“Can a Boy Be President?”

Posted on 11 July 2011 by

In 2000, I participated in a non-governmental meeting in Warsaw, organized in conjunction with the ministerial meeting of the Community of Democracies, the brainchild of then U.S. Secretary of State Madeleine Albright and the Polish Minister of Foreign Affairs, Bronislaw Geremek. The two meetings were kept completely separate with minimal interaction. Last week, I had the opportunity to participate in the sixth meeting of the Community of Democracies in Vilnius, Lithuania. What a difference a decade makes! There was ongoing interaction between the ministerial meeting and the non-governmental activists. A special Forum for Youth and one for Parliamentarians had been established, and both were exuberantly working to improve the democracies within the community and develop programs to support the countries in transition to democracy.

Maud Elisabeth Olofsson, Minister for Enterprise & Energy, Sweden; Selima Ahmad, President of Women Chamber of Commerce & Industry, Bangladesh; Mahnaz Afkhami, President & Founder, Women\'s Learning Partnership

The most impressive, however, was the conference organized by the working group on women, a joint initiative of the U.S. and Lithuania, on the 30th of June. The presidents of Lithuania and Finland, both ardent feminist women, spent the whole day co-chairing the conference. They did it actively, passionately, and intelligently, giving full recognition to the fact that “democracy without women’s equal participation is a contradiction in terms.”

There were three panels with speakers from international NGOs, academia, and media, as well as high level government officials. I spoke on a panel with the President of Mongolia, the minister of commerce of Sweden, the president of the chamber of commerce of Bangladesh, and a Lithuanian university professor. It was ably moderated by Lyse Doucet of BBC, who managed to give each of us time to say what we wished to say, and yet allow for what proved to be substantive comments from a very knowledgeable and engaged audience. Questions were direct and to the point, and answers honest and spontaneous.

The President of Finland spoke about the hurdles she overcame as a single mother who had left her church to protest the absence of women priests to become the first female head of state in Finland’s history. The President of Lithuania spoke of meeting little boys growing up in a country where the President, minister of defense, minister of Justice, minister of finance and head of parliament are all women, asking “Can a boy be president?” When asked about what strategies she had used to gain the presidency she said “you need to want to put the people’s needs above your own. There is no special strategy. I was an economist at EU with job security and good pay. I reached for a job with lower pay, no security, and constant scrutiny and criticism. No strategy–you just have to want to make such a decision.” The minister of foreign affairs of Sweden spoke energetically and strongly about her opposition to quotas. She said she wanted to compete and win with no special dispensations. She was from a generation that had grown up with near parity in political leadership. When Lyse asked people to raise their hands, all but two were for quotas, sending a clear message to the emerging democracies that affirmative action is indispensable to achieving democracy. Hillary Clinton put the women’s movement in a historical and global perspective, saying “if the 19th century was a time of human struggle against organized slavery, the 20th against totalitarianism, the 21st century is the century of women’s struggle for equality.” Everyone in that room was aware of the issue and committed to the goal. Nothing empowers more than the vibrant presence of powerful women from a wide range of backgrounds, fully engaged in making that power viral.

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