Even with all the uncertainty around the U.K.’s post-Brexit future, one thing is clear: Britain will soon be led by a woman, its first female prime minister since Margaret Thatcher left office in 1990.
Theresa May, who like Thatcher is a member of the Conservative party, is set to fill the position now that her sole rival for Prime Minister, fellow Conservative member Andrea Leadsom, has dropped out of the race.
Female heads of state have become common everywhere, it seems, but in the United States. Hillary Clinton made history this spring, as the (presumptive) first female presidential candidate of a major U.S. political party. While this is an historic moment for the U.S., more than 70 countries can boast that a woman has held the position of president or prime minister, many of those in Europe and Asia.
One major caveat: It is particularly difficult for a woman to be elected president, as opposed to being appointed prime minister, especially in countries like the U.S. where the head of government and head of state are not distinct entities.
As Farida Jalalzai, a professor at Oklahoma State University explained to Vox, “almost never do women actually win their election contest when they’re running for presidencies.”
There are many reasons for this. In a parliamentary system of government, citizens typically vote for political parties, not individuals, and the parties appoint the leader, making it somewhat easier for a woman—who may not necessarily exhibit “presidential” (read: male) characteristics that appeal to voters—to lead the government. When women are elected by the people, the role of president is often a figurehead role, without the power to effect lasting policy change.
A second caveat: Many countries’ female leaders were in office for, at times, just a few days, and often less than a year, as interim presidents. Rosalía Arteaga Serrano, for example, was acting president of Ecuador for just two days. So, while over 70 countries have had a female head of state or government at some point, we are spotlighting women who were elected directly by the people and/or were in office for a substantial period of time, or are for some other reason notable.
That’s not to say there haven’t been other impressive leaders with two X chromosomes. Argentina’s Isabel Martínez de Perón has been designated the first modern female president of any country in the world. She came to hold the country’s most powerful office in 1974, after her husband Juan Perón, the president for whom she served as vice president, died in office. Unlike most of the countries that have had a female leader, Argentina had a second, Cristina Fernández de Kirchner, who served as president from December 2007 to December 2015.
Khertek Anchimaa-Tokathe became the chair of the presidium of Little Khural, the head of state for the Tuvan People’s Republic (a partially recognized independent state), in 1940, the first female in the modern era not to inherit the top title.
Other countries who have had female leaders: Taiwan, Nepal (Bidhya Devi Bhandari), Croatia (Kolinda Grabar-Kitarović), Turkey (Tansu Çiller), Bangladesh (Sheikh Hasina, Khaleda Zia), New Zealand (Helen Clark), Mozambique (Luisa Diogo), and many more.
Sirimavo Bandaranaike: Sri Lanka
Sirimavo Bandaranaike served as Prime Minister of Ceylon and Sri Lanka three times, the first from 1960 to 1965, earning her the designation of the first female head of government in the modern world. She also served from 1970 to 1977, and from 1994 to 2000. Her daughter, Chandrika Kumaratunga, would go on to become the first female president of Sri Lanka, from 1994 to 2005. She was not elected by the people, but rather appointed by the Sri Lanka Freedom Party, which her husband, Solomon Bandaranaike, previously prime minister of Sri Lanka, had founded.
Indira Gandhi: India
Indira Gandhi served as Prime Minister of India from 1966 to 1977, and then again from 1980 until 1984, when she was assassinated. She is to date India’s only female Prime Minister.
To say India’s first female PM was polarizing is an understatement. During her 15 years in office, she took steps to nationalize the country’s banks, went to war with Pakistan (establishing Bangladesh), and held a 21-month state of emergency, where she led by decree, jailed political opponents, and censored the press.
After she was killed by two of her Sikh bodyguards, riots broke out across the country, and thousands of Sikhs were murdered.
(India has also boasted a female president, Pratibha Patil, who served from 2007 to 2012. The role of the president, however, is largely a figurehead, with no real power.)
Golda Meir: Israel
The modern state of Israel was not established until 1948, but it took the country far less time to elect its first female leader than most others. Golda Meir served as prime minister from 1969 to 1974, when she resigned. Meir was elected by her party to be the successor to Prime Minister Levi Eshkol, who died in office.
