World

Machismo On the Wane: Rousseff's Victory in Brazil Caps Rise of Women Pols in Latin America

By winning the presidency of Brazil, Dilma Vana Rousseff not only made history as the first female president of the richest and most populous nation in Latin America, but also became the latest success story in an emerging trend: the growing number of women chiefs of state across the hemisphere.

Rousseff, an economist and appointed successor of President Luiz Inácio Lula da Silva, is the seventh female president of Latin American since 1974, when Isabel Martínez de Perón of Argentina became the first. Today, three of the 21 countries of Latin America – Argentina, Costa Rica and Brazil – are being led by women.

And the pool of potential contenders has also grown deeper with more women populating lawmaking bodies in Latin America.

It is a remarkable evolution for a region where woman have largely been relegated to the margins, not just politically, but throughout society. Latin American culture has traditionally been male dominated and patriarchal.

But a wave of democratic rule that has taken hold in the past three decades years has also created a more vibrant and open civil society with more room for once marginalized groups, including women.

“Women have become much more active in civic organizations, politics and even making it to the highest office,” said Merike Blofield, an associate professor of political science at the University of Miami.

The rise of women in politics has also been something deliberately fostered in numerous countries. In the 1990s, countries in Latin America set a minimum threshold for women on party lists. For example in Argentina, which became the first country to institute gender quota laws back in 1991, every third name offered on party ballots must be a woman.

About a dozen countries in the region later passed similar laws. Those include Costa Rica, where 39 percent of legislators are women, Ecuador, where 32 percent are women, and Peru, where 28 percent are women, according to a website that compiles that data called the quotaproject.org. The makeup of woman in Congress in the U.S. is less than 17 percent.

“There was sexism in a lot of these countries, so they passed these laws because the only way to get past the old-boys network was to use this kind of institutional mechanism to bypass all the sexism,” Blofield said. “The idea there also was self perpetuating. Once you have more women in power, more women will ascend to power.”

In countries where military dictatorships once ruled with iron-fists, female leaders have been viewed as less corrupt than their female counterparts. Each female president has been ideologically different, but each one has made promoting women their personal crusade. 

No Latin American president has been more aggressive advancing women than former Chilean President Michelle Bachelet, a pediatrician who ended her term earlier this year. Bachelet gave half of her cabinet positions to women to reach gender parity. 

At first Bachelet faced ridicule for her efforts, but she ended her presidency with 70 percent approval ratings – the highest the approval ratings the country had seen in decades – and was credited with turning around her country’s economy during a global financial crises.

“She had a very clear agenda gender equality,” said Angela Vergara, a history professor at Cal State University. "And was very popular."