Latin America is a region of unlikely contrasts.  UNICEF data reveal that 29 percent of women in Latin America and the Caribbean are married by age 18, yet Latin America leads the world in number of female presidents and prime ministers.  While polls conducted by Nielson show only 36 percent of Brazilian women worked outside the home in 2008, Brazil recently elected its first female president.

By contrast, in the United States, over 70 percent of women work outside of the home while the median age for a woman’s first marriage is 26.  The United States appears to be a place more conducive to female leadership than Latin America.  Yet Latin America, though it trails the United States in many indicators of gender equity, has succeeded where the United States has failed: electing a woman head of state.

President Cristina Fernandez de Kirchner of Argentina

The path to the direct election of a female president in Latin America began with Isabel Peron of Argentina.  The third wife of popular former Argentine president Juan Peron, Isabel served as Vice President until President Juan died in 1974.  Isabel Peron’s rise to power was prefaced by Eva “Evita” Peron, Juan Peron’s second wife, who played a large and visible role in orchestrating his social welfare policies.  Though Isabel was not directly elected to the presidency and instead succeeded her husband after his death, she made history as the world’s first female president and first non-royal female head of state in the Western Hemisphere.  Her presidency, despite its historic nature, did not reach the iconic status of her husband’s rule, and was plagued by allegations of human rights abuses and corruption.  During her tenure, inflation in Argentina rose to 300 percent and political violence terrorized the nation.  Peron was eventually forced out of power by the military and lived under house arrest for five years before fleeing to Spain.  In 2007, Argentina issued a warrant for her arrest on charges of human rights violations.

Cristina Fernandez de Kirchner, current president of Argentina, followed the Isabel Peron model for attaining political power: succeeding a husband as president.  Kirchner, however, received no official appointments from the regime of her husband.  When Nestor Kirchner was elected to the presidency in 2003, Cristina Kirchner, having served as Senator of Santa Cruz for two years, was already an established politician.  Under Nestor’s presidency, Cristina exerted great influence as first lady and senator.  As the first elected female president of Argentina, Kirchner has taken strides to distance herself from Isabel Peron, championing controversial initiatives such as the legalization of gay marriage.  Argentina has a rich tradition of women in government, due in part to a 1991 quota mandate requiring 30 percent of congressional seats be filled by women.  This, combined with Evita Peron’s beloved status in the nation, has helped women take on leadership roles in the Argentine government.

Marrying an influential politician is not the only route to political leadership for women in Latin America.  Laura Chinchilla, current president of Costa Rica, is the daughter of Rafael Angel Chincilla Fallas, former comptroller of Costa Rica.  After studying public policy at Georgetown University, Chinchilla served as Vice-Minister for Public Security, Minister of Public Security in the late 1990s, and Vice President under Oscar Arias before running for president in 2010.

President Michelle Bachelet of Chile

In the cases of Michelle Bachelet of Chile and Dilma Rouseff of Brazil, Latin American women have also demonstrated the ability to become president without any familial ties to government.  Elected in 2006, Bachelet is the first woman in South America to win a presidential election without gaining prominence through marriage.  Instead, she became politically active in the opposition movement against dictator Gen. Alberto Pinochet.  While a medical student at the University of Chile, Bachelet was arrested and tortured by the Pinochet regime.  After being exiled in 1975, Bachelet returned to Chile where she served as Minister of Health and Latin America’s first female Minister of Defense.  Latin America’s most recently elected female president, Dilma Rousseff of Brazil, took office in January 2011.  Like Bachelet, Rousseff is a self-made politician, and was similarly active in the underground movement opposing Brazil’s military dictatorship. She subsequently became involved in politics in 2002, when President Lula da Silva appointed her Minister of Energy.  After a corruption scandal forced Chief of Staff Jose Dirceu to step down, Rousseff assumed his position and made history as Brazil’s first female Chief of Staff.  Rousseff continues to make history, as both the first female and the first economist to serve as president of Brazil.  Building on the legacies of Bachelet and Rouseff, economist and former secretary of Public Education Josefina Vázquez Mota is a serious candidate in the 2012 Mexican presidential election.

In contrast, first ladies in the United States are expected to take on largely symbolic roles and noncontroversial causes, such as literacy, nature preservation, and supporting military families.  As wives of politicians, they are expected to observe and not actively participate in policy issues.  Despite an 82 percent approval rating in 2006, among the highest of any first lady in history, most Americans polled by Gallup said they would not like to see Laura Bush run for US Senate.  First ladies are expected to take on supporting roles, and – with the exception of Hillary Clinton – not to break out of them.

