What We Can Learn from Las Presidentas
Women’s rights in the United States are under attack. Lawmakers in Congress and at the state level are severely restricting access to critical health services and politicizing an issue as universally agreed upon as preventing violence against women. Although there are female members of Congress, they are still a clear minority: Women comprise 51% of the U.S. population but only 17% of Congress, making this country 94th in the world for the percentage of women elected into office. The situation is not that much better in Canada, where women comprise 22% of the House of Commons (they do slightly better in the cabinet and Senate) and only three of the committee chairs in the House of Commons are female.
Female leaders around the world, however, are defying the archaic perception of the role of women in the public sphere and challenging the uneven distribution of leadership positions. There is still much progress to be made, but it is worth celebrating that there are currently a number of female presidents or prime ministers in power around the globe. Throughout history, more than 50 countries have been led by female heads of state and/or government, beginning with the 1960 election of Sirimavo Bandaranaike of Sri Lanka, followed two decades later by Margaret Thatcher of the United Kingdom.
Latin America, in particular, currently has three female presidents: Dilma Rousseff of Brazil, Cristina Fernández de Kirchner of Argentina, and Laura Chinchilla of Costa Rica. In a region where machismo, or male chauvinism, has dominated the culture, these women lead some of the region’s and the world’s most powerful nations. And they got these positions through merit. By winning transparent elections, these women are helping democracy flourish in a region once plagued by military dictatorships, all the while promoting gender equality in the face of an ever-aging culture of machismo. These women were elected because their electorates believed them to be the most competent candidates.
These women are role models for young women everywhere, and they certainly had their role models to whom they looked up as well. One figure that today’s female politicians and aspiring politicians can admire is Israel’s Golda Meir, the world’s third woman to ever hold the post of Prime Minister. The dichotomy of her image as both the grandmother of the Jewish people and the iron lady of Israel has made her a notable female world leader and one that males and females, Jews and non-Jews alike, can revere.