President Michelle Bachelet marked her second inauguration last month wearing the country’s traditional red, white and blue presidential sash in a ceremony outside the Chile Congress building. Her first term spanned from 2006 to 2010, during which she enjoyed massive public approval. In announcing her second presidential run in March of last year, she promised that she would lead “the first government of the new political and social majority” and “build a more inclusive Chile.” Bachelet’s political success in recent years has been nothing short of extraordinary, especially given that women in Chile only gained the unrestricted right to vote in national elections in 1949. Similar progress has been made throughout Latin America, with women now occupying seats in parliaments and presidential palaces across the region. But in spite of these strides, violence against women and economic disparity between genders remain exceptionally high, leaving much room for progress in the Latin American quest for gender equality. In this light, Bachelet’s promise of a more inclusive Chile may prescribe much-needed regional change.
In 2005, Bachelet was the first woman to win a Chilean presidential election. In her victory speech, she remarked, “Who would have said…15 years ago, that a woman would be elected president?” Since that watershed moment, four women, including Bachelet, have won five presidential elections in Latin America. Argentina’s Cristina Fernández de Kirchner was elected in 2007 and again in 2011; Dilma Rousseff assumed the Brazilian presidency in 2010; Laura Chinchilla Miranda of Costa Rica became president in 2010; and Bachelet was re-elected in 2013. Although Chinchilla will step down this spring, all of these women are in power today. The total population of their countries is upwards of 250 million — meaning that they collectively represent nearly half of Latin America. This is truly an unprecedented situation for the continent, and it puts each of these leaders in a unique position to effect change in the struggle for women’s rights.
In that fight, these chief executives will have many powerful female allies in Latin American legislatures. Between 2006 and 2011, the proportion of women in Nicaragua’s National Assembly increased from 18.5 to nearly 40 percent — a clear indication of the progress women have made in politics. In Latin America as a whole, women occupy more than a quarter of the total parliamentary seats. This renders the region second only to Scandinavia, which is governed by parliaments that are 42 percent female on average. Given that the world average is 19.5 percent, Latin America has emerged as a clear global leader on this front, putting it in a prime position to promote gender equality.
The victories of women in Latin American politics have been years in the making, born from the long history of women’s parties and coalitions before them. After World War I, Pan-American feminism took hold in the region, thanks to landmark figures like Paulina Luisi of Uruguay and Bertha Lutz of Brazil. These leaders took charge of the global fight for women’s suffrage, and through organized advocacy, women gained the right to vote in eight Latin American countries between 1932 and 1945. These women also played a critical role in the recognition of women’s rights during the creation of the United Nations; Bertha Lutz’s efforts led to the founding of the UN Commission on the Status of Women, which remains in existence today. The following decade saw 10 other countries in the Western Hemisphere achieve women’s suffrage. Without the efforts of Latin American feminists in the first half of the 20th century, it’s unlikely that any woman in the region — let alone four of them — would be president and unlikely that Latin America would be a global leader in female parliamentary representation. The legacy of Lutz and other early 20th century advocates has been proudly carried on: In 2012, Rousseff received the Bertha Lutz Award from the Brazilian Congress for her advocacy of gender equality.
After Bachelet approved a law calling for emergency contraception in state-run hospitals in 2006, Catholic leaders called her administration a “totalitarian regime.”
Although the gains women have made in recent years are substantial, they have not been grassroots, fast-paced, or easy to achieve. Instead, contradictory heritages of feminism and patriarchy have determined the paths of Presidents Bachelet, Rousseff, Kirchner and Chinchilla. In all six of the presidential elections they have won, these four women have received clear mandates from their countries. In her most recent election last December, Bachelet trounced her opponent — Evelyn Matthei — with 62 percent of the vote. In her 2011 victory, Kirchner received 54 percent in the first round of voting, which was the best performance and biggest margin in that round since 1983. The wide margins of victory that these leaders have enjoyed are suggestive of a strong willingness — and even eagerness — on the part of Latin American voters to elect a woman.
