The Most Powerful Women You’ve Never Heard Of
The Angela Merkels and Dilma Rousseffs get all the attention. But they're not the only female leaders running the world.
1 Helen Clark
Administrator, U.N. Development Program | New Zealand
As New Zealand’s prime minister, Helen Clark oversaw a decade of economic growth and won three straight terms in her post after a long career as a Labour Party legislator and cabinet minister. Less than a year following her departure as Kiwi prime minister, however, Clark turned to a much larger — and more challenging — stage: Since 2009, she has led the U.N. Development Program (UNDP), the arm of the United Nations charged with confronting the world’s worst problems, from global poverty to corrupt governance to health and environmental crises. Clark, 62, now oversees the UNDP’s nearly $5 billion annual budget and more than 8,000 employees operating in 177 countries. Cholera in Haiti and famine in Somalia may be far from daily life for many New Zealanders, but Clark appears undaunted. Her top goal as administrator, she said last fall, is no less than to eradicate extreme poverty around the world.
Although they hold up “half the sky,” as Mao Zedong famously said, women make up just over 20 percent of the delegates in China’s national legislature. Former chemist Liu Yandong is the outlier: the only woman in the Politburo, the 25-member elite decision-making body at the top of the Communist Party pyramid. Considered a close ally of President Hu Jintao, she has a good chance of ascending this fall to become one of the small handful in the Politburo Standing Committee, the true ruling council at the center of the system. As with everyone in China’s opaque Politburo, little is known about how Liu’s politics differ from those of her colleagues, though some analysts think she favors increasing China’s contacts with the outside world; the 66-year-old Liu has an honorary Ph.D. from the State University of New York at Stony Brook and spoke at Yale University in 2009. She would be the first woman in Chinese history to make it to the Standing Committee.
With Treasury Secretary Timothy Geithner’s attention focused on the U.S. economy, tackling the brush fires of global economic calamity has often fallen to Lael Brainard. The even-tempered, Harvard-trained economist was born in 1962 and raised in communist Poland as the daughter of a U.S. foreign-service officer. She went on to serve on the National Economic Council during Bill Clinton’s administration, working on the U.S. response to the Mexican peso and Asian financial crises. During President Barack Obama’s administration, Brainard has been consumed with Europe’s financial contagion, shuttling back and forth between Washington and European capitals (while her husband, Assistant Secretary of State Kurt Campbell, travels to his portfolio in Asia) in an effort to convince leaders to prop up failing economies and prevent further spread. It’s not always the easiest task, given that many European leaders blame U.S. policies for starting the crisis in the first place, but Brainard has brought tireless diplomatic energy to the job.
In March, the governments of South Africa, Angola, and Nigeria nominated Ngozi Okonjo-Iweala, a former World Bank managing director, to succeed Robert Zoellick as president of the bank. By tradition, the position has been held by an American chosen by the U.S. government, but Okonjo-Iweala thinks it’s time for a change. “The balance of power in the world has shifted,” she said following her nomination, arguing that developing countries “need to be given a voice in running things.” For the time being, she is more or less running things in Nigeria, where she is in her second term as finance minister. In her first term, the Harvard- and MIT-educated economist received plaudits for negotiating billions of dollars in debt forgiveness with Nigeria’s international creditors and launching a high-profile campaign against corruption. This time her task is made all the more difficult by a campaign of terror by al Qaeda-affiliated Boko Haram militants. Nonetheless, the 57-year-old Okonjo-Iweala is determined to make Nigeria an attractive place for international companies, a big challenge of the kind she is known for tackling.
As the first woman appointed permanent head of the Securities and Exchange Commission (SEC), Mary Schapiro was bound to attract attention when President Obama nominated her in late 2008. Timing alone dictated it: She came to the SEC in the immediate aftermath of the $50 billion Bernard Madoff scandal and a market crash largely blamed on questionable financial practices and lax regulation. But the 56-year-old Schapiro, who first held a seat on the SEC from 1988 to 1994, is no stranger to contentious politics. She left the SEC in the 1990s to run the largest nongovernmental regulator of securities firms and spent the next decade going after industry insiders and critiquing Wall Street excesses. Since returning to the SEC, she has fought to re-establish public confidence in the commission, overseeing an increase in the number of cases pursued by the SEC and arguing for the authority to impose higher financial penalties. She has pledged to push for structural changes this year to help prevent another Lehman Brothers-style collapse — a task that will surely be an “uphill battle,” as the Wall Street Journal put it.
