17 May Ellen Johnson Sirleaf: A Feminist Icon?
In 2005, Ellen Johnson Sirleaf was elected President of Liberia, making her the first female head of state on the continent of Africa. Her victory was hailed as a milestone for women, Liberia, and the entire continent. Her administration lasted 12 years, and the conversation in Liberia is still fresh regarding her legacy and her leadership
We wanted to highlight Sirleaf for those two realities being held in tension: she is revolutionary and she is human.
She was born in 1938 in Monrovia, Liberia. Married at 17 to James Sirleaf, they got divorced 11 years later due to his abusive behavior. Both during and after her marriage, Sirleaf pursued formal education in Liberia and the United States. She earned degrees from University of Colorado and Harvard before dedicating her life to civil service in Liberia.
There’s a lot to unpack about Liberia’s history, especially the war that ran in the early 2000s and ended just prior to Sirleaf’s election, but I (Dr. Donnelly) am in no way qualified to have that chat. For those interested, I’d send you here or here. Note, however, that women played a HUGE role in ending that conflict and they were a key to Sirleaf’s 2005 election.
According to Pamela Scully, author of a recent biography on Sirleaf, “During Sirleaf’s first term, Liberia became in effect Development Central. Liberia offered a laboratory for international development experts who were struggling to find new ways of partnering. . . . [W]ith a feminist president possessing unusual financial and administrative skills, development experts saw in Liberia an opportunity to do good.”
What this means, as scholar Dr. Laura Seay points out, is that Liberia in general and Sirleaf in particular became comfortable with a lot of alliances. This put her in a rock-and-a-hard-place situation: the country couldn’t run without outsiders, but too many outsiders meant she lost the trust of her people.
As if that balance wasn’t hard enough to trod, 2014 brought the ebola outbreak that decimated much of western Africa. Sirleaf and her administration simply weren’t equipped to handle it. While that wasn’t the only reason she was not re-elected, it certainly played a key role.
When you read accounts of Sirleaf’s leadership – both criticisms and praise – one is left with the impression that this woman the country called “Ma Ellen” was to be their savior. She was to fix their economy, deliver them from terrorist factions, raise their profile on the international stage, and fight ebola single handedly. There are some significant criticisms – especially regarding female genital mutilation and her apparent apathy towards preventing it – and some really petty ones – there’s a lot of bluster around her fashion choices.
If we can pause and reflect on the whole of her presidency, the lesson that Sirleaf can teach us is to manage expectations. She was a great leader, but she was human and made errors and missteps and let power go to her head. We all must remember that even superstars walk with feet of clay, and placing fewer of them on pedestals might do us all good in the long run.
That wraps up our Ladies Who Lead: Non-Western Rulers edition! We hope you enjoyed learning about these four incredible and very different women. If you have a suggestion for a non-Western leader we should highlight in the future, drop us a comment below!