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Female Presidents May 11, 2006

Posted by Matt Hurst in Uncategorized.
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In the New York Times’ article “Where Political Clout Demands a Maternal Touch”, Lydia Polgreen and Larry Rohter portray the recent election of two female heads of state in context of their female gender roles. Ellen Johnson Sirleaf, elected as Liberia’s new president and the first woman head of state in Africa, campaigned under the role of national matron while comparing the nation to a ill child in need of a mother’s care. In comparison Chile’s first female president, Michelle Bachelet, campaigned on a platform that her feminine empathetic qualities would help heal her society by bringing reconciliation out of her country’s authoritarian past. By using the personal histories and sourcing local political figures the authors try to convince the reader that the recent elections of female candidates as heads of their respective states (Chile and Liberia) is the result of public desire for a maternal touch to heal political wounds in these torn countries.
Although the authors’ offered explanation of the two candidates’ election in terms of their gender role is useful in understanding the conflicts in these two vastly different nations, it does not offer additional support affirming that gender was the only determining factor in their elections. While they are quick to point out the reluctance of journalists to portray female politicians as matronly, their assumptions of female gender associated qualities such as bringing “unity and peace to a fractured society” (in the case of Liberia) ignore other possibilities of the individual candidate’s qualifications leading to their election. For instance, in the case of Michelle Bachelet’s election, the author’s comment on but do not attribute the Chilean people’s desire for a leader outside of the political elite and change from right-wing totalitarianism in favor of an ideological Socialist candidate. Bachelet’s personal experience with Chilean history sweeps over her qualifications for head of state, such as her service in the ministry of health and as defense minister, that may have been just as much a reason for her election over opposing candidates. Because the article does not offer a comparison of either elected leader to the candidates they ran against, it does not offer a comprehensive argument that it was their feminine characteristics (as opposed to the assumed masculine characteristics of their opponents) that led to their election. In fact, one might read this article and come to the conclusion that a male candidate espousing feminine gender roles could have won the elections just as easily.
Though it is argued in the article that it is “the minds of men that make war” (in West Africa at least), it is important to consider that prior to their elections it was under previous male heads of state that enough internal sovereignty was projected to secure the peace necessary to hold their democratic elections. While it is apparent that civil war waged in Liberia under paternal rule, it was also under male leadership that war there ended. However much a matronly quality might restore the nations hospitals, schools, and roads, it is an individual representative that must improve the infrastructure of that nation. In seeking diplomatic support from other nations, these heads of state valued for the feminine qualities of inclusiveness and empathy, will have to offer conventional resources as well. As Bachelet seeks to change international perception of Chile from it’s legacy of authoritarianism to an economic powerhouse of free market liberalism (a possible compromise given her Socialist identification), she will have to deal with nation-state representations regardless of either’s sex. While the first elections of female leaders in Liberia and Chile is a significant landmark in these democratic nations, it will be the rule of the individual candidate’s over their people and interactions with other nations that will mark their achievement regardless of gender.

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