INTERVIEW: Joyce Banda and The Inspirational Effect of a Female President

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Malawi’s first female President, Joyce Banda, came to power under peculiar circumstances. She was never elected as president, but as the country’s Vice President she ascended into power after her male predecessor, Bingu Mutharika, died in office. At the time of her installation, Malawi was going through turbulent times. The country was in the midst of a deep economic crisis and had undergone a process of serious democratic erosion. To make matters worse, the government had fallen out with the international donor community.

Nevertheless, expectations were high for the new President. As only the second-ever female President on the African continent she drew attention from around the world as a trailblazer for female empowerment. However, to what extent can a female President elected under such difficult circumstances really promote female empowerment?

The legacy of Banda’s Presidency for women in Malawi politics has been debated. Banda herself was voted out of power in 2014 amid plummeting approval ratings. For the first time since the introduction to multipartyism in 1994, female parliamentary representation also declined in the 2014 parliamentary election. These findings correspond with other research suggesting that women Presidents and Prime Ministers may not be more prone than male leaders to advance the political careers of their fellow women. Famously, for instance, Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher’s first cabinet did not include a single female minister. 

Still, in a new article published in the American Political Science Review, we argue that Banda advanced the role of women in politics in a less obvious way. Studying debates in the Malawi parliament, we find that the Banda presidency was associated with a significant increase in the number of speeches delivered by female MPs. We argue that the change in female parliamentary behavior is an indication of intra-elite role model effects and that Malawi can teach us a lot about the symbolic importance of women presidents.

Our findings resonate with a larger literature suggesting that women in high political offices inspire other women both at the elite and mass-level. For instance, research from the UK has suggested that female parliamentary committee chairs can inspire female parliamentarians and cross-national research has suggested that women government ministers can inspire increased female political participation. This research suggests that it is not enough to simply increase women’s formal representation in political institutions, but that women also need to find leadership within these institutions to really give voice to women voters.

Following the publication of the article, I thought it would be instructive and valuable to discuss its findings with President Banda herself. The interview touched on the obstacles to women political leadership, the symbolic importance of a woman president, but also some of the limits that women leaders face in promoting fellow women while in power.

Michael Wahman, Assistant Professor, Michigan State University

The article by Michael Wahman, Nikolaos Frantzeskakis, and Murat T. Yildirim on the symbolic impact of President Banda’s presidency was published in the American Political Science Review and is available here (open access)

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