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Electing a woman leader – a long and winding road

The fight for the post of leader of the ruling Conservative Party in Britain and for the Presidency of the United States is bringing the question of women and race into sharp focus.

The fact that women – and non-white women – are strong contenders for leadership, in Britain and the US, demonstrates a remarkable advance in both countries, where women endured many indignities, including imprisonment, in the fight for equality of treatment and the right to compete with men for any and all positions.

The active involvement of non-white women is an even greater indication of the maturing political elite in these countries, although real equity and equality is yet to be achieved.

In Britain, the election of Margaret Thatcher and Theresa May to the leadership of the Conservative Party and the Prime Ministership, smashed that glass ceiling.

A white woman becoming leader and Prime Minister is no longer an issue for the Conservative Party. But the issue of a non-white woman, becoming party leader and Prime Minister, still might be. Among the 8 candidates who sought the leadership of the Conservative Party, after Boris Johnson was forced to announce his intention to step down, four were women of whom two are non-white – Kemi Badenoch and Suella Braverman.

Badenoch parents are Nigerian. She was elected to parliament in 2017 and has served in three government positions, the most recent one being Minister of State for Local Government, Faith and Communities and Minister of State for Equalities. Despite her immigrant background (or maybe, because of it), she voted for Britain to leave the European Union, describing it as “the greatest ever vote of confidence in the project of the United Kingdom”.

Braverman is the child of immigrants of Indian origin; her father and mother moved to Britain from Kenya and Mauritius respectively. Despite this, she was also strongly in favour of Britain leaving the EU. As Attorney-General of England and Wales from 2020, until she too resigned to run for the top Conservative Party post, she pledged to withdraw Britain from the European Convention on Human Rights, to “stop the small boats” and crack down on refugees crossing the English Channel. She also expressed the intention to abandon climate change action in its entirety.

Countries which are victims of Climate Change must have breathed a sigh of relief when Braverman was eliminated from the leadership contest. Her departure leaves only Badenoch as the non-white woman in the race, which has whittled down to 5 candidates, and appears to be heading to a showdown between a white woman, Penny Mordaunt – the current Minister of Trade – and a man of Asian origin, Rishi Sunak, the former Treasury Minister.

Badenoch is likely to be eliminated in the next round of voting but, depending on which of the remaining contenders she backs, she could place herself in position for a senior Cabinet post.

The winner of the vote for the Conservative Party leadership will be decided on September 5, when one of the final two contestants will be chosen by about 180,000 Conservative Party members from across the country. That group will consist mostly of white males. Their choice will be between a non-white man and a white woman. Their decision will be a telling measure of how far the Conservative Party has gone in overcoming racial bigotry on the one hand and prejudice against women on the other.

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It is remarkable that the leadership of the Labour Party in Britain, long the favoured party of immigrants, especially from the West Indies, remains firmly male dominant. Although of its 200 elected members, 104 are women of whom 41 are non- white, the leadership is mostly white and male.

In the United States, although 9 other non-white women have run for President on behalf of obscure political parties, only two were seriously considered.

Shirley Chisholm sought the Democratic Party nomination in 1972 and Kamala Harris in 2020. They were both eliminated. And while, many white women contested for nominations as Vice President, only two of them were selected – Geraldine Anne Ferraro in 1984 for the Democratic Party and Sarah Palin in 2008 for the Republicans. Kamala Harris was the first woman of any colour to be selected as Vice President.

Campaigning for the 2024 Presidential elections has already started among the political elite and kingmakers in the US. So far, Kamala Harris and Elizabeth Cheney of the Republican party look like contenders, but neither of them is a foregone conclusion to win the nomination of their parties.

In the Caribbean, while five women have held the post of head of government in Dominica, Guyana, Barbados, Jamaica and Trinidad and Tobago. But considering women for party and government leadership is not a norm in the Caribbean.

Eugenia Charles of Dominica, Janet Jagan of Guyana, Mia Mottley of Barbados, Kamla Persad Bissessar and Portia Simpson Miller were exceptions. They were strong personalities with deep involvement in electoral politics in their countries, but, more so, in the politics within their own political parties.

All five women endured slurs and other calumnies to achieve leadership of their parties and countries. In large part, what aided their triumph over male contempt was their political grit – a much needed quality for women in politics.

Of course, in other parts of the world, for instance India, Israel, Chile, Australia, Pakistan, Sri Lanka, Germany and Sweden, women have been elected as Party leaders and Heads of Government; but unlike the US and Britain, these women did not have to overcome racial prejudice as well.

Progress is being made in breaking down institutional bias against women in international politics, but male bigotry and racial prejudice remains alive and well in domestic politics. It may well be the determining factor in the Conservative Party’s vote for a new leader and Prime Minister, and for the Presidential contenders in the US.

The road to true equality remains long with many a winding turn.

Sir Ronald Sanders is Antigua and Barbuda’s Ambassador to the United States of America and the Organisation of American States. He is also a Senior Fellow at the Institute of Commonwealth Studies, University of London and Massey College in the University of Toronto