As Hillary Clinton prepares to officially clench the Democratic nomination at the convention on July 25th, she joins the ranks of women around the world who are shaking up global politics by fighting their way into the driver’s seat and steering their countries in a different direction.
Including two reigning queens who inherited their titles, halfway through 2016 there are currently 21 female heads of state and government among the world’s 197 countries.
Of the six women below, three are the acting leaders of their countries, two others are rapidly blazing the trail to become such, and another is battling for democracy against an attempted coup. Five are or will soon likely be the first woman to hold her position, one of whom being the first person ever to hold the position she single-handedly created to insert herself into politics and bring justice to her country. One is a pirate, another an unmarried academic, and another has evolved from scratching at to pounding against the glass ceiling over the course of the last two decades.
What they all have in common is that each woman, simply by existing unapologetically in the public eye, is a living counternarrative to local and global cultural narratives that tell us that leadership is men’s work.
Angela Merkel: Leading Europe by Way of Berlin
Officially she’s the Chancellor of Europe’s largest economy. Unofficially and in all reality, she’s something closer to President of Europe.
There are few political leaders in the world right now with as much power as Germany’s Angela Merkel, who’s jumped into the international spotlight with her role as “the Decider” during the Eurozone crisis, and again more recently with her controversial leadership of the European Refugee Crisis.
Forbes has not only named her most powerful woman in the world an incredible nine times, but she currently comes in at #2 on their list of most powerful figures in the world. News headlines are screaming about how her support has dropped, down to 45% as of last month; but in Germany’s multi-party parliamentary democracy, with six major political parties currently in its parliament, that’s a strong number going into her 2017 reelection campaign.
Tsai Ing-wen: Taiwan’s Tough New Leader
Tsai Ing-Wen of Taiwan may be the woman on this list with the most “firsts” behind her name: Not only is she the first female president of Taiwan, as well as the first Taiwanese president of indigenous descent, and the first Taiwanese leader to take such a distinctly assertive position toward neighboring Mainland China, but she’s also an unmarried female.
During her campaign, Mainland Chinese officials smeared her for her “extremist” views, not because she’s fiercely pro-LGBT rights or nearly as fiercely anti-Beijing, but instead warning the Taiwanese of the dangers of having an “emotional” unmarried woman lead their government.
Ing-Wen was once in favor of clearing up Taiwan’s “it’s complicated” relationship status with China by breaking it off completely, but now she may have moderated her tone a bit. While Ing-Wen has been politically careful with her Democratic Progressive Party’s known pro-independence politics, she’s pushed the envelope further toward Taiwanese independence than any of her predecessors.
Dilma Rousseff: Transforming Brazil and the Global South
Dilma Rousseff is a titan in global economics and poverty reduction. The suspended President of Latin America’s largest population and economy, Rousseff and her party have led Brazil to lift an incomprehensible 30 million Brazilians out of poverty in a short two decades.
Rousseff’s contributions begin nearly 30 years before she became Brazil’s first female president, when she fought against and was later jailed and tortured by the ruling military dictatorship that took over Brazil in 1964. In 2016, this time in the name of preserving the democracy she helped to create in Brazil, she’s fighting a parliamentary coup attempt in an impeachment case being carried out by her political rivals. As her impeachment hearings begin, Rousseff continues to publicly fight against the interim government of her rivals, the first government made up exclusively of white men in Brazil, more than half of whose population identifies as Afro-Brazilian.
Birgitta Jónsdóttir: Iceland’s Potential Pirate Prime Minister
In the wake of the Panama Papers scandal, Iceland’s (now former) Prime Minister Sigurður Ingi Jóhannsson, was among the first to fall, leaving a vacancy to be filled in the upcoming parliamentary elections. Nothing’s official yet, but all Icelandic eyes are on a figure that’s expected to make Iceland’s next eccentric leader, a woman who will be a first in many ways.
While Iceland’s glass ceiling was already broken by Jóhanna Sigurðardóttir in 2009, Jónsdóttir is maybe most remarkable for being the leader of Iceland’s Pirate Party, a pan-European movement focused on internet security, freedom of expression, and government transparency beyond all else. While the Pirate Party has had some success in European elections, it looks like Iceland’s answer to financial scandal will be to vote in the first Pirate-led government in Europe, and Jónsdóttir is leading up the effort.
Aung San Suu Kyi: Fighting for Democracy in Myanmar
Nobel Peace Prize Laureate Aung San Suu Kyi spent most of living memory under house arrest, and now she’s leading her country into a more democratic future.
In 1990, she and her party won an astounding 81% of seats in parliament, but the ruling military dictatorship nullified the vote, instead placing Suu Kyi under house arrest for 15 years between then and 2010. Ever since she’s stepped back onto the political stage in Myanmar, the nation has made its longest and most promising strides toward democracy under her guidance.
Due to a technicality of the Myanmar constitution, Aung San Suu Kyi is ineligible for the office of president—her late husband and two children hold UK citizenship, legally disqualifying her for the job. However, after becoming the first female Minister of Foreign Affairs after the 2015 election, Suu Kyi helped create a new government position, First Counsellor, from which she’s now calling the shots de facto in Myanmar.
Hillary Rodham Clinton: First Female Leader of the Free World?
Like some of the other women on this list, Hillary Clinton hasn’t quite made it to her country’s highest office yet, but in 2016 it’s the world’s worst-kept secret that she’s very likely headed that way.
Clinton has been a US Senator representing New York, as well as President Obama’s Secretary of State, but long before filling those roles, she emerged in the 1990s public eye as President Bill Clinton’s First Lady. Rewriting the rulebook of the traditionally ceremonial position, Clinton made herself known as one of the President’s closest advisors, and took on meaty policy issues like universal healthcare that many of her political opponents deemed inappropriate territory for the First Lady.
Ever since becoming the first prominent, assertive woman in modern American politics, Clinton has suffered high disapproval ratings from an American electorate unaccustomed to seeing strong women asserting themselves in positions of power. But just as these other five women have broken the mold in their own cultures, carving out spaces for women’s voices in public discourse and decision-making, Clinton has done the same, with her career and in famous retorts like “would you ask a man the same question” when asked in an interview about her favorite clothing designers.
Current polls give Clinton the distinct upper hand going into November’s election, taking a turn for the better after President Barack Obama’s recent endorsement of her, in which he said that “I don’t think there’s ever been someone so qualified to hold this office.”
It’s no coincidence that the countries these women represent find themselves leading the way in social and economic progress around the world. As more presidents, prime ministers, activists and CEOs add their names to lists like these, we can only hope that these women will leave behind a political culture in which women are empowered to participate, and in which the world’s 3.5 billion women have more than 21 global leaders speaking on their behalf.