Cristina Kirchner's moment

Ana Caistor-Arendar
14 December 2007

On Monday 11 December 2007, Cristina Fernandez de Kirchner assumed the presidency of Argentina after being handed the baton of power by the outgoing president, her husband, Néstor Kirchner. A country known the world over for its macho culture had elected its first female head of state. At a lavish ceremony in Buenos Aires to mark the event, the second President Kirchner admitted that she would find it "difficult being a woman in a man's world", but asserted that she would "take charge of the presidency."

Ana Caistor-Arendar is a journalist living and working in Argentina. She worked at the Independent, co-directed Bulb (a global-issues magazine created for and by young people), and at Fotokids (an NGO in Guatemala).

Her website is here This combination of modesty and affirmation is subtle acknowledgment of the ambiguity of Cristina Kirchner's moment. It can also be seen as an implicit recognition of the question posed by her political trajectory: is it a triumph for women or simply the creation of another Argentinean political dynasty?

The gaucho glass ceiling

Historically the most recognisable female political figures in Argentina are ex-president Juan Domingo Perón's two wives, Eva Duarte and Isabel Martínez Cartas. Both wielded a great amount of power, even though Eva never held an official post (her desire to run for vice-president alongside her husband in 1951 was thwarted by the military and elite) and Isabel's de facto presidency after her husband's death in 1974 was brief and disastrous. "When looking at Cristina Kirchner's election it is key to place it in this historical context", says Dora Barrancos, head of gender studies at the University of Buenos Aires. "Because in relation to our history this really doesn't signify that much of a change. Machismo has far from died as a result of having elected a female president."

Argentina is a land with a historically powerful military presence, in which football, beef and gaucho culture are the biggest exports and sources of national pride. Machismo too is part of this complex, seen by many as an integral part of national identity. "There is a complicated form of machismo in Argentina", explains Barrancos. "Machismo clearly exists here but within that it is considered ok for the woman to have a position of power. Particularly if it is believed that the man may be holding the reins in the background. "

Among openDemocracy's articles on Argentina's politics:

Ivan Briscoe, "Argentina: how politicians survive while people starve" (16 April 2003)

Ivan Briscoe, "Néstor Kirchner's Argentina: a journey from hell" (24 May 2005)

Horacio Verbitsky, "Breaking the silence: the Catholic Church in Argentina and the 'dirty war'" (27 July 2005)

Carlos Forment, "The democratic dribble: Buenos Aires's politics of football" (15 June 2006)

Celia Szusterman, "The Kirchner model: king and queen penguin" (17 July 2007)

Celia Szusterman, "Argentina: Kirchner after Kirchner" (29 October 2007)
Yet Cristina Kirchner is a political heavyweight in her own right. She studied law at university in the city of La Plata, where she met and married Néstor Kirchner. The couple soon moved to Santa Cruz, in the south of Argentina, where they jointly launched their political careers within the Peronist party, and had two children. Cristina became deputy for the province and later senator, before being elected, in 2005, to represent the strategically important province of Buenos Aires in the senate.

Her presidential candidacy came about when Néstor Kirchner chose not to stand for a second term and nominated her in his place (in April 2007), without the need for presidential primaries. This was an unusual decision for him to have made. As the man credited with restoring the stability of the country after the economic meltdown it suffered in December 2001, he would certainly have won a second term. Critics argue that his decision was motivated by a desire to sidestep the two-term presidential limit imposed by the constitution, swapping the baton of power with his wife every four years.

In the 28 October 2007 elections, Cristina won by a landslide in the first round. This was despite a muted campaign in which she declined to speak to the national press until the day before the elections and refused to hold a public debate with members of the opposition. It is widely accepted that her win was a result of a public desire for continuity after a tumultuous recent history.

This at least was the view expressed by many of those gathered outside the congressional building on the day of her inauguration. "She won because her husband was a popular president", said Marilina Delagila, 22, a member of a student youth group, who had come to show her support for the new president. "It wasn't a difficult choice for people to make, they wouldn't have voted for her otherwise." Guillermo Mayne, 50, agrees, "It is a good thing that Cristina won because it means that there wont be any real changes, things will remain stable for a while because she will be continuing the work of her husband."

The future in the past

The experience of women in Argentina mixes social disadvantage and discrimination (they still earn 38% less than their male counterparts, the largest gender-pay gap in Latin America, and abortion remains illegal, with one woman dying every day as a result of botched back-street operations) with political and cultural advance. The latter is reflected in the presence of the three women in the presidential election race: they included the main opposition candidate, Elisa Carrió of the Coalición Cívica (Civic Coalition), who gained 22.95% of the vote against Cristina Kirchner's 44.92%, and Vilma Ripoll of the Movimiento Socialista de los Trabajadores (Socialist Workers Movement / MST). Many credit this shift to the Ley de Cupo (quota law) introduced in 1991 which stipulates that a certain percentage of candidates for political posts be women. The measure has had a significant and progressive impact, to the extent that women representatives now compose 35% of the national assembly and 43% of the senate.

Dora Barrancos is reluctant, however, to view the election of Cristina as a significant achievement for feminism in Argentina. "Cristina perpetuates certain stereotypes that fit in with the macho perspective of a woman. I think she does this on purpose, perhaps to make herself less threatening to men", she explains. "Cristina makes a conscious decision to always be shown wearing make-up and looking well groomed, she is probably thinking that appearing overtly feminine is a way to avoid scaring off the Argentine public. I don't know if she would have been voted in were she not the conventional woman that she is, the stereotype has served her well."

Fernanda Reyes, 29, is an economist and deputy for the Coalición Cívica who has firsthand experience of being a woman in Argentine politics. "I have never felt discriminated against in the political circles that I move in, although I have felt that I've had to work harder to prove myself and that more demands were made of me", she says. "I think this change in attitude we have seen, with women dominating the presidential elections, has to do with the global situation we are living in. Women are moving ahead in politics all over the world and what we are witnessing in Argentina is a part of that."

Female heads of states have indeed been breaking through the thickest of glass ceilings recently, from Angela Merkel in Germany to Michelle Bachelet in Chile. The very real possibility of Paraguay and Brazil's official parties selecting women candidates for their elections in 2008 and 2009 - and with Hillary Clinton a presidential frontrunner in the United States - suggests that a shift of historic significance is taking place. 

Whether it will amount to a powerful female bloc in the American continent is another matter. In Argentina at least, the future is always constructed with an eye to the past. As she made her first presidential address on 10 December, Cristina Kirchner reiterated that she was confident in her success as a female president because she has the example of Eva Perón to guide her. The deference to (and subliminal comparison with) this revered national icon is an artful way of ensuring the support of large numbers of Argentineans at the outset of her presidency. But it also serves, perhaps unwittingly, to highlight the dynastic nature of politics in Argentina. "As a woman I am pleased that we have a female president in my country", says Reyes. "It is just a shame that after all Cristina's hard work and experience what mattered at the end was who she was married to."

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