Latina Liftoff; from Tijuana to Tierra del Fuego, Women Are Raising Their Political Profile and Breaking New Ground
Contreras, Joseph, Newsweek International
Byline: Joseph Contreras (With Jimmy Langman in Santiago, Mac Margolis in Rio de Janeiro and Marina Artusa in Buenos Aires)
For all its well-deserved reputation as the economic showcase of Latin America and a model of democratic rule, Chile has lagged behind most of its neighbors in the area of women's rights. As recently as 18 months ago, Chile had the dubious distinction of being the only nation in the Western Hemisphere that still banned divorce, and a law prohibiting sexual harassment in the workplace took effect only earlier this year. In a conservative society where the Roman Catholic Church still wields a lot of clout, Michelle Bachelet would seem at first blush to be a most improbable candidate to succeed the country's outgoing president, Ricardo Lagos. "As the old joke goes, I have all the sins together," the 52-year-old former Defense minister told NEWSWEEK in a recent interview. "I am a woman, socialist, separated and agnostic." But the single mother of three has a big lead in the polls going into the presidential election scheduled for December, and some analysts regard her victory as a foregone conclusion. "In the government I worked hard to build confidence in me," she said, "not as a woman minister, but as a minister who was working to achieve what was needed for Chile."
If the opinion surveys are right, Bachelet would become the first woman to be elected president in a major Latin American country. Her gold-rimmed glasses and frumpy two-piece suits may give her the air of a school headmistress, but Bachelet is in the vanguard of a generation of self-confident women who are staking their claims in the traditionally macho world of Latin American politics. Since 1991, 11 countries have enacted laws requiring political parties to nominate a minimum percentage of female candidates for legislative office, and in some instances the number of women lawmakers doubled between 1997 and 1999. A 12th nation, Colombia, passed a law in 2000 requiring that women occupy at least 30 percent of appointed decision-making posts in the executive branch. This year's key midterm congressional elections in Argentina will be dominated by the showdown for Senate seats between the nation's current First Lady, Cristina Fernandez de Kirchner, and her immediate predecessor, Hilda (Chiche) Duhalde, in populous Buenos Aires province. "In the past 10 years there has been a tremendous increase in the number of women in positions of power, not just running for office but serving in ministries and as elected legislators," says Mala Htun, a political scientist at the New School for Social Research in New York who has written extensively about the subject. "It's opening up opportunities to women who are quite prepared and competent."
That represents a sea change from the bad old days. The region as a whole was a latecomer to the era of women's suffrage: no female had the right to vote anywhere in Latin America 80 years ago, a relic of discrimination that still prevailed in Colombia as recently as 1956. When Maria do Carmo Lara was elected to the legislature of Bra-zil's Minas Gerais state in the mid-1980s, she discovered to her astonishment that no bathrooms had been reserved for female lawmakers in the building where legislators met. When she became the first woman to be elected mayor in the industrial city of Betim in 1992, Lara found she had to win the hearts and minds of voters all over again. "People wanted to know where was the man who ran things," she recalls. "Others said I wouldn't last six months." Lara defied those predictions and is now serving her second term as a federal congresswoman for the ruling Workers Party.
Women like Lara have come a long way in Latin American politics in a relatively brief span. The main impetus behind the higher female profile has been a series of quota laws for the candidate slates of political parties, the first of which was passed in Argentina in 1991. The paucity of female lawmakers in the Argentine Congress in the early 1990s prompted President Carlos Menem to throw his support behind the world's first-ever gender-based quota law, and the quantum leap in the number of women elected to the national legislature in Argentina's ensuing election inspired female politicians in other Latin American countries to demand similar legislation. …