Las Presidentas para las Mujeres?

Why the rise of Female Executives in Latin America Has Not Guaranteed the Advancement of Women's Issues in the Region

Dilma Rousseff Cristina Kirchner
Las Presidentas para las Mujeres? : Why the rise of Female Executives in Latin America Has Not Guaranteed the Advancement of Women's Issues in the Region - SHELLEY RANII


With four female presidents elected in the past decade, Latin America has seen a spike in female executive leadership unprecedented in any other region thus far in the 21st century. However, having female heads of state is no guarantee that women’s interests will take priority under these female-headed administrations. This paper explores the conceptual distinction between women’s short-term ‘practical’ interests and their long-term ‘strategic’ interests. Whilst all ‘presidentas’ more or less advance the former, commitment to structural change aimed at furthering women’s strategic interests in the long-run has been less clear. This article explores and interprets this mixed record.


“I am certain, ladies and gentlemen, that this will be the women's century.”

–Dilma Rousseff, September 21, 20111

The elections of four female presidents, Michelle Bachelet in Chile, Cristina Kirchner in Argentina, Laura Chinchilla in Costa Rica, and Dilma Rousseff in Brazil, in the first decade of the 21st century have marked a new trend of female executive leadership in Latin America. While these are not the first female leaders in the region – in fact, the first Latin American female president was Argentina’s Isabel Peron in 1974 – the sheer number of democratically elected female leaders in such a short time span is unprecedented. Today, Bachelet, Kirchner, Chinchilla, and Rousseff are all women who have had political careers either somewhat or fully independent of political husbands.

When considered together with the relatively high numbers of women in legislatures and judiciaries in the region, the rise of female heads of government mark an important step forward in political inclusion for Latin America’s women. However, it is still far from clear whether this increase in “descriptive” representation for women, or having political officeholders who are women, will translate into “substantive” representation for women by way of greater prominence of women’s issues on the political agenda in Latin America. In sum, have women’s issues been advanced as women occupy a greater number of important political offices? The answer is not black and white. The rise of presidentas in Latin America has generally led to increased policy action on women’s short-term practical interests. However, some female presidentas have gone further in pushing for women’s long-term strategic interests and structural changes aimed at increasing gender equality in society. Given this situation, the question then becomes what distinguishes women who advance long-term strategic gender issues from those who do not?

In the case of these four Latin American presidentas, three major factors come to the forefront as potential enablers or detractors for strategic gender interests: their emphasis, or lack thereof, on women’s issues during their respective presidential campaigns; the presence of other exigent political, economic, or social problems that may relegate women’s issues to the “backburner”; and prior national progress on women’s issues. First, women who campaigned by actively stressing their status as a woman and promising to make progress on gender issues would be in a relatively stronger position to enact gender policies if elected into office. Second, the presence of other urgent issues on the national policy agenda that compete for the presidentas’ political capital and/or the public’s attention may undermine efforts to act on women’s strategic interests. Finally, there is relatively more pressure for female politicians to act on gender issues in nations with little historical progress on these issues, as compared to nations with significant progress on advancing women’s rights and concerns.  When viewed along these three enabling or detracting lines, the presidentas fall along a spectrum of support for strategic and practical women’s issues, with Michelle Bachelet as the most active proponent of strategic interests; Rousseff, a likely strategic interest advocate in coming years; Kirchner, a possible candidate for strategic interest implementation; and Chinchilla at the other extreme, unlikely to implement policies on women’s strategic interests.

