Staff writer Aneela Aslam on the right-wing modelling of female politicians as ‘figureheads’ and the impact of ‘glass cliff’ on their leadership.
The ‘glass ceiling’ is the notion that an invisible barrier prevents those of diverse demographics from elevating their position in society and most commonly, in their careers. The glass ceiling metaphor is still preserved in the relationship of women in politics, as the United States has yet to ever have a female President. However, in the UK and most recently in Italy, female politicians have become state leaders. However, just because a politician becomes a leader, this does not make them a successful leader. For example, Liz Truss has had the shortest premiership of any UK Prime Minister and has faced international criticism for her short tenure. This has prompted the discussion of how ‘female politicians’ are often fashioned as strong national fronts but are left to fall down the glass cliff. The ‘glass cliff’ is the phenomenon by which women and individuals from other minority groups are promoted into positions of leadership during crises or when the risk of crisis is at its highest. This theory in practice is often indicated by the right-wing and their use of strong maternal national figureheads.
‘The Female Politician’ is not only a role but a fashioning. When the electorate thinks of a ‘female politician’, they think of the likes of Margaret Thatcher, messy leadership, and economic downturn. Thatcher is often associated with her horrific treatment of coal miners and is dubbed ‘The Iron Lady’ by popular media. Thatcher was portrayed as a strong nationalistic figure regarding her foreign policy; however, it was her domestic economics that are remembered most by the electorate.
So why is it that the longest serving Prime Minister of the UK during the 20th century is remembered largely for economic hardships and failing the public?
Her ruthless economic policies are still blamed for many national problems that exist today. Well, Thatcher became the first ever female Prime Minister of the UK in May 1979, just following the ‘Winter of Discontent’. Therefore, it was Thatcher who inherited the turmoil and discontent of the labour unions. Thatcher was opposed to the strikes by unions, which she proclaimed were a threat to ‘liberty’, and dubbed by union strikers as “the enemy within”. Thatcher’s rulership saw the closure of hundreds of coal mines, even those that were not suffering economically, which had devastating effects for entire communities. She was also responsible for the privatising of major industries like gas, water, and electricity. Ironically, it is the private electricity and gas sectors that are to blame for the recession we are faced with today. The paradox of Thatcher as a shopkeeper’s daughter, who implemented some of the most damaging policies for the working class, conveys this ideal of a ‘glass cliff’. The Conservative Party, at the time, sought to crack down on the unions and sought a scapegoat whom they could implement their policies through with minimal damage. After all, Thatcher was replaced by her own Chancellor, John Major, when a leadership contest was launched against her. It could be said Margaret Thatcher was pushed down the ‘glass cliff’ by her party men.
Thatcher indicates how legacies and memory are essential to politics. The memory of a certain leader, especially in the UK system, which favours the two major parties, can impact the perception of the party by the electorate. For example, opposition often remembers and reminds Conservatives of their responsibility for being responsible for national austerity. Despite the discontent held in the collective memory of Thatcher, even Sunak and Truss attempted to model themselves after the Thatcher image. Both minority candidates and finalists in the leadership race sought to present a strong nationalistic figure of themselves.
Truss was dubbed ‘The Darling’ of the right, as she beat Rishi Sunak out in the Conservative leadership contest. She inherited an economy heading for turmoil, dubbed a ‘cost of living crisis’. Thus, it has been argued that Truss was set up for failure; after all, her premiership lasted just over a month. It was her ‘mini-budget’ that ultimately led to her downfall, as it crashed the markets and threatened economic chaos. Truss figured herself a national hero promising to cut national insurance and corporate tax, but unfulfilled promises led to her short tenure in Downing Street. Her proposed £40bn of tax cuts in her mini-budget is what saw the British economy in failure. The Pound collapsed in comparison to the Dollar, as the Bank of England promised to buy up government bonds and save pension funds.
Liz Truss and her failed ‘mini-budget’ indicate how economic failure and female politicians are intrinsically linked. Truss idealised the image of a strong figure of state and sovereignty, and ultimately failed to deliver on the political policies she modelled her nationalism on.
How does Lizz Truss’ premiership represent the Glass Cliff?
Well, Truss inherited a collapsing economy from Boris Johnson, but Johnson was ready to re-run for PM following Truss’ resignation, indicating the ‘saviour effect’ of a man coming to save the economy or state after the failure of women. Much like Thatcher, Truss was replaced by a former Chancellor, in this case, her main competitor, Rishi Sunak. Truss can also be compared to her female predecessor, Theresa May.
May inherited the Brexit crisis from David Cameron and was characterised as ‘weak’ throughout parliament. Her failure to reach a deal in Brexit negotiations is often blamed on her original stance of remaining. Although May herself campaigned for the role, the lack of collaboration and support from her male peers indicates how she was doomed to be a victim of the glass cliff theory.
Liz Truss resigned on October 20, and two days later Giorgia Meloni became the first-ever Female Prime-Minister of Italy. Is Meloni headed towards the same disastrous fate as Truss?
Meloni found her success with the right-wing party, The Brothers of Italy. The name of the party is coined from the Italian National anthem, indicating the nationalistic figure Meloni sought to portray prior to her premiership. The Brothers of Italy emerged as the biggest party in the September election, with neo-fascist roots. Meloni, like Truss, inherited the government after a government crisis, involving the Prime Minister and failure to succeed a vote of no-confidence. After a snap election, Meloni was appointed Italy’s first female Prime Minister by President Sergio Mattarella and went on to form a cabinet.
Much like the UK, the Italian leadership are faced with the issue of soaring inflation and rising energy prices. For example, rising gas prices saw inflation almost triple from an annual rate of 4% at the beginning of 2022, to 11.9% in October 2022. The current vulnerable nature of the Italian economy, and the constant political instability within Italian leadership, means Meloni has her work cut out for her.
Current speculation and budget plans for 2023 are naming Meloni as resilient and prepared, unlike Truss. In her recent announcement Meloni championed her budget as, “courageous, it bets on the future”. Well, Meloni’s budget is definitely courageous, as it allocates over 21 billion euros in tax breaks, in order to aid the payment of energy and gas bills. The average government in Rome lasts only 14 months, so whether Meloni will last her entire term remains to be seen.
One article asserts that the fall of ‘female politicians’ is “more visible because their rises are so visible”, and this is undoubtedly the case. Politicians are public figures bound to be examined and criticised by the electorate, the media and their opponents. No matter which female politician, we examine it can be seen how female politicians often inherit power in times of economic collapse and government turmoil. Expectations are higher, and women become ‘popular’ leaders during times of crisis, often promising tax breaks, and a strong sentient of nationalism. Are female politicians doomed by patriarchy? Or is failure simply a root of failed policy?