Women in politics in Latin America, from the Pink Tide to the turn to the Right

Until recently, there was a significant presence of women in the political frontline in Latin America. The current turn to the Right seems to produce the opposite. Or does it? Español

Verónica Engler
8 May 2018

48th Conference of Mercosur Heads of State and associated states. President Dilma Rousseff receives the president of Argentina Cristina Kirchner. Source: Wikimedia Commons. Some rights reserved

This article is being published as part of the partnership between Nueva Sociedad and democraciaAbierta. You can read the original here.

Towards the end of the last century, a change of course in Latin American politics was interpreted and described by many as a "turn to the Left". It was a process which scholars came to call the Pink Tide, characterized by the democratic coming to power of progressive governments in most countries in the region.

Broadly, it was a break with the 1990’s Washington Consensus – which had implied a mix of market-opening and privatizating measures, inspired and promoted by the United States. But the Pink Tide brought with it an absolute novelty: women presidents - the presidentas. Now that the tide has turned, the falling water level is revealing a shortage of women in high political posts.

Does the current turn to the Right actually imply less female presence in the political frontline? Or are we going to witness now a rise of right-wing women leaders in Latin American politics?

In 2014, Latin America ranked high in the world’s female leader index, with presidentas Dilma Rouseff (Brazil), Cristina Fernández (Argentina), Michelle Bachelet (Chile) and Laura Chinchilla (Costa Rica).

In 2014, Latin America ranked high in the world’s female leader index, with presidentas Dilma Rouseff (Brazil), Cristina Fernández (Argentina), Michelle Bachelet (Chile) and Laura Chinchilla (Costa Rica) and prime ministers Portia Simpson (Jamaica) and Kamla Persad-Bissessar (Trinidad and Tobago). This was – and still is - an unparalleled record.

Today, there are no women presidents in sight and the number of women in cabinet posts has clearly diminished.

However, there are some indications that a number of strong women leaders are emerging. For example María Eugenia Vidal, governor of the province of Buenos Aires (Argentina), from Mauricio Macri’s Let’s Change alliance, and Marta Lucía Ramírez, from the Colombian Conservative Party, Álvaro Uribe’s presidential ticket partner.

In Latin America, male dominance of political power throughout history accounts for the expectations societies have had regarding presidential leadership.

For several decades after women won the recognition of their right to participate in electoral politics at all levels, the presidency remained the one political post filled exclusively by men. Even though women began to occupy legislative positions at sub-national and national level shortly after achieving full voting rights in the 1940s and 1950s, it was not until the 1990s that a woman won a presidential election.

But are we to think that the progressive ideals of the Pink Tide are responsible for the success of the women who won the presidency of their countries during the first decade of this century?

In Latin America's Presidentas: Overcoming Challenges - a recently published article included in Gender and Representation in Latin America, edited by Leslie A. Schwindt-Bayer -, American political scientists Catherine Reyes-Housholder and Gwynn Thomas recognize that the growing experience of women in politics and the existence of political contexts more favourable to their political representation operate as necessary conditions for their electoral victories.

This is evidenced by the fact that none of the presidential candidates – both the winning ones and those who did not win - was a newcomer. On the contrary, they had been building their political careers for years.

At this stage, though, it is quite clear that the coming to power of women does not necessarily ensure a gender perspective - that is, the will to change an unequal order. However, the presence of women as presidents, legislators and ministers, allows, at least, a new set of possibilities.

The Pink Tide presidentas, with due nuances in each case, made a small but significant difference in the appointments to cabinet posts. In Argentina, women headed 25% of the ministries during Cristina Fernández’s mandate, a figure that has now gone down to less than 10% - only two – with Mauricio Macri.

Nor is the current Buenos Aires provincial cabinet under governor María Eugenia Vidal - a likely presidential candidate for 2019 - in a better shape in terms of equality: out of twenty members, only one is a woman.

After the institutional coup against Dilma Rousseff, President Michel Temer formed a cabinet composed entirely of men. 

The case of Brazil is even more symptomatic. After the institutional coup against Dilma Rousseff, President Michel Temer formed a cabinet composed entirely of men. And the recent assassination of councilwoman Marielle Franco (from the Socialism and Freedom Party), a feminist leader and a social leader of the favelas, is a clear example of the danger that women who question the established order in the region face.

Is there a relation between the end of the presidentas mandates and the turn to the Right which is currently taking place in several Latin American countries?

Feminist historian Dora Barrancos, senior researcher and member of the Board of the National Council of Scientific and Technical Research (CONICET) in Argentina, says it bluntly: "There is, for sure, a close relation between the end of these mandates and the advance of the Right, which had already been showing its obfuscation, particularly regarding the income redistribution measures.

The policy measures of the governments which were inclined to resolving inequality and social exclusion were harassed by the concentrated economic groups."

During the Pink Tide, Michele Bachelet’s government was the most advanced one regarding the inclusion of a government agenda with a gender perspective. During her second term, she pushed a series of electoral reforms which included Chile's first gender quota by law.

In addition, Bachelet introduced legislation to liberalize the up to then total prohibition of abortion. Reyes-Housholder and Thomas state that no other president (woman or man) equals Bachelet's legislative success in promoting gender equality, which was a central element of her presidential agenda.

They highlight the fact that Bachelet successfully mobilized a supporting core of women behind a "pro-woman" platform. She also managed to attract "elite feminists" and skillfully managed to use her power to promote meaningful change in favour of women.

In Argentina, President Mauricio Macri recently decided to create a women's cabinet headed by Vice President Gabriela Michetti. This cabinet includes his two women ministers - Carolina Stanley (Social Development) and Patricia Bullrich (Security) – and the head of the National Institute for Women, Fabiana Tuñez.

The first meeting of this cabinet took place within the framework of a social and political agenda focused on several gender issues, such as the decriminalization of abortion, the extension of paternity leave, and wage equality between women and men - in addition to gender violence and its most serious consequence, feminicide, which has motivated massive protest movements in the country, such as Ni una una menos.

So, could the Right capitalize on the historical struggles of the women's movement, such as legal abortion, which now seems to have been co-opted into the government agenda in Argentina?

"Yes, of course it can", says feminist sociologist María Alicia Gutiérrez, who is a professor and researcher at the Faculty of Social Sciences of the University of Buenos Aires and a member of the National Campaign for the Right to Free and Secure Legal Abortion. "This situation is not new. During Carlos Menem’s Peronist government, amidst the brutal implementation of neoliberal structural adjustment measures, privatization and rights reform, a quota law was passed and so was a bill on shared parental authority, among other measures. But laws condition the possibilities of advancing other demands, and so it is not clear that right-wing governments, with a program of social cuts, would be willing to do it".

Historically, women in Latin America have participated in politics to a lesser extent than men, but in The impact of Presidentas on political activity, Catherine Reyes-Housholder and Leslie Schwindt-Bayer show that the presence of a female president is correlated with greater participation of women in the campaign, more female voter intention and greater attendance at meetings by women.

The authors say that some evidence suggests that the presence of women presidents is associated with an increase in the support of both men and women for female political leadership, which in turn can lead to greater female political participation.

It is possible to think that we are witnessing a return of male dominance of political power in Latin America. However, some promising trends indicate that women are competing more than before. Today, there are more women with experience in politics who can contest power in the public arena.

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