Jemima Lewis: The slow march of women into politics

The nation that invented feminism ranks 63rd for female representation in politics
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The Independent Online

Allen hums and haws, as a lady must, over the wisdom of putting her career before her husband and children, and the heavy responsibility of commanding the world's most powerful army. "There's that whole, once-a-month, 'will she or won't she push the button' thing," she jests.

But in the end, the top job is just too juicy to resist. As one of her aides sighs wistfully: "A female president... Can't you smell the history?" In real life, alas, history is a long time coming. Back in 1969, Richard Nixon confidently predicted: "In the next 50 years, we shall see a woman president, perhaps sooner than you think." Yet here we are, not too far off Nixon's deadline, and even a Hollywood actress pretending to be the leader of the free world is enough to start a ruckus.

American feminists are delighted by Commander-in-Chief, which they hope will lead by example. "You can't be what you can't see," says Marie Wilson, head of a lobby group which campaigns for more women in politics. "In this country, you could never see a woman president. [But] Geena Davis plays a very rich role as president - and then you start to shape public perception."

Right-wingers object to the show for much the same reason. Their worst nightmare is Hillary Clinton occupying the Oval Office: a woman, a Democrat, and, worst of all, the wife of that filthy, phallic-nosed philanderer. They claim that Commander is little better than an "info-mercial" for Hillary. "The opening salvo," fumed the commentator Ben Johnson, "is a guilt trip for all those Americans who thought an unelected feminist extremist should refrain from imposing her will on the nation."

To Thatcher's children, looking on from the other side of the pond, all this excitement and rancour hardly seems credible. Growing up under Maggie's interminable reign, I simply assumed that the natural position of women was in charge. I would often hear my parents' friends - mostly writers and academics of a lefty persuasion - raging against our wicked, cold-hearted prime minister and her milk-snatching ways. Everybody seemed to hate her, yet no one could make her go away. I concluded that she must be an enormous and terrifying gorgon, who could crush her enemies with one hand and use supernatural powers to subdue a whole nation.

It was scary at the time, but also bracing. After Thatcher, how could anyone imagine that a woman might not have the mettle to mobilise an army or run an economy - or do anything at all that she set her mind to? She proved in public what many a fearsome matriarch had already established in private: that natural authority is not the preserve of men.

Thatcher was feared and admired all over the world. Logically, then, one might have expected a generation of mini-gorgons to spring up in her wake, wherever the cultural temperature would allow. But the march of women into politics has proved painfully slow - so slow that in some countries it seems to have gone into reverse.

Angela Merkel's failure to clinch the German chancellorship has been attributed, in part, to the "traditional" - for which read chauvinist - mood of the German voters. But they are certainly not the worst offenders.

The French have only 71 women in their national Assembly, and 506 men - placing them 74th in the international league table of women in parliament, below Iraq and Afghanistan.

When the French politician Ségolène Royal announced last week that she would run for president "if I am asked", her colleagues in the Socialist party were overcome with traditionalism. Jacques Lang - the former education minister, and a man famous for being scrupulously politically correct - spluttered that the presidential election "should not be turned into a beauty contest" (as if elections weren't anyway, regardless of the sex of the candidates).

America, however, is surely the strangest case of all. The nation that, more than any other, prides itself on its passion for equality - that invented political correctness, positive discrimination and, to a large extent, feminism itself - ranks 63rd for female representation in politics: above France, admittedly, but below Bolivia and the Philippines.

In a poll this month, 79 per cent of Americans said they would be comfortable with the idea of a female president. That is mighty big of them, but it still leaves a fifth of the population squirming with discomfort. Moreover, accepting the theoretical notion of a female leader is quite different from voting for an actual woman. Support for Hillary Clinton generally hovers closer to the 30 per cent mark.

Republicans can rest easy. Geena Davis may do her worst, but it will be a long time before we see a gorgon in the Oval Office.