Philadelphia – By any measure, the nomination of Hillary Clinton as the first female nominee to a major political party in the United States is monumental. And while she still has to defeat Republican rival Donald Trump in November if she hopes to shatter the so-called glass ceiling, this week Clinton has gone farther than any other woman in U.S. history.
But globally – and surprisingly more so in the machismo world of Latin America – female political figures have been elected to the highest political offices in their countries for decades, leaving many in the U.S. to wonder why a region that in the recent past suffered under grueling military dictatorships and bloody civil wars has elected women to lead their nations while the U.S. has so far failed to do so.
“The weight of machismo makes it all the more surprising that all these women presidents have been elected in the region,” Cynthia Arnson, the director of the Latin American Program at the Woodrow Wilson told Fox News Latino. “It seems like kind of an anomaly.”
Since the 1970s, eight of the 29 women elected as president in the world have come from Latin America or the Caribbean, and the Americas has the world’s second-highest regional average of women in the lower houses on Congress – about 24 percent – behind Scandinavia at 42 percent, according to the Inter-American Dialogue, a Washington D.C.-based think tank.
Also while the U.S. may have a record number of women in Congress – making up just over 19 percent of elected officials on Capitol Hill – women in Latin America make up over 25 percent of parliamentary positions, according to the New York-based Americas Society/Council of the Americas.
While some women leaders are protégés or wives of former presidents – much like Clinton with her husband - analysts point to a number of other reasons why women have been so successful at attaining positions of power in government in Latin America
A series of quota laws in certain countries have guaranteed that women, at least at the national level, will be in the running for political positions. Argentina was the first country to put in place quotas when in the early 1990s it established a law mandating that 30 percent of legislative candidates be female. Bolivia, Costa Rica and Ecuador soon followed with laws indicating that every other candidate on a political party’s election list must be a woman.
“Latin America has come late to democracy but it has been much more progressive in terms of putting quotas for women in political parties,” Chris Sabatini, a professor at Columbia University’s School of International and Public Affairs, told FNL.
Sabatini, however, noted that these types of quotas would not fly in the U.S.
The brutal military dictatorships of the 1970s and 1980s throughout the Southern Cone may have resulted in the deaths of thousands of people and large-scale human rights violations, but they also helped give women a political voice that was previously denied to them.
While they were far from spared the cruelties of regimes like Chile’s Augusto Pinochet or Brazil’s decades-long military rule, many academics say that women were able to more freely speak out against the atrocities than men were.
“A lot of people say that in the struggle for human rights against the dictatorships women played a key role in speaking out and were able to become a part of the political process during the transition to democracy,” Sabatini said. “They were afforded the space to be political figures because it was difficult to crack down on women.”
That’s not to say they didn’t face persecution.
Chilean President Michelle Bachelet was arrested by Chilean authorities in 1975, two years after the military coup that put Pinochet into power, and was later tortured before being sent into exile. Brazilian President Rousseff was heavily involved in Brazil’s VAR Palmares, a Marxist-Leninist guerilla group, and was allegedly tortured by Brazilian military forces for 22 days by punching, ferule, and electric shock devices after her arrest.
“In more stable situations they would not have had the male support for their political ambitions, but in places like Chile and Brazil everyone faced the same threats,” Lourdes Gil, a poet and professor of Latin American history at Baruch College in New York City, told FNL. “Machismo would have been more of a hindrance if not for the dictatorships.”
Another reason, experts say, that when countries in Latin America transitioned from military dictatorships to democracies there was a retooling of the political process and political parties – something that in a stable democracy like the U.S. is hard to do.
“In the process of political change in a country – such as Chile in the early 1990s or Brazil in 1985 – these political parties had to reinvent themselves,” Sabatini. “That’s something that the Democrats and Republicans really haven’t had to do to much here in the U.S.”
Follow Andrew O'Reilly on Twitter @aoreilly84.