Examining the Literature on Women’s Issues and Women in Politics

When it comes to an actual, substantive advancement of women’s issues, it is important to distinguish between practical and strategic interests under the umbrella of women’s issues, as first outlined by the feminist scholar Maxine Molyneaux. Practical interests focus on day-to-day issues affecting women, typically based on “practical” necessity, and seek improvement in women’s condition without challenging the socially accepted role of women in society. These practical interests can include social and economic issues, including access to healthcare, education and other basic social services. On the other hand, strategic interests challenge existing gender gaps in society with the long-term aim of equality between women and men. As strategic interests seek to fundamentally challenge the status quo, advancing these interests is typically more contentious than advancing practical interests.2

Scholars researching such practical issues have found that the majority of female legislators put forward legislation covering practical interests, even those interests that fall on the more conservative side of the political spectrum, in order to “help women fulfill their gender obligations.”3 However, there is also a consensus in academic literature that increasing the number of female legislators does not necessarily result in a corresponding increase in legislation promoting women’s strategic interests.4 Due partly to the vacuum of case studies on the executive branch, similar studies have not been conducted that evaluate the impact of female heads of government on the advancement of women’s issues, let alone on the impact of female presidents in Latin America. This is the focus of this article. What distinguishes presidentas who advanced strategic gender issues from those that did not? To understand the extent to which each presidenta implemented, or did not implement, strategic women’s interests, we will examine each case briefly.

Michelle Bachelet

Michelle Bachelet, the first woman elected out of this cohort, and the only presidenta not currently in office, made the most progress in advancing strategic women’s issues. Bachelet’s interest and ability in advancing strategic and practical gender issues emerged for a multitude of reasons, but most importantly, she campaigned highlighting her position as a woman in a politically calm period of time, which allowed her to focus energies on women’s issues. Bachelet’s Chile was also a nation that had room to update its policies on women’s issues relative to other countries in the region.

In general, persistent gender inequality is a continuing problem in Chile.5 Although Chile had been ruled by the Concertacion center-left coalition for more than a decade, the Christian Democrats, which were the strongest party in Concertacion for many years, overruled progress on many women’s’ issues due to their close association with the conservative Catholic Church. In this setting, Bachelet had ample room to make up for previous inaction on women’s issues after her election as a strong, women’s rights advocate.

Bachelet started her term in a period of relative calm, by regional standards. However, she would soon face crises throughout her administration, including a large student protest in 2006, and the Transantiago public transportation scandal, in which there were various cabinet reshufflings and public funds were mismanaged. However, no single issue overwhelmed her total political agenda. In this political landscape with a relatively strong economy, Bachelet was able to bring women’s issues to the forefront of Chilean political consciousness.

In the 2005 Chilean context, Bachelet’s position as a female candidate was a strength, as it showed her as a “new” candidate, separate from the traditional political powerbrokers. As a result, Bachelet gained support from two groups that had not voted for the Concertacion in the past: women6 and voters from the ‘traditional’ left who had not joined the coalition.

With these three factors all enabling strategic action, Bachelet, who was in favor of women’s issues personally, proved very active in pursuing strategic women’s interests while in office. Bachelet used the principle of “gender parity” in selecting her cabinet, selecting 10 women and 10 men.7 She also extended this effort to lower levels of government by directly appointing more gender equal numbers of undersecretaries, regional governors, and high-ranking state officials.8 Outside of political representation on the economic front, under Bachelet’s guidance, the Chilean women’s ministry, SERNAM, pushed for private sector firms to counter gender discrimination in the workplace. SERNAM advanced legislation for equal pay standards between the genders, and also created a program to publicize “lessons learned” on gender equality efforts. In the social arena, which was the most difficult to face in conservative Chile, Bachelet promoted reproductive rights by broadening access to free emergency contraception and sex education.9

In the practical realm, Bachelet, as a socialist, addressed Chile’s high level of inequality through increasing redistributional social programs that target women. She led reforms in the pension system, improved public education, and augmented the quality of and access to health coverage. Bachelet’s administration also enacted programs, specifically for women, which support parents and children from conception to age four, a universal day-care program for the poorest two-fifths of women, and shelters in each regional capital for female victims of abuse.10Considering all of the above policy reforms, Bachelet was hugely successful in making reforms during her four-year term in office. Due in large part to supporters from her campaign, Chile’s political climate, and past actions on women’s issues, Bachelet was able to initiate both practical and strategic reforms.