As the Jewish Women’s Archive notes, despite her visibility and importance to Israeli history, Meir, like Margaret Thatcher and plenty of other female leaders, was not necessarily a huge advocate of women while she in office — though she did acknowledge the gendered perceptions of her contemporaries. After David Ben-Gurion, the founder and former prime minister of Israel, called her “the only man” in his cabinet, Meir wrote in her autobiography:
Margaret Thatcher: The United Kingdom
Margaret Thatcher was elected prime minister of the United Kingdom in 1979, a position she held until 1990, when she resigned amid pressure from her own party. Thatcher was the first woman to lead a political party in the U.K., and, thus far, the only female prime minister.
Despite her notable place in women’s history, Thatcher’s status as a feminist role model and proponent of women is decidedly mixed. She appointed just one woman to her cabinet in 11 years and did little to promote women’s issues while in power, according to her critics. As Hadley Freeman, an opinion writer for The Guardian, put it at the time of Thatcher’s death in 2013, “Far from ‘smashing the glass ceiling‘, she was the aberration, the one who got through and then pulled the ladder up right after her.” Thatcher herself is quoted as saying, “I owe nothing to women’s lib.”
But for others, the conservative politician is an indisputable role model for women. “She believed in her own ability and wasn’t going to let being a woman and having young children stop her. She was an extraordinary pioneer, one of the first professional women to have children, get a nanny and go straight back to work,” John Campbell, Thatcher’s biographer, told Stylist.
“She smashed the idea that a woman couldn’t be tough in foreign policy, or keep control of her government, that a woman would cry or spontaneously menstruate at the first sign of political pressure,” Claire Berlinski, author of There Is No Alternative: Why Margaret Thatcher Matters, told Stylist.
Vigdís Finnbogadóttir: Iceland
Vigdís Finnbogadóttir was Iceland’s, and Europe’s, first female president, not to mention the world’s first democratically elected female president. She served from 1980 to 1996, making her the longest-serving, elected female head of state ever. (Interestingly, she was also the first single woman to adopt a child in Iceland, according to Iceland Mag.)
Though she garnered just 33.6% of the vote in the first election she won, she became so popular that she won unopposed in 1984, with 94.6% of the vote four years later, and unopposed again in 1992. She is, to-date, Iceland’s only female president (Iceland has also had a female prime minister, Jóhanna Sigurðardóttir, also the world’s first openly gay female head of state).
The country itself is often heralded as a beacon of gender equality: It became the first government to have an equal number of men and women in office, in 2009, and ranked #1 on the World Economic Forum’s Gender Equality Index in 2015.
“I am also glad that I have been able to help give women self-confidence in Iceland. They come to me, and they say ‘for all of these years, you have been a role model for me.’ They tell me they think ‘if she could do it, I can do it.’ This makes me very happy,” Finnbogadóttir told The Toolbox.
Gro Harlem Brundtland: Norway
Gro Harlem Brundtland, originally a doctor, became Norway’s first female prime minister in 1981, but remained in office less than a year. However, she later became PM twice more, first from 1986 until 1989, and then from 1990 to 1996, when she resigned.
During her second term in office, Brundtland became known for the large number of women in her cabinet: 8 of the 18 positions were held by women, a record. Beyond breaking Norway’s glass ceiling, Brundtland is considered the “mother of sustainability,” and has led many environmental efforts, including as the Director General of the World Health Organization and chairman of the U.N. commission on the environment in October 1984.
In an interview for The Elders, an organization for which Brundtland is deputy chair, she addressed the difficulties of being the first female head of government:
Corazon C. Aquino: Philippines
Corazon Aquino became the first female president of the Philippines (and in all of Asia) in 1986. She was instrumental in the 1986 People Power Revolution, which cast out authoritarian president Ferdinand E. Marcos after 20 years, restoring democracy to the Philippines in the process.
She was Time magazine’s “Woman of the Year” in 1986, one of just four women who have held the honor on their own. As Time wrote, Aquino, a “widowed housewife who avenges her husband’s death by overthrowing the regime widely blamed for his murder,” holds a unique place in history. Her husband, Benigno Aquino, an opposition leader, was assassinated in 1983. Amid a fracturing party, Aquino ran against the dictator to uphold her husband’s promise of democracy.
Benazir Bhutto: Pakistan
Benazir Bhutto became the democratically elected Prime Minister of Pakistan 1988, and served two non-consecutive terms, from 1988 to 1990 and then from 1993 to 1996, making her the first democratically elected female leader of a majority Islamic nation.
