Natasha Walter: Where are all the women leaders now?

'The only women that appear in the reviews of the year are archetypal figures: a shrouded Afghan or a Catholic in Belfast'
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The Independent Online

It's hardly surprising that Elizabeth I topped the "best monarch of all time" poll that the Today programme has just carried out. Clever, charismatic, proud, successful ... Along with all her starry qualities it may seem almost unnecessary to mention that she was also a woman.

Why draw attention to this fact? David Starkey's recent biography of the young Elizabeth, the readable book that is partially responsible for Elizabeth I's return to popularity, certainly doesn't make too much of it. So she was a woman! That's much less interesting to him than the fact that she was, say, a precocious scholar or a brilliant plotter. It is right that historians and retellers of her tale should give us Elizabeth the person, Elizabeth the monarch, not just Elizabeth the woman.

Similarly, when Cate Blanchett played the young Elizabeth in that luminous performance in Shekhar Kapur's film, she gave us a heroine who seemed ideally suited to this age of equality, a heroine who could draw her qualities from realms seen both as conventionally masculine and as conventionally feminine. Both Starkey and Blanchett enjoyed exploring her acute articulateness and her lust for power. And they also enjoyed exploring her delight in adornment and her early forays into romantic love.

No wonder young women loved Blanchett's Elizabeth. Where else would they get to see a heroine as dynamic as this? For all its talk of role models and the need to appeal to female audiences, how often does Hollywood yield anything more than smiling mannequins on the big screen? This was like seeing The Godfather remade as The Godmother, or a series of The West Wing with the President played by Sarah Jessica Parker.

Of course, Elizabeth was a 16th-century heroine, not a 21st-century heroine. Played in full, she would be no good for our age, with her belief in divine right, her casual cruelty and her authoritarianism. And to become the heroine she wanted to be, she had to give up what many would see as her essential womanliness – her sexuality and her ability to bear a child. But even so, she pulled off a brilliant coup: she wasn't simply defined by traditional expectations of femininity, she decided on her own expectations of herself and lived by them.

So, a good heroine for our times, then? Yes, we love the Elizabethan dream, the idea of a woman who enjoys being a woman but who can also be articulate and strong and dynamic, and who can go on year after year, way beyond her first flush of youth, succeeding in her ambitions. We love the idea of a woman whose life is not defined simply by the fact of her sex.

Yes, the idea is great. It's the reality that we seem to have such problems with. Far from being a modern heroine, you could also argue that a woman who could bestride the world as Elizabeth I did is as distant from our world as a giant or a dinosaur.

Do you think I'm exaggerating? Well, I've got The Independent's "Review of the Year" on my desk as I write. It's full of great photographs: photographs of Osama bin Laden, of George Bush, of Tony Blair, of Rudy Giuliani, of Hamid Karzai, of Michael Portillo, of Iain Duncan Smith, of David Trimble, of Silvio Berlusconi, of Ariel Sharon, of Yasser Arafat, of General Pervez Musharraf, of Alan Greenspan. These are the people who are meant to have shaped the world in 2001. With a few shuffles and additions and subtractions, it will be people just like them who also shape 2002.

This is so obvious that it feels almost embarrassing to spell it out, but the women who appear in the reviews of the year are nearly all archetypal, anonymous figures. Here a woman in Afghanistan removing her burqa; there a Catholic woman taking her daughter to school in Belfast; there a female nurse seated next to the Tony Blair at the party conference. Their names are not recorded. And a high proportion of them are mourners: an Israeli woman weeping; a Palestinian woman weeping; a New York woman weeping.

To be fair, in the newspaper sections that reviewed the cultural achievements of the year we saw some admirable female faces shining out, from Joanne Rowling to Kate Winslet, as well as some absurd ones, from Elizabeth Hurley to Geri Halliwell. But as far as world events go, from war to peace, from politics to economics, from heroism to villainy, it's hard to glimpse a woman.

Even a few years ago we might have seen some female faces among the powerful. Margaret Thatcher, Madeleine Albright, Mary Robinson, Hanan Ashrawi, Mo Mowlam, or ditzier figures such as the late Princess of Wales, or Hillary Rodham Clinton, would have popped up in those reviews over the past decade. But now the view of the world presented to us through our media is more relentlessly masculine than ever.

Many feminists would say I was barking up the wrong tree to be talking about heroic women in these terms. Yes, I know that if feminism is to mean anything it must mean the empowerment of all women, not just a handful of women. A single Elizabeth I or a single Golda Meir or a single Mo Mowlam is far less important than the everyday empowerment of millions of dispossessed women. That's absolutely true. But I don't see why the two aspects of female power are taken to be opposites rather than complementary.

This is partly a question of the way we see world events, of the fact that we still see politicians as more important than politics, and making war as more important than making peace. That means that many women whom you might see as heroic are never fêted in public. And that matters. Because if we don't hear the voices and see the faces of women who aim to change the world, when will the world ever change?

And it is also a question of the people we choose to represent us. What does it say about our society that power is more than ever concentrated in the hands of men? If the decisions that affect our lives, from those on public spending to those on war-making, are taken, day by day, year by year, by men, while the women sit quietly beside them or weep quietly over them, how can we be satisfied with those decisions? And what does it say to young women now if they can see so few women in the world who are not limited by their sex?

It would be absurd to hold up a 16th-century queen as some kind of proof that nothing has changed for women. The events of this year have brought home to women in the West how very lucky we are to live in a society where so many of the basic rights for which feminists fought down the centuries – of birth control, education, work, independent income, equality before the law – are now taken for granted.

But wouldn't it be great if this year a few more women's faces were seen and a few more women's voices were heard? Wouldn't it be exciting if we saw more women affecting events rather than just being affected by them? Wouldn't it be intriguing to see more heroines – and even anti-heroines – in the present as well as in the past?