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How macho Mexico had a female president before the United States

MEXICO CITY — Mexico is famous for its macho culture. Women here only gained the right to vote for president in 1953, three decades after their American counterparts. Just nine years ago, there was not a single female state governor.

Yet Mexico just elected its first female president, Claudia Sheinbaum, in what was essentially a race between two female engineers. As the United States prepares for another two-person race for the presidency – Joe Biden versus Donald Trump – Mexico is eclipsing its northern neighbor when it comes to gender parity in government.

Today, women hold half of the seats in the Mexican Parliament, about double the percentage in the U.S. Congress. Women run Mexico’s Supreme Court and central bank. While the United States has a record number of female governors – 12 – the percentage here is higher.

Women politicians and activists have lobbied for years to force parties to set quotas for female candidates. As in other parts of Latin America, when a wave of authoritarian governments collapsed in the 1980s and 1990s, activists sold the idea that true democracy meant equal participation for women.


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So many top government positions are held by women that gender was not a major issue in the presidential race. Of course, the historic nature of the campaign was recognized. Sheinbaum’s slogans included “It’s time for women”, and runner-up Xóchitl Gálvez proclaimed she had the “ovaries” to take on organized crime. Yet there was nothing like the sense of anticipation that accompanied Hillary Clinton’s 2016 presidential campaign.

“For most of the population, the topic of gender is not that important in itself,” said Lorena Becerra, a prominent pollster. “We had already internalized the idea that the next president would be a woman.”

How Mexican Women Led a Political Revolution

Mexico’s current president, Andrés Manuel López Obrador, set a precedent in 2000 when he became mayor of Mexico City: the government he appointed was half man, half woman. He invited Sheinbaum, an environmental engineer, to serve as his environment secretary.

It was the beginning of an era of great progress for women in politics.

Mexico was rewriting its election laws as it transitioned from a one-party state to a democracy. A coalition of women politicians, activists, lawyers and academics have pressed Congress to adopt quotas for female congressional candidates. They were first set at 30 percent, then 40, then 50.

In 2019, Mexico passed a sweeping constitutional amendment establishing “parity in all”: candidacies for all elected offices and the highest positions in the executive and judicial branches.

Not a single member of Congress voted against it. Women politicians had portrayed men opposed to affirmative action measures as dinosaurs. It has become too politically costly to oppose such initiatives.

By the time the amendment was passed, López Obrador was president and Sheinbaum – his protégé – had herself become mayor of Mexico City.

“Gender quotas and the parity amendment form a very important context, in which women’s political participation is normalized and parties are obliged to think about and value women as candidates,” said Jennifer Piscopo , professor of gender and politics at Royal Holloway University, London.

But it is not enough to pass laws. During the democratic transition, Mexico established strong institutions to interpret and enforce electoral laws. The National Electoral Institute has been battling parties to ensure they field an equal number of female candidates. Politicians who make sexist comments about their rivals could be stripped of the right to run themselves.

“The implementation story is really important,” Piscopo said. The United States, by contrast, does not have a comparable federal apparatus for elections, which are primarily overseen by local authorities.

Sheinbaum first seen as López Obrador’s protégé

Sheinbaum’s genre has not generated much fanfare, in part because his political career has developed in the shadow of López Obrador. During the campaign, the discreet Sheinbaum stressed that she would continue the policies of the popular leader.

“What weighs more here is her loyalty, her closeness to him, the fact that he has absolute trust in her, rather than the fact that she is a woman,” said Carlos Heredia, an economist and analyst policy.

Neither Sheinbaum nor Galvez focused their programs on women’s issues.

Consuelo Bañuelos, a human rights activist in Nuevo Leon state, said the candidates did not want to cause unease in a society still steeped in machismo.

“The word “inclusion” is scary. The term “gender perspective” is scary. The word ‘gender’ is scary,” she said. “So why ruffle feathers if you don’t have to?”

Becerra, the pollster, said voters still judge female candidates differently than men. About 25 percent of voters surveyed during the presidential campaign, for example, said it would be more difficult for a woman to tackle security or organized crime issues. There was virtually no difference on issues like health or the economy.

But it was difficult to determine whether Sheinbaum’s gender helped or hurt her in the election because her main competitor was also a woman. Alone in the running, Jorge Álvarez Máynez, candidate for a small center-left party, finished a distant third.

Feminists criticize Sheinbaum on women’s issues

Although feminists were excited about the prospect of Mexico electing a woman president, some say Sheinbaum did little to advance women’s issues.

As mayor, she criticized large demonstrations in 2019 to protest violence against women, after some participants smashed windows and scrawled graffiti on monuments. However, she is committed to making the reduction of femicide a priority.

In 2021, a group of women took over a major traffic circle in Mexico City, erecting a statue representing a young girl with a raised fist. They renamed the site “La Place des Femmes qui Combatnts” in honor of the activists fighting against femicide and searching for tens of thousands of victims of forced disappearances.

Sheinbaum opposed their efforts and unsuccessfully attempted to install a less politically charged statue honoring Native women.

“She handled this incident with clumsiness, with absolute rejection, directly attacking us,” said Marcela Guerrero, one of the activists who erected the statue. “We don’t see a hopeful future.”

Although López Obrador came from the left, he had strained relations with feminists, accusing their protests of having been infiltrated by his conservative opponents. He outraged feminists by defending an ally running for governor of Guerrero state, Félix Salgado Macedonio, after he was accused of sexually assaulting women. (Salgado Macedonio denied the accusations; he was ultimately disqualified due to campaign finance violations.)

Sabina Berman, a writer and feminist who supports López Obrador’s Morena party, said it took her a while at first to understand the importance of the women’s movement. But by supporting Sheinbaum as his party’s presidential candidate, she said, he showed how much he had changed.

“As a result, the opposition realized that gender mattered in this election, that it was a decisive element,” she said. “That’s why they also looked for a female candidate. »

Berman hopes Sheinbaum’s election will mark a turning point.

“In every home, in every classroom in the country, the idea that a woman exists to serve and please a man will collapse,” she said.

Ríos reported from Monterrey, Mexico. Paulina Villegas in Mexico City contributed to this report.


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