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When women fall – do we condemn them more than men?
On Monday this week, Winnie Madikizela-Mandela died at the age of 81. When she first came to the fore she was dubbed the mother of the nation.
There can be no doubt that her life-long battle was for the rights of Black Africans and the destruction of the system which kept and continues to keep them in penury as the whites retain their status in a stolen land. Many in South Africa mourn her death. More outside Africa look back on her as a flawed, bullying, brutal, greedy individual who, like so many leaders drunk on power, slipped into that hazy world of total power in which any means justifies the end. Today, she is better remembered for her association (whatever it was) with the cruel killing of Stompie Meipei Moesketsi and the torture of her opponents than she is for walking Nelson Mandela out of prison in 1990. Some are so appalled by her that, normally kind obituaries, instead refer to her as ‘an odious, toxic individual who continued to preach hatred rather than reconciliation right up to the end of her life’. The same article lists her crimes as drunkenness, greed, torture, cruelty, kidnap and ruthless self-promotion and avarice.
Though alive, a similar fall from grace has befallen Aung San Suu Kyi, 1st State Counsellor for Myanmar. She is a highly educated, political activist who has fought for democracy in her country. She is a Nobel Peace Prize laureate who has been lauded for standing alone, separated from both husband and children as she faced attack after personal attack and years in in-house arrest. The cruelty she faced was unthinkable – not even allowed to visit her dying husband. But now her reputation is falling like petals from a tired flower. Why? Because she has, just like Winnie, refused to stand up to wrong and has been woefully silent in the face of persecution of the Royhinga people of Rakhine State. Like Winnie she has averted her eyes from the cruelty of man.
But my question is: Are we more disappointed, more condemning, more bitter towards women who fall from leadership grace than we are of men? Do we assume that women have more innate goodness and so, to find that they are flawed, weak, even cruel in retaining their leadership that we forget everything which made them leaders in the first place?
Let’s take a few male leaders of great repute:
- Thomas Jefferson wrote the Declaration of Independence and served as a much lauded president. He is considered a founding father. But he also had a long term affair with a slave and sired several children by her while lecturing his people that a marriage between a white man and a black women would create children who were “a degradation to which no lover of his country, no lover of excellence in the human character can innocently consent."
- Abraham Lincoln promoted slavery until it became expedient to oppose it for his other policies.
- Ghandi, seen as the great pacifist and leader of India, once said that Hitler was not as bad as depicted. He also believed that menstruation was a sign of women being warped, that female rape victims were of less value as human beings and their fathers should have the right to kill them for family honour. In later life he slept with nubile young women to test his vow of celibacy, with no thought of Mrs Ghandi. The list goes on.
- Churchill allowed starvation in India and could be viciously cruel to others.
- Charlie Chaplin, leader of comedy was not so funny when he was chasing and impregnating underage girls.
- John Lennon, peace activist was a notorious womanizer and expected his first wife Cynthia and Yoko Ono to put up with it.
- Sinatra, leader of crooners was worryingly close to the mafia.
- Roald Dahl, the great children’s author was anti-semitic and stated that Hitler did not pick on the Jews for no reason.
A good search into leaders and their reputations could extend this list many times. We also see the evidence in living leaders. President Clinton’s ratings went up when he was exposed for his affair with Monica Lewinsky. Tony Blair, having led his country into an illegal war and stands accused of war crime, is still the favoured ‘wise head’ when the BBC wants a sound bite. They pass over the quiet John Major who was a real architect of peace and brought Northern Ireland to the point of stopping The Troubles.
It seems to me that we expect more and forgive less of women leaders. Whether this is because we expect so much of women’s nature or because there have been so few women leaders in history because of men’s political and economic power – I do not know. But one thing is sure – Winnie Mandela will not have the forgiveness afforded to the men above. She will be remembered as a power-mad drunk who allowed little Stompie Meipei Moesketsi to die at the hands of her boys. And maybe that is right. If it is then we need to see male leaders in the same harsh light.