January has been a precedent-setting month for women. Ms. Michelle Bachelet was elected Chile’s first female leader, becoming South America’s second woman elected head of state, while Ms. Ellen Johnson-Sirleaf took office as president of Liberia, Africa’s first elected female head of state.
While both have made history at home, they are part of a growing number of female politicians claiming national office around the world. This tide still lags expectations, though, and many more women need seats in government before politicians truly reflect the societies they represent.
The election results in both Chile and Liberia were surprises. Chile is one of Latin America’s most conservative countries, and Ms. Bachelet, a socialist doctor and divorcee, ran an uneven campaign. But she was also a former defense minister who benefited from aligning herself closely with outgoing President Ricardo Lagos and the record of success that the center-left alliance has created during its 15 years in power.
Ms. Johnson-Sirleaf is a 67-year-old Harvard graduate, former World Bank economist and ex-finance minister. Despite that record, she was another long shot, not only because of her gender, but because she was running against Mr. George Weah, an international soccer star who is wildly popular in his home country. She prevailed in a runoff vote.
More important than the two women’s professional accomplishments was what they represented: reconciliation for two deeply divided societies. Ms. Bachelet was imprisoned, tortured and exiled under the military dictatorship of Gen. Augusto Pinochet. Her father, a general himself, died in jail after being tortured, for alleged leftist sympathies, by men he and his daughter considered friends. A former lover was also tortured by the government. And yet Ms. Bachelet still served as defense minister and used that post to seek reconciliation, not revenge, with the institution that had brought her so much pain.
Ms. Johnson-Sirleaf was twice exiled, was under house arrest for a time, and was sentenced to 10 years in prison, a term that was shortened when she agreed to leave the country. In both Chile and Liberia, the two new presidents represent a turn from the violence and bloodshed that have dominated the past and an attempt to heal wounds that have divided their countries.
For Ms. Bachelet, the task is easier: Chile has had over 15 years of successful rule by the left, which was once outlawed by the junta. Although income equalities remain, and some pockets of resistance battle against a full accounting of the Pinochet years, both are gradually diminishing. Her pragmatism, like that of her predecessors, will help win over resistance.
Ms. Johnson-Sirleaf’s job is much more challenging. Two decades of civil war have virtually destroyed Liberia: Over 150,000 lives have been lost in the conflict and the country, once one of the most stable in Africa, is now a basket case. The country needs to be rebuilt from the ground up. Even though last year’s elections were relatively peaceful, former dictator Samuel Doe threatens to return and destabilize the country.
A growing number of women are taking charge of governments. Ms. Angela Merkel was elected Germany’s first female chancellor in November. Ms. Tarja Halonen is expected to win upcoming Finnish national elections. Women lead 11 of the world’s 193 countries. By contrast, only 45 served as presidents or prime ministers in the half century prior to 2000. Today, women hold 6,690 seats in national parliaments, an all-time high. There are 43, another record, in Japan’s Lower House.
Those gains represent attempts to increase the number of women in national politics. A decade ago, at the U.N. Conference on Women, attendees set a goal of having women hold at least 30 percent of seats in national parliaments. Seventy countries have set hard quotas or voluntary goals for women’s participation. Yet the gains to date only underscore how low the starting point was and how far there still is to go: Today’s “all time high” represents only 16 percent of the seats in national legislatures.
Ms. Bachelet has pledged to bring more women into Chilean politics and promised that women would get half the posts in her Cabinet. She will be assisted by the perception that women are less corrupt (a perception that is based on fact, according to a World Bank study), less divisive, inclined to more inclusive and participatory politics, and have more empathy for the less fortunate. Similar thinking propelled Ms. Johnson-Sirleaf into office. Of course, the record of their male predecessors also contributed.
Women are not a cure-all for the ills of the political world. There have been plenty of female leaders that have defied these generalizations and ruled, well, just like men. Still, gender alone should not disqualify an individual from office. The evidence shows there is still a long way to go.
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