Where the Women Lead

October 10, 2016

If Bill Clinton had been president of a Latin American country, then it would be statistically probable that Hillary Clinton––a Yale educated lawyer, former U.S. Senator, and former U.S. Secretary of State––would have been elected president by now. Some may think this a bold supposition, but it is a supposition rich in historical precedent.

Since 1990, with the election of Violeta Chamorro as president of Nicaragua, six Latin American countries have elected female presidents. Today, women govern three of the largest countries in the region: Brazil, Chile, and Argentina (Dilma Rousseff, Michelle Bachelet, and Cristina Kirchner, respectively). In total, nine women have been head of state of a Latin American country.

First, there was Isabel Perón of Argentina. The third wife of President Juan Perón, Isabel was Argentina’s Vice President until her husband died in 1974, at which point she became the world’s first president and the world’s first non-royal female head of state in the Americas. Despite the historic nature of her presidency, her tenure as Argentina’s president was riddled with corruption and allegations of human rights violations.

Mireya Moscoso, former president of Panama, whose first husband, Arnulfo Arias, was Panama’s president for three nonconsecutive terms, was elected Panama’s first female president in 1999. During her presidency, Moscoso faced several corruption scandals, such as the unexplained gift of $146,000 in watches to Legislative Assembly members. By 2001, her second year in office, Moscoso's approval rating had fallen to 23 percent due to corruption scandals and economic woes. That same year, she attempted to pass tax reform legislation through the legislative assembly, but failed due to opposition from both the private sector and organized labor.

Cristina Fernández de Kirchner, widower of former Argentine president Néstor Kirchner, was elected president in 2007, succeeding her husband as head of state. Fernández de Kirchner won reelection in 2011, and will leave office after the presidential elections this year.

Other women presidents came from strong political families such as Laura Chinchilla. A former one-term president of Costa Rica, Chinchilla comes from a political family. And then there are women from nonpolitical families who rose to the role of president: Michelle Bachelet of Chile, now serving her second nonconsecutive term in Chile; Dilma Rousseff of Brazil is currently in her second consecutive term after her reelection in 2014.

Does that mean that gender equality is more prevalent in Latin American politics than U.S. politics? Not necessarily.

These models of women as heads of state may be misleading with respect to political gender equality in the region; public support for women in politics varies, with women having considerably more support for women politicians than men. In addition, depending on the context, support for women politicians may have its roots in other motives, and not necessarily to promote gender equality in politics.

Imagine a president who is male; this president decides not to nominate women to government positions. If the president does not show the initiative to include women in the political sphere, male voters are less likely to support women to run for political office.

In a similar vein, poor governance by or low public opinion of a female politician may compromise the growth of the public’s gender-egalitarian attitudes, especially if a female politician is initially supported because she is believed to have political solutions that male counterparts may not have. (This claim is the subject of research by Mala Htun, who found that 66 percent of Latin Americans polled agreed that women are more honest than men, and 85 percent agreed that women are good decision-makers. Sixty-two percent of people expressed the belief that women would do better than men at reducing poverty, 72 percent said women would do better at improving education, 57 percent better at combating corruption, and 64 percent better at protecting the environment.) This is especially true when a country turns to a woman president due to disillusionment with the previous government, and therefore wants a change from the status quo. A prime example of this scenario is Laura Chinchilla, president of Costa Rica from 2010 to 2014: she began her presidency as one of the most popular presidents in Latin America and ended her presidency as one of the least popular presidents in the region, with an approval rate of just 13%.

In addition, even though women have been elected to high-level government positions, they do not necessarily support policy that centers on women’s concerns. To illustrate this point again, president Laura Chinchilla supported socially conservative policies, such as the prohibition of abortions and the morning after pill, and same-sex marriage.

So what explains the plethora of female presidents, and for that matter female politicians, in Latin America, a place supposedly rife with machísmo? This article is the first of a series about the role of women in Latin American politics, and why the United States has yet to elect a female president.

About Author(s)

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Susan Wiedel
Susan Wiedel is a senior at the University of Pittsburgh studying English Nonfiction Writing and Latin American Studies. In the summer of 2014, Susan participated in the Center for Latin American Studies' Seminar/Field Trip to Cochabamba, Bolivia, where she conducted a research project on the quality and attendance rates of public secondary schools in the city. The unique experience led her to become more involved in the Center by becoming a certificate student and writer for Panoramas.