Women Take Reins of Power in Latin America, But Not in U.S.

by Teo Ballvé

The Progressive, Op-Ed, Jan 16, 2011

The inauguration of Brazil’s first female president is a stark reminder that the United States lags far behind its Latin American neighbors in electing women to power.

Dilma Rousseff took Brazil’s presidential oath on Jan. 1, becoming the leader of Latin America’s largest and most powerful country.

Long stereotyped for its particular brand of male chauvinism or “machismo” — a scourge that undeniably remains — Latin America is now leading the way toward greater gender parity in positions of power.

Since 1990, Argentina, Chile, Costa Rica, Guyana, Nicaragua and Panama have all elected women presidents. And Peru might follow suit in its April elections.

Rousseff’s victory in Brazil is in many ways a culmination of what some call Latin America’s “Pink Tide.”

Rousseff emerged from humble origins, the daughter of a schoolteacher and a Bulgarian immigrant, rising through the ranks of Brazil’s grassroots Workers’ Party. She cut her political teeth fighting against Brazil’s brutal military dictatorship in the 1960s. For her efforts, she was thrown in jail, where she was repeatedly beaten and tortured with electric shocks during nearly three years of imprisonment.

In the 1970s, Chile’s future President Michelle Bachelet (2006-2010) endured similar traumas under military rule in her own country.

In those years, obsessed with an exaggerated communist threat, Washington gave strong backing to South America’s most authoritarian governments. The military regimes sought to wipe out the progressive political movements that produced women like Rousseff, Bachelet, and current Argentine President Cristina Kirchner.

As presidents, these women have helped end the days when Latin American governments took their orders from Washington. They are also consolidating the region’s hard-won democratic gains — in part, by assuring that more women are in positions of power.

At her inauguration, Rousseff made reference to the historic ascendance of women in Brazil.

“I am not here to boast of my own life story, but rather to praise the life of every Brazilian woman,” Rousseff said. “I am here to open doors so that in the future many other women can also be president.”

We in the United States have a lot to learn from the rise of women in Latin America. We still have never had a woman president. And only 17 percent of members of Congress are women, which is less than many countries in Latin America. Twelve Latin American and Caribbean nations actually have gender quotas for their legislators. These quotas run as high as 50 percent in Bolivia and 40 percent in Argentina, Costa Rica and Mexico.

In the United States, we need to look more closely at our own gender disparities, and we need to identify them for what they are: a serious social and political problem.

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