Oxford's oldest student newspaper

Independent since 1920

The political power of gender expression: Lessons from female dictators

Georgie Cutmore discusses the gendered nature of authoritarian leadership.

China’s three thousand years of written history has seen just one legitimate female sovereign: Wu Zetian of the late 600s. Charismatic and ambitious, she spent thirty years rising through the ranks of concubine, Consort, and Dowager to finally claim official sovereignty in 690. Though posthumously dubbed “Empress”, she styled herself “Emperor” and was keenly aware of the political power at stake in matters of gendered discourse.

As for her own imperial name, “Zhao”, she issued a new Han character – 曌 – which comprised strokes highlighting the moon, a symbol for the female ‘yin’, and the sun, a symbol for the male ‘yang’. By controlling and rewriting language, she proposed that her position as Empress was a harmonious unification of traditionally male and female strengths. 

Wu is not unique among female dictators and leaders in her ardent attention to her own gender performance, and the implications of it. In an era calling for postgenderism and the erosion of binary gender, it is important to recognise and understand the historic, and lasting, phenomenon of gender expression as a tool for political ends. 

When asked to call to mind the mental image of a “dictator”, or a “despot”, or an “autocrat”, you’d be forgiven for imagining a moustached middle-aged man, perhaps balding, raising his arm in a military salute. Even the Advanced Oxford Learner’s Dictionary teaches students of English that a “dictator” has often obtained their “complete power” over a country “using military force”. 

The tight relationship between the office of dictator and its corresponding armed forces is a historic one and likely needs little explanation. A traditional route to political power has been to rise first through the military or to topple the existing authorities by coup d’état. Dictators then depend on military might to assert their regimes; could an individual lacking in military experience truly command the full respect and loyalty of the army? Machiavellian enquiries aside, we begin to see why there have been so few female dictators across history. In the modern era up to the twentieth century, women have usually been excluded from military service, and the field is still overwhelmingly male-dominated. How, then, we might ask, have the few powerful female dictators and leaders of history come to take up the mantle? 

Rulers Indira Gandhi (1917-1984) and Aung San Suu Kyi (1945-) have much in common. They were both educated at Oxford University, both became prime minister-figures of their respective countries, and, crucially, were both daughters of previous national leaders – Jawaharlal Nehru of India, and Aung San of Myanmar respectively. This is a well-trodden path. Many of the most culturally famous female dictator figures have come to prominence due to their links with politically powerful men. Eva “Evita” Perón (1919-1952) and Jiang Qing (1914-1991), known to contemporaries as “Madame Mao”, spring to mind here. The de facto or legitimate reigns of powerful women – Gandhi, Suu Kyi, Perón and Jiang included – have often been directed and overshadowed by the legacies of their male counterparts. 

The traditional discourse surrounding women in power has, as such, construed female leadership as rare, and unusual. Women have been painted as dependent upon their powerful husbands or male kin for political legitimacy. Indira Gandhi was dubbed “goongi goodiya” – Hindi for ‘puppet’ – by those who saw her as a weak and easily manipulable figurehead for a male-dominated Congress. Stock archetypes of negative femininity have also been drawn upon to criticise women in power for occupying space in the public sphere. 

This goes back to the days of Wu Zetian and beyond. Wu was said to have eaten her own children, and contemporary commentators used her as the basis for pornographic materials, stressing her beginnings as a concubine. She was, essentially, painted as the antithesis of the modest, maternal, ideal woman. Through making such claims to her immorality, her rivals aimed to weaken her political legitimacy. And this treatment is not unique to Wu. A string of female leaders throughout history have been characterised as evil, immoral, and dangerous women. 

Given this historic discourse surrounding women in power, it is unsurprising that women seeking power have felt pressure to acknowledge and use their gender in ways that men have not. Perhaps women feel forced to own up to their gender identity before it is seized and turned against them. The famous 1566 Speech to Parliament by Queen Elizabeth I saw her make the following concession: “Though I be a woman, yet I have as good a courage answerable to my place as ever my father had. I am your anointed queen”. While defending her gender, she appealed to traditionally masculine traits and to her paternal family line to claim legitimacy of rule. But she simultaneously asserted the beginning of a new era in which the legitimacy of her rule was tied to her female identity as “queen”. Across various nations, social expectations of what a leader should look and behave like have compiled over centuries and have largely been established from male models. These expectations have firm roots in society. Women have grown up with internalised pressure to conform to these models of ideal power in order to be taken seriously as leaders. 

But we also see cases where female leaders have deliberately used performative identity politics to reinforce their own legitimacy to rule. Women have emphasised their “feminine” or “masculine” characteristics to a greater or lesser extent to achieve political ends. Margaret Thatcher’s ‘housewife’ campaign saw her photographed in the kitchen and depicted carrying shopping baskets. She sought to stress her suitability for public life by emphasising that she had the management qualities required to make a good home and to be a good national leader. But, equally, she practised humming exercises and voice training to lower her pitch and develop a distinctive, typically masculine, tone, which might be viewed as more trustworthy. Women in power have often had to broadcast more “masculine” characteristics, and simultaneously weaponise their femininity, for their authority to be taken seriously. 

Is this the case in politics today? Must women perform their genders to retain political legitimacy? In my view, the short answer is yes. The gendered insults thrown about in national parliaments – such as Jeremy Corbyn’s “stupid woman” remark about Theresa May in 2018, or, in France last year, the attack on Mathilde Panot as a “fishwife” – suggest that gender, or at least awareness of gender, still plays a large role in high politics. Scholars have pointed out that women in twenty-first-century government institutions sometimes serve a representational function. They are a symbolic presence, seen to stand for all women, and seen to legitimise a government by making it look liberal and democratic. 

Women are expected to perform their gender – to visibly make known their “womanness”. The unsaid expectation nowadays is that female MPs speak about and work on the problems which predominantly affect women – such as abortion, domestic violence, and sexual abuse. Female MPs have done just this over the last thirty years and, as such, we’ve seen the privatisation of what counts as “public issues” as well as improvements to the socio-political condition of women more generally. But this phenomenon has also had the unintended function of placing female politicians as singular spokespersons for all “women’s issues”. Current female MPs are expected to act as female politicians, not just as politicians. This pressure is incredibly unfair. It leads to a tendency for generic and angry claims blaming female leaders for not having done enough to help women or focus on “women’s issues”. Where is this pressure on male politicians? Surely these issues should be a focus for all politicians, regardless of their gender. 

The ideal situation within high politics would be the complete deconstruction of the gender narrative. This way, women would no longer feel forced to conform to or perform aspects of their gender identity. But this is probably a utopic fantasy. We can hold out hope that, as binary categories of gender continue to be broken down and eroded, it will soon be so normal to have individuals of all genders in power that the public sphere takes on a more genderless climate. But, given the lasting power of using gender expression as a legitimising power tool, it seems unlikely that this will occur any time soon. 

Will we see more women in positions of leadership in the future? If current trends are anything to go by, then yes, this is likely. Will we see more women in the office of dictator in the future? This is harder to answer. Dictatorships, to my mind, are never an attractive option. And their historically military nature still excludes women. And in many ways, to back the rise of a female dictator seems a little bit like a toss-up between one’s own ethical ideals and supporting supposed female empowerment. 

As we look to the future, and the possibility of more female leaders and dictators, the real point is that we should remember our history. Gender, and gendered discourse, has always been an intrinsic element of politics. We should be aware of performative gender expression in politics and recognise when it is being used, and for what ends.

Image: Wellcome Library/ CC BY 4.0 via Wikimedia Commons

Check out our other content

Most Popular Articles