The distaff of office
More sisters, daughters and wives of powerful leaders are taking the top political jobs
Jul 7th 2011 | from the print edition
“LET’S hear it for Dubai!” Yingluck Shinawatra led the crowd’s roar of approval at a campaign stop in Thailand, leaving little doubt of where her political allegiances lie: the Gulf city is home to her brother, the deposed and exiled prime minister, Thaksin Shinawatra. “If you love my brother”, she said at another rally, “will you give his younger sister a chance?”
Ms Yingluck’s victory in Thailand’s general election on July 3rd is the latest example of an intriguing and, it seems, growing trend: for the sisters, daughters and widows of former leaders to take over the family political business on the death, retirement or—in Mr Thaksin’s case—exile of the founder. There are now more than 20 female relatives of former leaders active in national politics around the world. They include three presidents or prime ministers and at least half a dozen leaders of the opposition or presidential candidates (see table). There are no historical numbers for proper comparison, but it is hard to think of another period—certainly no recent one—when so much dynastic authority has been flowing down the female line.
Some of these women have made it on their own. Others are at last getting a fairer share of the dynastic privileges that used to accrue to men. Family name confers brand recognition, useful contacts and financial contributions—all of which are vital in democracies, and become more so as retail politics become more important. So America has not only its Bush and Kennedy clans, but the Daley family of Chicago, the Cuomos of New York, the Udalls of the Rocky Mountain states. As politics becomes more professional and specialised —with politicians increasingly knowing no other walk of life—the advantages of being brought up in its ways and wiles grow greater. Violet Bonham Carter, daughter of H.H. Asquith, a British prime minister, told Winston Churchill that her father had talked to her about affairs of state as a child. “I wish I could have had such talks with mine,” was Churchill’s reply, of his austere parent. Many of today’s political daughters have Lady Violet’s advantages.