A crescendo of female voices fills the Diego Portales Convention
Center at a recent presidential debate on women's issues. "Michelle"
is the rallying cry, as a predominantly female crowd of 3,000 cheers
on Chile's sole female contender.
"It's inspiring," says Magdalena Correa, to the wide-eyed
approvals of two friends. "We came to support Michelle because we're
women, heads of the household, self-employed, and we want there to
be a stronger voice for women in Chile."
Heading into this Sunday's presidential election, Michelle
Bachelet is leading all polls and appears poised to become Chile's
first female president. In a country long considered the most
conservative in Latin America, observers say Mrs. Bachelet's
popularity, coupled with progressive reforms enacted during her time
in government, are signs of a profound cultural change.
"The mere fact that there's a woman candidate has produced a
shift in Chile," says Marta Mauras, secretary of the UN's Economic
Commission for Latin America and the Caribbean. "It's a change that
mirrors a broader process of achieving rights in a mature
A former medical doctor, Bachelet served briefly as health
minister in the cabinet of current president Ricardo Lagos, before
becoming Chile's first-ever female defense minister - an unusual
appointment, given Chile's male-dominated culture.
It was also a controversial appointment, as her father was an Air
Force commander who died while in detention for opposing Augusto
Pinochet's 1973 coup. Bachelet herself spent 10 days imprisoned in a
camp before fleeing with her mother to Australia.
Years after returning to Chile, she entered politics as an
unknown, and was brought into the cabinet under Mr. Lagos's quota
system, which required five female ministers.
As defense minister, Bachelet spearheaded a policy to incorporate
more women in the ranks of the armed forces; and as health minister,
she legalized the sale of the morning-after pill by prescription.
Also, a number of new laws introduced under the Lagos administration
have also been seen as progressive for women: including the divorce
law, a law banning sexual harassment in the workplace, and a law
making domestic abuse a crime punishable by up to 15 years in jail.
These reforms have helped Bachelet's campaign, observers say.
If she wins, Bachelet would be the fourth consecutive president
from the ruling center-left coalition (La Concertacion) since
Chile's return to democracy in 1990. But analysts say that being a
woman gives her campaign the appearance of change without a change
And she has capitalized on her gender, declaring at the women's
issues debate: "I'm not neutral. I'm the only one here who knows
what it's like to be a woman.... As your candidate, I have a
commitment to you, and as President of the Republic, I'm going to
fight for women."
Bachelet has made women's rights a focus in her campaign -
promising subsidized child care, more services for abused women, and
a cabinet with an equal number of male and female ministers. …