Everything else.. Before Mrs B: A Brief History of Women in Politics

Before Mrs B: A Brief History of Women in Politics

2020 Nov 18

Everyone knows Mrs. B – the first woman to become Prime Minister anywhere in the world. Sirimavo Bandaranayke served three terms as PM, including in 1990 under her daughter Chandrika Bandaranayke Kumaratunga, Sri Lanka’s first woman president. It was also the first time the world saw a mother-daughter team in the highest positions of power in a country. 

No doubt, Mrs. B’s appointment in 1960 helped create a wider platform for women to enter politics around the world. Today Finland has an all-woman coalition government and the United States of America just appointed the first woman to be the nation’s next Vice President.  

In Sri Lanka however, Mrs. B’s appointment has done little to increase the participation of women in politics since the ’60s. The currently poor representation of women in parliament has lead the nation to rank at 179 in the inter-parliamentary union index of 190 countries when neighbouring nations like India, Pakistan and Bangladesh score far higher. While Sri Lanka has more registered women voters (56%), the percentage of women actually holding office is a pitiful 5.3%. It begs the question – were the Bandaranayake women anomalies? 

The answer is no. Sirimavo wasn’t the first woman to hold office in Sri Lanka. In fact, women have been actively participating in politics and legislature since the days of the Donoughmore Commission when Agnes De Silva fought for the women’s right to vote.

There is very little historical record of De Silva’s life. We know she was born Agnes Nell to an aristocratic Burgher family in 1885, which could have been a stepping stone to her political career. She was wooed by and eventually married lawyer George E De Silva which probably provided her with the legal background she needed to promote reform. We can only make assumptions here with little real information available. What we do know is that she worked as Secretary for the Women’s Franchise Union. From her position, she campaigned for the women’s right to vote which was eventually reflected in the Donoughmore Commission’s radical reforms that went into effect with the country’s 1931 constitution. 

While we can assume Agnes De Silva’s marriage and family background provided her with the platform to enter a life in political and legal reform, other leading women in Sri Lanka’s political history have a more direct family link to politics. We may have a tendency to frown on nepotism, but it’s important to note the cultural context of the time where women’s voices were limited to their homes. Political nepotism cannot quite be looked at as a fault in this case, but as a necessary evil if a woman was to have a political career at the time.

This is true of Vivienne Goonewardena (b. 1916), niece of prominent socialist political figures Robert and Philip Goonewardana. Vivienne seems to have been a born leader and made for a life in politics. She was appointed head prefect during her school days and with the support of her uncles, went on to defy her father and be among the first group of women to have a university education in the country. She went against her father’s wishes once again with her choice of husband, Leslie Goonewardena whom she met while working for the Lanka Sama Samaja Party (LSSP). It was her association with the LSSP that lead Vivienne to first be elected to parliament on their party ticket in 1956. She went on to serve 3 consecutive terms in office in addition to serving several times as Colombo’s Municipal Councillor during her extensive tenure in politics.  

The same party (LSSP) to see Goonewardena elected was also responsible for Florence Mendis Senanayake, the first woman to be elected to office during the country’s debut independent parliamentary elections in 1947. Born in 1903, Florence Mendis wasn’t brought up in a political monarchy but eventually went on to marry Reginald Vincent Senanayake in 1925 who served as Treasurer of the LSSP in the 1930s, no doubt contributing to her run for office through the party. Sri Lankan women have also held office during Colonial times. Five years after suffrage was gained, three women ran for office for the first time in our nation’s history. Thesavam Saravanamuththu who contested for the Colombo North seat went on to win, marking 1936 as the year a woman first held office in the country.

The way women’s participation in the political arena began in the ’30s and ’40s hasn’t entirely spilled over to the present day. While several women have held office in the nearly 90 years since suffrage, Sri Lanka finds itself with yet another gender imbalanced parliament in 2020. 

To help increase women’s participation in local government elections, a 2016 law required all parties to have a mandatory minimum 25% women on their tickets, but it hasn’t translated to reflect the actual number of women holding office. Does this imply that voters still find men more fit to hold seats of power? Such voting patterns, driven by a patriarchal psyche don’t only mean that fewer women are elected, but tends to discourage women from entering politics at all. In a country where women make up over half the population, this is troubling. 

In 2013, Nigerian author Chimamanda Adichie delivered a TED Talk that forces listeners to rethink their predisposition to seeing men in seats of power. She told the audience that this idea worked thousands of years ago when hunter-gatherer tribes required physical strength to be an attribute in their leader. It made sense at the time. “But today we live in a vastly different world.,” she said, “The person more likely to lead is not the physically stronger person, it is the more creative person, the more intelligent person, the more innovative person, and there are no hormones for those attributes…We have evolved, but it seems to me that our ideas of gender have not evolved.