For now, the ABC show Commander in Chief, which chronicles the rise of the United States’ first female president, is pure fantasy. But a real-life version could soon materialize in the most unlikely of places: Latin America. On Dec. 10, Chile’s former defense minister, Michelle Bachelet, came close to becoming the country’s first female president, and she’s expected to land the job after a runoff this month. That would make Bachelet the sole woman commander in chief in the hemisphere—and the first to rise to that lofty position strictly on her own merits. Unlike the three women who have previously been elected president in Latin America—Violeta Chamorro in Nicaragua, Janet Rosenberg Jagan in Guyana, and Mireya Moscoso in Panama—Bachelet’s political rise was not facilitated by a politically powerful husband.
As it turns out, Bachelet isn’t the only woman who is ascending the political hierarchy south of the border. In neighboring Peru, Congresswoman Lourdes Flores is favored to win April’s presidential election, and Argentina’s first lady, Cristina Kirchner, isn’t just serving in the Senate, she’s also touted as a potential successor to her husband. There is a sizable contingent of women serving in the region’s legislatures, too. Since 1991, 12 Latin American countries have enacted quota laws that in some cases have doubled the number of female congressional representatives. (Click here to see which countries have quotas.) While in the United States women make up just 15 percent of the House of Representatives and 14 percent of the Senate, in Argentina and Costa Rica, women comprise fully one-third of the national congresses.
Given Latin America’s well-deserved reputation for machismo, the rise of these leaders might seem like an extraordinary power shift. But when you look beyond sheer numbers, feminists will find less to celebrate. Whereas, for example, Bolivian President-elect Evo Morales has made his indigenous heritage a guiding principle of his political career, these female politicians tend to be conventional leaders. Political parties have been their gateways to power, and partly driven by a desire to preserve their relationships with powerful party patrons, they’ve done little to disturb the status quo. In effect, their gender hasn’t had much impact on how they govern.
Ironically, the fact that female candidates look different from the traditional pol has helped propel them forward. Peru’s Flores, for example, has benefited from the notion that women are less prone to corruption. (Given Peru’s long history of on-the-take male chief executives, being tagged as an honest politician is a huge advantage.) Cristina Kirchner surrounded herself with images of Eva Per ó n when she was on the senatorial campaign trail last year; obviously, her gender made it easier to claim the mantle of Argentina’s immensely popular former first lady. And Bachelet’s rise to presidential front-runner can be at least partly attributed to the new face she brings to a political coalition that has ruled Chile since 1990. While voters often begin agitating for change after a decade and a half of the same leadership, Bachelet’s status as a single mother who has never held elected office made the ruling Concertación coalition look innovative.
While these candidates do capitalize on their status as women, they don’t generally place women-friendly issues at the forefront of their agendas. Cristina Kirchner plays up her feminine side on the campaign trail—she has a predilection for short skirts, kinky boots, and immaculately coiffed hair—but she has never expressed interest in advancing issues like equal pay. Flores, meanwhile, is an economic conservative and a staunch supporter of the Catholic Church; she’s unlikely to lead the charge for abortion rights or family planning services. Bachelet—a former pediatrician and mother of three—is more women-focused than most of her powerful female counterparts: As health minister she approved sales of the morning-after pill, and on the presidential hustings she has called for generous child-care subsidies. But given Bachelet’s pledge to continue the fiscally conservative economic policies of the current administration, a large-scale social program is unlikely to come to fruition. “She’ll take one or two signature issues to mark her as different,” says Mark P. Jones, an associate professor of political science at Rice University. “But it will be more media-related than anything else.”
Kirchner and Flores were first elected to office a decade and a half ago, before the number of women in their countries’ legislatures spiked with the introduction of quota laws. But the women who benefited from the set-asides haven’t passed much female-friendly legislation, either. That’s in part because of the way they are elected. Many Latin American countries use a proportional representation system where the electorate votes for parties rather than directly for candidates. Seats are allocated to parties based on the proportion of votes they receive. Who gets to fill the coveted slots in Congress often depends on party chieftains. So, women not only owe the (primarily male) bosses for their presence in the legislature, they also need to keep them happy if they want to stay there. Advocating on behalf of women often doesn’t sit well with the higher-ups. Take former Argentine national deputy Marcela Durrieu, who was elected after the creation of quotas in the early 1990s and proceeded to push hard for women’s rights and increased access to contraception. After she refused to be brought to heel, Eduardo Duhalde—a Buenos Aires political mandarin who subsequently became president—struck Durrieu from the list of candidates. For good measure, he also blacklisted her allies.
While quotas haven’t yet produced big shifts in governance, the increased diversity of political leadership is itself a significant breakthrough. Current Chilean President Ricardo Lagos appointed Bachelet to his Cabinet in part because he had pledged that five of the country’s ministries would be headed by women. (Lagos and Bachelet are also friends.) Once installed in the executive branch, she became so popular with voters that the ruling party realized their best shot at retaining power was to run her for president. In other words, a quota system provided the opportunity, and Bachelet capitalized on it. A similar dynamic can be discerned in the United States. The two women who are most frequently mentioned as presidential contenders—Sen. Hillary Clinton and Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice—both came to public prominence through their relationships to U.S. presidents. Once in the spotlight, they attracted supporters (and detractors) of their own. For now, the closest thing the United States has to a female president is a fictional TV character, but if Bachelet wins her runoff this month as expected, her tenure as the sole woman commander in chief in the hemisphere could be relatively short-lived.