Hillary Clinton’s curse of the pharaohs
Hillary Clinton seems to suffer from the age-old pharaoh's curse afflicting women seeking to lead a nation.
Hillary Clinton's bid for the Democratic nomination reminds me somewhat of Hat-Shep-Sut. Like the New Kingdom Egyptian queen, who ruled as co-regent with her half-brother and then as sole ‘king', Hillary has been forced to play up her own “co-regency” with husband Bill in her campaign.
Like the early years of Hat-Shep-Sut's reign, when she was trying to get ahead in a man's world, Hillary has also played heavily on her image as a “warrior presidentess” – although the Egyptian queen, the longest-reigning woman of an indigenous Egyptian dynasty, went on to inaugurate a peaceful and prosperous post-occupation era marked by a blossoming of trade, culture and science.
Unlike Hat-Shep-Sut, who became one of the most successful pharaohs ever, Hillary seems pretty much to have lost her bid to become the Democrats' presidential candidate – at least, this time.
How much of this is down to her politics and abilities (personally, I prefer Obama's performance) and how much is down to her gender is a hard question to answer, but America currently seems unready to be led by a woman of non-dynastic vintage. Like ancient Egyptian society, men and women in contemporary America are legal equals, but this equality has not yet really filtered into the uppermost echelons of power.
In fact, the similarities between the two societies do not end there. Ancient Egypt may have lacked America's democratic credentials, but both societies love symbols of power and prestige on a monolithic scale. Egypt has its pyramids, colossi, and grand temples, while the USA has its skyscrapers, boundless shopping malls and gas-guzzling automobiles. Both also have a penchant for obelisks.
On the political level, they both need larger-than-life leaders. The Egyptian pharaoh was the living image of god on earth – and the modern-day Egyptian president is often referred to mockingly as “pharaoh”.
While no US president makes such an exalted claim – well, there is an exception who believes he is divinely guided – the American presidency is so elevated that it carries a certain halo of divinity about it in the minds of millions of US citizens. Presidents – celebrated for being the “leader of the free world” (ie gods or titans among mortals) – are the anointed holders of the sacred flame of “freedom, democracy and the American way”. Even the most disillusioned American voter may express a dislike for a certain president, but the presidential throne is usually above reproach.
America's anointed ones have tended to fit a certain profile: white, middle-aged, protestant men. Of course, there have been exceptions, such as JFK‘s youthfulness and Catholicism, or Lincoln‘s poor, rural background. But Barack Obama and Hillary Clinton represent a more fundamental shake-up. Obama is black and has Muslim ancestry, although being the son of an actual African, and without the legacy of slavery, he is not as threatening to whites as an African-American candidate might be. Clinton is a woman, but she is carrying her husband Bill's torch.
Of course, she is not alone in her predicament of needing dynastic pedigree. Other countries around the world seem to be in a similar fix. Indira Gandhi was the daughter of Indian independence leader and the country's first premier, Jawaharlal Nehru. Prime ministerial surrenderer Sonia Gandhi, wife of assassinated prime minister Rajiv Gandhi, was also connected to the Nehru dynasty. In neighbouring Pakistan, recently assassinated Benazir Bhutto was the daughter of the popular but disastrous Zulfikar Ali Bhutto.
In Indonesia, Megawati Sukarnoputri was the daughter of independence leader Sukarno. In China, there was Soong Ching-ling. Chandrika Kumaratunga‘s parents both served as prime minister in Sri Lanka. In fact, her mother, Sirimavo Bandaranaike, has the distinction of being the world's first female prime minister.
Of course, it is welcome that all these women have risen right to the top of the political game, changing the male face of national leadership, even if they needed a little bunk up to get them started.
As a sign of the changing times, women are increasingly becoming heads of state on their own merit, without being the heirs of men. The first to do this was the formidable Golda Meir in Israel. The UK has its very own Margaret Thatcher. Love or hate her politics, there is no denying that this shopkeeper's daughter was the author of her own success, even if she did do little to advance the rights of women.
Nicaragua's Violeta Chamorro has the distinction not only of being Latin America's first female head of state but of bringing peace after a decade of civil war. Agatha Barbara rose on her own steam to become president of Malta. Currently in office, there are the world's most powerful woman Angela Merkel in Germany, and Ellen Johnson-Sirleaf in Liberia.
Here's to hoping the future will give many more countries female heads.
This article first appeared in The Guardian on 22 May 2008.