaint! Such a strong woman was our Janet.
Mrs. Jagan had also been chatting with my daughter and asking about her school, studies etc. and telling her to enjoy her holiday in Guyana. I was surprised when she and I met for a Meeting at the Cheddi Jagan Research Centre in Georgetown, she called me aside and asked me how my daughter was enjoying Guyana and then she put her hand into her handbag and pulled out a carefully wrapped gift and gave it to me for my daughter. I later gave the gift to my daughter who immediately opened it. She was firstly, surprised to know that Mrs, Jagan, this remarkably great woman, had remembered her, and she was even more surprised and honored to receive a gift from Mrs. Jagan, the former President of Guyana. The gift was a beautiful chain with a matching pair of earrings. On hearing of her death, early that Saturday morning of March 28th, 2009, my daughter, Jitisha was very saddened. She immediately got out of bed, took a shower and put on the special gift she had received from Mrs. Janet Jagan. My daughter told me that morning, proudly wearing the chain and earrings, that she will forever cherish this gift that she had gotten from Mrs. Jagan.
Although very sad at Mrs. Jagan’s passing, I was also extremely overwhelmed to see the national outpouring of genuine grief and sorrow displayed by the people of Guyana for this great Freedom Fighter, this champion of Democracy and former President of the Republic of Guyana, Her Excellency, Mrs. Janet Jagan, O.E.
Janet Jagan was a national political figure who helped shaped our country’s social, economic and political landscape for over sixty-five years, yet, she was a very simple and private person. She was never fussy about material things and never cared about praises or accolades. Hence, at her personal request and that of her family, her funeral was very simple and subdued. Her family decided to complete her funeral arrangements and cremation before the end of March.
I had the distinct honor of paying my personal tribute and that of the ACG-Canada’s when I delivered a speech at a special tribute held at Freedom House, Georgetown - the Headquarters of the ruling People’s Progressive Party on Monday, March 30th, 2009.
The event was a very emotional one for me. As I took the podium to pay my final respects and tributes to this powerful and magnanimous Guyanese woman and at the same time celebrate a full life of eighty-eight years, totally dedicated to the well being and advancement of all the people of Guyana, I was filled with a mixture of both sadness and positive energies. She was a great inspiration to me and many others who were fortunate enough to have met her. Janet Jagan was truly one of my political heroes and mentors.
I think Dr. Cheddi Jagan and Mrs. Janet Jagan exemplified decency, morality and, above all, integrity in politics.
The speeches, praises and tributes were thorough and very informative, as they covered the almost sixty-six years of her political career and struggles for freedom and democracy in Guyana. Other speakers at the Freedom House event, who paid glowing tributes were: Prime Minister Sam Hinds; Speaker of the National Assembly, Mr. Ralph Ramkarran; Head of the Presidential Secretariat, Dr. Roger Luncheon; Presidential Advisor, Mr. Navin Chandrapaul; last of the four remaining founder Members of the PPP, Mr. Ashton Chase; President of General Agricultural Workers Union, Mr. Komal Chand; President of Guyana Rice Producers Association, Mr. Dharamkumar Seeraj; daughter of Mrs. Jagan, Nadira Jagan-Brancier; and son of Mrs. Jagan, Joey Jagan.
On Tuesday March 31st, 2009, the casket containing the body of the former President was taken to Castallani House, which was set up by Mrs. Jagan to house and promote Guyanese Art and Culture, before heading to the Parliament Buildings, Georgetown for the State Funeral. There the Nation heard very moving speeches by the President, His Excellency, Bharrat Jagdeo; Leader of the Parliamentary Opposition, Mr. Robert Corbin and a very emotional eulogy by the Minister of Home Affairs, the Honorable Clement Rohee. Speeches were also delivered by the daughter of Dr. and Mrs. Jagan, Nadira Jagan-Brancier.
The procession then proceeded for a final time at Freedom House, Headquarters of the PPP Party where Mrs. Jagan had visited almost everyday for the past sixty-six years and then traveled along the 65-mile East Coast Public Road for cremation at Babu John Cemetery, Courentyne, Berbice. On the way, it stopped at Enmore, for her to “pay” her last salutes to the five Enmore Martyrs who were brutally gunned down by the British Colonial Police in May 1948. She had never missed the annual commemorative ceremonies for the five Enmore Martyrs since it began. It was the cold-blooded slaying of the five young sugar workers at Enmore that had prompted Dr. Cheddi Jagan with his young wife Janet at his side, to make that silent pledge to dedicate his entire life to free Guiana from British Colonial bondage and domination.
