Farida Jalalzai – Women Presidents of Latin America: Beyond Family Ties?

This is a guest post by Farida Jalalzai, the Hannah Atkins Endowed Chair and Associate Professor of Political Science at Oklahoma State University

In his article “On Election Day, Latin America Willingly Trades Machismo for Female Clout” New York Times contributor Simon Romero asserts “Up and down the Americas, with the notable exception of the United States, women are soaring into the highest political realms” (Romero 2013). In exploring this development making headlines, my book, Women Presidents of Latin America: Beyond Family Ties? (Routledge 2016) analyzes four recent women presidents also known as presidentas: Michelle Bachelet (Chile, 2006-2010; 2014-), Cristina Fernández (Argentina, 2007-2015), Laura Chinchilla (Costa Rica, 2010-2014) and Dilma Rousseff (Brazil, 2011-2016).  Given the powers presidentialism affords presidents, women’s increasing tendency to play these very strong political roles present a puzzle.  Since institutional factors account heavily for women’s success and presidentialism appears the most difficult system for women to break through (Jalalzai 2013), how can we explain women’s ability to gain the presidency in Latin America?  Historically, women leaders in presidential systems (particularly women directly elected by the public) were generally limited to relatives of male leaders and this proved to be a personal factor linking women presidents worldwide, including those from Latin America. With the election of Michelle Bachelet in Chile, these traditional patterns appeared to be shifting.  What conditions, therefore, allowed for a broadening of routes, beyond family ties, for women in Latin America?  While an important question, I was also interested in the larger implications the election of powerful women posed. Once in office, do the presidentas make positive changes on behalf of women? My findings were primarily based on responses derived from over 60 elite interviews conducted between 2011 and 2014 in these countries. Respondents included political elites and experts of diverse partisan leanings such as cabinet ministers, legislators, party leaders, consultants from think tanks and academics, and a sitting president (Chinchilla)..  I supplemented interviews with data from public opinion polls, media and scholarly analyses, and information from governmental and non-governmental organizations.

In addressing my first question, I found that all presidentas benefitted from centralized and exclusive presidential nomination procedures (see also Hinojosa 2012). Not only were they essentially handpicked by their predecessors, their publics’ were largely supportive of the outgoing president’s policies.  While benefitting from continuity, with the exception of Fernández (as the former first lady, the only political wife in the group) they did not enjoy top placement or independent bases within their parties.  As such, their nominations were perceived as somewhat surprising and occasionally met with party resistance.  Yet, their outsider statuses likely explain why they were viewed as appropriate successors in the first place.  Critically, Chinchilla, Bachelet, and Rousseff also campaigned on how they would change the face of politics.  The combined approach of change and stability proved fruitful.

Regarding their impact, I examined three types of potential effects of their leadership on women:

  1. Appointing more women to political offices
  2. Positively influencing levels of political engagement and participation, political orientations, and support for women in politics among the general public
  3. Supporting policies on behalf of women

Throughout, I compared women to their male predecessors.  Because of their strong ties to the outgoing presidents, we might have expected the presidentas to behave fairly similarly.  Yet, as women, they may have done more to empower women than their male counterparts. My analysis identified mixed evidence.   While presidents Bachelet and Rousseff prioritized appointing more women than did their male counterparts, this did not seem to hold true for either Chinchilla or Fernández. In analyzing data from representative surveys and from my interviews, findings confirmed key differences between the presidentas.  More positive shifts in public opinion and participation were linked to Rousseff’s presidency (my book only covered her first term—it does did not account her cataclysmic fall from grace and subsequent impeachment) while Bachelet’s showed little consistent or significant effects.  In interviews, respondents easily identified positive influences Rousseff’s and Bachelet’s presidencies offered.  In contrast, both the representative surveys and interviews concerning Chinchilla and Fernández regularly indicated backsliding.  Support for women’s policies proved most prevalent in Bachelet’s presidencies.  Rousseff, to a lesser degree, also made women’s issues an important part of her first term.  While many programs were extensions of Lula’s, Rousseff added more depth to existing programs.  She also connected seemingly gender neutral policies to women, particularly poor women.  We see little prioritization of women’s issues, in contrast, during Fernández’s and Chinchilla’s presidencies, affirming the variability in positive effects of presidentas on women.

Three years after the article quoted above was published, another journalist for the New York Times, Jonathan Gilbert, posed the following question: “What has happened to the powerful women of South America?”  The previous fervor had given way to disappointment as the presidentas analyzed here encountered plummeting approval ratings, much of which is related to economic travails, and nearly all were ensnared in corruption scandals. While this book suggested mixed effects of women presidents, I wonder if women face greater scrutiny for their lackluster performances or alleged engagement in inappropriate behavior. These remain open questions, but ones worth pursuing in future investigations as enhanced scrutiny shapes women’s abilities to exercise power generally and behalf of women specifically. These questions will be even more salient with the United States on the brink of electing its first woman president. As Hillary Clinton is a former First Lady, her path to power is not very puzzling.  Still, no doubt this historic moment will soon give way to investigations regarding what Clinton’s presidency offers women and whether she too receives undue scrutiny because of her gender.

References

Gilbert, Jonathan. “South America’s Powerful Women Are Embattled. Is Gender a Factor?” The New York Times. May 14, 2016. http://www.nytimes.com/2016/05/15/world/americas/dilma-rousseff-michelle-bachelet-cristina-fernandez-de-kirchner.html?_r=0

Hinojosa, Magda. 2012. Selecting Women, Electing Women: Political Representation and Candidate Selection in Latin America. Philadelphia, PA: Temple University Press.

Jalalzai, Farida. 2016. Women Presidents of Latin America: Beyond Family Ties? New York: Routledge Press.

Jalalzai, Farida. 2013.  Shattered, Cracked or Firmly Intact? Women and the Executive Glass Ceiling Worldwide.  New York: Oxford University Press.

Romero, Simon. “On Election Day, Latin America Willingly Trades Machismo for Female Clout.” The New York Times. December 14, 2013. http://www.nytimes.com/2013/12/15/world/americas/on-election-day-latin-america-willingly-trades-machismo-for-female-clout.html?_r=0

Farida Jalalzai is the Hannah Atkins Endowed Chair and Associate Professor of Political Science. Dr. Jalalzai’s research analyzes the representation and behavior of women and minorities in politics and the role of gender in the political arena. Her work focuses on women national leaders. Her first book Shattered, Cracked and Firmly Intact: Women and the Executive Glass Ceiling Worldwide (Oxford University Press 2013, updated paperback 2016) offers a comprehensive analysis of women, gender, and national leadership positions. Her second book, Women Presidents of Latin America: Beyond Family Ties?  (Routledge 2016) examines several case studies of the behavior of women national leaders including presidents Laura Chinchilla (Costa Rica), President Dilma Rousseff (Brazil), Cristina Fernández (Argentina). Her current projects include a co-edited volume “Measuring Women’s Political Empowerment Worldwide” (with Amy C. Alexander and Catherine Bolzendahl, under contrast at Palgrave) a co-authored book Senhora Presidenta: Women’s Representation in Brazil during Dilma Rousseff’s Presidency (with Pedro dos Santos), and  “Blood is Thicker than Water: Family Ties to Political Power Worldwide,” a global analysis of the prevalence of family connections among executive political office holders (with Meg Rincker).

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