We need to talk about Joyce Banda
Joyce Banda ... Malawi president and unapologetic a feminist.
Just because a politician is female, you can't assume she'll be announcing her feminist principles from the rooftops. For every Hillary Clinton - who describes women's rights as "the signature issue" of US foreign policy - there's a Julia Gillard, who may have overseen some major policy shifts which help women, but also admits apparently "downplaying the significance" of being a female leader.
So a moment please for Joyce Banda : Africa's second-ever female head of state, the first woman to run Malawi and about as unapologetic a feminist as you're likely to find in international politics - in her words just as much as her deeds.
"I feel that I'm carrying this heavy load on behalf of all women," Banda told the Guardian recently. "If I fail, I will have failed all the women of the region. But to succeed, they must rally around me."
The death of 78-year-old president Bingu wa Mutharika in early April should have put her - the elected vice-president - in the hot seat weeks ago, but the cabinet attempted to install Mutharika's brother instead, buying time by pretending the late president was still alive. By securing the support of the country's army commander, Banda effectively pushed Malawi to the brink of a military coup - which, perhaps unsurprisingly, brought the rest of the country's ministers round to her way of thinking.
But since the forceful start to her presidency, Banda has been more conciliatory: repairing bonds with foreign donor countries concerned about her predecessor's "dictatorial" tendencies, promising to "reach out" to Malawian women.
And if Banda's past record is anything to go by, she's likely to stick to that second pledge at least. First gaining recognition for promoting girls' education, she has run a number of her own businesses as well as a micro-financing organisation for women which, in a country where 75 per cent of people live on less than a dollar a day, has made her pretty popular. As minister for gender, she introduced a bill criminalising domestic violence, and when President Mutharika's wife tried to belittle her political ambitions by describing her as a market woman selling fritters, she replied: "yes she's right, I'm indeed a mandasi (fritter) seller and I'm proud of it because the majority of women in Malawi are like us."
Not that she's always quite so sisterly: Patricia Kaliati, the misleadingly titled Information Minister who publicly kept up the fiction that the late president Mutharika was alive, has already been expelled from her job. And Banda seems to have equally little time for Madonna, who briefly planned to open a school in Malawi, which Banda's sister was due to run. "I have a problem with a lot of things around the adoption of children and the changing of the mind and then coming back to build community schools," Banda has said.
But as in so many places around the world just now, the biggest question hanging over Banda is not gender politics but whether she can repair her country's economy, badly damaged by Mutharika's corruption as well as attempts to create a "zero deficit budget" (so rarely a good idea ... ). Malawi's promising politicians have a habit of turning out to be more self-serving than servants of the people , although as long as Banda refrains from buying herself a plane she'll be doing better than her predecessor.
While politicians everywhere worry about corruption and the economy, Banda also has some less universal problems: her visits to a Nigerian spiritualist who in February prophesised that an African leader would die in April have seen her attacked in some quarters for her involvement in a "plot" to get rid of Mutharika. Nigeria's Tribune newspaper points out that while such claims are easy for nonbelievers to dismiss, they have the potential to "engineer violence and ethnic mistrust in a country gripped by widespread poverty."
But while it remains to be seen whether Banda can fulfil her promise, her vocal feminism and practical activism are refreshing, plus she can probably be relied on not to take Madonna's endorsement - the singer apparently thinks she's "amazing" - with a generous pinch of salt. Let's just hope she's as level-headed about the other trappings of political success.