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Feminspire | April 21, 2014

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South Korea Elects a Woman as 11th President; Why Has America Yet to Follow?

South Korea Elects a Woman as 11th President; Why Has America Yet to Follow?

Few politicians have as much political experience as Park Geun-hye, South Korea’s president elect. Her father was South Korea’s leader throughout most of her childhood, and when her mother was assassinated, she assumed the role of the First Lady. Following her father’s assassination, she has racked up several impressive political accomplishments, such as being the chairwoman of the Saenuri Party (formerly known as the GNP) on two separate occasions.

Let’s take a second here and consider how politically awesome this woman is. In 2007, she loses the presidential bid to Lee Myung-bak, who then shuns her from being a part of his government, and in the process, a bunch of her supporters hemorrhage from the GNP like meerkats on a carnivorous island and make new parties named after her. The GNP refuses to reconcile, so her supporters shrug their shoulders, go off and win 26 seats in the next election, like it’s nothing. For damage control, the GNP then has to undergo a BP-esque rebranding scheme: they change their name and make Park their new leader.

Park Geun-hye is a political rockstar. She’s also an incredibly successful woman, especially considering that only 15.7% of South Korea’s parliament is made up of women. But then again, the United States isn’t much different: 18.7% of our Congress is comprised of women. Why then, do we seem to be so far from having a female President? Why is America’s political gender equality behind Canada, Germany, Sri Lanka and Malawi (and many more!) when it comes to having female heads of state?

One possible explanation is that the United State’s possession of powerful nuclear weapons and its global role as a military superpower makes the Commander in Chief office a place that voters want to put in the control of someone with perceived military experience and capability. This could be true; over half of American presidents have some experience serving in the armed forces. Persistent gender stereotypes may be making it difficult for American voters to imagine electing a woman to have power over the military. But this can’t be all of it: of the 13 other countries who are so combat-driven to almost certainly have nuclear weapons right now, 9 of them have had female heads of state.

CNN asked several influential and successful women why they thought the United States had yet to elect a female president. Many of them touched on issues that led back to humbleness, modesty and insecurity. As Senator Kirsten Gillibrand states:

“Many organizations have done many studies, and one thing they’ve found is that women really need to be asked to participate – that they respond very well when they’re asked to run for office. And the studies also show that when women do run, they win.”

This seems to come from the fact that whenever a woman runs for high office, it’s “groundbreaking” and thus, all the more frightening to do without a strong base of support. She may be the first in her state, or she may even be the first ever to run for a particular position. The pressure to break the marble ceiling makes this a much more daunting and intimidating task for women than men. In the case of wealthy, white men, there is a huge precedent of people just like them being successful at exactly what they’re trying to do. It’s not revolutionary; history books are flooded with the names of powerful white men. They have less to prove, will attract less scrutiny, and do not defy gender roles. Rather, they conform to society’s expectations for them: success. A woman who runs for political office must not only possess all the positive characteristics that her male counterparts do, but she must also have the drive to be a pioneer in uncharted territory, territory that has long been labeled “Not For You.” Of course, this isn’t exclusive to the United States, but it certainly is another piece in the puzzle.

The fact that the United States has a President, rather than a Prime Minister and a parliament, could also be standing in the way of gender equality. In a parliamentary system, such as the one in the UK, voters usually vote for the party that they want to have seats and the party leaders then have a lot of influence over the individuals that make it into the parliament. This prevents people who usually support Party A from abandoning ship when the favored candidate is, say, a woman. From there, it becomes easier for women elected to the parliament to become the head of state. Simply put, that’s because parliamentary systems rely more on internal politicking than external. This allows for a gradual rise of power and a natural progression to becoming the head of state. This varies greatly from the way that Barack Obama jumped from Senator straight to being President. For our purposes, we can consider the Speaker of the House position to be analogous to the rise of a politician through a parliament. Nancy Pelosi became the first woman to hold that position after establishing a solid career first as Representative, then the House Minority Whip and finally the House leader of the Democratic Party before becoming the Speaker of the House. It seems that women gain ground most easily in environments that allow a slow rise, less public visibility, and where more importance is placed on the support of their colleagues instead of the public. If the American government was structurally similar to India, Pakistan, Canada, Australia and the UK (countries that all have some form of a parliament and have had a female head of state), it would likely be easier for women to gain political power.

Let’s also look at the voters: why are we collectively so uncomfortable with the idea of a woman holding the most symbolically powerful position in the country? Gloria Steinem suggests that 2008 was too soon for a female president:

“…we are raised by women and so we associate women with childhood. Men especially may feel regressed when they see a powerful woman. The last time they saw one they were 8. So one of the most helpful things we can do in the long-term is make sure that kids have loving and nurturing male figures as well as female figures, and authoritative and expert female figures, as well as male figures.”

And let’s not ignore the intense pressure we put on female politicians to still stay within the bounds of gender roles, to some degree. Hillary Clinton is asked questions about fashion, despite showing no interest in it. Lisa Madigan was asked whether it was even possible for her to be a politician and a mother. When women try to assume traditionally male positions, we are always quick to slap them back into their place. This both dissuades women from pursuing prominent political careers (because they know they won’t be taken seriously) and contributes to the idea that women aren’t “real” politicians, they’re mothers and eye-candy first, women with career ambitions second.

It’s very important to begin normalizing the idea that women are capable and worthy of holding power. Men shouldn’t feel emasculated by powerful women. And this isn’t a battle that should only be fought by female politicians: every sector of our culture, from popular films, novels and music, influences the way that we perceive gender roles. It may be too late to completely reshape the prejudices of this generation of voters, but it is not too late to expose young children to books that feature strong women or to have discussions about sexist fallacies. Slowly, we can begin to break down the mental barriers that make voters reluctant to cast a ballot for a woman, and some day, we can follow in South Korea’s footsteps.

Written by Sara Wofford

Header image courtesy of Reuters