Day by day, women are playing a greater role on the political scene. The phenomenon is already visible in such well-known cases as Hillary Clinton, wife of ex-president Bill Clinton and now a senator from New York; Marta Sahagún, wife of Mexican president Vicente Fox; and Mireya Moscoso, the president of Panama. Moscoso was married to Arnulfo Arias Madrid, three times the president of Panama. It was during the administration of Arnulfo Arias Madrid that women acquired the right to vote in Panama more than a half century ago. Moreover, the case of Mireya Moscoso is not unique. Like her, Violeta Chamorro was president of Nicaragua.
‘Evita,’ wife of Argentine president Juan Domingo Perón, became the country’s political leader. Evita went from being an ordinary First Lady to someone who captured the attention of the nation’s poor and working class from the balcony of the Casa Rosada [Argentina’s presidential palace]. Evita led Perón’s re-election campaign, crafting her husband’s appeal to female voters. She wanted to become vice-president in a Perón-Perón campaign. However, her fatal bout with cancer, combined with opposition from the inner circle of the president and Perón himself, prevented that from happening.
A half century after Evita’s death, several women are fighting for positions in Argentine politics in the next senatorial and congressional elections. Three women stand out: Cristina Fernández de Kirchner, Hilda González de Duhalde, and Elisa Carrió. Kirchner and Duhalde have something in common with Evita: They are both wives of Argentine presidents. Meanwhile, Carrió overcame several obstacles to reach her current position, leading the committed opposition to the earlier governments.
“This is a case of three intelligent women with the same vocation and same leadership role, especially Kirchner and Carrió,” says Fernando Alvarez, professor at AustralUniversityand the Pontifical Catholic University of Argentina (UCA). Meanwhile, Raul Aragón, director of the Center for Public Opinion Research at the Open Inter-American University (UAI) notes that all three “respond to three needs affecting the public today. These three different kinds of demands are correlated with levels of income, age, gender, education, and so forth.”
Cristina Fernández de Kirchner has twice served as a senator and several times as a member of Argentina’s lower house. The wife of Néstor Kirchner, the current president of Argentina, Cristina will probably run again for the senate as a member of the Peronist party in Buenos Aires province.
“One sector of the population needs reform,” says Aragón. “That sector, which comprises 10 percent of the people in the federal capital district, sees Cristina Kirchner as a legitimate representative. The sector includes a sizable number of people from the upper middle class. There is also a strong correlation with youth; people under 30 believe in Cristina Kirchner.”
Cristina’s political style is “decisive and intelligent; she is a veteran who claims to be progressive. Her social style reflects her role as the wife of a president who was the governor Patagonia, a remote province that is huge but has a very small population. Society sees Cristina as a decisive manager who is quite shrewd, and can make her way in the world of politics,” says Álvarez.
Beatriz Calatayud, who runs a web portal for female executives, www.mujerynegocios.com, says “Cristina Kirchner is a high-flyer on her own, beyond her role as First Lady. Earlier, she was involved in politics on her own terms. However, it remains to be seen what kind of candidate she will be.”
Cristina’s most direct rival is Hilda González de Duhalde, better known as ‘Chiche.’ The wife of former president Eduardo Duhalde, Chie is also the current head of the Peronist party. Chiche could run for a spot as senator from Buenos Aires province, but some sources believe that she could stay on as deputy until 2007. That’s when she could get involved in the gubernatorial race in Buenos Aires province, facing off against Cristina Kirchner.
“The people who see Chiche as their representative comprise the three percent of the federal capital district who are tied into the most orthodox wing of the Peronist party,” explains Aragón. “Chiche presents an attractive firmness based not on intellectual training, but on her image as wife and mother. This is the kind of leadership that begins in the home itself and is cemented in the figure of her husband. She is a proper figure; patient but firm, and serene.”
“Chiche is a very intelligent woman who knows what is happening and what kinds of problems people have,” adds Calatayud. “Chiche got her political training when she directed the famous ‘apple orchards,’ composed of women who responded to social needs in every housing block in Buenos Airesprovince.
The third contestant is ‘Lilita’ Elisa Carrió, from the provinceof Chaco. Lilita began her political career as a representative from her province in the federal congress. Now she hopes to continue at that post, but from the federal capital district. Lilita is divorced, and she heads her own center-left political party. Known as ARI, her party leads the opposition to the current government.
“There is a segment of the public whose demands seem to have an ethicalfoundation,” says Aragón. “This group denounces the corruption, collusion and ineptitude of politicians. Lilita Carrió represents these people, and 20 percent of voters in the federal capital district support her. These are mainly middle-class.”
