Women who broke the glass ceiling

Srividhya Ragavan | Updated on January 16, 2018 Published on December 08, 2016

Women power Defying cultural mores   -  PTI

The lives of Jayalalithaa and Hillary Clinton share some curious similarities in terms of shattering gender barriers

Year 2016 has defined and defied women. As the year draws to an end, it’d be interesting to take a look at the state of the metaphorical glass ceiling. And the best way to discuss it is to look at how 2016 impacted the lives of two extraordinary women, born within six months of each other, in opposite poles of the world, and each defying established norms.

Like Jeffrey Archer’s eponymous Kane and Abel, Hillary Rodham was born in 1947 in Chicago. She then went on to attend Wellesley College followed by a JD from Yale Law School. Her debut in public life raised the hopes that it was time for glass ceilings to give away for women, what with America being a leader in the push for gender equality.

About six months later, in 1948, in obscure Melukote, Tamil Nadu, was born Jayalalithaa Jayaraman. From a humble family, Jayalalithaa would enter politics through her film career. The speech that launched her into politics in 1982, titled “ Pennin Perumai” (The greatness of a woman), was delivered at the political conference of the All India Anna DMK — a party whose men were raised with strong feelings of male superiority.

Steady rise

By 1982, Clinton had already shattered the glass ceiling through her appointment as the first female chair of the Legal Services Corporation. She had also become the first woman partner at Rose Law Firm. Soon, she would become the First Lady of Arkansas and serve in that role until 1991.

By 1992, Jayalalithaa had successfully established her position as the political heir to MGR. For women, that story represents the shattering of a glass house! After being publicly shamed in 1989 in the Tamil Nadu Assembly by the opposition-led DMK members, Jayalalithaa was forced to leave the Assembly. A woman scorned, she swore to return only as its leader.

And return she did, in June of 1991, as the youngest chief minister of Tamil Nadu, to serve a full term until 1996. To Jayalalithaa’s credit, her government was the first to introduce police stations in Tamil Nadu operated solely by women. Further, her government introduced protective discrimination by reserving 30 per cent of identified government jobs for women and was instrumental in establishing all-women businesses such as libraries, stores and banks.

By this time, Hillary Clinton was well on her way to the White House as the First Lady, where she would suffer humiliation, courtesy the Monica Lewinsky scandal! Such are the glass walls for women in feminism-embracing America.

Hillary was in a position where she would be disgraced if she forgave her husband and discredited if she punished him. And, while some of us believe she emerged through those glass walls, it was not without scars. The bruises she suffered then would hurt her long after they ceased to affect her husband.

The comeback

Hillary would re-emerge in 2000 as the first female senator from New York. Contesting for the top job in the US and losing the Democratic nomination to Barack Obama, she would win more delegates than any previous female candidate, and even more votes than Obama, yet lose the nomination.

The (dis)taste of winning more votes and less delegates would become her legacy but would also define the glass walls despite the rhetoric of feminism and equality that dominates the discussions of the American bourgeoisie.

By 2000, Jayalalithaa would face her own demons. After a series of allegations of corruption and mismanagement of State funds, she would be barred from contesting elections in Tamil Nadu after being found guilty of criminal offences. And this is where she would take a path different from Hillary.

Furious, Jayalalithaa would lead her party to victory in absentia. Her party was forced to appoint a “non-elected member of the State Assembly” as chief minister. The appointment was struck down by the Supreme Court.

In 2003, cleared of all charges on appeal, she would assume the position of chief minister. Suffice it to say that between 1991 and 2016 she was elected for and served five terms as chief minister for over fourteen years.

The year 2016 would find Hillary defeated in the US by a man whose disrespect for women was proudly self-professed, who claimed that women could be discarded as wives, and owned an empire that personified women for how they looked and not for what they became.

He would defeat Hillary chiefly because she was a woman by repeatedly punishing her for her husband’s misadventures at the White House. The emergence of Donald Trump represents the building of a new wall, all in glass, and all for women.

No more glass ceilings, ladies — we are back in our glass castles in the US. You may be able to burn your bras in the US but you cannot dream of wearing them and sitting in the Oval office!

Feminine prowess

Meanwhile, in 2016, in a third-world country where feminismand women’s rights are necessarily the norm, Jayalalithaa’s emergence represents a level of feminine prowess in a manner completely dissociated from western notions, where physical appearance matters.

As a comeback queen, she retained the State with an astounding victory in the elections and would re-establish her supremacy over Tamil Nadu. The enormous influence and control she wielded over the men in her party signified the shattering of the glass ceiling in a manner unimaginable in the US.

To women, Jayalalithaa’s demise represents a loss of a strong flower-power for the future generation of aspiring girls. As 2016 draws to an end, it is a sad phase for women. The more credentialled — Hillary Clinton — has faded away and the more politically accomplished — Jayalalithaa — has passed away. You may disagree with the policies of either or both women.

But they defied cultural mores, whether it be in the agraharams of India or in rural Arkansas. If there was a real life Kane and Abel story of Jeffrey Archer for women, this was it.

The writer is a professor of law at Texas A&M School of Law

Published on December 08, 2016
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