How many countries have ever had a woman leader?

First, a little Benazir Bhutto story, since we are on the subject of women leaders.

A friend of mine was to be on the podium of Harvard's graduation the year Benazir Bhutto was to give the keynote, and heard this conversation. John Galbraith, the economists who was also a professor at Harvard, Bhutto's former undergraduate advisor, and her friend, was also to be on the stage, and all the famous people who were to be on that stage were to walk out in procession. The Secret Service, who were protecting Bhutto who at the time was Head of State, arranged the people so that two or three guys, including Galbraith, were to walk out first, Bhutto in the middle, then a string of people afterwards. The idea was to put the person they were protecting in the middle.

Bhutto was fairly diminutive of stature, so she would have been hard to see and while this would enhance her safety, it would also have lessened the impact of hear appearance at this event, a former undergrad returning as a Prime Minister of a whole country. Galbraith, her friend and mentor, would have nothing of it. He insisted that he be in the front of the line. When the Secret Service agents, tough, numerous, steely eyed and, well, convincing as they tend to be, told him that this would be impossible, and that security concerns trumped appearances and that she would be walking out onto the stage in the middle of the procession, Galbraith, whom you may remember as having been a very tall and imposing figure with deep booming voice, turned to the head of the security detail and simply said, "Sir, I overrule you," at which time the detail backed off, Bhutto, grinning, walked to the front of the line, and the procession began.

Apropos the question that has come up in recent years as to the meaning of, say, a "black" or a female president of the United States ... as to whether we are "ready" or whether such a thing would advance civil rights in the US or whether such a thing would lead to polarizing opposition from racists or misogynous, we can look at what has happened with the presidency of Barack Obama (and see that all of the above are true) and also look at the place in the world of the United States. Many other nations have had women prime ministers, presidents, queens, or whatever. Is the United States in the majority yet, are we one of the few countries (or one of the few "Western" countries, or one of the few "democracies" or whatever) who has not had a female in charge?

Pursuant to this question I made a list (made = copied from the internet) of countries and put a star next to those which I think have had a woman leader. I'm sure I missed some. Have a look. Tell me which countries I should move from one list to another (or if I've left out some countries). There are complexities.

Countries that have had a woman leader:

* Argentina
* Australia
* Bahrain
* Bangladesh
* Barbados
* Belize
* Bolivia
* Brazil
* Burundi
* Canada
* Central African Republic
* Chile
* Denmark
* Dominica
* Equatorial Guinea
* Finland
* France
* Germany
* Grenada
* Guyana
* Haiti
* Iceland
* India
* Indonesia
* Ireland
* Israel
* Latvia
* Liberia
* Lithuania
* Malawi
* Mauritius
* Netherlands
* New Zealand
* Nicaragua
* Norway
* Pakistan
* Panama
* Philippines
* Poland
* Portugal
* San Marino
* Serbia
* Sri Lanka
* Swaziland
* Switzerland
* Thailand
* Turkey
* Ukraine
* United Kingdom

Countries that have not had a woman leader (subject to correction!):

Antigua and Barbuda
Bosnia and Herzegovina
Burkina Faso
Cape Verde
Congo (Brazzaville)
Congo (Kinshasa)
Costa Rica
Czech Republic
Côte d'Ivoire
Dominican Republic
El Salvador
Federated States of Moldova
Holy See
Korea, North
Korea, South
Marshall Islands
Papua New Guinea
Saint Kitts and Nevis
Saint Lucia
Saint Vincent and the Grenadines
Sao Tome and Principe
Saudi Arabia
Sierra Leone
Solomon Islands
South Africa
South Sudan
Trinidad and Tobago
United Arab Emirates
United States


Photo by innocent_tauruscian

More like this

I do believe in the psychological and cultural phenomenon of an "ice-breaker" like Jackie Robinson. Either Hillary Clinton or, as happened, Barack Obama being president makes it "no big deal" at some level. It's very different from tokenism.

Even Joe Lieberman as first (?) Jewish VP candidate was important (especially if they'd been allowed to take the office they won). A Joe Liebermann now means a Russ Feingold later. A Hillary Clinton means, e.g., a Barbra Lee later. Obama could pave the way for a Van Jones.

Since I scorn tokenism - and when the GOP aren't pandering to racism, they do indulge in tokenism - I think it's an important distinction. Many of the countries where women became leaders, they were the daughters or wives of popular male leaders, but nonetheless when the sky doesn't fall, that's another country where "being a woman" won't be much of a consideration. By the way on the world scale, I think Iceland's openly lesbian new PM is an ice-breaker of the type I'm describing.