Theresa May first burst into the public consciousness in 2002, when her Conservative Party was in the political wilderness and Tony Blair’s Labour government was at the height of its popularity. That year, May, a member of Parliament since 1997, spoke at a party conference and warned her Tory colleagues that the public saw them as the “nasty party.” The phrase became a rallying cry for a new brand of Tory personified by May and her ideological ally, David Cameron, who combined traditional Conservative economic ideas with moderate stances on gay rights and the environment. The formula worked. In 2010, Cameron arrived at 10 Downing Street and named May as his home secretary and minister for women and equality. She’s only the fourth woman to hold one of Britain’s four “Great Offices,” which also include prime minister, chancellor of the Exchequer, and foreign secretary. May, 55, has had a tumultuous first two years, particularly regarding her zero-tolerance response to last August’s London riots. Her biggest challenge may come this summer: heading up the massive security effort for the 2012 Olympics.
When Fatou Bensouda becomes the second chief prosecutor of the 10-year-old International Criminal Court (ICC) in June, look for her to raise its still-young profile. Over the course of her nine-year term, she will oversee cases against the likes of Ivory Coast’s Laurent Gbagbo, Sudan’s Omar Hassan al-Bashir, and the fugitive Lord’s Resistance Army leader Joseph Kony. All are notable not only for the scale of their atrocities but also for where they were perpetrated: Each of the court’s 15 cases so far has involved incidents in Africa, which, by Bensouda’s reckoning, has led to a perception of the ICC as a “Western court” targeting her home continent. A native of Gambia, where she has held multiple cabinet positions, the 51-year-old Bensouda was educated in Nigeria and rose to the international stage when she worked in the prosecution of leaders of the 1994 Rwandan genocide. Now she’s vowing to pursue the world’s worst perpetrators — with equal fervor, “in Africa or outside Africa.”
After Felipe Calderón’s attorney general resigned last year, the Mexican president desperately needed to prove his government would finally crack down on drug violence, which has claimed more than 40,000 lives since he took office in 2006. Calderón’s new pick, Marisela Morales, not only was the first female appointed to the post, but also had an international reputation for her hard line on crime. A career prosecutor known for combining chutzpah with a strong sympathy for victims, the 42-year-old Morales tackled gang violence in Mexico City before taking the helm of the country’s organized crime agency in 2008. There, she helped create Mexico’s first witness protection program, launched an initiative to reunite trafficking victims with their children, and fired more than two dozen officials, including her predecessor, for selling tips to a leading drug gang. In her first 100 days as attorney general, 462 officials in her office were dismissed and another 111 faced criminal charges.
The windows of the palaces of Pyongyang are notoriously dark. Still, some North Korea watchers suspect the real power behind the throne resides with 65-year-old Kim Kyong Hui and her husband, Jang Song Thaek. Kim is the daughter of North Korea’s founder, Kim Il Sung, the sister of the last ruler, Kim Jong Il, and the aunt of the current leader, Kim Jong Un. Her husband was a close confidant of the middle Kim. Officially, General Kim is the director of North Korea’s Light Industry Department, but her pedigree, connections, and longevity — she appears to have been a member of North Korea’s inner circle for more than 40 years — mean she and her powerful husband might be instructing the country’s untested young leader from the wings. Whether Kim the aunt would lead North Korea closer to détente with the United States than Kim the nephew is anybody’s guess.
Valerie Amos doesn’t quite fit the mold of a baroness. The 58-year-old Briton, born in the former British colony of Guyana, was the first black leader of the House of Lords and the first black woman appointed to a cabinet position. As a British minister, Amos focused on efforts to alleviate poverty in Africa through debt relief and private investment initiatives. In her role as U.N. undersecretary-general for humanitarian affairs and emergency relief coordinator, Amos over the past two years has increasingly started showing up as a player in the world’s conflict zones. She has spearheaded relief efforts in earthquake-stricken Haiti, seen to the needs of Libyan refugees along the border with Tunisia, and visited war-torn Somalia as it struggled with a devastating famine. In March, she was the first international official allowed to visit the obliterated neighborhood of Baba Amr in the Syrian city of Homs, the symbol of President Bashar al-Assad’s brutal crackdown. “I was devastated by what I saw,” she said. “That part of Homs is totally destroyed. There are no people left.”
