- The Washington Times - Saturday, May 13, 2006

Power these days comes in both pink and blue.

Last week’s well-reviewed U.S. tour by German Chancellor Angela Merkel was yet another reminder that political barriers to real power are falling for female leaders — and in some unexpected places.

Mrs. Merkel, elected last fall, is one of a dozen female presidents, prime ministers and chief executives around the world. Britain’s Margaret Beckett made history last week when Prime Minister Tony Blair tapped her as the country’s first female foreign secretary.

Israeli Foreign Minister Tzipi Livni and French Defense Minister Michele Alliot-Marie not only hold key ministerial portfolios, but are both seen as serious candidates for higher office in the near future. Some U.S. political forecasters project an all-distaff 2008 presidential race between Sen. Hillary Rodham Clinton, New York Democrat, and Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice.

“The numbers are definitely on the increase,” said Laura Liswood, secretary-general of the Washington-based Council of Women World Leaders, “and women are increasingly moving intothose key jobs that are the springboard to the top ranks.”

The council was formed a decade ago as a networking group for current and former female heads of government. Membership now totals 34.

Already this year, four women on four continents have become either president or prime minister: President Ellen Johnson-Sirleaf of Liberia, Africa’s first female elected head of state; Chilean President Michelle Bachelet; Jamaican Prime Minister Portia Simpson-Miller; and South Korean Prime Minister Han Myung-sook.

The 12 female chief executives now serving is one short of the record set briefly in July 2002, when Latvia, Finland, New Zealand, Ireland, Sri Lanka, the Philippines, Indonesia, Panama, Bangladesh, Senegal, Sao Tome and Principe, and South Korea all boasted a woman in one of the top slots.

Miss Liswood said that about one-third of the women who have achieved ultimate political power are “legacy leaders” — women who came to office through their fathers, husbands or their ties to a powerful family. A number of South Asian female leaders — from former Indian Prime Minister Indira Gandhi and former Pakistani Prime Minister Benazir Bhutto to Bangladeshi Prime Minister Begum Khaleda Zia and Philippine President Gloria Macapagal Arroyo — originally came to power this way.

While legacy leaders often promote gender equality and women’s issues in their societies, it is the women who rise to the top on their own — from Britain’s Margaret Thatcher to Mrs. Merkel and Mrs. Bachelet — who “really tend to bring with them a sea of change in values and attitudes,” Miss Liswood said.

Mrs. Bachelet, who took office in March, kept a campaign pledge to balance her Cabinet. Women hold half of the ministerial posts in her government and 15 of the 31 subsecretary jobs.

Martin K.I. Christensen, a Danish journalist, has privately compiled what might be the world’s most extensive compendium of women in power. His “Worldwide Guide to Women in Leadership” — found at www.guide2womenleaders.com — is a box score of almost staggering comprehensiveness to the state of female political power.

Mr. Christensen attributes his interest to reading a world history book as a boy about such historical figures as Queen Elizabeth and Catherine the Great.

According to Mr. Christensen’s research, Miss Rice and Britain’s Mrs. Beckett are two of 17 female foreign ministers around the world, while France’s Mrs. Alliot-Marie is part of a more exclusive club of eight female defense and security ministers.

Four countries — Brunei, Russia, the Vatican and North Korea — have no women above the vice ministerial level in government, while two countries — Monaco and Saudi Arabia — have never had a female minister at any level in their history.

With four women (27 percent) in President Bush’s Cabinet, the United States ranks below such European powers as Britain (34 percent), Norway (45 percent), Spain (47 percent) and Austria (50 percent). The prime minister of Mr. Christensen’s native Denmark, Anders Fogh Rasmussen, is male, but women run both the main leftist opposition party and Mr. Rasmussen’s conservative partner in the coalition government.

Miss Liswood said most female chief executives welcome an invitation from the council as a way to make contacts and share the special challenges they face as women. But there have been exceptions.

“Margaret Thatcher never accepted our offer to join,” she said.

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