Both of Bhutto’s administrations were dismissed by the presidents of the time, amid resentment, accusations of corruption, and an attempted coup. She went into exile in Dubai, but later returned to Pakistan, where she once again ran for office in 2007. She was assassinated in December of that year, having survived a previous assassination attempt.
Bina Shah wrote in The New York Times in 2014, “As with that of many political icons, Ms. Bhutto’s sudden death left a void in both leadership and inspiration; no politician in Pakistan has been able to fill it.” Shah continues,
Mary Robinson: Ireland
Mary Robinson served as the first female President of Ireland from 1990 to 1997. She resigned just months before the end of her tenure to take up a post as the United Nations High Commissioner for Human Rights, a position she held until 2002. Unlike other countries represented in this list, Robinson’s successor was also a woman, Mary McAleese, the first female president to succeed another female president.
According to the Elders, a humanitarian organization, Robinson was a transformative leader who fought for women’s rights during her time in office. “A firm believer in dialogue and reconciliation, she broke taboos by being the first Irish head of state to make official visits to Britain, as well as regularly visiting Northern Ireland,” their site reads. She is credited with reshaping the role of the president in Ireland.
Robinson was an early supporter of legalizing the birth control pill and gay rights in Ireland, according to the Irish Post. After she was elected, she said, “I was elected by the women of Ireland, who instead of rocking the cradle, rocked the system.”
Angela Merkel: Germany
Angela Merkel has been the Chancellor of Germany since 2005, the first woman to hold the post. In 2007 Merkel was President of the European Council and chaired the G8.
As our sister publication Time declared when it named her 2016’s Person of the Year (one of four women to individually hold the title), Merkel, the leader of Europe’s most prosperous and populated country and fourth largest global economy, is considered by many to be the leader of the European Union. “No one in Europe has held office longer—or to greater effect—in a world defined by steadily receding barriers,” Time writes. Forbes ranked Angela Merkel the Most Powerful Woman in the World in June for the sixth year in a row.
While previously she has said she would not describe herself as a feminist, last year she made the empowerment of women and girls a focal point of the G7 Summit that took place in Germany. In an article to the Globe and Mail, Merkel wrote,
Last year, Germany passed a law requiring certain companies to give 30% of board seats to women. “We can’t afford to forgo the competence of women,” Merkel said back in 2014, according to Bloomberg.
Ellen Johnson Sirleaf: Liberia
Ellen Johnson Sirleaf was elected president of Liberia in 2006, and holds the post to this day. She is the first elected female head of state in Africa.
According to Forbes, Sirleaf “was able to negotiate settlements, rebuild infrastructure, and lift sanctions; she was also considered a strong proponent of equal rights for women” during her decade as president of the war-torn country. Back in 2010, the New York Times doubled down on Sirleaf’s role as an advocate for women, saying “she doesn’t hesitate in declaring that women make better leaders. Women lead more than a quarter of her ministries.”
“Women are more committed,” Sirleaf told the NYT. “Women work harder, and women are more honest; they have less reasons to be corrupt.”
Dilma Rousseff: Brazil
Dilma Rousseff has been Brazil’s president since 2011, the first female to be elected president there. Since May, her presidential powers have been on hold as the Senate holds impeachment proceedings against her based on allegations that she manipulated the government’s accounts in 2014, according to the BBC. Separately, a Petrobras scandal continues to plague her administration.
The scandals and political upheaval shaking Brazil came just over a year after Rousseff was elected for a second term in office. Even before the allegations of misconduct, Rousseff had a complicated relationship with feminists in her country. The Telegraph reports that many feminists “believe [Rousseff] was elected not on merit but as her male predecessor’s handpicked heiress.” Yet Rousseff passed a law setting tougher punishments for femicide, as well as one that made abortions (which are illegal in Brazil) legal for victims of rape.
Rousseff maintains that she had no knowledge of the budgetary book-cooking.
Park Geun-hye: South Korea
Park Geun-hye is the current President of South Korea. She was first elected in 2013.
Park’s father also served as president of South Korea for almost two decades. Both he and Park’s mother were killed while he was in office. Park ran for President promising to unite the country and address the North; however, relations with Pyongyang have continued to be tense.
Park’s conservative party recently lost its majority in Parliament, leaving many to wonder if she will be a “lame duck” president for the two years left in her presidency.