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English professor’s book examines women who hold political power

RichardsBecca300x250In her new book, St. Olaf College Assistant Professor of English Rebecca Richards examines the rhetoric surrounding women from around the globe in national political leadership.

The book, titled Transnational Feminist Rhetorics and Gendered Leadership in Global Politics: From Daughters of Destiny to Iron Ladies, closely examines different women who have held political power, some for the first time in their country, and how gender expectations have affected their leadership.

“Rhetoric is the study of how meaning is made, and gender is one of the primary ways in which people make meaning of their lives — making gender inherently rhetorical. Rhetorical studies slows down this interpretive process and analyzes how gender is performed and understood in a social context,” says Richards.

In her book, Richards analyzes four rhetorical situations — autobiographies, organization, biographical films, and media representations — in order to conclude that when people think of political women, they invoke the discourse of women world leaders, which limits the potential for women to be world leaders.

“One of my arguments is that we often think of the same few women when we think about women as heads of state — Margaret Thatcher, Benazir Bhutto, and Golda Meir, just to name a few,” Richards says. “I wanted to make sure that I accounted for the variety of women and their politics. Still, as a book it cannot account for everything and everyone, so there are figures that still go under-explored in my book. That gap was hard for me to wrestle with because it is the same gap that I critique in my book.”

Although Richards did not plan on the book commenting on Hillary Clinton and the upcoming election, as it was written after the 2008 election and before Clinton announced her plans to run for president in 2016, the epilogue points out that gendered frameworks are still deeply ingrained in U.S. politics and media, and that Clinton’s campaign doesn’t point to any radical political agenda or proof of gender equality.

Book title: Transnational Feminist Rhetorics and Gendered Leadership in Global Politics: From Daughters of Destiny to Iron LadiesRichards has presented her work at conferences, resulting in people wanting to share their own experiences with political figures. Since many of the women Richards wrote about came from smaller nations, it is not unusual for the people she meets at conferences to have had a personal encounter with these political figures.

“Their stories kept me focused on the fact that these political women were and are real people who have friends and loved ones, who have awkward moments, dreams, and anxieties. Even if they become powerful cultural icons, they are still flesh and blood,” Richards says. “This is important to remember when writing about other people’s lives.”

This isn’t the first time Richards has written on the topic. An essay of hers was featured in Political Women: Language and Leadership, an anthology examining women and political rhetoric. Another essay, titled “Who Runs the World?: Hillary Clinton and the Use of Pop Feminism as Rhetorical Strategy,” will be published this fall in an anthology titled Hillary Rodham Clinton and the 2016 Election: Her Political and Social Discourse.

Richards hopes that readers of her new book will not only learn about women who have held political power, but also become critical of political leadership.

“I hope that readers challenge the notion that leadership is a masculine trait or position,” she says. “We need broader, more inclusive understandings of what it means to lead so that we don’t keep associating national leadership only with military power, aggressive violence, and disembodiment. As long as we hitch leadership to such limiting notions of masculinity, we cannot expect even the most ethical political woman to change the geopolitical system to be more peaceful, egalitarian, and humane. Electing a woman to executive leadership doesn’t inherently change the system.”