The funeral procession then continued along the East Coast of Demerara as school children, adults and seniors lined both sides of the East Coast Public Road to pay their final respects to undoubtedly, the greatest Guyanese woman that ever lived.
We arrived at approx. 2:30 p.m. at Babu John, Courentyne, where Dr. Jagan was cremated twelve years ago. There were over twenty-five thousand people there awaiting their turn to pay their final tributes to this great daughter of Guyana’s soil. The casket of the former President, Mrs. Janet Jagan, was put onto the pyre and within hours her body was totally consumed by the blazing fire which was ignited by her two children, Joey and Nadira, and witnessed by the mammoth crowd. Her ashes were later scattered into the three rivers of Guyana: the Berbice, Demerara and Essiquibo Rivers, in the same manner her late husband’s, Dr. Cheddi Jagan’s ashes were scattered twelve years earlier.
Like her husband Dr. Jagan, Mrs. Jagan sacrificed her whole life for Guyana and Guyanese. The Jagans’ high morality and decency were beyond reproach. And their life examples of selflessness, compassion and sacrifice will continue to set the standard for all of us, Guyanese and non-Guyanese alike, who aspire to reach the highest pinnacle of honesty and integrity.
So, to finally scatter her ashes in the three mighty Rivers of Guyana, was to me, a fitting tribute to this great Matriarch of Guyanese society, who had given so much of herself, to her country and her people for well over sixty-six years.
Farewell Dear Freedom Fighter!
Farewell Dear Mrs. President!
Farewell Dear Mother of the Nation!
WE WILL FOREVER MISS YOU!
Rest in Peace, dear Mother!
My Cousin Janet
by Judy Flander
While our fathers were brothers, making us close as family, Janet Jagan and I were also best friends. Since I live in the United States, I admired her awesome sacrifices and achievements mostly from afar.
Her life was filled with dedicated work, surrounded by the people of Guyana. She and her husband, Cheddi Jagan, worked tirelessly for them their entire lives. Material things were never important to either of them.
Janet was fearless, seldom rattled and steadfast in the face of hostile opposition. She was also kind and caring and often quietly gave a helping hand to someone in need.
About the only time Janet had to herself was on the “shoestring” trips she and I took over many of her later years. She liked the change of being incognito for those couple of weeks each year. They were some of the only private times she had in her life. I think they brought her home to Guyana recharged.
Janet loved to swim and she loved boat rides, so we took our bathing suits along wherever we went. She had been a champion swimmer in her youth and she also learned how to fly a plane. Nothing really daunted her.
We went out in a boat whenever we could. Once we took a ferry from Marco Island, Florida to Key West, quite a long way and we were thankful for a quiet sea. And twice we shared tiny cabins on windjammer voyages. We sailed to Sicily on one boat and through the British West Indies on another. We swam and snorkeled in the warm waters off Tobago where we stayed in a simple room and hung the one towel they gave each of us on a clothesline outside to dry. There was a little jeep that took us to the public beaches every day.
Our favorite trip was to Greece. On the island of Santorini we sailed out one afternoon on the caldera in a large old wooden boat with a weather-beaten captain at the helm. When he pulled into a cove, we went over the side with just a few of the other passengers for a swim in the blue, clear water. I went first and waited, looking back for Janet as she climbed down the rope ladder. “Are you all right?” I asked. “Are you worried about me?” she said, laughing.
In the last few years Janet’s health declined and she was only able to make trips to Canada to visit her daughter, Nadira, and her family: husband, Mark, and children, Alex and Natasha.
And it was through the wonderful, warm hospitality of Nadira and Mark that I was able to join Janet at their home for several days each summer. They have a lovely pool and so we kept on swimming.
Hillary Wouldn’t Be the First Female American President
By Robin Wright , August 1, 2016
If she wins, Hillary Clinton won’t be the first female American to become President of a country. Janet Rosenberg beat her by a generation—and against much tougher odds.
Like Clinton, Rosenberg was born in Chicago—on the South Side, where Michelle Obama was raised, where Barack Obama first got into community organizing, where the Obama girls were born, and where the Obama Presidential Library will be built. Rosenberg came from a middle-class Jewish family. She grew into a handsome young woman, with high cheekbones set in a long, elegant face. She was outspoken, for the nineteen-forties. She also rode horses and learned to shoot. “Nothing much frightens me,” she once explained.