The upper echelons of the U.S. Army have long been a boys’ club. Ann Dunwoody changed that in 2008, when she became the United States’ first female four-star general, a stunning accomplishment considering that career advancement in the U.S. military tends to run through combat positions, which are legally denied to women. Dunwoody, who boasts 37 years of service, now leads the Army’s Materiel Command, which purchases and transports the tools U.S. soldiers need to complete their missions. The position has put her at the center of the U.S. campaigns in Iraq and Afghanistan, where troops have been in desperate need of everything from bombproof trucks to ready-made meals. Today, Dunwoody, 59, continues to highlight the opportunities available to the roughly 200,000 active-duty women in the U.S. military, though she still declares herself startled by her own rise. “There is no one more surprised than I — except, of course, my husband,” she said in 2008. “You know what they say, ‘Behind every successful woman there is an astonished man.'”
When Atifete Jahjaga was sworn in as Kosovo’s president last year, the 35-year-old deputy director of the national police was not a member of a political party and had never run for political office. (The election of the previous president had been ruled unconstitutional months earlier, and Jahjaga had emerged as a compromise candidate before easily winning a consensus vote in the parliament.) With the fresh perspective of an outsider, she has brought a determined optimism to the historically volatile politics of the Balkans, where she is the region’s first female president. While pledging to crack down on crime and pushing for her country’s entry into the European Union and United Nations, Jahjaga has also reached out to Serbia to begin healing the wounds from years of bloody conflict. “Our two neighboring countries have been forced to share a past,” she said last year, “and will be forced to share a future.”
Sheikha Lubna al-Qasimi has become a standard-bearer for gender equality in one of the world’s most conservative societies. The California-educated daughter of Emirati royalty is the UAE’s first female minister, and even more impressively, she has come to wield real power. She’s charged with finding new markets for the country’s $260 billion export-dependent economy. It’s not only through shattering the glass ceiling that the 50-year-old Qasimi, whose background is in information technology, has brought the UAE into the 21st century. In 2000, she founded the Middle East’s first business-to-business e-marketplace, called Tejari (Arabic for “commerce”). Qasimi credits the oil-fueled economic boom in the Gulf for the advancement of women. “I’m not here for decoration,” she told Der Spiegel. “I stand for something — for growth, for a solid market economy, that things are done properly. That’s what we’ve given the region: know-how.”
When Gleisi Hoffmann became Brazilian President Dilma Rousseff’s top aide in June 2011, the 45-year-old freshman senator was swiftly dubbed “Dilma’s Dilma.” Like Rousseff, the Economist explained, “she is a former bureaucrat plucked from political obscurity and appointed as chief of staff because of her managerial prowess.” (Rousseff served in the same role under former President Luiz Inácio Lula da Silva.) Critics wondered whether Hoffmann, a lawyer and onetime finance director of Brazil’s Itaipu hydroelectric dam, had the experience to help Rousseff tame inflation, sustain economic growth, and build better relations with congress. But Hoffmann has another nickname — the “tractor” — and she earned it by getting things done. So far, she has coordinated a federal response to flooding and begun to secure funding for the stadiums for the 2014 World Cup. She’s the most visible face in a cabinet that now includes 10 women — twice as many as Lula’s.
This former political science professor is the European Union’s policymaker-in-chief on some of its most contentious issues, including immigration, Internet porn, organized crime, and terrorism. After serving as a member of the European Parliament and the Swedish government’s minister for EU affairs, Cecilia Malmstrom took on her current office in 2010 and has spent much of it balancing security and human rights. Her efforts have focused on Europe’s increasingly incendiary debate over its identity: She has urged member governments against succumbing to populist rhetoric on immigration while pushing for reforms that would take some pressure off the states on Europe’s periphery. Malmstrom remains a fierce advocate, writing, “European promises to support people in need have been thoroughly tested in recent times and Europe collectively has failed in that test.”
