Joan Smith: The enduring fear of women in power

Aspiring women politicians in the UK have more chance of being selected by Jose Mourinho
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On the face of it, the transition from political prisoner to president might seem somewhat ambitious, especially if you also happen to be a woman. But Ellen Johnson-Sirleaf has done it in Liberia, where she has just been inaugurated as Africa's first female elected head of state, while half a world away, Michelle Bachelet has been elected first female president of Chile.

Victory must have been particularly sweet for Ms Bachelet, tortured under the regime of her country's notorious dictator, General Augusto Pinochet. His fondness for posing in uniforms and shades - a predilection he shared with his ideological opposite, Fidel Castro - rendered him at once sinister and preposterous, but it was also a reminder of the machismo of the Latin American male. Who would have imagined as the old monster left power that Chile would one day choose as its president not just a socialist but a single mother?

Ms Johnson-Sirleaf has done something equally astonishing, trouncing a male opponent, George Weah, who used to be a striker at that most laddish of English football clubs, Chelsea. Mr Weah reacted to his defeat like a pampered Premiership pet - sorry, that should of course be "world statesman" - invoking the time-honoured device of challenging the referee's decision. The former superstar appeared on his private radio station, King FM, and declared himself president of Liberia, although he has since had to back down and is expected to accept a post in Ms Johnson-Sirleaf's cabinet.

It's a striking fact that developing countries, where traditional attitudes to gender are entrenched, seem to be readier to experiment with woman leaders than Western democracies. (The new Chancellor of Germany, Angela Merkel, is a welcome exception.) In the Indian sub-continent, this was for decades a matter of dynastic connections trumping gender - Indira Gandhi in India, Benazir Bhutto in Pakistan and Begum Khaleda Zia in Bangladesh - but Ms Johnson-Sirleaf is a recognisably modern type, an internationalist and free-marketeer whose CV includes spells at the World Bank and UN development programme and at Citibank in New York.

She has reached the top in a continent where only two countries, Uganda and Mozambique, have dedicated seats for women in parliament. Contrast this with the US, where almost two centuries of feminist campaigning has yet to produce a credible female presidential candidate. The first, the decidedly eccentric feminist Victoria Woodhull, launched her bid as long ago as 1872, on a progressive programme that included an eight-hour working day and social welfare programmes.

Whether the two big party machines will be ready to risk an all-female contest, Condoleezza Rice versus Hillary Clinton, in two years' time, remains to be seen. Worryingly, exposure to women politicians seems to confirm gender prejudice in the West instead of dismantling it; the loathing Mrs Clinton inspired when her husband appointed her to reform health care almost wrecked his presidency, as well as demonstrating the not-entirely-admirable stratagems clever women sometimes adopt to overcome the career obstacles they face.

Something similar may have happened in this country. Margaret Thatcher was notorious for excluding women from her cabinets, managing to include a grand total of two in 11 years as prime minister. John Major's first cabinet contained no women at all, and it may be that his predecessor's political style, a ghastly combination of traditional femininity and masculine ruthlessness, put substantial numbers of people off women politicians for life.

Look at the supposedly radical Lib Dems, who have so far managed to produce a line-up of four blokes for their own leadership contest. As for Labour, the Prime Minister's recent encomium to a new generation of MPs - "I have seen the future and it's Douglas Alexander. Or possibly David Milliband" - was probably a sly message to his next-door neighbour in Downing Street. But it reinforced the perception that Baroness Thatcher was an aberration in British politics, where the default position is a country governed exclusively by men.

There are glass ceilings in many professions, and the fears stirred up by powerful women are peculiarly atavistic. As the American feminist Shere Hite has pointed out, the rite of passage by which boys become men is predicated on rejecting their mothers, a painful break that leaves some of them with a shaky identification with masculinity. The notion of having to submit to female authority prompts fearful reactions, comically so in conservative institutions such as the Church of England, where a ferocious debate is currently being conducted over the ordination of women bishops. Only yesterday, a working party came up with the solution of "flying bishops" to work in parishes unable to bear "the taint of someone being ordained by a woman or even by a man who sympathises with women bishops".

The moral for aspiring women politicians in the UK, who seem to have more chance of being selected by Jose Mourinho for the first 11 at Stamford Bridge than to lead their own parties, may be that the surest route to success is to get themselves banged up by the fascist dictator Blair - not a total impossibility, given the rate at which civil liberties are being disassembled in this country. Joking aside, I wonder how modern we can claim to be when our three main parties appear to think that "leader" is a masculine noun.