Though Clinton challenged traditional notions of a first lady’s role, her successor, Laura Bush, did not.  Bush’s astronomical approval ratings reflect on her noncontroversial and largely ceremonial role.  As she commented, “I’m not the one who was elected.  I would never do anything to undermine my husband’s point of view.” Current First Lady Michelle Obama, a Harvard-educated lawyer who was her husband’s supervisor and out-earned him for years during their marriage, seems to have found a middle ground between the Laura Bush and Hillary Clinton models of political spouse: she travels to battleground states to deliver addresses supporting her husband’s policies and is a mainstay at campaign fundraisers.

Paul Begala, a Clinton administration advisor, warned in a February CNN interview that Michelle Obama should not become “too political” so as not to “diminish her value.”

Former U.S. First Lady Laura Bush

Hillary Clinton made it acceptable for wives to take a more active role in their husbands’ administrations, but Laura Bush showed that the less political a First Lady is, the more popular she is.  Clinton’s prominent role in her husband’s presidency was an anomaly in its scope, but the popularity of Michelle Obama shows that Americans will accept a First Lady acting as her husband’s proxy in certain, very limited ways.

In the century since women achieved the right to vote in 1919, the United States has failed to elect a woman to a post higher than Speaker of the House.  Interestingly, Nancy Pelosi, elected Speaker of the House in 2007 and the highest-ranking female official in American history, is the daughter of former Congressman and Mayor Thomas D’Alessandro Jr. and sister of former Baltimore mayor Thomas D’Alessandro III.  This is not to say that Pelosi’s rise to power was solely facilitated by her family, but rather that America seems to be more accepting of female politicians from powerful families.

Of the thirteen women who served in the first mixed gender sessions of Congress from 1920-1929, four were elected to seats formerly occupied by their husbands or fathers.  All but three of these women were related to a former politician.

Unlike Latin America, the United States is distrustful of overly active political spouses.  While Juan Peron was able to successfully run for president with Isabel Peron as his vice president, critics attacked Bill Clinton’s campaign promise of “two for the price of one,” which referred to the important role Hillary would play in his presidency.  While Evita Peron publicly spearheaded many of her husband’s social welfare programs, Hillary Clinton’s involvement in 1993 healthcare reform was unpopular and her subsequent role in policy was consciously downplayed.  Americans seem uncomfortable with anyone other than elected officials playing influential roles in shaping public policy.  Latin America, in contrast, has embraced unelected wives of politicians taking on influential roles, both during their spouse’s political career and in their own.

Latin America is the global leader in female heads of state, with Rousseff, Kirchner, and Chinchilla all currently occupying the highest offices in their countries.  While women have been assisted by quota laws, Teresa Carballal, Senior Lecturer of Spanish at Yale, argues that it is more culture than quotas that have helped women to take on politically active roles.  “Women in power are not a completely new development in the Southern Cone,” explains Carballal.  “Argentina had the precedent of a powerful and influential woman in Eva Perón, and women in general became aware of their role in politics as part of her movement, in particular when they acquired the right to vote, in the 1940s.  The new female heads of state of this last decade, who are of my generation, were politicized during the brutal military regimes.  They played a very big role in resistance movements, sometimes fighting alongside men and proving themselves capable as organizers, militants and leaders; they gained experience and took on increasingly visible roles.”

Brazilian President Dilma Vana Rousseff

More importantly, public opinion in Latin America is extremely accepting of female leaders.  Gallup polling in Latin America in 2000 revealed that 90 percent of Latin Americans would be willing to vote for a qualified female president, and 69 percent believed their nation would elect a female president in the next 20 years.  Carballal was not surprised at these statistics, stating, “Many of the Latin American leaders of today share the experience of coming of age during the painful period of the military dictatorships of the 1970’s and 1980’s.  That formative period was characterized by a rejection of traditional forms of leadership and a more inclusive form of politics that didn’t focus on gender or class as a condition to hold an important political role.”

Latin America does not have the luxury of gender discrimination: having suffered through oppressive regimes, as recently as the 1980s, Latin Americans look for leaders who are “tough” enough to tackle problems of income inequality, poverty, and corruption.  Women in Latin America politicized themselves by resisting the ruling system, like American women did during the Revolutionary War, but during the 1960s, a time of global expansion of women’s rights.  After helping establish more democratic governments, Latin American women were included in the governance of their nations.  Though American women also contributed to the birth of their nation, women in government in the 1770s were an unspeakable notion.

Today, however, Americans are supportive of a potential female president: a 2005 CBS News/New York Times poll reported that 92 percent of voters would vote for a qualified female presidential candidate.  Yet only 55 percent stated that America is ready for a female president.  While a greater number of Americans claim to support female candidates, Latin Americans actually believe a female candidate will be elected.

Perhaps that is the secret to the ascendancy of female leaders in Latin America: a belief that their rise to power is inevitable.