Countries With Powerful Female Leaders
When it comes to gender equality, we are living in a historic age. Women make up nearly a quarter of the United States Congress, more than at any other point in history, and representation is steadily increasing in statewide offices across the nation. Globally, women are also participating more frequently in the political process, even though progress is slow.
At the forefront of these societal shifts are the 14 powerhouse women who currently serve as president, prime minister or chancellor of their home country, defying every tired stereotype about a woman’s ability to lead. As this map shows, women hardly hold an iron grip on political leadership, as the vast majority of nations remain ruled by men. But progress is being made, slowly but surely.
And, surprise surprise: Many of these female-led nations are thriving. Here’s where to go if you want to visit a country where a woman runs the show.
Iceland: Prime Minister Katrin Jakobsdottir
Kudos to Iceland for long being open to female leaders — the country elected the world’s first female president, Vigdís Finnbogadóttir, all the way back in 1980. More recently, in 2017, Katrin Jakobsdottir secured the prime minister role at 41 years old, becoming the second woman in Iceland history to hold a head-of-state position.
Jakobsdottir’s political career spans decades, and she boasts a resume as impressive as you’d expect of a woman who’s ascended the boys’-club ranks: She served as Minister of Education, Science and Culture and the Minister of Nordic Co-operation from 2009 to 2013, and as deputy chairperson of the Left Green Movement in 2003.
Under Jakobsdottir’s watch, Iceland has enjoyed a tourist boom that’s led to a reduction in unemployment and an economic revolution following fallout from the 2008 global financial crisis. She's also led the charge on environmental activism, with her sights set on making Iceland completely carbon neutral by 2040.
All this, and she’s managed to maintain her status as Iceland’s “most trusted politician.” Not bad!
The Marshall Islands: President Hilda Heine
Hilda Heine became a symbol of hope for young Marshallese girls who’d dreamed of a life in politics when she was elected president of the Marshall Islands in 2016, making her the first-ever female leader of an independent Pacific Island country.
In a career marked by “firsts,” Heine was also the first person, male or female, to earn a doctorate in the Marshall Islands, meaning she officially goes by Dr. Hilda Heine. And she has an illustrious record on fighting for the good of her people. After serving as a classroom teacher for most of her life, she became Secretary of Education and Minister of Education and co-founded Women United Together Marshall Islands (WUTMI), an organization that provides counseling for domestic violence victims and promotes the eradication of violence against women.
Unsurprisingly, as the leader of a small island country, Heine is also a tireless advocate for battling climate change, recently co-penning the “Washington Post” piece, “Don’t let rising seas drown the Marshall Islands.”
New Zealand: Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern
At just 38 years old, Jacinda Ardern is not only the youngest female world leader on earth, she is also the youngest New Zealand prime minister in over 150 years, period. Impressively, she won the deputy leader seat of the New Zealand Labour Party in a landslide victory just a few months before securing the prime minister nomination.
A true modern-day political pioneer, Ardern earned feminist praise when she became the second world leader in history to give birth while in office and the first to take maternity leave.
In March, she made global headlines following the horrific mass shooting in New Zealand, as she powerfully and gracefully led the country during its time of grief. More recently, in May, she made a splash when she announced a first-of-its kind “wellbeing” budget to tackle mental illness, family violence and child poverty.
Namibia: Prime Minister Saara Kuugongelwa-Amadhila
Saara Kuugongelwa-Amadhila is nothing if not determined, and touts a remarkable story behind her political ascendance.
A longtime member of the South West Africa People's Organization (SWAPO), a liberation movement, she went into exile with the group when she was just 13 years old. Leaving behind her hometown in northern Namibia and traveling to the West African country of Sierra Leone, Kuugongelwa-Amadhila continued her education and eventually ended up with a degree in economics from Pennsylvania’s Lincoln University.
After returning to Namibia, she was offered a job in the Office of the President at age 27, not long after her home country gained independence. She swiftly moved up the ranks to Director General of the National Planning Commission a few months later. In 2015, the president of Namibia appointed her to the position of prime minister, which she has served as since.
