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Women as transformational leaders

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While working on my Review of Literature for my dissertation on women leadership in the mid 1990s, I came across a study by Patricia Lee Sky that focused on women as transformational leaders who seek to change individual citizens, their states, their societies, and the relationships among these.  Three women national leaders were cited as examples. They were Margaret Thatcher of Great Britain, Gro Harlem Brundtland of Norway, and Mary Robinson of Ireland.  With the passing away of Margaret Thatcher early this week, I thought I should share how these three women exercised transformational leadership.

Thatcher demonstrated one type.  Her trade union reforms and privatization schemes reversed the collectivist trend in British politics and helped to restructure state and society. But she declined to alter the place and perception of women in the state or society. Her election as Prime Minister in 1979 was revolutionary, yet in the 1980s her presence at 10 Downing Street became the norm. When the conservatives who ousted her had to decide on her replacement, a British child was heard  asking, “But daddy, can a man be prime minister?”

Thatcher was brilliant, capable and powerful.  Internationally, she earned greater respect than any prime minister since Churchill. At home, she was the only prime minister in 160 years to win three consecutive elections. Yet, liberal women dismissed her because of her conservative politics. They argued that she was no friend to women, and not once did she appoint a woman to her cabinet. These are certainly legitimate criticisms. But even those who despise Thatcher’s politics can learn from her qualities as an individual leader and apply these to their own agenda: She never waffled on issues. She defined her position precisely and stuck to it to the end (sometimes the bitter end). She spoke brilliantly and extemporaneously. Criticisms never bothered her. Indeed, she loved a good fight and  never lost her control. It is her strengths women can learn from, and her strengths reflected leadership, not conservatism per se. She sometimes worked 19 hours a day, seven days a week. While many leaders seem to age in power, Thatcher seemed to look better each year. She left the country stronger than when she entered office.

For Gro Harlem Brundtland of Norway, the feminist movement of the 1960s and 1970s provided her central inspiration.  She persistently championed feminist issues, campaigned for liberalization of abortion laws, and promoted the increased participation of women. As prime minister, she consistently seized the opportunity to put into practice the feminist principles. Megatrends for Women (1992) considers Norway as the “most feminized democracy in the world.”  Not only were the prime minister and almost half the cabinet female, the country’s three major political parties were all run by women. Prime Minister Gro Harlem Brundtland led the Labor Party for more than ten years. Kaci Kullman headed the Conservative Party, Anne Enger Lahnstein led the Agrarian Center Party.  The three politicians in Norway were mothers with four, two and three children respectively. The idea that women must take part fully and equally in politics is widespread in Norway.

Mary Robinson ran for president in Ireland in 1990.  The nature of her campaign was significant in the study of transformational feminist leadership.  “…In a country on the move, the weak and the vulnerable tend to be left behind – forgotten. That’s why we need a President who stands up for justice for all…something I have been doing all my working life.”  On that simple, articulate platform, Mary Robinson, feminist lawyer with a Harvard master’s degree, won 52.8 percent of the vote, to become Ireland’s first woman president. Her stunning victory came through tireless campaigning, not much money and a tangible level of integrity. She is referred to as Thatcher’s antithesis.

In conservative, Roman Catholic and politically male-dominated Ireland, Robinson spoke out in favor of women’s rights and liberalization of laws against contraception, divorce and homosexuality.  To the shock of traditional politicians, people listened.

She attributes her success to the women of Ireland. She says, “Instead of rocking the cradle, they rocked the system.” The prestigious Financial Times concluded that it was “a victory for Irish women.” The president has no political power and is required to stay out of politics. But Robinson led “by force of character” and “achieved popular moral leadership.”

In November 1992, Irish women won 20 of the 165 seats available in the Irish parliament, up from 13 in the last legislature. The New York Times wrote that “Women in all parties point to the election of Mary Robinson as president in 1990 as the catalyst for the surge of women in politics.”


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