Fifty years ago, on January 24, 1966, Indira Gandhi was sworn into office as India’s third prime minister. She was not the first elected female head of state–that honor goes to Sirivamo Bandaraniake of Sri Lanka. But she was the first woman elected to her country’s highest position who played a visible role on the international political stage.
Like many women who assumed political power in the twentieth century, Gandhi followed in the footsteps of a powerful male relative.* As the only child of Jawaharlal Nehru, India’s first prime minister and a major player in India’s independence movement, Indira was active in politics from an early age. When Prime Minister Lal Bahadur Shastri died unexpectedly of a heart-attack, Gandhi was appointed to office as a consensus candidate because the various male contenders for office could not agree among themselves. They assumed Gandhi would be easy to manipulate, but she proved to be anything but a docile place-holder. For three terms and twenty years, Gandhi was a powerful and controversial figure in Indian politics.
Whatever your political preferences, it is worth being reminded that the United States is a relative latecomer in terms of electing a female head of state.
*Not Mahatma Gandhi! Gandhi was her married name.
Photograph by unknown photographer from the Dutch National Archives, The Hague, Fotocollectie Algemeen Nederlands Persbureau (ANEFO), 1945-1989 bekijk toegang 2.24.01.04 Bestanddeelnummer 929-0811, CC BY-SA 3.0 nl, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=37190788