Monday, June 17

Why Mexico May Elect a Female President Before the United States

Mexico is poised to elect its first female president on Sunday, a historic leap in a country long known for its machismo — and a big moment for all of North America.

From the beginning of the presidential race, the only competitive candidates have been two women: the front-runner Claudia Sheinbaum, a climate scientist from the ruling Morena party, and Xóchitl Gálvez, a former senator and entrepreneur representing a coalition of opposition parties.

The milestone is a reflection of the country’s complex relationship to women, who face rampant violence and rank sexism, yet are also revered as matriarchs and trusted in positions of authority.

How the country got here before the United States, its biggest trading partner, has much to do with policies that forced open doors for women at every level of government, experts say.

Pushed by feminist activists, Mexico, over the past few decades, has adopted increasingly broad laws encouraging more representation of women in politics. Then, in 2019, it took the remarkable step of making gender parity in all three branches of government a constitutional requirement.

“Mexico, on this metric, is really a model for how other countries can do it,” said Jennifer Piscopo, a professor of gender and politics at Royal Holloway, a college of the University of London, who studies the region, adding, “There’s no other country that I’m currently aware of that has a constitutional amendment for gender parity that is that comprehensive.”

Today, half of the country’s legislature is made up of women, compared with less than 30 percent of the U.S. Congress. The chief justice of the Mexican Supreme Court, the leaders of both houses of Congress and the Central Bank governor are all women. So are the ministers of the interior, education, economy, public security and foreign relations.

Now, a woman is set to become the most powerful person in the country, the commander of the armed forces, the chief executive of the second largest economy in Latin America.

Alma Lilia Tapia, spokeswoman for a group of families searching for their missing loved ones in Guanajuato state, said she believed that both female contenders would pay more attention to the pleas of the families of Mexico’s nearly 100,000 disappeared, compared with their male predecessors.

The New York Times interviewed 33 Mexican women in the lead-up to the election who said they knew this alone would not wipe away the many indignities they face. This is still a country where women are killed at extraordinary rates, where they earn far less than men on average and where machismo remains culturally ingrained.

But for many voters, and the candidates themselves, the arrival of a woman to the nation’s highest office does carry symbolic weight.

“That Mexico would have a woman president is, to me, extraordinary,” said Ms. Gálvez in a radio interview. “We have taken a very important step in the struggle of women.”

Ms. Sheinbaum has acknowledged what this could mean for the next generation.

“When a little girl tells you: ‘I also want to be head of government,’ the truth is that it brings on enormous emotion,” Ms. Sheinbaum told one interviewer, “not only because of what that recognition means, but also to see that a girl is thinking beyond stereotypes that have been imposed on us as women.”

While many Latin American countries pursued quotas for female politicians, Mexico was particularly aggressive in instituting them, first for local and then national government.

By 2019, the country passed a constitutional amendment requiring an even gender split in all three branches of government.

The election of a female president “could not have happened if it had not been for parity,” said Mónica Tapia, who leads a group that trains women for political leadership in Mexico.

The United States has never entertained gender quotas in politics, which are common in much of the world, Ms. Piscopo said. And unlike Mexico, which elects its leaders by popular vote, the U.S. operates on the electoral college system. (Hillary Clinton would have won the 2016 U.S. election if it were based solely on the popular vote.)

The mass entry of women into Mexican politics in the past few years has come alongside seismic demographic and cultural shifts that have transformed the country.

A half-century ago, Mexican families had an average of seven children each and about one in 10 Mexican women had a job. Today, Mexicans have fewer children than Americans and nearly half of women in the country are in the work force.

Until 2021, abortion was banned in all but two states. Now it is legal in most of the country.

Both candidates have promoted progressive social policies, such as opposing gay conversion therapy or creating clinics for transgender and nonbinary people, that have left some conservative women feeling overlooked.

“We are in favor of women’s rights, but these women’s rights don’t include abortion,” or “trans activism,” said Ángeles Bravo, the representative of the National Front for the Family, a conservative coalition that has opposed abortion and L.G.B.T. rights, in the state of Mexico. “And there are a lot of us.”

Some young feminists doubt that either candidate would prioritize addressing key issues that matter to women, like domestic violence and Mexico’s gender pay gap.

They say both women seem to just represent the interests of men — in Ms. Sheinbaum’s case, those of her mentor, the current president, Andrés Manuel López Obrador, and in Ms. Gálvez’s, the male leaders of the three main parties she represents.

“It’s of no use to us that a woman is going to be the president if she continues to be under the shadow of patriarchy,” said Wendy Galarza, 33, a feminist activist from Quintana Roo state who in 2020 was beaten and shot by police officers during a demonstration in Cancún.

Yet, while it’s not clear exactly how much change will come, there could be something transformational about a woman occupying a position of maximum authority in a country where presidents enjoy broad power and, often, wide respect.

“Men will always be in the background, but the leadership of a woman president in power is fundamental,” Ms. Tapia said. It tells Mexican women, she said, “that your family can’t tell you where a woman’s place is — whether it’s in the kitchen or with the family — it’s wherever you choose.”