Americans may be contemplating a female president for the first time, but in Asia 11 women have ruled in office since the 1960s—and many others exercise great influence from off-stage. Their cultures may be different, but they share one characteristic: politically powerful parents and husbands. "There is no doubt that the rise of female leaders is linked to their being members of prominent families: they are all the daughters, wives or widows of former government heads or leading oppositionists," write Claudia Derichs and Mark Thompson, the authors behind the German government-funded research project "Dynasties and Female Leadership in Asia." "These women share dynastic origins and inherited political leadership."
Chandrika Kumaratunga, the Sri Lankan head of state, once remarked that leading her homeland was the "family business." She succeeded her mother, Sirimavo Bandaranaike, who became the world's first female prime minister after her husband was assassinated in 1959. In their part of the world there is no shortage of family firms. Benazir Bhutto's much anticipated return to Pakistan this month after eight years in exile is believed to foreshadow her comeback as prime minister, a post she held from 1988 to 1990 and 1993 to 1996, as did her father, Zulfikar Ali Bhutto, in the 1970s. Megawati Sukarnoputri, daughter of Sukarno, Indonesia's first post-colonial president, was leader of the world's largest Muslim country between 2001 and 2004 and is expected to seek the post again in 2009. In Bangladesh, arch-enemies Sheikh Hasina and Khaleda Zia have both served as prime ministers as well as heads of the two largest political parties. Hasina's late father and Zia's late husband ran the country at different times.
The phenomenon isn't confined to developing countries. In South Korea, legislator Park Geun-hye, daughter of dictator Park Chung-hee, remains a power in the ruling conservative party despite recently losing the nomination for the presidency by a few votes. In Japan, one of the most prominent lawmakers is the controversial ex-foreign minister Makiko Tanaka, whose father was a prime minister.
Most of the women who have "inherited" political power—Megawati, Kumara-tunga, Gloria Macapagal-Arroyo and imprisoned Burmese pro-democracy leader Aung San Suu Kyi, daughter of Burmese revolutionary Aung San—also have brothers. But in the past two generations, women have been claiming a bigger share of the inheritance pie. This is partly because they are stepping up to take it, often spurred by social unrest. "We want women to be transformational leaders in transformational politics—not simply new members of the old male fraternity," says Patricia Licuanan, a Philippine academic who chaired 1995's landmark United Nations World Conference on Women in Beijing. But in politics as well as business, fathers are also increasingly comfortable ceding authority to qualified daughters, says Roger King of the Centre for Family Business Studies at the Hong Kong University of Science and Technology. He's also found that when women rather than men become the main decision-makers in Asian family enterprises, they tend to be more focused on preserving the name and values of their fathers. Suu Kyi was only 2 years old when her father was killed, but was obsessed by the idea of him while growing up and wrote a book about him. Bhutto was driven into politics by the memory of her father, who was executed after a trial she insists was unfair.
Still, even for women with famous last names, being female can be a disadvantage. "The women have to be even better as leaders. They have to have a lot of drive to get to the top in an environment where that is not the tradition," says Christine Blondel, a professor at the French business school INSEAD. But of course they've got it much better than women without family connections, who still have trouble breaking into politics; according to the Inter-Parliamentary Union, women compose only 16.6 percent of Asia's legislatures. That's an improvement over 13.1 percent a decade ago, but a long way from Scandinavia's 41.6 percent and still below the global average of 17.4 percent.
Still, having women in office—no matter how they got there—benefits other aspiring female candidates. "The more women in top positions in politics and business, the more women will be encouraged to enter these fields," says Licuanan. History shows that countries that have elected women leaders do it again, and that credentials rather than family ties ultimately become the issue. It's already happening in Asia: Han Myung-sook, who was South Korea's prime minister until last March, and Taiwanese Vice President Annette Lu Hsiu-lien both arrived at their positions not through birth but through lifelong careers as activists. Ability, not bloodline, was their ticket to power.