Dorit Geva: Women Political Leaders and Kinship Ties
Kinship ties may have a strong influence on which women rise to power. In the following interview with Stephanie Marudas, Dorit Geva speaks about the dynamics affecting female candidates and politicians across the globe, with a special emphasis on Latin America. Geva contributed an article to the July 2011 volume of The Annals, “Patrimonial Power in the Modern World,” in which she explores the topics of conscription and patriarchalism at the local level in Modern France. A trained sociologist, Dorit Geva is a Harper Schmidt Fellow and collegiate assistant professor within the University of Chicago’s Society of Fellows. A podcast and transcript of her interview are below.
Stephanie Marudas: In your recent article in The Annals volume on patrimonial power in the modern world, you make the case that family ties continue to shape who holds political power. Tell us more about that.
Dorit Geva: Well, I think that there is a conventional wisdom in I would say both sociology, political science, that especially emerged I would say in terms of American political science in the fifties and sixties but I think at least dates as far back as the work of Max Weber who really figures very centrally in the patrimonialism volume, which argues, or which assumes that political power, particularly in the developed world, has become detached from dynastic ties or family ties. And of course we know of all kinds of exceptions. If we really stopped to think about it, certainly in the United States, probably the Kennedys would be the most prominent example. But I think what has become apparent in the last several years is that there are more and more very prominent female candidates who are starting to benefit from these family ties and who are doing quite well in electoral politics, reaching the very highest positions sometimes as presidents or prime minister. So this is what I am talking about, that familial networks continue to persist and in terms of enabling individuals to enter into electoral politics, and I think perhaps of greater interest, at least to me, is that such figures are also understood in many cases to be legitimate political figures. So it is not just the case that despite familial ties somebody, like let us say Hillary Clinton, has managed to run for the presidency but sometimes, in fact, that those very ties add a kind of legitimacy to someone’s candidacy.
SM: So in the case of Hillary Clinton, Elizabeth Dole, even Nancy Pelosi, they all have familial ties to politicians. Hillary Clinton obviously Bill Clinton; Elizabeth Dole, her husband Bob Dole; Nancy Pelosi grew up from a family of mayors, her father was the mayor of Baltimore, then her brother. So they were tapped into this political sphere and as you pointed out before, that gives perhaps some legitimacy to them seeking office?
DG: Yes, I think so. But it is a change and I think looking at somebody like Hillary Clinton it is quite interesting because I think in the course of her own political career we can see a transformation, even from the nineties to the most recent election cycle in the United States. Her entrance into the position of being the First Lady of the United States was very fraught and many people saw her as overstepping the boundaries of what a First Lady should be doing and yet after that, after being publicly chastised for overstepping these boundaries, she made, I think, an incredibly smooth transition into electoral politics in her own right. I mean it was not particularly difficult for her to run to be a Senator for the state of New York, she won those elections with ease and then catapulted quite quickly into really the center of national politics in the United States. It is hard to know what would have happened had she tried that four years earlier or eight years earlier or twelve years earlier, but it is a pretty big difference to observe the difference of how she was treated as First Lady and the amount of criticism she received versus her ability to transform herself very easily into a political actor in her own right. It is hard to imagine somebody like Eleanor Roosevelt, for example, doing the same thing, having the same career trajectory. So we are witnessing a transformation. It did not just start four or five years ago, but I think it has really gained momentum in recent years.
SM: What is perhaps pushing this transformation?
DG: It is an interesting marriage between the longstanding place of kinship networks in electoral politics and its marriage with feminism. I guess this is becoming a more and more visible phenomenon. I was amazed to read in the most recent edition of The Economist an entire article about this very topic, and the title of the article is “Women in Political Dynasties.” That particular article is quite concerned about this phenomenon because it ultimately sees the persistence of political dynasties as a threat to political democracies. But I think it is an interesting question for feminists, is this a good thing or is this a bad thing? But without a doubt, there is a transformation in terms of the legitimacy of female political figures in and of themselves, I think a surprising neutralization of marriage in particular as a way for women to catapult themselves into the national limelight and there are multiple examples of this, I mean, Christina Fernandez in Argentina, in the most recent Thai elections Yingluck Shinawatra.
And I think by the same token, the flip-side of that is also why I think increasing acknowledgment that male political figures are in some cases married to female figures who are extremely capable and have a lot to do with the male political figures’ political success. This was a thinly veiled secret in the case of the Clintons; in fact, I do not even think we could call it a thinly veiled secret. Certainly there were critics of Bill Clinton, who chose to seize on that as a kind of emasculation. But I think, you know, the flip-side of it is it is quite interesting that it, I would say, on the whole did not de-legitimize Bill Clinton as a strong president, a powerful figure. So there is certainly a transformation in terms of not just the understanding of what a strong female political figure entails, but I think also what lies behind a strong male political figure. It goes both ways. You find this phenomenon just all over the world at this point, in every continent. It seems to be particularly strong in Latin America but not exclusively so.