Ileana Ros-Lehtinen has gone from an 8-year-old fleeing Cuban dictator Fidel Castro’s regime to one of President Obama’s chief foreign-policy antagonists. The 59-year-old Florida congresswoman — the only female committee chair and the most senior Republican woman in the House of Representatives — regularly lambastes the White House for wasting money on a bloated State Department budget while being weak-kneed in handling enemies and helping allies, notably Israel. Ros-Lehtinen’s whirlwind of activity makes her nearly impossible to ignore, whether she’s introducing legislation that would slash U.S. funding for the United Nations, calling for funding Syria’s rebels, or moving to condition aid to Egypt on its transition to democracy. In her short time heading Foreign Affairs, she has become known as a highly political chair. As one House aide told Foreign Policy, “She and her staff often go for the jugular.”
In one of her most popular songs, Peng Liyuan, a star singer of the People’s Liberation Army, croons, “Our future is in the field of hope.” Peng’s future has nearly arrived: As the wife of Communist Party heir apparent Xi Jinping, Peng will likely become first lady when her husband replaces Hu Jintao as president in 2013. Ever since Mao Zedong’s wife, Jiang Qing, was blamed for some of the worst excesses of the Cultural Revolution, Chinese first ladies have kept a very low profile. Unlike her three post-Mao predecessors, however, 49-year-old Peng is famous in her own right: Her melodic voice has made her one of the best-known singers in China, and until a few years ago she was much more famous than her husband, the career politician. Besides working on social causes (she is a World Health Organization goodwill ambassador for tuberculosis and HIV/AIDS), she might also bring grace and charisma to a government often seen as out of touch with the people.
Indonesia, long the punch line of jokes about Third World corruption, boasts an economy that is much cleaner, stronger, and more promising than it was in 2005, when Sri Mulyani Indrawati took the reins of its Finance Ministry. A former IMF executive director, the 49-year-old University of Illinois Ph.D. instituted a wide-ranging ministry housekeeping, sacking corrupt tax and customs officials. Indonesia weathered the global financial crisis better than most, chalking up an average of roughly 6 percent in annual GDP growth since 2005, while increasing its rolls of income-tax payers from just over 4 million to nearly 16 million in just five years. Now a managing director at the World Bank, Indrawati has often been mentioned as a possible head of the institution — if, that is, the United States were ever to allow a non-American to take the helm.
A holdover from the regime of deposed President Hosni Mubarak thought to be close to the toppled first lady, Fayza Abul Naga, 61, has become the unlikely face of the growing rift between Egypt and the United States. She rose through the ranks of Egypt’s foreign service and served as Mubarak’s chief negotiator in the long battles with U.S. diplomats over how much control Cairo could have in disbursing billions of dollars in U.S. aid. Now, more than a year after the revolution, she still wields real power and appears to be exceeding even the directives of Egypt’s new military rulers to press the prosecution of 19 American NGO workers in Egypt — part of a larger case against U.S. and Egyptian NGOs for allegedly being the “foreign hands” leading the country astray. The crisis put the $1.5 billion in annual U.S. aid to Egypt at risk, but Abul Naga has refused to back down, insisting that Egypt could do without U.S. assistance. If she keeps this up, it may have to.
The oldest daughter of former Italian Prime Minister Silvio Berlusconi is also the most likely successor to his vast media and political empire. She’s chair of Fininvest, the holding company with an estimated value of more than $8 billion through which the Berlusconis control Italy’s three major private television networks and the soccer team AC Milan. She also chairs Italy’s largest book and magazine publisher and sits on the board of the investment bank Mediobanca. With her father forced to exit the political stage dogged by personal and legal scandals and complaints of economic mismanagement, there has been widespread speculation that the family’s political mantle might pass to the 45-year-old Marina Berlusconi. Although a number of members of parliament and right-wing newspapers have publicly urged her to run for prime minister, Berlusconi hasn’t committed to politics yet, dismissing speculation as “hypothetical.” Then again, her dad was once similarly evasive.
