With the first, there have been so many column inches over this topic that I have come to dwell on the global symbolic power of the role of Pontiff – separate from the strengths or weaknesses of the human incumbent – this historic position holds a distinct rank in religious, moral, financial, and political arenas. It is always held by a man, given the rulings on women priests in the Roman Catholic church, and I wondered whether there are any women who hold symbolic power across the globe today, and if so, who are they? Clearly there is no position to really compete against the power of the Holy See, but I did wonder who would be my top three symbolically powerful international women today, defining symbolic power as being a culturally significant representative– and not confined to the UK. The Women’s Hour Power List ranked the Queen, Theresa May, and Ana Botin their top 3 women with (presumably) actual power, but here are my top 3 international women with symbolic power:
1. Aung San Suu Kyi
I was listening to Aung San Suu Kyi’s desert islands discs on Radio 4, and what struck me (again) was this here is a woman who stands for freedom, which is pretty amazing, and much of that is not just to do with the circumstances she was born into, but her repose and dignity in response to that situation and her irrepressible inner strength. She has become an international symbol for democracy, for fighting oppression, for holding the moral highground, and the place she holds certainly in Western culture is unparalleled, bar, if anyone, the Dalai Lama. In fact, the degree of her symbolic power has given her a stage to exert actual power over the international press, international leaders, and as inspiration to many millions of people. I would certainly argue that Aung San Suu Kyi in the most symbolically powerful woman in the world today.
2. The position of US Secretary of State
This is a bit of a cheat – not least because this position is now held by a man (John Kerry) – but also because it is very much symbolic power given that the top job in the US (the Presidency) has always been held by a man. Culturally I feel it is relevant that the US is happy to send top female politicians as its prime ambassador to the rest of the world, but there has not been one female presidential candidate nominee. In the last 20 years the role of American Secretary of State has been held by three women – Madeleine Albright (1997-2001), Condeleezza Rice (2005-2009) and more recently Hillary Clinton (2009-2013) – and they have represented the strong arm of the US on the international stage – symbolically powerful women indeed.
3. Susan Wicklund
You may not have heard of Susan Wicklund, but she is an American abortion provider based in Montana, US. She carries a gun and wears a bullet proof vest to get in to work as she is a prominent target of extreme anti-abortion campaigners in the US. To me, she is symbolically powerful because (1) she represents democracy in action – she is upholding a legal right to provide a medical service to women who have the legal right to seek that service (2) she is doing it despite significant threats upon her person and her family (3) she is standing up for people in need.
These women are powerful because they represent something important. I think it would strangely be far harder to write my list of top three symbolically important men. Any ideas?