SM: And let us talk about Latin America, where this phenomenon plays out. You mentioned Christina Fernandez. Tell us about her situation and some other political leaders.
DG: Christina Fernandez is currently the President of Argentina and she is now the widow of the former president of Argentina. And that was a case where they succeeded in directly transferring power from him to her because there were no electoral laws that prevented that possibility.
The case of Guatemala, what I am currently looking at, has turned out to be more complicated. The current President of Guatemala, Alvaro Colom, has reached the end of his presidency and his wife, Sandra Torres, is a very powerful figure who is widely acknowledged as actually having implemented one of the most successful programs of that presidency, which is instituting a welfare program that had not existed prior to this presidency and nobody denies the fact that she was really the brains and, well, everything behind that operation in terms of putting it into place. And so it has also been widely acknowledged for a long time that she is a person with a lot of political ambitions. What complicates her political trajectory is that the Guatemalan constitution disallows a next-of-kin of an existing president to run for presidency themselves. So there were attempts in the new Guatemalan constitution to make sure that transparency would be institutionalized in electoral politics, so to prevent basically these kinds of kinship networks to supposedly sully the electoral process. And so the result of that is that Sandra Torres declared several months ago that she is divorcing from her husband. And it is a little unclear at this point whether he really agrees with this tactic or not, because there were some interviews prior to that where he expressed that he himself thought that it was a somewhat extreme measure. But in any case they are divorced. However, the divorce has been contested as a form of legislative fraud and she has, at least of the most recent news, lost any appeal to try to overturn that ruling. So it looks like, in fact, she cannot run for president though there is still one last court she can try to appeal to. So that is the most recent event in Guatemala, but she is not the only female figure here who has family relations that tie her to past politics, so there is another figure, Zury Rios Montt, whose father was the former dictator Ephraim Rios Montt, and she herself is also running in the current elections.
Another case is Keiko Fujimori, most recently in Peru, who just lost a presidential runoff election but was one of the last two candidates to run for presidency. That is just a sampling of what is going on here.
Not to say that all female candidates here in Latin America are tied to either fathers or husbands or former husbands. Specifically here in Guatemala, there is probably the best-known figure internationally is Rigoberta Menchú who is a Nobel Laureate. She received the Nobel Peace Prize in 1992 and she is an indigenous Guatemalan woman. When she ran in 2007 she received something like three percent of the vote. And she is a figure who, thanks to her own very unique trajectory, is somebody who has managed to enter our international politics. So, as I said, it is certainly not the only means.
Probably the most prominent example internationally of a female president from Latin America is Michelle Bachelet from Chile, although it should be noted that her father, in fact, was a well-known figure; not that he was in electoral politics, he was a military general. But when she entered into Chilean politics she certainly was known to come from a prominent Chilean family with the right political profile.
SM: So here we have, in Latin America, you have given us a lot of examples of women getting onto the national political scene. Contrast that to the United States, where some would argue this is a progressive country, yet female politicians are still very much part of the minority of who is represented in our political spheres. So what is happening perhaps in Latin America, as a case example, why women are able to rise further up the ranks there and to get onto the national political scene where in the United States it took us this long to get Hillary Clinton as a serious front runner for President of the United States. What is going on here, perhaps?
DG: It is not entirely clear what is going on. I would hypothesize that this is related to transparent political institutions. The case of Guatemala, for example, is certainly one where political institutions are neither transparent nor stable. And not just kinship networks, I mean all kinds of networks operate in such a way that the presidency, the constitutional courts, members of Congress often enter into politics through preexisting networks that are secretive, are not subject to media scrutiny, and certainly not subject to electoral scrutiny. So it is not all good news. This is, I think, one of the paradoxes of this phenomenon that on the one hand it is impressive that in a state like Guatemala there are these very prominent female political figures. On the other hand it might well be that the structural conditions of weak institutions are precisely what enable this phenomenon to occur. So perhaps we can see this in some senses as good news about durable transparent political institutions in the United States.
Having said that, it is also notable that some of the earlier women who became national leaders really came out first in the developing world. So the most prominent examples I can think of would be Sonia Gandhi in India and Benazir Bhutto in Pakistan. Again, we can ask ourselves about where in those states there are really transparent political institutions, or is it the case that political parties in particular are organized around specific dynastic ties. And I would say in India and Pakistan it is quite clear that it is the latter and that it has enabled some female political figures to really take on front stage national leadership. So I think this is a story about institutions, I mean in addition to the story about feminism and the legitimacy of female political figures, there is also a story about the persistence of dynastic ties and the failure of political institutions to really create transparency in the political process.
