Today, we have a crucial U.S. presidential election, which could choose the country’s first woman president. I thought I would find out how women who are heads of government have fared—not in elections but in the databases.
Which leaders are being studied? Who has piqued the interest of scholars so far? Where are opportunities for new research? The most relevant database for this query seemed to be “Historical Abstracts,” available through EBSCOhost via our wonderful Esther Raushenbush Library at Sarah Lawrence. The database “covers the history of the world (excluding the United States and Canada), focusing on the 15th century to the present” and has “[indexed] historical articles from nearly 2,300 journals in over 40 languages.” A full list of publications can be found here.
Through online research, I selected, somewhat arbitrarily, several leaders to feature here. I wanted to get a mix that covered regions around the world (so if you don’t see your favorite leader here, it may be because I didn’t want any one region to dominate). If you do any basic research on this topic, you’ll notice a number of subtleties that affect who could be listed here. In short, although we are historians of women’s lives, let’s not overgeneralize about the pool of leaders overall. The content available on specific figures is on what we should focus.
|Historical Abstracts (EBSCOhost)
|Former Prime Minister Julia Gillard (Australia)||23|
|Chancellor Angela Merkel (Germany)||15|
|President Michelle Bachelet (Chile)||11|
|President Ellen Johnson Sirleaf (Liberia)||11|
|President Park Geun-hye (South Korea)||3|
|Prime Minister Sheikh Hasina (Hasina Wajed) (Bangladesh)||3|
|Former Prime Minister Helen Clark (New Zealand)||2|
|Former President Dilma Rousseff (Brazil)||2|
|Former Prime Minister Yingluck Shinawatra (Thailand)||2|
|Former President Cristina Fernández de Kirchner (Argentina)||1|
|Former Prime Minister Portia Simpson-Miller (Jamaica)||1|
|Former President Joyce Banda (Malawi)||0|
|Former Prime Minister Kamla Persad-Bissessar (Trinidad and Tobago)||0|
|Prime Minister Erna Solberg (Norway)||0|
|Prime Minister Beata Szydło (Poland)||0|
To locate documents written by academics, I specified peer-reviewed results in my search. Since we primarily access resources in English, I specified English language documents.
As you can see in the above table, the search results for well-known leaders, like Angela Merkel and Ellen Johnson Sirleaf, are high on the list. Chancellor Merkel is a highly visible leader who has played a role in response to the refugee and Greek debt crises. President Johnson Sirleaf was awarded the Nobel Peace Prize in 2011 and was featured in Pray the Devil Back to Hell (dir. Gini Reticker).
Former Prime Minister Julia Gillard of Australia is not a household name, but she may have topped this list because she is from an English-speaking country. (Australian publications are included in the database). (However, Gillard did catch our attention with her notable “misogyny speech” in 2012.)
As scholars, we typically need grants, fellowships, or other special funding to complete research that requires travel. So, it’s not altogether surprising that some leaders are not discussed in peer-reviewed work of the database. We may only study history domestically and, therefore, have less access to relevant primary sources on certain political figures.
Countries like Malawi and Jamaica may receive less attention, compared to, say, Germany and South Korea, due to the latter’s strategic alliances with the U.S. Nevertheless, the leaders of Malawi, Jamaica, and other countries deserve our attention too. Not only does it serve us to learn the lessons and challenges of women in leadership, but the knowledge of political leaders abroad also helps us understand the context in which the civilian population lives.
So, historians: look at your options! Could the stories of one of these leaders be your research niche?
Thanks to Margot Note for her assistance and comments with this project!
*I searched each person’s name with quotes (e.g., “angela merkel”, “joyce banda”) to ensure that results would feature those documents where the first and last names are found together. Where an individual has a hyphenated name, I searched the name with quotes, with and without the hyphen (e.g., “Portia Simpson Miller” OR “Portia Simpson-Miller”). In the case of Cristina Fernández de Kirchner, I searched for variations of the name using the OR boolean tool.