Rosenberg was a student nurse at Cook County Hospital when she met Cheddi Jagan, a dashing Indo-Guyanese man with wavy black hair and a movie-idol smile. He was studying dentistry at Northwestern. Their parents didn’t approve of their multiracial, interfaith relationship. (He was Hindu.) Nevertheless, in 1943 they married and moved to British Guiana, then still a colony nestled next to Venezuela, on South America’s Caribbean coast.
The Jagans opened a dental-surgery practice in Georgetown, the capital. But politics was their first love. They were both leftists, radicals for the time. They soon joined the independence and labor movements in his home country, one of the poorest places in South America. The population was largely split between descendants of African slaves and indentured laborers from India who had worked on sugar plantations; only nine per cent were indigenous Amerindian. In the forties, Janet helped to organize domestic workers and to establish the Women’s Political and Economic Organization.
“Women must join in the struggle to bring about political and socio-economic changes so that there will be equal opportunities for all, so that we can end unemployment, poverty and hunger, so that genuine democratic institutions can flourish, so that our women can be free and equal citizens,” she once explained.
In the fifties, the Jagans co-founded the leftist and multiracial People’s Progressive Party; she was its secretary-general for two decades. He was elected the colony’s chief minister, on a pro-independence platform, in 1953. When Hillary Clinton was still in elementary school, Janet Rosenberg Jagan was elected deputy speaker of parliament and became the country’s first female cabinet minister.
The Jagans’ careers were turbulent, however. In 1954, their activism against colonial rule landed them in prison for six months; after that, they were under house arrest for two years. “Jail wasn’t easy from the physical point of view,” Janet later recalled. “But, like my husband, I treasured the quiet of jail from the furor outside. I did a lot of reading after insisting that women, like men, should have a right to have books.”
In 1957, she ran again for the legislature—and won. “We led the struggle by educating the people on the ills of colonialism and the need for unity to end the exploitation of this country by the dominant clique that wanted only power and profits—profits and power,” she said, in 1962. “We attained power by the valid ballot and proved our worth by winning in three successive elections—without benefit of a daily press or foreign finances. We did not attempt to grab power by bloodshed.”
But Janet Jagan was not universally admired. In 1963, Time called her “the most controversial woman in South American politics since Evita Perón…. Not only is she a white woman in a volatile land of East Indians and Negroes; she is also a strident Marxist and believed by many to be the brains and backbone” behind her husband. “I have no religion save the religion of equality,” she countered. In 1966, the British colony gained independence, as Guyana.
Janet won parliamentary races in 1973, 1980, 1985, and 1992—and became the parliament’s longest-serving member, her career spanning forty-six years. In 1992, during Guyana’s first completely free and fair elections, which were monitored by a team led by Jimmy Carter, Cheddi Jagan became President; Janet was his First Lady as well as a politician in her own right. By then, her hair had turned white, and she had cut her long locks into a functional bob. Cheddi died in 1997, from a heart attack, despite an emergency flight to Walter Reed Hospital, in Washington, D.C. Janet ran to succeed him, and won—even though she was American-born, white, and Jewish, facts the opposing campaign exploited in vicious attacks. She took office the same year that Bill Clinton began his second term in the White House.
In 1997, UNESCO awarded Janet Jagan the Gandhi Gold Medal for Peace, Democracy, and Women’s Rights. As President, she expanded her focus to include globalization and the environment. “In our continuing efforts to develop our country and meet the needs of our people, especially those living in poverty, my country remains dedicated to the preservation of the environment and the sustainable development of our resources,” she said, at a meeting of regional foreign ministers, in 1999. She resigned due to poor health a few months later, at the age of seventy-seven. Her life was chronicled in a PBS documentary in 2003. The first American woman to be president of a country died in 2009, the year Hillary Clinton became Secretary of State.
If she wins, Hillary Clinton will not break new ground for women in politics globally, either. As Stephen Colbert joked on his show last Friday, the United States “will finally catch up with Sri Lanka.” Sirimavo Bandaranaike became the world’s first female prime minister, in a country then known as Ceylon, in 1960. She served three times, stepping down in 2000—the year Hillary first ran for the Senate. Her daughter, Chandrika Kumaratunga, was Sri Lanka’s longest-serving President, for eleven years, beginning in the mid-nineties.
In the past century, fifty-four countries on the six inhabited continents —about a quarter of the world’s nations—have had female Presidents or Prime Ministers. Bangladesh, Finland, Lithuania, Malta, New Zealand, Norway, the Philippines, Poland, São Tomé and Príncipe, and Slovakia have had more than one. Theresa May just became the United Kingdom’s second female Prime Minister.