SM: You touched on it earlier, not all female politicians come to power because of kinship ties, and I want to talk about those particular women who do come to power without any familial ties. Are they at a disadvantage? I mean obviously they get there but compared to somebody who has that familial tie, how do they compare? And even to perhaps their male counterparts that do not have any familial ties?
DG: I think they probably are at a disadvantage. In the past, research on women in politics, let us say specifically in the United States, has focused more on the some of the typical trajectories for women to enter into politics, which often was entering into politics relatively late in life and often through some sort of local activism such as budget cuts to a local school, involvement in school politics or neighborhood politics. So issues that cut literally close to home, which then lead a person, a woman, to realize that in fact she is very politically capable and also likes it. And then continuing a trajectory of rising into electoral politics. The former Governor of Texas, Ann Richards was an example of this. So it was probably a slower, I would say a slower process and one where often these women would be surprised, in fact, by their own interest and success in politics. You know, figures like … of course somebody like Hillary Clinton, another example in France, actually in contemporary France. Marine Le Pen, the daughter of Jean-Marie Le Pen, also who has taken over her father’s party, is precisely an example who right from her adolescence was really raised within the party. I mean, she is a fish in water. These are the kinds of advantages that on the one hand they can be quantified if necessary but they are really unquantifiable, I mean in terms of connections, networks, understanding the dynamics of fundraising, how to handle the media, so the learning curve is very quick for these kinds of figures. And, yes, surely that is an advantage. That is absolutely an advantage. Looking back at the first elections when Hillary Clinton ran to be a senator of the state of New York, she proved to be just incredibly adept at running for office in ways that the young Republican candidate, Rick Lazio, could not keep up with her. And this had everything to do with not just her experience but also ties, fundraising. There was no real contest in that election and I think that is a case in point, precisely an example of a male rookie versus somebody like Hillary Clinton.
SM: So, at the end of the day, we see this global phenomenon that familial ties are a part of the political system as much as The Annals volume makes the point that while we have open, transparent political systems it is still there.
DG: It is very much still there. And I think what we do not understand is why is it more there in some places as opposed to other places. So I have pointed out earlier that probably one of the factors is weak political institutions, low transparency, which enables preexisting ties to really operate in a way that is outside the public eye, but I think there could be other factors [that] are just open questions at this point, such as in a party-list system. It might be the case that in a party-list system, where a party organizes a list of its candidates in descending order and depending on the number of seats they get in Parliament, then they sort of descend in the list of the party seats. So if, say, a party gets eighteen seats in Parliament then the top eighteen candidates in that list would then be members of Parliament. I think it is quite possible that all that kind of, in that kind of system, the behind-the-scene negotiations that go on within a party, it is possible that networks matter much more and it might be the case that female political figures can emerge higher in a party list. We just do not know. I think these are open questions at this point. Similarly might it be that in a first past the post system, female political figures fare worse? There is general research about in which kind of systems female figures do better and worse, but I think what really has not been factored into this research is well, how much do ties matter in these difficult kinds of political systems. And so those finer-grain distinctions between not just countries where there is a distinction between clear, durable institutions versus unstable, less transparent institutions, but also different types of electoral systems; within those electoral systems how do these kinship networks play out. And that is unclear at this point. I certainly cannot give you the answer and to the best of my knowledge nobody else can give the answer at this point.
SM: What got you interested in doing this type of research?
DG: Much to my own surprise I ended up doing a lot of research on conscription systems in France and the United States and so the article that is in The Annalsvolume really focuses on the case of French conscription. And without really realizing it, it took me back to this Weberian literature on types of political legitimacy and a narrative of political modernization, which I realized is an inaccurate narrative of political modernization, that narrative being the narrative that family ties have declined as grounds for political legitimacy in the developed world. So then once I realized that, once I raised that as a question, and once I started to understand contemporary politics as actually being very much shaped by family ties, I started realizing that all around me there were all these news stories, really, that I was watching about an election in Peru, political party dramas in France, Hillary Clinton in the United States, Keiko Fujimori in Peru, and started putting two and two together and realizing that something old and new was going on and that, in fact, this phenomenon was fitting into questions that I was already asking about the nature of contemporary politics but with this really interesting twist of the success of feminism in certain senses and the success of feminism in that it has enabled female politicians to hold very high positions, but also in ways that I think feminists never would have envisioned. I do not think that there were any claims in the 1960s, for example, so let us say with second- or third-wave feminism there were really arguments that women should be taken seriously as figures in their own right, whether it be at work, home, or in the political sphere. And I think what is quite surprising about this recent phenomenon is that in fact women are doing quite well in some cases thanks to marital alliances. I mean, it sounds almost like early modern Europe when it is described in those terms, but that is what is interesting. It is in some senses, it echoes some of the marital alliances that we would associate with aristocratic regimes in the Netherlands, in the U.K.
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