On 20 January 2021, Kamala Harris will make history. At noon on that day, she will become the first female Vice-President of the United States. The fact that she is a black woman of mixed heritage only adds to the momentousness of this moment.
But Kamala Harris is not the first woman to smash a ceiling made of toughened glass. Here are some other women who broke boundaries, defied norms and helped to advance the cause of women in politics.
On 1 August 1980, Vigdís Finnbogadóttir became the President of Iceland. She was not only Iceland’s first, and to date only, female leader, she was also the first woman to be elected head of state anywhere in the world.
Elected on plurality-only (meaning she received the most votes, but not an outright majority), the Icelandic public were initially fairly sceptical of Finnbogadóttir. However, she soon won widespread support, becoming extremely popular and going on to win another two terms. By the time she retired from office on 1 August 1996, Finnbogadóttir had become the longest-serving elected female head of state in history, a title she still holds to this day.
Although the Icelandic presidency is a largely ceremonial role, Finnbogadóttir was a vocal champion of environmental causes and girls’ education across the world, even coining the rallying cry ‘never let the women down’. She also played a pivotal role in resolving territorial disputes between Iceland and the United Kingdom.
Finnbogadóttir initially trained as a teacher, specialising in French and Art. In 1971, she became the first single woman allowed to adopt a child in Iceland. Her presidency, her open, approachable manner and her internationalist style of governance are partially-credited with sparking the rapid liberalisation of social attitudes that took place in Iceland from the mid-1980s onwards.
Today, Finnbogadóttir is a UNESCO ambassador, working to preserve and protect minority languages and their speakers.
Two decades before Iceland made history, Sri Lanka, then called Ceylon, did something similar. On 21 July 1960, Sirimavo Bandaranaike became the first democratically-elected female leader anywhere in the world.
Over the next four decades, Bandaranaike would serve three terms as Prime Minister for a total of nineteen years. She retired only a few months before her death in October 2000.
During her time in office, she oversaw the name change of Ceylon to Sri Lanka, the country’s transition from a monarchy to a republic, survived numerous coup attempts and uprisings and appointed the first women to the Sri Lankan Cabinet. She also forged close relations with other South Asian nations, especially India, Bangladesh and Nepal.
But Bandaranaike remains a controversial figure in Sri Lanka. Her relegation of the Tamil language to minority status and her economic policies that often left Tamil communities out in the cold are seen as having sown the seeds of the decades-long Sri Lankan Civil War.
In some ways, Sirimavo Bandaranaike exemplifies many trailblazing leaders. They may have smashed high, hard glass ceilings, but what they leave in their wake can be controversial.
From a controversial national figure, to an internationally-renowned one: Fawzia Koofi is the woman who has squared up to the Taliban more than once.
Koofi entered Afghani politics almost as soon as the Taliban regime had been toppled, following the NATO invasion of Afghanistan in 2001. She began campaigning and lobbying as part of the ‘Back to School’ movement, a campaign aimed at getting Afghani girls back into education, something that had been illegal during the Taliban years. But Koofi did not stop there.
In the 2005 elections, she was elected to the Afghani parliament, representing the largely-rural province of Badakhshan in the north-east of the country. She soon became the Deputy Speaker of the Chamber, the first woman to hold the role.
This alone had already set Koofi at odds with both the Taliban and other fundementalist parts of Afghani society, but it would be her promotion of women’s rights that would truly set her on the warpath. Koofi’s outspokenness was a key reason behind the Taliban’s attempts to assassinate her in 2010 and 2020.
But these attempts have only spurred her on. In 2014, she tried to run for the presidency, but was blocked by the electoral commission due to a technicality.
Today, Koofi continues to fight for women’s rights in Afghanistan. She is a major figure in the internationally-backed fight for gender equality and women’s education in the country. As such, she continues to cross swords with the Taliban on a daily basis. She is also part of the team currently trying to negotiate peace with the Taliban.
Ellen Johnson Sirleaf
While Koofi continues to navigate a country riven with conflict and division and continually scarred by violence, Ellen Johnson Sirleaf was tasked with rebuilding one that had just been torn apart along ethnic lines by two civil wars: Liberia.
Having already escaped summary execution following a coup in 1980 and lived in exile in both the United States and Ivory Coast, Johnson Sirleaf returned to her wrecked homeland in 2005, under something of a cloud.
In 2005, having been appointed head of the post-war transition government, Johnson Sirleaf won the presidency in Liberia’s first set of free and fair elections. When she was inaugurated on 16 January 2006, she became the first female elected head of state in Africa. She won a second term in 2011, with her presidency coming to an end in 2018.
Her twelve years at the helm saw Liberia rebuild its economy and society, come to terms with the damage wrought by the civil wars, and work with the International Criminal Court (ICC) to prosecute war criminals, notably former president Charles Taylor.
The level of cooperation between Johnson Sirleaf and the ICC was, and still is, highly unusual for an African leader.
Johnson Sirleaf also became an unlikely defender of LGBT rights, to an extent. West Africa is known for its social conservatism. Homosexuality is illegal in most nations – and is even a capital offense in Nigeria and Mauritania.
Johnson Sirleaf knew that decriminalising homosexuality in Liberia would be tantamount to political suicide. However, in 2012, she vetoed a bill that would have strengthened the existing punishment for homosexuality. She also publicly stated her opposition to re-enforcing the law.
During her time in office, Johnson Sirleaf also won international praise for steering her country through the West African Ebola Outbreak from 2014 to 2016. The epidemic was at its worst in Liberia, making the small nation th country the worst-hit by Ebola in history.
It is little wonder then, that, since leaving office, Johnson Sirleaf has become heavily involved with the World Health Organisation (WHO). As of November 2020, she is part of the board that helps countries riven by conflict or poverty put together a plan for pandemics. This not only includes responses to the current Covid-19 crisis, but also planning and preparations for any future outbreaks that might occur.
These four women smashed barriers, broke glass ceilings and became trailblazers for female politicians everywhere. On 20 January 2021, Kamala Harris will join their ranks.