The United States has not excelled at putting women in national legislatures. It currently ranks ninety-sixth out of a hundred and ninety-three countries, according to the Inter-Parliamentary Union. Less than twenty per cent of U.S. representatives in the Senate and House are women.
Rwanda, one of the poorest nations, comes in first; two-thirds of its parliament is female. At least ten predominantly Muslim countries (not all democracies) have higher percentages: Afghanistan, Algeria, Bangladesh, Bosnia, Iraq, Kazakhstan, Mauritania, Sudan, Tunisia, and Turkmenistan. Even Pakistan, despite being one of the most dangerous countries in the world for women, ranks higher—at eighty-third.
If she wins, Hillary Clinton will be a throwback to a much earlier model of women in power. Throughout most of history, women inherited political position or prominence from their fathers or husbands. The earliest recorded female leaders were in Egypt: Sobekneferu, some thirty-eight hundred years ago, came to power after her brother’s death, and Hatshepsut, three centuries later, after her husband’s. Hereditary monarchies were the primary route to the top, from the Biblical Queen of Sheba to Britain’s Queen Elizabeth II. The pattern of inherited power went on well into the twentieth century.
In the nineteen-seventies, Isabel Perón, of Argentina, became the world’s first female president, assuming power after her husband died. The pattern of wives and daughters acquiring power continued even when hereditary monarchies were replaced. The notables include Cristina Fernández de Kirchner, who succeeded her husband, Nestor, in Argentina, and the Nobel Peace Prize laureate Aung San Suu Kyi, whose father was a leading figure in achieving the independence of modern Myanmar.
The pattern began to shift in the late nineteen-sixties, coinciding with the women’s-liberation movement. In 1969, Golda Meir, a Russian immigrant who grew up in Milwaukee, became Prime Minister of Israel. Her late husband, Morris Meyerson, had been a sign painter. Margaret Thatcher became Britain’s Prime Minister in the eighties; her husband was a businessman.
The nineties witnessed the first real spurt of women acquiring power in their own right. Both of Canada’s two major parties were headed by women. Ireland had two female Presidents, Mary Robinson and Mary McAleese. Jenny Shipley and Helen Clark were both Prime Ministers in New Zealand. Hanna Cuchocka was the first woman to head a Polish government since Queen Jadwiga, in the fourteenth century. Édith Cresson was France’s Prime Minister. The economist Tansu Çiller was Turkey’s first female Prime Minister. In an unprecedented move that still seems radical, her husband took her surname.
In many countries, the transformative factor has been quotas—either through legislation or party bylaws. India has a long history of practices that oppress women, from gender-selection abortion and female infanticide to bride-burning, when a family fails to pay a dowry. Violence against women, including acid attacks and rape, is still “common,” the latest State Department Human Rights Report warns.
Yet India also carried out history’s single biggest act of female empowerment. In 1993, a constitutional amendment set aside a third of all seats in local councils for women. Nearly a million women suddenly entered politics. A pending constitutional amendment—the so-called Women’s Reservation Bill—would allocate a third of all seats to women in the lower house of Parliament, and in state assemblies.
“More than half of the countries in the world have implemented some type of political quota,” Rohini Pande and Deanna Ford, of Harvard’s Kennedy School, write. “They have led to a dramatic increase in female leaders across the globe.” Norway’s Socialist Left Party started the trend, in 1975, with a rule that forty per cent of its candidates should be female. In 1990, the U.N. Economic and Social Council set a goal of thirty per cent female representation in decision-making bodies.
“The United States is a notable exception among Western countries,” Pande and Ford note. Mexico has legislated quotas for both its parliament and local political office. In 2014, Mexico passed a constitutional amendment that requires parties to develop “rules to ensure gender parity in the nomination of candidates in federal and local congressional elections.” By law, all parties must also allocate funds (albeit small) to train, develop, and promote female leaders. As a result, women account for forty-two per cent of seats in the lower house and a third of the Senate seats. In the United States, women hold only about twenty per cent in both the House and the Senate.
Worldwide, quotas have enabled tens of thousands of women to enter politics. Hillary Clinton has clearly earned her nomination, from years as a community organizer, as a senator, and as Secretary of State. President Obama said no candidate has ever been as qualified to hold the office. Yet, paradoxically, she is still an example of the traditional path to power for women. She emerged on the national stage as a First Lady—as a wife.
Robin Wright is a contributing writer for newyorker.com, and has written for the magazine since 1988.