Álvarez agrees. “Lilita Carrió has a combative style. She is a mystic and a prophet making forecasts in the desert. Her indictments are against corruption. Nevertheless, this can change rapidly and without any effort. Now, she is acting like someone close to modern culture – a woman of the upper middle class who has a college education and comes from a good family. This new Lilita shows up on television with a tan, talking about the latest diet she used in order to get thin.” Calatayud adds, “She is a very media-focused personality. She has a significant number of fanatical followers. Perhaps she has some substance, not just style.”
A New Realm of Power
Although the three women are different in some respects, this much is clear: They have penetrated a realm of power that women were unable to enter in earlier decades.
This isn’t happening only in politics, but elsewhere in such sectors as business and technology. According to Calatayud: “Through my web portal, I communicate a great deal with women throughout the Spanish-speaking world. I notice that all of these countries have the same social structure as Argentina, which is very macho. Yet women have opened the road ahead by taking on masculine attitudes. In recent years, younger women are leveling the playing field of opportunity. For example, when we began the portal, we received 125 [e-mail] letters. Now we get 400 letters. Women are getting onto the Net more often. In some countries, women now constitute half of the Web users.”
“The collective subjectivity of the West advances toward acceptance of diversity,” adds Aragón. This also includes greater acceptance of gender in the political realm – which was, and still is to a great extent, the exclusive realm of men. The time is coming when women will acquire power, and there will be a new dimension to what we call ‘ideology.’ Women will also be providing their valid perspectives about the political community.’”
Without doubt, women in Argentina and elsewhere have made significant progress in politics. “This phenomenon is not all that recent,” Álvarez notes. “It began at the end of World War II. Women freed themselves from the narrow restrictions of domestic life and penetrated the working world, where they aspired to acquire advanced degrees. Although politics continues to be a largely masculine field, it should not surprise people when women emerge as leaders.”
One example is Hillary Clinton, wife of Bill Clinton, former president of the United States. Currently a senator from New York, her political career has no boundaries. “Hillary has become a model of a mature, highly skilled woman who comes across very successfully in politics,” says Álvarez. “Her experience as First Lady makes her a lot like Cristina. Both women had a high profile earlier, when their husbands were presidents. They had to cultivate a low profile during the administrations of their spouses. Both women played an important role in the election campaigns of their husbands; they were not merely decorative elements.”
Both Cristina and Hillary have strong personalities and enough ambition to succeed in politics when they are not at the side of powerful men.
Chiche Duhalde is a bit quieter than Hillary, but she shares with Cristina “a strong bond with their husbands. Their identity and political drive are derived from their husbands and would otherwise be unthinkable,” says Aragón. Moreover, if they compete for the governorship of Buenos Aires in 2007, there will be a battle between their husbands, who are currently fighting for leadership of the Peronist party.
Cristina and Chiche also owe something to Eva Perón. Both come from the Peronist party. Chiche is competing for power against men, while nevertheless behaving in a well-mannered and discreet way. She is Evita’s disciple, but she does not emulate her. “She is not trying to be like her; only to do as she did,” says Aragón.
For her part, Cristina “is the standard bearer of her patriotic dream; a sort of post-modern Evita,” Aragón adds. “In place of Evita’s ‘shirtless people, Cristina talks about ‘the people.’ When Cristina lectures, it’s as if she wants to sing above her natural range. She strains her voice, and the more subtle tones are not heard.”
What Will Be the Final Outcome?
Cristina, Chiche and Lilita have all come a long way. They dominate the landscape in the communications media and the polls. But how far will their efforts take them? According to Equis, a consulting firm, if Cristina runs for the senate in the Buenos Aires province, she will win 60 percent of the vote. If Chiche runs (and Cristina does not), Chiche will come in first, with 35 percent of the vote. But if both women run in Buenos Aires, Cristina will beat Chiche by getting 48 percent of the vote. Lilita would represent the federal capital district, winning 31 percent of the vote, according to an Equis survey last month.
“The three leaders have interesting peculiarities and complexities. We’ll have to see if they pass the success test. In effect, these leaders are like shooting stars (given the intense focus of television) made to battle for power, but destined to self-destruct when it is time to enact concrete projects. That’s what happened to the coalition when Fernando de la Rua became President of Argentina. As Freud would say, they were consumed by the neurosis that resulted from their success.”
Calatayud concludes with a feminist’s more positive perspective. “Women have a more caring approach. Moreover, they could improve international negotiations and the economy. Women are better administrators. But they have to learn from years of political history, corruption and mistakes.”