Cristina Kirchner

Though Chile and Argentina are alike on many societal and cultural measures, Cristina Fernández de Kirchner (CFK) has taken a different presidential course from Bachelet. CFK was elected to the presidency for the first time in 2007 following her husband Nestor’s popular presidency. She ran a very short campaign on a platform of continuing her husband’s policies while not emphasizing her position as an independent female candidate. Argentina is a nation that has already made relatively more progress on women’s representation in politics following the crises of the early 2000’s, and it has not been in the collective national desire to experiment with revolutionary gender policies. In this context, CFK has pursued some women’s issues that addressed practical interests, but has avoided working towards more difficult and controversial strategic interests.

Argentina’s women, though still facing discrimination and disadvantages, have achieved great advancements politically and culturally, even before CFK took office. Argentina adopted its national electoral quotas for women in 1991, before any other democratic nation, with the enactment of the Ley de Cupos. This resulted in a record 36% of women in the national assembly and 43% in the senate by 2006, a great deal more relative to Chile’s 15% of women in their national assembly. 11 In addition, the Argentine Constitution provides for equality between the genders and outlaws gender discrimination.12 Overall, Argentina has been fairly progressive on political inclusion of women, both before and since CFK assumed office.

CFK has run two successful, though not overly substantive campaigns, neither of which prominently featured her status as a female candidate under her husband’s populist Front for Victory party. In her first campaign in 2007, CFK ran on a policy platform that consisted of “Profundización del proyecto”, or deepening the national project, by extending her husband's economic policies and increasing engagement on the international stage. Her husband was immensely popular after leading Argentina out of crisis into stabile and positive economic growth.13 CFK’s second campaign in 2011, after her husband’s passing in 2010, focused more on her own achievements. However, she still did not stress her position as a female candidate, instead banking on the success of the economy and a divided opposition in the latter half of her term.

For CFK, the downturn in the economy was the single biggest issue her administration faced in her first term. In 2008-2009, she faced the global recession, falling commodity prices, a severe drought, high inflation, and low economic growth as the Argentinean stock exchange hit a five-year low. Less than a year in office, CFK was also greeted by massive protests against her proposed policy to increase taxes on grain exports.14 As the Argentinean people found their footing following the crisis, fixing the economy and addressing these controversies moved to the forefront of the national agenda, pushing other social issues to the backburner.

Though CFK has not pursued substantial strategic interests supporting women, she has made policies that assist women at the practical level. During her tenure, she invested in conditional cash transfers programs and provided social security for the poor, which have improved the livelihoods of many in lower economic classes. She has also subsidized cash payments specifically to poor mothers with children.15

As a woman who has not emphasized women’s issues as a key part of her administration, it is difficult to predict if CFK will enact changes that promote women’s strategic interests in her second term. Though never featured as a central part of her politics, CFK has in the past stated that she considers herself as having a "double responsibility" as a female politician towards both women and her nation as a whole.16 It remains to be seen what will happen in the coming four years as CFK now has more political freedom to pursue female empowering policies.

Laura Chinchilla

Laura Chinchilla is the only Central American presidenta 17 that is examined in this study. This socially conservative former minister of justice and vice-president was tapped by her predecessor in the center-left Partido Liberación Nacional party, Óscar Arias, to take up the reins of the party. Facing increasing security threats and budgetary constraints, Chinchilla focused on continuing the liberal economic policies of her predecessor while maintaining official state ties with the Catholic Church. Chinchilla sits in a position that does not enable her to make great progress on strategic women’s interests. Like all the presidentas, Chinchilla has enacted some policies benefiting women’s practical interests.  However, based on her own political stance she does not seem willing to make policy choices in that direction within the next two years of her term.

Before Chinchilla took office, Costa Rica was ahead of the Latin American region and most of the world, in terms of women's rights and political participation. The Costa Rican constitution allows for equal rights, freedoms, and opportunities for all, and proscribes discrimination along any lines. Women occupy 40% of party seats in the Costa Rican Legislative Assembly, and this percentage will increase to 50% by 2014.18  Facing this backdrop, Costa Rica had already made great progress on women’s issues and did not need to ‘catch-up’ to its neighbors, putting less pressure on Chinchilla to make additional progress along these lines.

