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Misogyny and Women leaders: Why blame us for the men we marry?


The struggle for representation of women remains critical, across all sectors. How the media treat women leaders is therefore a feminist issue.

Recently, the South African public broadcaster and other media covered the swearing-in of Dr Nkosazana Dlamini-Zuma as a Member of Parliament under the headline “Zuma’s ex-wife sworn in as MP”. Forgotten was the fact that five years ago, on 20 September 2012, Parliament held a special session to bid farewell to her, after she resigned her seat of 18 years and as Home Affairs Minister since 2009, to take up the position as first woman Chairperson of the AU Commission.

Patriarchy, lest we forget, has deep and pervasive roots. The rule of the patriarch meant that women were regarded as legal minors, perpetually under the guardianship of their fathers, husbands, uncles, brothers and even sometimes their sons. This basic premise impacted on inheritance and property laws, rights in marriage, the right to vote, to contract, women’s bodies and yes, their surnames.

We’ve made advances since women first got the right to vote in New Zealand in 1893: participation in the workforce, increased presence in public and professional life, advances on reproductive rights, and so forth. At the same time, globalisation has also seen the feminisation of poverty, gender-based violence is as pervasive as ever, and equal pay for work of equal value is still a pipe dream. According to the UN Development Fund for Women, women perform 66% of the world’s work and produce 50% of the globe’s food, yet earn only 10% of the world’s income and own only 1% of the world’s property. In fact, the UN Women a few years ago estimated that at the current pace, we will only achieve full gender parity in 70 years time.

The struggle for representation of women remains critical, across all sectors. How the media treat women leaders is therefore a feminist issue. Dr Dlamini-Zuma is not an isolated case. Remember how, at the beginning of Hilary Rodham Clinton’s campaign for US presidency (apart from her pant suits and hair), she was expected to account for her husband’s sexual exploits? Forget her track record and experience in government: their marriage seemingly placed her in control of his pecker.

When Ségolène Royal announced her intention to contest for leadership of the French Socialist Party in 2006, one of her senior male colleagues was quoted as asking, “So who is going to mind the children?” This was in reference to her being the mother of four children with another senior party leader and later French president.

Many other women leaders faced similar sexist labels. The world’s first modern-day female prime minister, Sirimavo Bandaranaike of Sri Lanka (then Ceylon), was called the “weeping widow”, and went on to serve as prime minister and opposition leader in a career that spanned over 40 years. Indira Gandhi of India was called a “dumb doll” (gungi gudiya) when she became Prime Minister of India in 1966, despite serving as president of the youth wing of the Indian National Congress and winning her father’s parliamentary seat when he died in 1964. Israeli Prime Minister Golda Meir and UK’s Margaret Thatcher were both called the “Iron Lady”.

Former Australian Prime Minister Julia Gillard believes that misogyny (contempt for women) “is often a go-to message when politicians are trying to make a point about something else”, symptomatic of societies struggling with women in power. A senior senator berated Gillard as being “deliberately unbarren” for her choice not to have children, pornographic cartoons of her were distributed, calls for Labour to remove her were labelled “ditch the witch” and she recalled the “rudeness of some male journalists” who refused to address her as Prime Minister (when they were perfectly happy to do so for male PMs).

These issues of gendered criticism do not only affect women running for president, prime minister or public office. Major-General Jackie Sedibe faced the same issue when it came to her rise in the SANDF and her minister husband. Her response? “I’ve always lived an independent life. I won’t give up my career just to appease public opinion. It’s like asking why Winnie Mandela she didn’t just settle down to be the president’s wife. Because she has her own public persona and did not want to lose it. Anyway, I’ve been a professional for 30 years without pay.”

Former Malawi President Joyce Banda believes that despite advances since the 1995 Beijing Women’s Conference, women leadership is under attack. She explained: “Patriarchal societies didn’t realise that [change] was actually happening, and happening very fast, and it is as if they took a nap and woke up with us sitting at the table.” And so, they are pushing back.

Then there is of course the issue of women’s surnames. Patriarchy and tradition meant that when we married, we became part of our husband’s families and therefore took his family name. Although more and more women keep their own surnames or use double-barrelled surnames, women through their married surnames remain linked to the men they married.

One ANC leader on a public platform recently asked why, despite the divorce, does Dr Dlamini-Zuma not dump the last part of her surname? Well, apart from the fact that the surnames of husbands – present or former – are more often than not also the surnames of our children, is that really going to stop the misogyny? Mam Graca Machel, for example, despite her illustrious life in her own right, and despite not using the surname, is still first identified as being “Mandela’s widow”.

South Africa, with its constitutional commitment to non-sexism, has made advances. We have many women in public life – judges, ministers, premiers, mayors – as well as women leading opposition parties. We now have – for the first time in the 105-year history of the ANC – women contesting for President of Africa’s oldest liberation movement. With President Ellen Johnson Sirleaf of Liberia stepping down this year, the African continent can do with more women as heads of state.

So. Let’s not use misogyny to make a point about something else. DM


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