Farewell to the First Lady of modern democratic politics

We in Britain often tend to think that Mrs Thatcher blazed the trail for women in politics. But while none before or since has marked the world as profoundly (what other woman's legacy includes a globally recognised '-ism'?) she was not the first of her sex to be elected to head a national government. That honour belonged to Mrs Sirimavo Bandaranaike, Prime Minister of Sri Lanka for 12 years between 1960 and 1977.

We in Britain often tend to think that Mrs Thatcher blazed the trail for women in politics. But while none before or since has marked the world as profoundly (what other woman's legacy includes a globally recognised '-ism'?) she was not the first of her sex to be elected to head a national government. That honour belonged to Mrs Sirimavo Bandaranaike, Prime Minister of Sri Lanka for 12 years between 1960 and 1977.

Mrs Bandaranaike, who died yesterday, owed much to a peculiarly south Asian dynastic tradition, which reflects the lingering feudal quality of democracy in the region and makes little distinction between male and female scions. Indira Gandhi in India is the best known example. But Corazon Aquino in the Philippines, Khaleda Zia and Sheikh Hasina in Bangladesh, Benazir Bhutto in Pakistan and Mrs Bandaranaike's own daughter, Chandrika Kumaratunga, President of Sri Lanka - all have led, or still lead, their countries.

But family connections are not enough on their own. Mrs Thatcher may be piqued to note that Lee Kuan Yew, the former Prime Minister of Singapore, in his memoirs described Mrs Gandhi, not our own Iron Lady, as the toughest woman leader he ever dealt with. Mrs Bandaranaike's left-wing nationalist policies may not have solved Sri Lanka's problems, least of all the Tamil conflict, but they left an indelible imprint.

Now Asia does not have a monopoly on politics as a family business - just consider the names Gore, Bush and Kennedy. But the closest America has yet come to empowering the "monstrous regiment" was the 1984 defeat of Geraldine Ferraro, the Democratic party's candidate for vice-president, and even now barely half a dozen of the 100 US Senators are women. After south Asia, it has been Europe where women have gone farthest. In France, Britain and Norway they have been prime minister; today, they fill the posts of president of Finland and the leader of the opposition in Germany.

And, reassuringly, women leaders are like men in another respect: on occasion they are resounding flops: Bhutto of course, and - if anyone remembers - the hapless Kim Campbell, who was Prime Minister of Canada just long enough to lead her ruling Conservative Party to near extinction in 1993. Mrs Bandaranaike, however, was the mould-breaker. Thanks in some small measure to her, in wide parts of the world the notion of a woman leader is no longer considered an aberration, but part of the normal scheme of things. For that she deserves more than a passing memory.

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