In her campaign, she advanced a policy platform that, to a large extent, continued Arias’ economic and social policies, which include promoting free trade and enhancing public security.19 During her campaign in 2010, Chinchilla did not campaign in favor of extending women’s rights. In fact, she actively distanced herself from the feminist and women’s movements in Costa Rica.20 During the campaign, she forthrightly stated that her social views were in line with the Catholic Church and their stances on gay marriage, abortion, and other reproductive rights. 21

Chinchilla took office in the aftermath of corruption allegations against the past administration and increases in violence resulting from increased drug trafficking in the region, which together led to a heightened degree of domestic panic. To complicate matters, Costa Rica was also facing budget deficits, as the government had been collecting just 14.8% of national income in taxes, and faced a deficit of 4% of GDP.22 On the security front, Chinchilla also needed to handle a contentious border dispute with Nicaragua.23 In this policy environment, Chinchilla is constrained in her ability to advocate for women’s issues, even if she wanted to.

Given the factors listed above, as well as Chinchilla’s socially conservative ideology, it comes as no surprise that she has only implemented policies related to women’s practical interests in her two years in office. Chinchilla has worked to create a national daycare system and has pursued other educational and healthcare reforms.24 However, she continues to support her country’s restrictions on abortion and the morning-after pill on the strategic front.25

Though Chinchilla is only two years into her presidency, it seems unlikely that she will pursue reforms in strategic gender interests, particularly those related to reproductive rights. Nevertheless, during the latter two years of her administration, she may be inclined to pursue stronger equal rights legislation on the economic front.

Dilma Rousseff

As the most recently elected presidenta, or more accurately, primeira presidente mulher, Dilma Rousseff has only been in office for one year. In some ways, she presents the most interesting case study. As a candidate, Rousseff did not express much interest in women’s issues, as she wanted to maintain solidarity with her predecessor, President da Silva, better known as Lula. Nevertheless, since being elected, amidst an economic boom for Brazil and a history of limited progress on women’s issues, she has shown herself to be staunchly in favor of action on both women’s practical and strategic interests.

Brazil has much progress to make on women’s issues. Though the 1988 Brazilian Constitution defends gender equality, the government only recently amended the 1916 Civil Code and the 1940 Penal Code, which contained discriminatory sections against women.26 On the political front, there is a requirement that 30% of election candidates are women, as mandated by a 1997 federal law. According to Almira Rodrigues, director of the Center for Feminist Research and Consulting, “political parties have not shown the willingness to meet the quota,” reflecting weak enforcement mechanisms. Amongst the 27 parties, the current range of women usually elected is between 10% and 15%.27 Consequently, Brazil is one of the countries with the lowest proportion of women in public office.28 In this regard, Rousseff has a good amount of ground to cover in order to bring Brazilian women to parity.

As his previous chief of staff, Rousseff was hand-picked by Lula as the presidential candidate for the leftist PT or Worker’s Party. With Lula’s popularity and exit approval ratings of 80%, his strategy was successful. Rousseff scarcely deviated from the “Lula”-line, even having her predecessor out on the campaign trail speaking for her. Rousseff may also have been discouraged from pursuing gender issues after a small campaign gaffe on abortion.29

When Rousseff took the reins of power at the beginning of 2011, Brazil was doing very well economically. Brazil’s biggest issues include maintaining economic growth rates fueled by the free market, while addressing the staggering, though decreasing, levels of economic inequality. Rousseff has also garnered positive reviews in dealing with corrupt officials, many of whom are holdovers from Lula’s administration. With high approval ratings of around 71%, positive economic performance, and pressure to continue to reduce income inequality; Rousseff has shown she can handle the presidential role. She now has more flexibility, independent of Lula, to pursue policies as she chooses, including women’s issues, which has become a more personal political priority. 30  

Though Rousseff, who prefers to be referred to as the “female president” instead of simply “president”, has been in office for just one year, she has already committed herself to pursuing practical and strategic women’s interests.31 As she stated during her victory speech, her priority was to ensure that an equality of opportunity exists, irrespective of gender. As a step in this direction, Rousseff appointed nine female ministers out of 37, which is the highest proportion of female cabinet ministers ever seen in Brazil.32 In addition to continuing with Lula’s redistributional programs that serve women’s practical interests by supporting children and families, Rousseff seems primed to make further changes that promote women’s strategic interests during the rest of her term.