But these promising results carry with them several hidden truths. Each of the four female presidents currently in power had strong ties to the men who preceded them, suggesting that their rise to power — however groundbreaking — still relied on support from the male establishment. Bachelet served as health minister and then defense minister under Chilean President Ricardo Lagos Escobar (interviewed on page 40), who enjoyed widespread popularity. Rousseff began working with Brazilian President Luiz Inácio Lula da Silva in 2000, and later served as his first energy minister and chief of staff before being named his successor. When Lula stepped down as president, his approval rating was above 80 percent and he drew immense support from the poor northeastern part of the country. Before 2010, Rousseff had never run for elected office. She would not have won without the support of poorer voters, which — in light of her middle-class, educated background — might have been impossible without Lula’s blessing. Chinchilla was the vice president under Costa Rican President Oscar Arias Sánchez, who later endorsed her during her presidential candidacy. And Cristina Fernández de Kirchner was the wife of former President Néstor Kirchner. She succeeded his administration in 2007 after being elected to the presidency. Néstor’s death in 2010 contributed to Kirchner’s already soaring popularity prior to her reelection in 2011; in her acceptance speech, Kirchner said that Néstor was “the founder of this victory.” While any politician benefits from the endorsements of popular public figures, the necessity of male support for these politicians exhibits the enduring patriarchal structure of Latin American society.
Similarly, the rise of women to parliaments in Latin America has been made possible mostly through significant institutional efforts. In 1991, Argentina implemented a quota requiring that a minimum of 30 percent of legislative candidates be women. Today, similar quotas exist in more than a dozen countries in the region. There is a great deal of variability in these laws, in terms of both the percentage they require (ranging from 20 to 50 percent) and the degree to which they are enforced. There is also variability in how the quotas are implemented: Some quota regulations contain loopholes that make them ineffective, while others have proven immensely vital to the promotion of female politicians. In some countries, party efforts to attract women voters have led to quota systems despite a lack of central government policies. The historic success of female politicians in the 2011 Nicaraguan elections, in which women ultimately won more than 50 percent of the majority party’s seats, was helped by a 30 percent voluntary quota enforced by the party. But quotas do not always help; some countries’ quota rules allow parties to put women on their ballots in such a way that they have little or no chance of actually winning a seat in government. Overall, the quota system has proven to be effective in quickly offsetting male-dominated platforms where women used to be largely overlooked.
These four leaders also came to power at ideal times, benefiting from strong support for their parties in other parts of government. Bachelet’s New Majority coalition, for example, has a comfortable majority in both the lower house and the Senate. This should facilitate the implementation of her agenda for more socioeconomic equality in Chile. In 2011, Kirchner’s Justicialist Party cemented its control of the legislature, prompting The Economist to predict at the time that, “[f]or the next two years at least [she] should be able to govern virtually unfettered.” Rousseff and her Workers’ Party have likewise managed to garner strong support in Brazil despite slow economic growth throughout much of her tenure. Like Bachelet and Kirchner, Rousseff began her term alongside a congressional sweep by her party and its coalition. After weathering large-scale street protests last year, Rousseff remains the strong favorite in opinion polls for the next presidential election, to be held in October. As a result of their popular support, these female leaders have the potential not only to advance causes of wide appeal, but also to push forward more contestable policies on social and economic inequality, such as divorce and abortion rights.
Both Kirchner and Chinchilla have been outspoken about their opposition to abortion. They have distanced themselves from women’s rights organizations as much for political interests as personal beliefs.
