Almost drowned out by the blare of daily horrors in the Middle East, the world’s first elected woman prime minister, Sirima Bandaranaike, died last week in Sri Lanka aged 84. Fittingly, she died on the way home from casting her vote in an election called by her daughter, the country’s current president. It was also fitting that the main issue of the election was how to stop the civil war “Mrs. B” had done so much to start.

Back in the 1950s, there was still a widespread belief that women were too indecisive for the exercise of power. Later, in the 1960s, there was a theory that women in power would somehow be wiser and gentler than men. Sirimavo Bandaranaike was a living refutation of both propositions. She was fearsomely decisive, and profoundly unwise. Her legacy was a civil war.

At the moment, Sri Lankan citizens are killing one another in industrial quantities in the Jaffna Peninsula in the north of the country. This region is home to most of the Tamil-speaking minority, a group so alienated by Bandaranaike’s policies that it eventually fell under the thrall of rebels devoted to the creation of a separate Tamil state called Eelam. At least 60,000 people have already died in the brutal 17-year civil war.

Ignorance, not stupidity, is the right word, at least in the case of Bandaranaike, an intelligent woman and a brilliant political tactician. She was prime minister in three separate decades, but she never understood her own country, or at least that part of it that stood outside the Buddhist, Sinhala-speaking mainstream. She certainly never comprehended the fears of the Tamil minority.

Indeed, she seemed barely aware of their existence, though Tamils are almost one-fifth of Sri Lanka’s 18 million people. Her first and most fateful decision, to make Sinhala the only national language, was inherited from her husband, prime minister before her, who was assassinated by a deranged Buddhist monk in 1959. But it was she who pushed the legislation through, and started the slide toward civil war in a previously civil society.

The open Tamil fight for independence from Sri Lanka did not start until after the nationwide anti-Tamil pogroms of 1983, at a time when Bandaranaike was out of office. But it was she who did the most to legitimize the attitudes that eventually led to that tragedy. No individual is ever solely responsible for the wreck of an entire country, but Sirima Bandaranaike came pretty close.

How ironic, therefore, that her daughter, President Chandrika Kumaratunga, should be leading the effort to achieve a peaceful settlement with the Tamils. It is a thankless task, because the Tamil leadership has been radicalized to the point of intransigence, while ethnic supremacism has become a staple of Sinhalese politics. In last week’s election, she did not win enough seats in Parliament to push through constitutional changes that would give Tamil-speaking areas more autonomy, and she still refuses to talk to the Tamil Tigers directly. But she is trying.

The contrast between mother and daughter is of little consolation to Sri Lanka, since the daughter seems unable to undo what the mother wrought. But in terms of those old arguments about women in power, the two constitute a kind of limiting case. If you can have such extreme variations among the women of one family, then there is no generalization you can safely make about women in power.

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