Updated 5 months, 2 weeks ago

Why has 'macho' Latin America elected more female leaders than the US?

In recent years Latin America has had more female presidents than any other part of the world. Yet none of these women during their triumphant electoral campaigns had to face as biased and derogatory propaganda, as close a scrutiny, as Hillary Clinton in her attempt to become the first woman to be president of the US.

Although public opinion has indeed changed and the latest polls suggest Clinton is favoured to win, a decade ago just 60% of Americans thought the country was ready for a female president – the same year that Chile elected Michele Bachelet as its first female head of state.

Argentina’s Isabel Peron was the first woman to become president in the region in 1974, and between 1990 to 2014, a record number of women were elected as political leaders. After Violeta Chamorro in Nicaragua, Panama elected Mireya Moscoso in 1999; in Chile, Bachelet in 2006 and 2014; Argentina elected Cristina Fernández de Kirchner in 2007 and 2011; Brazil elected Dilma Rouseff in 2010 and, in the same year, Costa Rica elected Laura Chinchilla.

But how is it that in a region which is home to seven of the 10 countries with the highest rate of female murder victims, a region that’s all too known for its reigning machismo, where only less than half of the female population makes an income, women have access to a level of political representation second only to the Scandinavian countries?

And why is it that in a culture like the US women have had so much trouble rising in the ranks, while in countries where machismo is the norm, men have been so open minded by comparison?

I believe that behind every macho man there’s an insecure boy in need of mothering, so in Latin America men in all their virile glory have not disputed the suitability of women for the higher office.

Machismo divides women into two categories: sexual beings to be conquered and possessed, and mothers as authority figures that embody everything that is virtuous, gracious and worthy of praise in female nature. And in Latin culture the mother archetype is very powerful. In the case of Cristina Fernández, she embodied the widow following the death of her husband, the former president Néstor Kirchner – a woman in pain that men are expected to defend and protect. While Laura Chinchilla, who suffered the most gender-specific attacks, being younger and attractive, was accepted as the chosen one because of the patronage of former president Oscar Arias.

My theory might be questionable and I have no way of proving it – it is based on my powers of observation as a writer and my feminine intuition. But having said that, there are two other objective factors: the extraordinary participation of women in the struggles of the 70s and 80s when dictatorial regimes in the region were confronted by popular uprisings, conspiracies and guerrilla groups.

In Nicaragua, for example, the first guerrilla force that managed to liberate a major city during the 1979 insurrection was composed entirely of women. We women joined revolts and became experienced in grassroots organising, political activism, diplomacy, and combat. When it came time to build democratic societies, we claimed a place in governments and power structures.

Nevertheless, the trend was still to have women resume their traditional roles. And because many refused to be relegated to status quo and go back to the kitchen or the practice of home economics, they focused their energy on organising powerful social movements, NGOs and feminist organisations. These strengths account for the quotas that have been adopted by 16 Latin American countries and allowed them to have one woman for every four legislators. Only the Nordic countries have higher ratios.

It is a big step to have women as presidents, but in the patriarchal structure of power we have all inherited, very often women are still forced to prove that they are as “tough” as the toughest of men. A woman president who would defy the masculine model of power and infuse it with the feminine ethic of caring and real equality is still in the making. Although women as Latin American leaders have many challenges ahead, they have managed to get to the right place, and now they have to be daring enough to seize or declare that it is the right time.