What feminist leadership should look like

Female leaders aren't enough

In a few months, the UK could have its third female Prime Minister in the last 40 years. However, Ms Truss - herself a former Minister for Women and Equalities - should not necessarily be considered to further the feminist cause solely by virtue of her being a woman. Today, what is really at stake must go beyond the question of female leadership and interrogate the whole concept of leadership itself, writes Sophie Scott-Brown.


Liz Truss is divisive. If she becomes Britain’s next Prime Minister, feelings will run high and be mixed, especially among feminists. For some, it will be if not quite a triumphant then an important day for women. Others will regret that Ms Truss, for all the royal blue dress suits, only parodies the sort of power typically associated with belligerent males. A few more again will roll their eyes at the whole circus and consider it irrelevant to the cause of social justice.

Your reaction will depend on your preferred feminist tribe and, by extension, the kind of society you fantasise about in those idle moments spent waiting out a catastrophic heatwave or deciding between eating or paying the gas bill. There are, of course, a great range of feminisms and feminists, each emphasising different problems, approaches, and solutions. While all, by implication, make some criticism of the status quo, they must still choose whether to basically accept or reject it. If the former, they must then decide what sort and scale of adaptations are necessary to improve it. If the latter, they should offer some sense of alternative.

To put the matter another way, ask yourself which of the following statements you find most persuasive:

1) Women still do not get, or get to do, everything men get and get to do in this society. We need to remove these final barriers.  

2) There is still too much of a ‘macho’ culture lingering in our political, social, and economic institutions. Once these spaces have been modernised, we will all make better progress.

3) We live in a system that depends on marginalising the majority of people (none of this minority rubbish) both explicitly and implicitly, for its own survival and reproduction. Nothing less than total transformation is necessary to achieve equality.

Not sure?  Let’s look at the positions more closely and consider the kinds of leader they might engender.

If (1) sounds about right, you might like a Warrior Queen who believes conflict is the fact of life, authority its saviour, and competition its spice. While she does not think everyone is strong enough to cope with such unpalatable truths, she certainly believes that anyone who can ought not to be prevented. Holding power should only come down to who’s prepared to fight for it and she most definitely is with armies, the word of God, even her sexuality if need be.  In person, she’s mercurial, brutal one moment, flirtatious the next (but always well accessorised).


But is it ‘good’ for young girls (or children in general for that matter) to see women being ‘just as tough as the guys’? Does it raise their aspirations?


Warrior Queens are sexy (in principle if not always in fact). They sell books, inspire films and boost ratings. We like them (at least the convincing ones) for the same reason as their male counterparts; their audacity and charisma excite us. Sitting, as they do, on the margins of myth, they massage in us a deep longing for enchantment in an increasingly bureaucratised world. Think of the great warrior women of legend—the Amazons, the Valkyries, Britannia, Marianne—or quasi-history—Cleopatra, Boudicca, Joan of Arc—and then consider how often their (definitely) real equivalents invoked, consciously or not, some aspect of their image: Elizabeth I, Queen Victoria, Margaret Thatcher (UK), Marine Le Pen (France), Giorgia Meloni (Italy), Sarah Palin and Phyllis Schlafly (USA).

But is it ‘good’ for young girls (or children in general for that matter) to see women being ‘just as tough as the guys’? Does it raise their aspirations?  The idea of empowerment by (dubious) example aside, Warrior Queens are the least impactful for feminism in terms of structural change. It is not just that they simply project a woman into a (historically speaking) male role and set of bellicose behaviours, it is more that, by doing so, they maintain and uphold a practice of power that has no vested interest in liberating anyone else.

If you inclined more toward (2), you would probably prefer Ms Manager who considers excessive conflict inefficient. For her, the wonks, not the warlords, win the day. The quality she prizes the most is reason which, along with data, is the ‘neutral’ arbiter she relies on to inform all planning, policymaking, and legislation. She accepts capitalism as a permanent feature of modern life but believes that maintaining a basic minimum of social balance is prudent. After all, leaders must direct people towards the best, most productive life available to them, even if that is not immediately popular. She is brisk and practical, not always especially dynamic but highly professional. Contemporary models include New Zealand’s Jacinda Ardern, Australia’s Julia Gillard and the US’s Kamila Harris.


While Ms Manager disperses power across thickets of policy, she does not redistribute it far.