Thus, although Rousseff gave little indication of her gender views while campaigning, she has the political will and institutional enablers in the form of a strong economy and lack of previous progress, to pursue policies that advance both practical and strategic interests in the future.

Moving Forward

In sum, based on their respective personal ideologies, as well as the three enabling or detracting factors listed above, each of the presidentas appear to be on their own path with regards to implementing policies that advance women’s practical interests. While Bachelet, and most likely Rousseff, have a personal interest in advancing women’s issues and were relatively “enabled”, they advanced or will advance women’s strategic interests. On the other side, Kirchner and Chinchilla seem to lack personal interest in advancing women’s issues and they have also faced detracting influences on their potential ability to implement policies that would enhance women’s strategic interests. Though only time will tell for sure, for the three women still in office, reasonable predictions can be made based on their campaign strategies, the presence of other exigent issues on the political agenda, and each nation’s evolving stance on women’s rights – in conjunction with their own personal interests – on whether or not the presidentas will enact policies advancing women’s strategic interests.  As more women come into political office, it will prove interesting to evaluate them along these same lines to see if the same results hold in 10, 20, and even 50 years from now. If Rousseff is right that the 21stcentury is the century of women, there will be more literature in the coming years to test and refine this hypothesis on the impact of female executives in Latin America.

Looking towards the future, though not all presidentas may be actively working to advance women’s structural interests, their mere election is a landmark, in and of itself, of changing political norms in the region and indicating higher levels of political inclusion along gender lines. With more political power shifting towards females, consequent policy outcomes may not be foregone; however, it is unlikely that this ‘female wave’ in leadership positions will be reversed. As this paper opened, it will conclude with remarks from the most recently elected presidenta, Dilma Rousseff, who stated during her inaugural address in Brasilia in January of 2011, “I am here to open doors so that in the future many other women can also be president.” 33Presidentas open doors for other women, both in actively helping other women rise through the ranks themselves, but also, perhaps more powerfully, by sending a message to younger generations that seeing a female in the president’s office is the new political norm. With this new powerful precedent, female political leadership in Latin America is here to stay.

