Hillary Clinton (Credit: JStone - Shutterstock.com)

Big Nations’ Women Leaders

Hillary Clinton came closest to becoming the first woman elected President of the United States of America. We wonder: Among the world’s 10 most populous nations, how many have so far had a woman as head of government or state in modern times?

A. 1
B. 2
C. 4
D. 5

A. 1 is … not correct.

India is the most populous nation to have had a woman as a leader in modern times. Indira Gandhi served as the country’s prime minister from 1966 to 1977 – and again from 1980 to 1984.

Indira Gandhi, no relation to non-violence activist Mohandas Gandhi, was the only child of Jawaharlal Nehru, the first prime minister of independent India. Her father served in that post from 1947-1964.

Gandhi was the world’s second-ever female head of government. Though far from the ranks of the world’s most populous nations and with just 1.6% of India’s population, neighboring Sri Lanka had the modern world’s first female head of government.

Sirimavo Bandaranaike served her country — then known as the British Dominion of Ceylon — as Prime Minister. She first assumed her post in 1960, the year after her husband was assassinated in the office. Her daughter, Chandrika Kumaratunga, would go on to become the country’s leader, too.

B. 2 is … not correct.

The two most populous nations that have never had a woman as head of government or state are the United States and the People’s Republic of China.

In the United States, Hillary Clinton, the former U.S. Secretary of State, sought the presidency in 2016. While she was the first to be nominated by a major party, many women have sought the U.S. presidency previously.

The first minor party candidacy was constitutional attorney Belva Ann Lockwood in 1884, who a bit earlier had become the first woman to argue before the U.S. Supreme Court.

The first major party women candidacies were Republican Margaret Chase Smith (1964) and Democratic Congresswoman Shirley Chisholm (1972). The first woman nominated for Vice President by a major party was Democratic Congresswoman Geraldine Ferraro (1984).

Many of the women in politics around the world who have eventually led their countries have been related to or married to a man who had previously led the country. Secretary Clinton would have followed this track, had she prevailed, because she was the First Lady during the presidency of former President Bill Clinton, her husband.

To date, no woman has ever served as president or premier of China, nor even on the country’s highest decision-making body, the Politburo’s seven member Standing Committee.

The first woman – possibly Sun Chunlan, currently director of the Central United Front Department – might be appointed to the Standing Committee when new appointments are made at the next party congress in 2017.

During the late stages of China’s Cultural Revolution (1966-1976), China’s First Lady, Jiang Qing, de facto ruled the country with three other party officials now referred to as the “Gang of Four.” Following the death of her husband Mao, Jiang and company continued to rule until their overthrow within the Communist Party a month later.

C. 4 is … not correct.

Four of the seven countries in the G7 have had a female leader. (Besides the United States, Italy and Japan also have not.)

Germany, the world’s 16th most populous country, has been led by Chancellor Angela Merkel since November 2005. The UK (21st by population) is currently led by Prime Minister Theresa May and had Margaret Thatcher as Prime Minister from 1979 to 1990.

France (22nd by population) had Prime Minister Édith Cresson for less than a year in the early 1990s. Canada (38th) likewise also had the very brief tenure of Prime Minister Kim Campbell about a year later. Like the UK’s current leader, neither was chosen by voters for the position.

D. 5 is … correct.

Among the world’s 10 most populous nations, five have had female leaders. Except for Brazil — which elected its first female president, Dilma Rousseff, in October 2010 and impeached her in 2016 — they all are located in Asia. The other four countries are India, Pakistan, Bangladesh and Indonesia.

Except India, which has a sizable 14% Muslim minority, the other three nations are strong Muslim-majority nations (between 87% and 96% Muslim).

In Pakistan, Benazir Bhutto — the eldest daughter of former Prime Minister Zulfikar Ali Bhutto — held the office of prime minister twice, from 1988-1980 and 1993 to 1996.

In Indonesia, the world’s third-largest democracy, Megawati Sukarnoputri was the country’s president from 2001 to 2004. Megawati is the daughter of Indonesia’s first president, Sukarno.

In Bangladesh, the world’s 8th most populous country, Khaleda Zia, the widow of former President Ziaur Rahman, was prime minister twice (from 1991 to 1996 and again from 2001 to 2006).

The five countries among the world’s 10 most populous nations that have not yet had a woman as head of government or state in the modern era, in addition to the United States and China, are Nigeria (7th), Russia (9th) and Mexico (10th).

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