And yet progress for women outside of the electoral sphere is far less forthcoming. UN studies estimate that close to one in two women will become a victim of violence over the course of her lifetime in certain parts of Latin America. In Brazil alone, 29 percent of women report domestic abuse in a single year. In addition to widespread sexual violence, Latin America has an exceptionally high concentration of femicide, the killing of women on the basis of their gender. The region is home to 10 of the 25 countries with the highest rates of femicide — including five of the top 10. The Central American country El Salvador tops the list with 12 femicides for every 100,000 women. Brazil occupies the 20th spot, with more than four femicides per 100,000 women. The advent of female Latin American leaders has failed to resolve the underlying sexism that contributes to these issues.
The position of women in the economic hierarchy of Latin America has proven especially problematic. Granted, significant progress has recently been made in this domain, with 70 million women joining the workforce in the last 20 years. Furthermore, the burgeoning incomes of these women have reduced extreme poverty by 30 percent. But such statistics can be misleading, as women are often confined to low-paying jobs in the service sector while men work in high-tech, construction and other skilled industries. As a result of this inequitable distribution of jobs, there is a marked gender gap in incomes. In Chile, for example, men earn an average of $1,172 per month, while women earn $811. And corporate executives across the region are still overwhelmingly male. As Marta Lagos, director of the polling company Latinobarómetro, said to The New York Times: “Men are generally fine with women in positions of political power as long as they retain economic power.” In this sense, the gains of women in government should not stop us from questioning the lack of gender parity that remains in other aspects of life, including the workforce.
Neither have these four women, who enjoy remarkable success at the highest levels of government, been immune to the pressures of their traditionally machismo-infused societies. Machismo is a Latin American cultural analog to patriarchy: It refers to a set of hyper-masculine characteristics and their value in traditional Latin American society. It has slowed progress in changing public opinion on a number of women’s rights issues. The fight for divorce rights, for example, has had mixed success because of widespread societal reluctance. However, Bachelet’s identity as a single mother has greatly expanded the expectations of what a woman in Chile is capable of achieving. She has arguably done more than any of her fellow presidents to further the cause of women’s rights by creating pensions for housewives, legalizing alimony payments for divorced women and serving as the inaugural director of UN Women, an entity dedicated to gender equality, after her first presidential term. Bachelet’s work to improve the lives of divorced women is highly significant in light of the fact that Chile only legalized divorce in 2004. Brazil legalized divorce in 1977, but the Rousseff administration made the process significantly easier in 2011, near the beginning of the president’s term. In 2012, she also issued a decree aimed at increasing women’s property rights in divorce cases. Rousseff herself has been divorced twice, something that can be looked upon with scorn in the world’s largest Catholic country. Indeed, Rousseff has often scuffled with powerful Catholic (and, more recently, evangelical) leaders who question her commitment to traditional values.
A recent survey of Brazilian men and women found that 65 percent of the population believes that women wearing revealing clothes deserve to be raped.
Abortion, an even more contentious topic, has created a complex dilemma for female leaders as they navigate the stances of traditionally powerful institutions like the Catholic Church. The issue has been particularly problematic for Bachelet. Chile is one of seven Latin American countries that retain complete bans on abortion; hundreds of women have been imprisoned there on suspicion of attempting to terminate their pregnancies. Bachelet supports the practice’s legalization for medical emergencies and rapes, but even members of her own coalition have objected to this stance. The Catholic Church, one of the most vehement opponents of pro-abortion legislation, continues to be highly influential in Chilean society. After Bachelet approved a law calling for emergency contraception in state-run hospitals in 2006, Catholic leaders called her administration a “totalitarian regime.” Last August, President Rousseff signed a bill into law requiring public hospitals to provide emergency care to victims of sexual violence, defined in this case to include “all forms of rape.” Although the bill represented a significant step towards abortion rights, its wording was altered to ensure that it did not encourage abortions. Bachelet and Rousseff have utilized their positions to make some progress in the fight for women’s reproductive rights, but change remains slow. A recent survey of Brazilian men and women found that 65 percent of the population believes that women wearing revealing clothes deserve to be raped.
