Brazil Elects First Woman President, Inequality PersistsJanuary 17, 2011 Dilma Rousseff joined a very exclusive club earlier this month when she was sworn in as Brazil’s first female president. Rousseff is one of 18 women currently serving as heads of state around the world, and her election to the highest office in Brazil signals a turning point in the country’s history. Her election also marks the sixth time a woman has been elected to executive office in South America.
Women in Brazil were granted universal suffrage in 1946, and prior to that the legislature passed a law in 1936 that allowed only certain women (married women and single women with income) to vote. In her inauguration speech Rousseff recognized her historic election: “By the sovereign decision of the people, today will be the first time that the presidential sash encircles the shoulders of a woman. I am immensely honored by this choice the Brazilian people have made, and I recognize the historic significance of this decision.” She also dedicated herself to “honoring our women, protecting our most vulnerable people, and governing for everyone.”
Although Rousseff’s election was ceiling-shattering, Brazilian women only hold 10 percent of seats in the country’s legislature, despite the implementation of a law requiring that women hold 30 percent of them. In the United States, women aren’t much better off — we hold only 17 percent of seats in Congress and 25 percent of elected seats nationwide.
As AAUW prepares to host Elect Her – Campus Women Win trainings along with Running Start at 20 colleges and universities around the United States and Jamaica, Rousseff’s history-making victory reminds us that while women have come a long way in the public sphere, there is still a long way to go. The goal of the Elect Her program is to encourage young women to run for student government at their schools. Even though the main focus of the training is to get women to run for student government, the larger goal is to instill the desire to continue with public service after graduation.
The importance of women running for office is more than just having a female body in a decision-making role; it is about breaking stereotypes and allowing more than just a few voices into the process. Women’s equality is dependent on women holding positions of political power not because women will represent women, but because a woman in leadership will open doors to other women. Hopefully someday soon, seeing a woman in political office will not be such an anomaly.
This post was written by Leadership Programs Fellow Donnae Wahl.