By Marion Delgado (not verified) on 03 Jun 2012 #permalink

I wish I'd put this in last comment: Your list seems accurate to me.

By Marion Delgado (not verified) on 03 Jun 2012 #permalink

Australia and Germany currently have female leaders.

By Old Fogey (not verified) on 03 Jun 2012 #permalink

Israel had Golda Meir. Iceland and Finland have had female Presidents, I'm reasonably sure. Are you counting both Heads of State and Heads of Government?

There are a lot of ways to do this but I would count heads of state and heads of government, and elected as well as heredity.

Ellen Johnson Sirleaf is president of Liberia.

By Charles Sullivan (not verified) on 03 Jun 2012 #permalink

Also, Michelle Bachelet was recently president of Chile

By Charles Sullivan (not verified) on 03 Jun 2012 #permalink

Yingluck Shinawatra is prime minister of Thailand (sorry for multiple posts).

By Charles Sullivan (not verified) on 03 Jun 2012 #permalink

On top of the previous corrections, it's worth Noting that Brazil's current president is a woman as well.

By Anonymous (not verified) on 03 Jun 2012 #permalink

Joel, in this case, I'm glad for the likes of Margaret Thatcher. UK and ireland thus have had female leaders. Regarding Queens and the empire and Commonwealth ... I think Queen Victoria might have been female leader og argue areas of Asia and Africa as well.

By the definition used England had a woman leader with Mary 1 and then Elizabeth 1. Or possibly going back a bit further Matilda the mother of Henry II. Look at the lists of Queens Regnant on Wikipedia which covers the whole world. Evidently some Pharaohs were women for example. So one might want to say in the modern period for example to restrict the question, or else include inheritance situations.

I believe that it is very hard to make a logical deduction that because none of the fifty-six elections we've had did not lead in a female leader, we are thereby sexist. You would also have to extend it to handicapped presidents, and then Muslim, gay, etc. Because there is a lack does not mean that there is a significant sexist approach, and neither does it mean that we should have a female president for that reason.

It's your game and your rules, but you'd better move Russia because they had Catherine the Great and Spain because of Isabella (do co-rulers count?).

Well, this is kind of a crowd sourcing thing but yeah, it is my blog so I'm totally in charge here so keep in line, people.

This is a good question. The idea here is this: Does a nation of people have the experience of having been ruled or led by a woman, to the degree that the prospect of having a viable candidate running for office or as a likely pick by a government to be a Prime Minister or whatever have is not hampered by her being a woman?

If Queen Victoria was King Victor, Queen Elizabeth II was King George the Nth, and Margaret Thatcher was never elected, then I'm thinking the fact that England/UK had Elizabeth I and various other females on or near the throne hundreds of years ago would be of questionable relevance. Also, I'm not sure if a queen on the throne in a system where you normally have a king unless you can't find one would be unimportant where there was always a strong male viceroy or something, but it seems that Queen Victoria is such a major exception to that (do I have that right?) that she culturally matters.

Having said all of that, I think we can safely reject the nature (sex, gender, politics, ethnicity, religion, whatever) of a royal leader who happens to be on the money from a land afar because of intercontinental colonialism or politically strategic marriage forces.

Catherine II was a real ruler, as I understand it, and Catherine I, though ruling for only a couple of years, was a big deal. So, I think they may count as real female rulers of a real country.

Having said all of THAT, we can fix this definitional problem in a different, more conservative way. Only count countries under their current identities. The Russia of the Peters and Catherine was replaced effectively bu the USSR, so it does not exist any more. A very recent break in continuity might matter less, but the formationof the USSR and it's various versions followed by the establishement of Russia were politically and culturally momentous, and the Catherines were long ago.

More clearly, Cleopatra was the ruler of a country that does not exist any more (quasi-Pharonic Greekified northern/lower Egypt, not Thebes, not post UAR Egypt).

Countries with historical female rulers and no subsequent female rulers should perhaps be given their own category .

Lithuania currently has woman President and Speaker of Parliament. We used to have a woman Prime Minister at least once (depends on whether or not you'd like to count acting appointments). So, all three leader positions qualify here :-)

Latvians have had Vaira Vīķe-Freiberga as President for eight years:

By Vytautas Šaltenis (not verified) on 04 Jun 2012 #permalink

Vytautas, thanks, they've been moved.

