Doing it for themselves

It has already been dubbed “doing a Hillary [Clinton]’‘. Ana Botella, the striking wife of Spanish Prime Minister José Maria Aznar, this month announced she’s standing for election as a city councillor in Madrid for the ruling centre-right Popular Party.

Not surprisingly, the press is fascinated and hyping Botella as a future star.
Some are even speculating that she is being groomed as a future prime minister herself. Her husband’s second term of office comes to an end in 2004 and he is not planning to run for re-election. Time then, for Botella to have her share of the limelight?

It is not as though Botella (49) is new to politics. She has been active in the Popular Party for 20 years. She is already known as a campaigner on social issues and often travels the country on speaking tours.

“She’s a born politician,’’ one Popular Party minister is quoted as saying. But was she born one, or was she turned into one by watching her husband and working on his election campaigns?

One Spanish journalist is sceptical, saying: “The moon reflects the sun. It has no light of its own. Let’s see if the moon shines on after the sun has gone.’’

But maybe Botella is the sun herself — she is certainly said by some to be more charismatic and outgoing than her husband. Yet even if she did make it to the big time, would it always be said that she was there because of her husband’s name, not her own ability?

Though Botella is following a trodden political path, it isn’t well-trodden — the footprints don’t run particularly deep. The eyes of the world are watching to see whether Hillary Clinton will, one day, return to the White House, this time as the boss herself. Having already been elected as a senator for New York, Clinton can claim to have stepped out of her husband’s shadow.

She is said not to want to think of running for president until 2008, but that hasn’t stopped a small “draft Hillary’’ campaign among some Democrats who are depressed by the quality of the field around for 2004. They clearly want to trade on the Clinton name, but Hillary will need more than that. After all, she has already made a regiment of enemies out there, simply for not always looking a million dollars and for speaking out when she wasn’t elected.

According to United States political scientist Jo Freeman, Clinton has defied the tradition of political wives whose status rises and falls with that of her husband: “While taking advantage of the name, she struck out on her own even before her husband left the presidency.’’

Yet, says Freeman, women are more likely to succeed in politics in the US if they are widows rather than wives. She points out that of the first 14 women elected to Congress (between 1916 and 1932) six were widows of incumbents and three were daughters of famous political men. While widowhood is no longer the stepping stone for political office it once was, “it still doesn’t hurt,’’ concludes Freeman.

Certainly, the most successful leaders to have succeeded their husbands have been widows, not wives — the sympathy vote playing some part at least in their initial triumphs.

Remember Cory Aquino of the Philippines, who entered active politics only after her husband, Ninoy, was murdered while he was leader of the opposition in 1983?

Cory Aquino later became president, seeing off Ferdinand Marcos, and with him years of martial law in the Philippines. She survived seven coup attempts, but by the end of her first term wasn’t able to gather enough support in Parliament to achieve a second.

Similarly, Sonia Gandhi, widow of the former Indian prime minister, Rajiv Gandhi, was persuaded into politics some years after his assassination in 1991. Sonia was Italian-born and bred, but she had one huge asset: the Gandhi name.

Though she lived the life of a virtual recluse for six years after his death, she did eventually agree to let her name go forward, becoming president of the Congress Party, though never prime minister herself.

Paradoxically, the one female leader who did outshine her husband, Eva Peron, was never actually elected. Immortalised in Andrew Lloyd Webber’s musical Evita, Eva married Juan Domingo Peron in 1945 and became first lady of Argentina six months later.

It was through her work for women’s rights and the descamisados (the shirtless poor) that she became famous, coining the phrase “I want to be the queen of your hearts’‘.

Though Juan Peron remained president, after her early death at the age of 33, it was he who basked in her reflected glory.

At the very top, it’s clear that the semi-official role of first lady gives women an entrée into the political world that other female politicians can only dream of. It’s expected that she will spend her time meeting dignitaries and diplomats, the party hierarchy and the fundraisers too. It is the same story for the less famous.

In the United Kingdom, the tradition of women going into politics after their husbands goes back to Nancy Astor, the first woman MP. Her second husband, Waldorf Astor, had been the Tory MP for Plymouth Sutton. When he was elevated to the House of Lords, after his father’s death, Nancy decided to stand as a candidate in the by-election, and won the seat.

In recent years, Llin Golding succeeded her husband, the late John Golding, as MP for Newcastle-under-Lyme, while Anne Cryer entered Parliament as MP for Keighley just a year after her husband Bob Cryer’s untimely death in a car crash.

The push to enter politics came from her daughter: “You’ve been virtually doing the job for 29 years as a backroom girl,’’ she said, “why not go up front for once? If you don’t, you’ll regret it all your life.’’

That, perhaps, is the key to all. Political wives, whether officially or unofficially, are, to an extent, doing the job anyway. It’s a rare partner who doesn’t join in the electioneering, know the constituency bigwigs and understand the strange ways of the political backrooms. And in a job where there’s no official apprenticeship, perhaps learning by watching your partner is the best training you can get.

Women are traditionally not brought up to enjoy public speaking, to play an audience. Yet where better to learn the tricks of oratory, to find out what works and what doesn’t, to know where and when the knives in your back may be coming from, than to watch your partner at close hand? What’s changing now, is women’s desire to say, “Hey, I can do that, I’ll have a go.’‘

For anyone who wants to see more women in politics, this is the real point. Women are becoming more vocal and self-confident in the workplace and are less likely to have large numbers of children — and, when they are mothers, are finally getting a little more help from their partners. The truth is that if the arrival of women at the top of politics depends upon accidents of marriage — if it requires them to learn the dark skills by watching their husbands, there will only ever be a few of them. The breakthrough requires much larger social changes and first-generation female politicians doing it for themselves. Perhaps it is less about the sun and the moon, and more about the rise of new stars. — Â

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