Sarita Sarvate

Are Americans ready for female leaders?

Wednesday, September 4, 1996



HILLARY-bashing has become an American sport, and even a sneeze from the first lady invites ridicule. The Republican Party, on the other hand, has taken pains to portray Elizabeth Dole, a lawyer and two-time Cabinet member, as a devoted wife — no more.

This clowning of the first lady and downing of the first-lady-aspirant leaves ambitious young American women with few role models. This seems ironic to a woman of the “Third World” such as myself. We natives of South Asia are used to being ruled by women.

India, the world’s largest democracy, had a woman prime minister long before most other nations. But when I pointed this out to my fellow graduate students at UC Berkeley during the late ’70s, I only provoked comments like, “That’s understandable in a society in which class distinctions are more important than gender.”

Such arguments are a pathetic excuse for America’s failure to accept female leaders. A case in point is the recent rash of movies about the American presidency: none portrayed a woman as president.

While Americans debate whether the first lady should play an active role in politics, the daughters and wives of presidents and prime ministers in South Asia have often succeeded to political dynasties. Indira Gandhi practically inherited her position from her father, Jawaharlal Nehru; but family connections only facilitated her access to the position. It was her tenacity in meeting the demands of her job that enabled her to endure in power, and endeared her to millions of people.

WHY do these traditional cultures, often accused of mistreating women, manage to accept women leaders? The separation of private and public cultural norms could be the answer.

The dichotomy of private and public morality goes back to colonial times, when women while observing such orthodox rituals at home as being untouchable during their menstrual cycles attended school, worked as teachers and nurses, and marched in the independence movement.

It is this same separation of private and public life that has enabled countries like India to produce an almost equal number of male and female doctors for the last several decades. Proportions of women in such fields as engineering and science have also been higher than those in America.

While studying physics at the university level in India, I experienced no gender discrimination and was able to avail myself of every academic opportunity. But I lived in a society in which women were not sex symbols. The treatment of professional women was dictated by unwritten codes of conduct. There was no pressure on us to be pretty, to win dates, to be prom queens.

Strict cultural etiquette prevented our high school life from resembling “Beverly Hills, 90210” or “Welcome Back, Kotter”. Freed of sexual politics, we concentrated on our studies and excelled, often within coed Institutions. Feminist leaders here today quote similar reasons while demanding single-sex schools.

The advent of female leaders helped India’s women make the leap from burning on their husband’s funeral pyres to becoming scientists, doctors and engineers, within a half century. Perhaps this is one reason India has allowed legal abortion for decades without political controversy, while American presidential contests remain mired in that issue.

WOMEN like Hillary Clinton and Elizabeth Dole can serve a similar purpose here. They can teach us about their struggles as modern career women as they seek to enlarge women’s so-far negligible influence on American politics.

Dole, in particular, could tell us about sacrifices made for a career. Of these two women, it is Dole who is childless amid who has lived a less traditional life.

If Elizabeth Dole were allowed to be herself, I suspect the Republican Party would benefit.

San Leandro resident Sarita Sarvate is a native of India, an American citizen and a senior economist for the California Public Utilities Commission.