Girls rule, boys drool: female heads of state

Gilana Levavi (‘14)/Eastside staff

Since the beginning of time, women have led in government. Egyptian queens are believed to have ruled since 3000 B.C.E., and the first documented female leader ruled in Mesopotamia around 2500 B.C.E.

The newest female governmental leader is Dilma Rousseff, who was elected president of Brazil on October 31, and is scheduled to take office January 1. The first female president of Brazil, Rousseff will succeed Luiz Inacio Lula da Silva, or simply known as Lula. Rousseff campaigned for Lula, and is currently his chief of staff. She told voters that as president, she will “follow Lula’s path.” Lula is immensely popular after starting the Worker’s Party and serving the maximum two terms in office. Though corruption scandals have been plagued his presidency, he improved Brazil’s economy and decreased poverty.

Rousseff was imprisoned and tortured as a student rebel by Brazil’s military dictatorship in 1970. After her release, she studied economics, and held several positions in Brazil’s government.

In an interview, Rousseff said, “We [women] are not a bunch of melted-butter [softies], incapable of facing up to adversity. On the contrary – we overcome everything”. She promised to fight for equality both within and outside of government, and said she plans to give a third of her cabinet positions to women. However, during the campaign she was criticized for ignoring women’s issues.

When she is inaugurated, Rousseff will be one of seventeen female presidents and prime ministers currently in power around the world.

The first female prime minister of Australia, Julia Gillard, took office on June 24, 2010 when Kevin Rudd, to whom she was deputy prime minister since 2007, resigned. Gillard was then elected in Australia’s 2010 federal elections, and re-sworn in on September 14. Born in Wales, Gillard’s family immigrated to Australia when Gillard was a child. A member of the Labor Party, Gillard earned a reputation as a staunch supporter of worker’s and women’s rights. She held several government positions, including the opposition party’s Shadow Minister for Employment and Industrial Relations and Social Inclusion.

The first female president of Liberia and first female elected leader in Africa, Ellen Johnson-Sirleaf, has been in office since 2006.  She was born in Monrovia, Liberia’s capital, among descendants of former American slaves, known as Americo-Liberians, who colonized Liberia. Social inequalities between Americo-Liberians and native Liberians have caused political tension in Liberia since the country was colonized. After holding government positions, Sirleaf was exiled twice as a result of this conflict. When she lost her bid for president in 1977, she ran again successfully in 2005. Because Liberian women were instrumental in electing her, Sirleaf promised to give back to the women of Liberia. She has named women to important cabinet and other government positions, abolished fees for primary schools to encourage girls’ education and promised to try to end rape.

While some female heads of state, such as Sirleaf, put women’s rights at the top of their agenda, others, like Rousseff, say they support women’s rights, but seem less active in fighting for them. Therefore, electing a female head of state does not automatically guarantee that women’s rights issues will be favorably resolved.  However, from a voter’s perspective, it seems that a female candidate would be sympathetic towards women’s issues since they themselves may have personal experience with women’s rights conflicts. So perhaps for voters, especially female voters, supporting a woman candidate seems like an active way to advance women’s rights issues.

With such a diverse group of female presidents and prime ministers worldwide, it is striking that the United States, which is reputed to be a worldly, tolerant country, has not yet elected a female president.  However, this tolerance may be part of the reason why we have not yet elected a woman president. Perhaps because America has progressed so far in granting women equal rights, the urgency to advance women’s rights issues— which motivates women to support female candidates— is not present in the United States.