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A Different First Lady

This article was originally uploaded on the 21st March

War is an inherently masculine concept. It embodies all the tropes and values that traditional masculinity promotes. War values violence, egos, a lack of compassion, a ‘man up’ attitude. This is often seen in the way war is portrayed in the media, in speeches by (usually male) politicians and the way soldiers are seen to be the ultimate form of masculinity. 

In the past, war was always written and executed by men, whilst women picked up the pieces at home. Even today, in the current conflict between Ukraine and Russia, the leaders of both countries are male. Putin embodies all the traditional masculine traits, as he tries to assert his strength and power through his invasion of Ukraine. That being said, Zelenskyy has had much praise for his handling of the conflict, his commitment to dialogue and peace, his ‘hands-on’ approach to the situation, and his compassion. 

However, the view of women and their role in times of conflict has changed. The way women are viewed in society has vastly shifted in the last hundred years, resulting in women fighting on the front lines, for example, and no longer seen as solely homemakers. 

One major reason for the change in our conception of war is the way we receive our news.  In the past, this was limited to traditional means, often including rousing speeches by wartime leaders promoting traditional masculine ideals of violence, duty, and bravery. However, today, this has changed. We consume news through social media to a greater extent which has helped shine a light on the role of women in the conflict in the absence of this in the traditional news outlets. 

One prominent voice on social media is the Ukrainian First Lady, Olena Zelenska. Formerly a comedy writer, as First Lady she has used her position to champion women and children’s rights, Ukraine’s Paralympic effort, and fighting domestic abuse  – to name just a few. She echoed Michelle Obama’s stance on being First Lady – reluctant at first but later embracing the role to make a positive impact with her platform. 

Throughout the last two weeks, Zelenska, having risen to global fame, has remained in Ukraine to help boost the morale of the Ukrainian people, despite reportedly being Putin’s target number two, after her husband. She has continued to use her Instagram account – with 2.5 million followers – to lift the voices of those who do not have one and has shown her ability to be a leader who is empathetic and values the role of those who are often overlooked. When talking about the horrors Ukraine has faced in the last couple of weeks, she has added a touch of emotion that is often not seen in other wartime leaders. Where traditional news reports on numbers and the bravery shown by soldiers, she highlights the individual stories of those children who have died and inspires hope in her messages with personal heartfelt captions. She writes in real-time, providing her honest opinions and emotions – something that is not often seen in politicians’ official social media accounts. 

She has also used her platform to highlight the role of women in the conflict, from soldiers to volunteers to carers – a perspective that often does not get as much attention in the traditional reporting of war. The role of women on the frontline and providing support in a conflict is an area that has traditionally been overlooked. Zelenska provides a powerful, refreshing, and sometimes heart-breaking perspective of what life is like in Ukraine. 

She has proudly shown how First Ladies from around the world have come together to support Ukraine in the war effort – with a particular mention to Brigitte Macron who was one of the first to offer support and has helped set up a scheme for Ukrainian children in need of hospitalisation from the worst-hit cities continue their treatment in France. She has shown the power of women coming together behind the scenes, without the need to show it off to the world, and how effective this can be, unlike other leaders who feel a need to prove their strength as a leader. 

Olena Zelenska has shown the world what it’s really like to be a true leader, to use your platform for good to give a voice to those who have no voice in a time of crisis when it really matters. She has shown what a leader, and a politician, looks like who is truly fighting for their people, and not their own personal gain. She has given bravery in times of war a new meaning and extended it beyond traditional masculine tropes. She has shown what it is to be a woman showing solidarity with other women, lifting each other up, and how powerful this can be. 

Illustration by Mary Buchanan