On the other hand, Argentina’s Kirchner and Costa Rica’s Chinchilla have been outspoken about their opposition to abortion. Abortion is prohibited in Argentina except in cases of rape or threat to life. Nevertheless, illegal procedures are far from uncommon: About 500,000 clandestine abortions occur in the country each year, and the procedures can carry the risk of hospitalization. Similarly, Costa Rica only allows abortions if the life of the mother is endangered, and doctors often do not perform them even in these cases in order to avoid prosecution. The presidents of both countries have distanced themselves from women’s rights organizations as well, presumably for their political interests as much as for their personal beliefs. Indeed, it is apparent that the election of female politicians does not ensure that women’s reproductive rights will be on the agenda, let alone become law.
It may even be unrealistic to think that the Latin American public is open to equal treatment of men and women in government, or even that the greater trend of empowering women in politics will continue in the near future. Early in her term as president, Rousseff faced many doubts from the public that she would be able to live up to the legacy of her predecessor, Lula. In a moment of frustration in November, Rousseff tweeted that Brazil is still a “sexist and prejudiced” country. And after naming an equal number of men and women to her cabinet in 2006, Bachelet was forced to remove some women because Chileans took to the streets in protest. Since Kirchner’s reelection in 2011, her personal approval rating has dropped precipitously from 70 to roughly 35 percent. In addition, her coalition won less than 30 percent of the vote in the legislative elections last August, erasing the strong mandate she had earned in the previous election cycle. The lack of confidence in Kirchner’s ability to govern can be seen as the result of waning public sympathy for the death of her husband Néstor, alongside growing impatience with her inability to improve the country’s economy. Many politicians see sinking approval ratings over their time in office, but this shift in opinion calls Kirchner’s landslide victory in 2011 into question, suggesting that it was an indicator more of Argentina’s emotional state over the loss of a former president than of the country’s belief in its female president. Kirchner’s loss of public support has made it increasingly hard for her to implement policies. The state of President Chinchilla’s administration is even more dire than that of Kirchner’s. Chinchilla has become the most unpopular Costa Rican president in more than 20 years, with 60 percent of citizens disapproving and just 9 percent approving of her performance. Even former President Arias, whose endorsement was instrumental in Chinchilla’s election in 2010, has since strongly criticized her ability to govern.
Female politicians in Latin America have faced an especially high degree of scrutiny. Between 2006 and 2011, the proportion of women in the Peruvian Congress fell from 29.2 to 21.5 percent. This drop was due in large part to a series of corruption scandals involving female members of Congress, which struck a blow to the public’s trust in female politicians. The public subsequently voted out many of the women involved. It is important to note, however, that corruption in Peru — including among male politicians — is common overall. Throughout her tenure, President Rousseff has also dealt with uncharacteristically intense public scrutiny, especially from the media. Although the media is unapologetically conservative, and as a result has been unsupportive of both Lula and Rousseff, Lula admits that Rousseff’s lack of friends in the media industry is especially disconcerting. In early 2013, even when she enjoyed immense popularity among the Brazilian people, no major news agency supported her; Lula remarked that “the prejudice against her is because she is a woman and because of the fact that it wasn’t foreseen in the minds of the Brazilian elite that a woman could occupy the political spaces which have been, until yesterday, occupied by men.”
In many ways, women in Latin America continue to be marginalized by their machismo-driven society. Even the four women who have worked fearlessly to become presidents of their respective countries are often stymied by those who wish to preserve the traditional gender imbalance. Yet the progress of the past several decades, begun by feminist pioneers and continued by Michelle Bachelet, Dilma Rousseff, Cristina Fernández de Kirchner and Laura Chinchilla, is dramatic, and today Latin America remains a leader in female political participation. Although a great deal of work must still be done if Latin America is ever to see true gender equality, today’s female presidents have taken some strides towards that goal, and the symbolic value of female political leaders has been helpful for recent advances. As the United States continues to wonder if it will ever elect a female president, Latin America serves as a reminder that elevating a woman to the highest office in the land isn’t the hard part — it’s what comes next.