Rayl. I'm going to leave Maria Theresa of Austria off for now since that version of Europe has been redrafted twice plus she's a royal. It isn't the case by any chance that Austria has had a female prime minister or president in the last 100 years or so?

I notice you omitted the Vatican. As to which list it should belong to, I'm not sure. This is the subject of some uncertainty. There is little doubt that the Vatican is very secretive and has many strange practices. Perhaps this might be one reason why.

Megawati Sukarnoputri was President of Indonesia from 2001-2004. So Indonesia should be moved to the list of countries that have had female leaders. So should Brazil, as others above have pointed out: their current president is a woman.

I notice that there is an asterisk next to Panama. Any particular reason?

By Eric Lund (not verified) on 04 Jun 2012 #permalink

Thanks. I will fix all these as soon as I get to a computer. Thought I already did Brazil.

Does a homosexual count (Di Rupo in Belgium) as a sign of emancipation ?

You got Canada, I see, even though Campbell was only in office for a short period of time (just over 4 months). One of our political satirists said she was the only prime minister who spent her entire time campaigning for the office of prime minister--for non-Canucks or too-young-to-remember Canucks former PM Mulrooney stepped down a few months before the next election and Campbell stepped into the gap. She lost the election so was only PM from June 25 to early November.

Bit of trivia--she was the only PM not to reside at 24 Sussex Drive since Sussex Drive has been around (would be akin to having a U.S. president not reside at the White House/1600).

By Daniel J. Andrews (not verified) on 07 Jun 2012 #permalink

It's your blog and your list, but from the perspective of "it's no longer a big deal", Kim Campbell would be the obvious person to point to in Canada if the prospect of a woman becoming PM in this country came up in the near-to-medium future. In other words, let's say a woman becomes leader of a major Canadian federal political party, with a realistic chance of winning enough seats in Parliament to form the government and thus become Prime Minister. If, during the run-up to the election, some pundit starts going on about inherent difficulties she'll face getting elected simply due to her being a woman, lots of people would start talking about Ms. Campbell. That's not to say this hypothetical female politician did not face sexism, just that the particular case of being first would probably not be convincing.

I've always thought of Kim Campbell having the best (under some criteria) summer job in the country. Beats house painting or working the festival circuit or planting trees, anyways.

So I vote to leave Soviet Canuckistan on the "yes" list. Plus the whole Queen Victoria thing.

By TheBrummell (not verified) on 11 Jun 2012 #permalink

picky me, but for your own good: its throne, not thrown, righto?

... and by the way, great list, and great process.

Often, when one ascends to the throne, someone else has been thrown into the dungeon.

But seriously, thanks.

Boudica ruled the Iceni - does she count?

By Vince Whirlwind (not verified) on 17 Jun 2012 #permalink

Perhaps you should limit the list to democratically elected leaders only (and interim leaders under a democratic system of government). That way, you are looking at countries (and leaders) where the population had an actual choice about who would lead them.

By William Truderung (not verified) on 28 Jun 2012 #permalink

William, at least a version of the list as you suggest would be a good idea. Part of it, did the populous already make this decision. The other part is, what are people used to.

Technically - you should remove Ethiopia from your list, since the royal dynasties there trace their heritage from Queen Makeda (known as the Queen of Sheba)

By Denise Oliver-Velez (not verified) on 14 Mar 2013 #permalink

I'm not sure if that is why Ethiopia is on the list to begin with.

Although Segolène Royale of France wanted to become president, she never actually did. So France has had no president yet.

By Marie-France Robert (not verified) on 15 Aug 2013 #permalink

South Korea now in the yes column!

By Park Geun-hye (not verified) on 27 Oct 2013 #permalink

Jamaica has had a woman prime minister

By Ramala Duviella (not verified) on 08 Mar 2014 #permalink


By Sadia jamal urmi (not verified) on 08 Jan 2015 #permalink

Croatia just elected a female leader

" Tm.....Well, I am not iin the business of promoting something just becasue others do, if it performs better than the rest, okay, Out of the 1000 women I have me in business, not 1 is ready to lead, not even close, they are dishonest, lie, cheat, steal, and will harrassee great men, they will conspire ajainest great men, they will lie to police there bosses, fire the best for the company of you dont go along with them and hire there freinds, the majority are nuts, I can find 10000 men for every women, thats the facts, they are given welfare, they recieve the same amt of pay in the mil, corrections, fire fighters positions, police, and are expected and do less work, now they want an equal pay bill for women, becasue they think they are equal, well, women are not equal, men have led for 10000's of years and will always be the greatest leaders, fact, there is a reason women havent lead this country and I hope based upon thier performence they never do, I dont care what anyone thinks infinitley- MR Michael Lee Skellinger,im"

By Michael Skellinger (not verified) on 10 Aug 2015 #permalink

You seem to have missed the fact that Catherine the Great ruled Russia for over 30 years and that the founding monarch of Spain by consolidating the crowns of Castile and Leon, who expelled the Moors, invented written Spanish, sent Colombus on his journey that discovered the New World, was none other that Queen Isabella.