Kuugongelwa-Amadhila is credited with employing “serious fiscal discipline” to present the first budget surplus in the country’s history while in office.
Bangladesh: Prime Minister Sheikh Hasina
The longest-serving leader in Bangladesh’s history is the daughter of the man principally responsible for the country’s independence from Pakistan in the 1970s. Hasina sacrificed a lot to get to where she is today, having survived arrests for her political views, imprisonment and six years in exile after her family was assassinated (by military officers arrested for the crime over 13 years later).
Her government made headlines in 2017 after providing assistance and refuge to 700,000 citizens of Myanmar who were fleeing genocide. Hasina announced in February 2019 that, at 71 years old, she wouldn’t be running for re-election so that the country could make room for young leaders.
Her main objectives for her final term? Combating poverty and promoting social equality.
Nepal: President Bidhya Devi Bhandari
Elected in 2015, Bidhya Devi Bhandari is the first female president in Nepal’s history. In 2018 she was re-elected for a second term by an overwhelming majority — 39,275 votes to 11,730 votes, according to the country’s Election Commission.
She faced early tragedy in her presidency after a devastating earthquake shook the county just six months after her term began, taking thousands of lives and damaging infrastructure. Since then, Bhandari has worked with her fellow leaders to rebuild the country, while emphasizing the importance of gender equality in efforts to recover from disaster.
Nepal is a country that has long been defined as a male-dominated society, and politics are no exception. Bhandari’s election represents a milestone for the Nepalese people in an ongoing push towards equality. A long-time campaigner for women’s rights, she successfully fought for a mandate in the country’s new constitution requiring Nepal’s parliament to be made up of at least one-third women.
Estonia: President Kersti Kaljulaid
Estonia has had four presidents since the country gained independence from the Soviet Union in 1991. Kersti Kaljulaid became both the first female and the youngest head-of-state in Estonian history in 2016 and famously launched a digital revolution in the country. She was responsible for the first platform to allow Estonians to pay taxes and vote online, making it available to all of her country’s citizens.
Under her term, Estonia became a leader in business startups, especially impressive given the country’s small population of just 1.3 million people. Kaljulaid also helped to implement the world’s first ever “digital nomads visa” in 2019, allowing visitors from other countries to work in Estonia for a year.
And just in case you weren’t impressed enough already, while traveling through the U.S. in 2018, Kaljulaid ran the NYC Marathon in just over four hours.
Germany: Chancellor Angela Merkel
Angela Merkel is currently serving her fourth term as chancellor of Germany. First elected in 2005, she is the first female chancellor in German history, as well as the first from East Germany and the youngest.
Merkel trained as a physicist at university and earned a doctorate in 1986 for her thesis on quantum chemistry before starting her career in politics in 1989 (after the fall of the Berlin Wall). She’s steered her country through the euro-zone debt crisis and the refugee crisis, gaining mixed reviews after temporarily suspending refugee laws in 2015 — leading to a reported 1.4 million asylum applications.
In October of 2018, Merkel announced that she wouldn’t be running for a fifth term as chancellor (or any other political position) once her current term has ended in 2021. She also stepped down from her chairmanship of the Christian Democratic Union (CDU), a position she’d held for 18 years.
"It is time today for me to start a new chapter," she told reporters in Berlin, adding that serving as Chancellor had been a "very challenging and fulfilling task."
Croatia: President Kolinda Grabar-Kitarovic
Kolinda Grabar-Kitarovic was able to add “president” to her long list of political accomplishments in 2015. Aside from becoming the first female and youngest person to be elected president in Croatia, she also served as her country’s Foreign Minister, U.S. Ambassador and NATO Assistant Secretary-General.
She’s widely known as a relatable and engaging leader, maintaining a more approachable demeanor than her fellow dignitaries. Case in point? In 2018, she made headlines when she showed up to the FIFA World Cup sporting a colorful jersey and standing in the rain to support her country’s losing team members, shaking the hand of each player.
Before becoming elected as president, Grabar-Kitarovic identified with the center-right Croatian Democratic Union (Croatian presidents aren’t allowed to be affiliated with a specific party while in office).
