Published on 10.06.2020 | By Meera Sivasubramanian
Try searching for “1960s household products” on Google. The first ten images that appear are attentive women with children surrounding her while a man explains how to use the product. The message of these advertisements is clear: Women belong at home with the kids. The reduction of a woman’s identity to a housewife was promoted most potently among politicians. Fear-based political tactics capitalised on the concept of threatening the family ideal and hurting “fragile women”. Even scholars based their theories of security on male-centric ideals of power and resource exploitation. This blatant norm that women were weak was shattered when the nation of Sri Lanka appointed its first female Prime Minister, Sirimavo Bandaranaike. The questions that hung on the global public’s mouths were “How can a woman rule over a nation? Especially a mother?” Cue the media rants undermining Bandaranaike because she was a woman who knew nothing about the economy. However, Bandaranaike refused to succumb to the criticisms surrounding her leadership. She played a pivotal role in helping Sri Lanka gain recognition in the international world order. Her appointment as Prime Minister also symbolised a radical change to the male-centric discourse on femininity. Femininity was no longer restricted to the image of a woman working in her household. Sirimavo Bandaranaike showed the world that a woman could be an agent of political progress in the modern state.
Decades later, male policymakers have continued to make derogatory comments towards women. Why? One explanation could be that female leaders have helped deconstruct the hierarchies that policymakers derive their power from. The statesmen-centric dialogue that women leaders are lesser was debated by women in power. Former Prime Minister Julia Gillard experienced a significant degree of sexism from male colleagues who picked apart her marital status and tried to mute her opinions. Gillard publicly addressed the misogyny she experienced in her parliamentary speech directed towards Opposition Leader, Tony Abbot. To put it simply, the impact of her speech was revolutionary. Her speech emphasised the prevalence of sexism in male-dominated workspaces that create a culture which excludes female voices. How many of us have pursed our lips whenever a male co-worker launches on a tirade against his ‘bitchy’ female boss? Similar to Srimivo’s appointment, Gillard’s speech represents a direct challenge to the systems of oppression that statesmen have imposed on women. Her speech inspired more discussions centred on patriarchal hegemonies which allow men in power to ridicule and belittle women.
Greta Thunberg is a name that has become synonymous with global change. At sixteen years old, she has raised more awareness for climate change than half the politicians that dominate the Western Hemisphere. Thunberg’s activism has caused controversy as tabloids have continued to represent her Asperger’s syndrome negatively and insist that she is a child. Thunberg responded to the criticism by stating that she refused to accept that her syndrome and age hindered her message for change. The criticism that Thunberg faced represents the cyclical misogyny that men have tried to impose on female activists. Policymakers and the media actively engage in this activity of trying to mute the voices that demand change because change is inconvenient. Thunberg has proved that young women should not be silenced, and her rallying speeches have inspired countless individuals to demand more political and economic change.
To quote the incomparable Queen B, “girls run the world.” Women have proven across time that they deserve to be heard just as much as men. From the appointment of the first female Prime Minister to global climate youth strikes, women play an important part in the political system. They have publicly questioned and criticised male policymakers who use discourse to undermine their power. Women in power have also helped shatter stereotypes and barriers associated with their gender. The birth of the #Metoo era and the influx of female politicians to powerful positions demonstrate that these gendered hierarchies in politics have a limited time span. The future is female and proud.
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