Notes & References

  1. Dilma Rousseff, Statement at the Opening of the General Debate – UN General Assembly  (Speech, New York, September 21, 2011).
  2. Examples of strategic interests include efforts to equalize employment and wages between women and men, to equally divide domestic labor between women and men, to eliminate gender-based discrimination and to empower women to have choices with regards to childbearing and to protect women against violence.
  3. Sarah Childs, “The Complicated Relationship between Sex, Gender and the Substantive Representation of Women,” European Journal of Women's Studies 13.1 (2006), 7-21; Maxine Molyneux, “Mobilization without Emancipation? Women's Interests, the State, and Revolution in Nicaragua.” Feminist Studies 11:2 (1985:Summer), 227-254; Walsh (2011), 35.
  4. Drude Dahlerup, Women, Quotas and Politics (Abingdon: Routledge, 2006); Deborah L. Dodson, The Impact of Women in Congress (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2006); Denise Walsh, Women's Rights in Democratizing States: Just Debate and Gender Justice in Democratizing States: Just Debate and Gender Justice in the Public Sphere (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2011).
  5. OECD Development Center, “How Social Norms Affect Gender Equality in Non-OECD Countries,” OECD Atlas of Gender and Development (2010).
  6. Jane Jaquette, Feminist agendas and democracy in Latin America (Durham: Duke University Press, 2009).
  7. Ibid.
  8. Ibid.
  9. Ibid.
  10. Ibid., Daniela Estrada, “First Woman President Scores Points on Gender Front,” Inter Press Service News Agency (2010), Last modified on 2 Mar 2010,
  11. Ana Caistor-Arendar, “Cristina Kirchner’s moment,” OpenDemocracy (2007), Last modified December 14, 2007,
  12. Edward Cleary, Mobilizing for human rights in Latin America (Bloomfield: Kumarian Press, 2007).
  13. “Argentina: Presidential Election of 2007,” CountryWatch (2007), Last modified December 14, 2007,; Stocker, Ed, “Buoyed by historic win, Argentina President Kirchner recommits to 'national project” Christian Science Monitor (2011), Last modified October 12, 2011:
  14. Rory Carroll and Uki Goni, “The rise and fall of ‘Queen Cristina’” The Guardian (2008), Last modified on October 20, 2008,; Sara Miller Llana, “High stakes for the ‘ruling couple’ in Argentina’s election” Christian Science Monitor (2009), Last modified June 26, 2009,
  15. Stocker, “Buoyed by historic win,” (22 Oct 2011).
  16. Carroll and Goni “The rise and fall.”
  17. Central America is also home to previous presidentas Mireya Moscoso of Panama and Violeta Chamorro of Nicaragua.
  18. OECD, (2010).
  19. Michal Toiba, “Costa Ricans Choose Laura Chinchilla” Americas Society (2010), Last modified February 4, 2010,; “Thriller for Chinchilla” The Economist (2010), Last modified February 11, 2010,
  20. Stuart Loory, “The election of Laura Chinchilla, Costa Rica's first woman president, brings discussion” Columbia Missourian (2010), Last modified February 12, 2010, 2010/02/12/women-leaders-around-world/
  21. Ibid.
  22. “After Arias” The Economist (2010), Last modified May 6, 2010,
  23. Ibid.; “The 2011 Global Women’s Progress Report” Newsweek (2011), Last modified September 2011,; “Costa Rica ready to appeal to higher bodies in border dispute” CNNWorld (2011), Last modified on 10 Nov 2011,
  24. “Laura Chinchilla, An Amazon of Her Time” Saturday Tribune (2010), Last modified July 3, 2010,
  25. The Economist, “After Arias,” (May 6, 2010).
  26. OECD, (2010).
  27. Ibid.
  28. Mal Htun, “Puzzles of women’s rights in Brazil” Social Research: An International Quarterly 69:3 (2002), 733-751.  
  29. Robin Yapp, “Dilma Rousseff elected Brazil’s first female president” The Telegraph (2010), Last modified October 31, 2010,
  30. Tom Phillips, “Dilma Rousseff’s pledge to empower Brazil’s women comes good” The Guardian (2011), Last modified December 2, 2011,; Tom Phillips, “Brazil is the latest country to get angry about corruption” The Guardian (2011), Last modified October 27, 2011,
  31. “Brazil’s President Dilma Rousseff Fights for Women’s Rights” Sofia News Agency (2011), Last modified March 2, 2011,
  32. Ibid.
  33. Dilma Rousseff, “Inaugural Address” (Speech, Brasilia, September 21, 2011).
Shelley Ranii is a first-year master’s student at The Johns Hopkins University’s SAIS Bologna Center, where she concentrates in Latin American Studies. At SAIS, she was awarded the Philip Merrill Fellowship for the Best Essay on the Practice of American Diplomacy from the American Academy of Diplomacy and currently serves as a graduate teaching assistant in Microeconomics and Macroeconomics. Prior to graduate school, she worked for three years at the U.S. Department of Defense as a Social Science Analyst covering Iraq and Afghanistan, including a 5 month deployment to Kabul, Afghanistan during which she was awarded the U.S. Department of the Army Superior Civilian Award and the Global War on Terrorism Medal for conducting innovative analysis in a combat zone. She holds a Bachelor’s Degree in Government from Harvard University and is a native of Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania in the United States.