By Benjamin Harman (not verified) on 19 Oct 2015 #permalink

Aside from Spain's Queen Isabela and Russia's Catherine the Great, the Holy See, aka Vatican City, was ruled in the middle ages by Pope Joan--Pope John VII was really a woman disguised as a man.

By Benjamin Harman (not verified) on 19 Oct 2015 #permalink

Benjamin, that's most likely an urban myth. A quite persistent one.

Don't know if she counts but China had a female empress.
Wu Zetian.

In Belgium this will change in time, as Princess Elisabeth is the heir apparent.

But the role is purely ceremonial. The political leader of Belgium is the Prime Minister. Belgium never had female PM, but we did have an Italian homosexual socialist prime-minister. Probably the best since the post-WW2 years.

But how many countries have elected a female leader, and then elected a female leader again (i.e. two elected female leaders)?

Look it up, smart-ass. Here's a start:

Benazir Bhutto was the 11th and 13th Prime Minister of Pakistan, serving two non-consecutive terms.

Indira Gandhi, Prime Minister of India, serving two non-consecutive terms.

Sirimavo Bandaranaike, Prime Minister of Sri Lanka, serving three non-consecutive terms.

Gro Harlem Brundtland, Prime Minister of Norway, serving three non-consecutive terms.

Khaleda Zia, Prime Minister of Bangladesh, serving two non-consecutive terms.

Sheikh Hasina, Prime Minister of Bangladesh, serving two non-consecutive terms.

Yulia Tymoshenko, Prime Minister of Ukraine, serving two non-consecutive terms.

Portia Simpson-Miller, Prime Minister of Jamaica, serving two non-consecutive terms.

By Brainstorms (not verified) on 22 Jun 2016 #permalink

I don't regard Aiden's question as a smart ass statement. It is actually an interesting question, I think.

One could also ask the same about ethnic minority leaders. Given the fact that our president's African American-ness threw an already polarized congress into full on polarized mode, because of Republican racism, will be noted in the future at some point, I'm sure.

Perhaps I read his tone incorrectly. If so, I apologize.

Such a question is easily looked up. Ergo, asking it in that manner suggests an implication of "women are so bad at leading that no one would elect them again if they did". Which may not have been what he meant...

But is frequently encountered in cyberspace. Just as the racial ka-ka over our president, as you noted. One tires of this invalid line of thinking.. quickly.

Suggestion to future posters of such queries: Add a line saying that it's as serious question, not a snide implication, lest others mistake your intentions. As I may have just illustrated.

By Brainstorms (not verified) on 22 Jun 2016 #permalink

Yeah, I took it the third way, as a cynical note that sexism would increase after a woman leader no matter how well she danced backwards and in high heels!

Hi Greg
I found your blog because I googled "which countries have had consecutive elected female leaders in this or the last century?".
I can't think of any.

By David Perryman (not verified) on 22 Sep 2016 #permalink

David, there are such women, in Island, Pakistan, Germany, etc. It is quite common.

I should have been more specific and included the word "different" before consecutive. i.e. are there any countries where a woman leader has succeeded another, different, woman?

By David Perryman (not verified) on 22 Sep 2016 #permalink

David, that depends on when you consider someone a leader. For example, the Netherlands has had consecutive queens (Wilhelmina, Juliana, and Beatrix), but it's a constitutional monarchy, where the queen was the formal Head-of-State, but without any real powers.

I don't know of any women who were voted into power to replace another woman.

See above, #59. As Greg said, there are many.

By Brainstorms (not verified) on 23 Sep 2016 #permalink

Scottland has had a woman leader- Mary Queen of Scotts. Also Russia has had tsarinas such as Catherine the Great. Egypt had female Pharoahs- Hatshepsut, Nefertiti, Cleopatra VII.

Eva Peron didn't rule Argentina. She was the wife of the ruler.

By meir shahal (not verified) on 11 Nov 2016 #permalink