Josefina Vázquez Mota is the first female candidate to have a serious shot at winning Mexico’s presidential election, though her road to the Mexican presidential palace is full of obstacles. The National Action Party (PAN) candidate must revive a ruling party decimated by a devastating drug war while defending PAN’s conservative positions on issues such as abortion, without tarnishing her image as a women’s rights advocate. Yet the 51-year-old economist and former education minister has narrowed the gap between herself and front-runner Enrique Peña Nieto heading into the July 1 election. (When Peña Nieto said he didn’t know the price of tortillas because he was not “the lady of the house,” Vázquez Mota retorted that she had time to be a government official and check the refrigerator.) On the campaign trail, she has pledged to root out government corruption and continue the offensive against cartels. Vázquez Mota once wrote a controversial book, God, Please Make Me a Widow. Now she’s hoping that a country known for its machismo will make her its first female president.
Could Valentina Matviyenko become Russia’s answer to Germany’s Angela Merkel? It may not be likely, but Matviyenko is a scientist turned politician like Merkel, and as speaker of Russia’s upper house of parliament she is now effectively the third-most senior politician in Russia after Vladimir Putin and Dmitry Medvedev. She’s arguably also the most powerful woman to have emerged in post-Soviet politics. Trained as a chemist, the 63-year-old Matviyenko rose quickly through the political ranks during the turbulent days of perestroika. In 2003 she was elected governor of St. Petersburg in a vote widely criticized as orchestrated by Putin. She went on to run his hometown for nine years and was credited with building up the city’s infrastructure and presiding over a period of unprecedented wealth while being criticized for marginalizing the political opposition and bullying the media. When Putin’s party seemed weak in St. Petersburg elections last fall, Matviyenko was promoted right out of town.
The EU’s critics charge that it’s an inhuman and undemocratic bureaucracy, with little accountability to individual citizens. Viviane Reding is doing her best to change that. The former journalist has been speaking truth to power since becoming the EU’s top human rights enforcer. Reding, 60, who served as commissioner for education and culture as well as for information and media before her current position, has accused Google of breaking the law with its too-lax privacy policies, proposed legislation to create quotas for women on corporate boards, and publicly feuded with the Netherlands’ controversial anti-immigrant Freedom Party. Reding attacked the French government for its expulsion of Roma in 2010, comparing the move to the large-scale arrests of Jews in Vichy France. (The comment earned Reding a rebuke from the French government.) With European politicians increasingly pandering to far-right xenophobes and abandoning the open-borders policies that have defined the EU since its inception, Reding has established herself as a defender worth reckoning with.
Long considered a vestige of South Africa’s pro-apartheid elite, the opposition Democratic Alliance party has a bright new face: Lindiwe Mazibuko, who, at 31, became the party’s first black parliamentary caucus leader in October. Mazibuko’s quick rise — she entered parliament as the Democratic Alliance’s spokesperson in 2009 — is seen as an opportunity for the party to attract South Africa’s majority-black population and challenge the ruling African National Congress (ANC) in the 2014 national elections. The ANC, which came to power with Nelson Mandela in 1994, has since been mired in political infighting, while South Africans struggle with a high unemployment rate and an overstretched education system. Some critics say Mazibuko — who was born in Swaziland, raised in a middle-class family in Durban, and studied classical singing in England before graduating from the University of Cape Town — is not “black enough” to widen her party’s appeal and not experienced enough to fix South Africa’s problems. But the outspoken critic of President Jacob Zuma is confident the Democratic Alliance will soon prove, as she puts it, a “viable alternative.”
Hanan Ashrawi was present at the creation of the “peace process,” serving as the official spokesperson for the Palestine Liberation Organization (PLO) as the Israelis and Palestinians made the first tentative steps toward a two-state solution. Now, after more than two decades of endless process but little peace, she is ready to declare the talks a dead end and is helping to lead the charge for a new strategy to forge an independent Palestinian state. As a member of the PLO’s executive committee, the 65-year-old Ashrawi is a close ally of Palestinian Prime Minister Salam Fayyad and also has the ear of President Mahmoud Abbas. She has thrown her support behind attempts to isolate Israel diplomatically, most notably by pushing the case for Palestinian statehood at the United Nations and dangling the possibility that the PLO could revoke its recognition of Israel “should all other avenues fail.”
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