Ms Manager is often cited as an example of ‘feminine’ power because it does not rely on explicitly coercive force but on the skilful, albeit sometimes manipulative, administration of resources. As such, it nods back to the origins of economics: oikos, the practical art of household management, conventionally considered ‘female work’. At the same time, this position advances its claims by appealing to the evidence of science and the authority of reason, an ideal with its roots in the Enlightenment. This gives it a sense of genderless-ness: any rational being in possession of the same facts must choose the same course.

There’s certainly more scope for social levelling here, but critics urge caution. Bureaucracy did not just emanate from the ideal of a well-run household. It also came from that of the well-run empire. It fulfilled a need to maintain control over increasingly large territories and diverse populations without the constant expense of physical force. It was, then, defined and later refined, by men, or at least a certain class of men. Nor is there anything ‘neutral’ about data. Science answers the questions we ask of it. Does it always ask (or even imagine) the kinds of questions that women, or anyone else typically excluded from setting the terms for inquiry, want to ask? Moreover, while Ms Manager disperses power across thickets of policy, she does not redistribute it far. If anything, locating, let alone challenging, the various sources of inequity only becomes harder.

If it was 3 that rang true, then Mx Organiser could be the one for you. They think that real liberation and social justice can mean only one thing: a full confrontation with the nature of power itself. All forms of power, whether tough or soft, depend on coercion in one form or another. As such, it always generates inequalities whether material, status-based, or both. Given this, Mx Organiser has no interest in taking or exercising power, only in spreading it out. Their leadership is with people, not of them.

When it comes to feminism, Mx Organiser accepts that it deals with a distinct set of problems encountered by those identifying as women, but sees those as intimately connected to issues of class, race, sexuality, and ecological destruction. These factors rarely fit together neatly; their values often collide. That’s inevitable in a real democracy where competing priorities must co-exist. What matters more is that the people in question, whose lives such problems affect, are the ones working out the solutions. This is where Mx Organiser comes into their own: bringing people together, chairing discussions, and defusing tensions, all without taking over.

As before, Mx Organiser tends to be aligned with ‘feminine’ forms of power: inter-personal intelligence, effective communication, and capacity for cooperation. Again, all this really means is that the role flatters the quick wits and resourcefulness developed by those stuck in the social margins and trying to survive. While this includes many women, it is equally applicable to anyone else who has found themselves the object of power rather than its operator (hence Mx). Given that organisers, by definition, work outside of formal institutions and prefer to avoid the limelight, familiar contemporary examples are harder to find (that said, Patrice Cullors, Alicia Garzal, and Opal Tometi, founder-organisers of the Black Lives Matter movement, spring to mind). Yet, ironically, you probably know many people like this from your everyday life. They are the ones who set up community gardens, keep a youth group running on a shoestring, or co-ordinate the local food bank.


In this increasingly troubled and uncertain world, can we really risk anything less than impossible thinking?


There’s not much you can say against the high ideals of this position. For critics, however, that is precisely the problem. It’s unrealistic, they say, a naïve, utopian dream with an overly optimistic view of human nature, out of sync with the complexity of reality. But in this increasingly troubled and uncertain world, can we really risk anything less than impossible thinking?

Once, it might have been ok to let a thousand flowers bloom in the garden of feminism, but not anymore. Today, what is really at stake must go beyond the question of female leadership and interrogate the whole concept of leadership itself. It is clear we cannot afford to leave things in the hands of a tiny minority working through institutions designed to maintain an order of power incapable of comprehending, let alone reacting to, the emerging reality of our times. The spectacle of both women and men scrabbling for power by recycling the same old cliches (probably about all that they do recycle) on social mobility, ‘woke’ politics or immigration has gone beyond embarrassing. Now it is dangerously negligent. 

I believe we must look again, and more carefully, to Mx Organiser for inspiration. Climate change is a global problem that is simultaneously intensely local. It is also dynamic, for all ‘the science’, the future will become harder to predict and therefore harder to control. We will all become subject to its capricious powers. Given this, we will not have the luxury of scoffing at the homespun modesties of direct democracy anymore. If we are to have any chance of surviving the horror we have been led (by the nose) into, all of us will have to take responsibility for the response and not just from Whitehall, or even County Hall, but from exactly where we stand.

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