Norway: Prime Minister Erna Solberg
Currently serving her second term as Norway’s prime minister, Erna Solberg has been an advocate for women’s reproductive health and environmental sustainability throughout her political career. She’s served as leader of the Conservative Party since 2004 and was elected prime minister in 2013.
More recently, Solberg made history by reaching an agreement in January of 2019 to form a center-right majority government for Norway — the country’s first non-socialist government since 1985. The new coalition aims to reduce greenhouse gas emissions and monitor oil-drilling to combat climate change.
On account of her impassioned commitment to the environment, Solberg was appointed co-chair of the Sustainable Development Goals Advocacy Group (basically a global “to-do” list to improve humanity and the planet) by the U.N. Secretary General, along with Ghanaian President John Dramani Mahama, in 2016.
Ethiopia: President Sahle-Work Zewde
An advocate for peace and gender equality in her country, Sahle-Work Zewde is currently the only female president in Africa. (Namibia’s Saara Kuugongelwa-Amadhila is the continent’s only female prime minister.)
She became Ethiopia’s president in 2018 and works alongside the country’s prime minister Abiy Ahmed, who defied political gender norms by appointing a cabinet made of 50 percent women that same year.
While Ethiopia is no stranger to women leaders (the country was governed by Empress Zewditu from 1916-1930), Sahle-Work Zewde is widely considered Ethiopia’s first “modern-era” head-of-state by its citizens. She’s held numerous important jobs throughout her career, including UN positions like Head of Peace-Building in the Central African Republic, Ethiopian Ambassador in Senegal and UN Representative at the African Union.
Her address to parliament after being sworn in was a promise to help end gender inequality and promote peace within Ethiopia. “The absence of peace victimises firstly women,” she proclaimed, “so during my tenure I will emphasise women's roles in ensuring peace and the dividends of peace for women.”
Taiwan: President Tsai Ing-wen
President Tsai Ing-wen is Taiwan’s first female president, though she wasn’t exactly a natural choice — before assuming the presidential role, she trained as a lawyer and worked as a trade negotiator, rather than holding any political office.
She’s known for her solitude and privacy, which she recently told CNN she attributes to her intense focus on politics and her country’s international relations. Her detachment from her voters is something she’s been working on, she said in the same interview, especially as she eyes re-election in 2020.
An advocate for LGBT rights and pension reform, Ing-wen is a decidedly progressive figure in a country that leans more conservative. But her anti-China rhetoric has made her popular with the people and given her an advantage for re-election.
United Kingdom: Prime Minister Theresa May
Theresa May became the second female prime minister of the U.K. in 2016. With big Margaret Thatcher-sized shoes to fill, May had already made history before becoming PM as the longest-serving secretary of state for the home department in 100 years.
As conservative leader and later prime minister, May’s defining political move became her struggle to withdraw the United Kingdom from the European Union following the “Brexit” referendum.
She revealed to the press after securing the prime minister spot that she didn’t want Brexit to define her time in office, insisting that she wanted to focus on providing more opportunities to society’s disadvantaged and to propose radical social reform. Instead, dealing with the challenges of Brexit was such a burdensome task that it proved to be her undoing. In June, she announced that she was quitting office, with a new PM slated to be announced on July 23.
Lithuania: President Dalia Grybauskaite
Grybauskaite is Lithuania’s first female president since the country declared independence from the Soviet Republic in 1991. Also the first president of Lithuania to be elected for a second term, she is known for her criticism of Vladimir Putin and rejection of closer ties with Russia, earning her the title of “The Baltic Iron Lady,” a nod to the famous nickname for Margaret Thatcher.
She holds no ties to a specific political party and chose to run as an Independent candidate for the presidential election in 2009. That year, she won over 69 percent of the vote, the largest-ever margin of victory in a Lithuanian presidential election.
Grybauskaite is a former EU Commissioner and helped play a part in her country’s succession to the European Union in 2004. Though popular in Lithuania, Grybauskaite was ineligible to run in the country’s 2019 presidential election after serving two terms; in July, she’ll be replaced in office by Gitanas Nauseda.