By Leora Lihach, President’s Office Intern
In times of war and turmoil, women have mobilized to take the suffering out of their countries. One of these heroes is the first female president of Chile, who led her country back to health after it suffered a rapacious regime. From dictator’s victim to democratic leader, Michelle Bachelet transformed what is possible for all oppressed people to imagine.
On January 15, 2006, hundreds of thousands of Chileans filled the streets of Santiago to celebrate the victory of Chile’s first female president, Michelle Bachelet. She is the first female president in Latin America who is not the wife or relative of male political elites—the first to be elected entirely on her own merits. Furthermore, Michelle is an agnostic, divorced single mother who has one child out of wedlock—a striking deviance from Chile’s historically conservative machismo culture. As Michelle describes herself, “I was a woman, a divorcee, a socialist, an agnostic—all possible sins together” (qtd. in Gutsch). Michelle is living proof that even those on the margins of society can rise to the highest elected office of their country. But the question remains: How did a longtime patriarchal country come to view someone embodying “all possible sins” as a leader?
At her story’s beginning, Michelle was as far from beloved president as she could be—she was a discarded victim of General Augusto Pinochet’s regime. September 11, 1973 marks the beginning of Pinochet’s 17-year dictatorship, 17 years of systematic repression and forced disappearances. Michelle’s family opposed the regime and her father was tortured to death. Michelle recalls, “When I walked down the street, people who had been very close to us crossed to the other side so as not to have to see us” (qtd. in Worth 66-7). In 1975, not long after her father’s death and just 22 years old, Michelle endured a month of detainment and interrogation alongside her mother in what had been a luxurious estate before Pinochet’s takeover. Former detainee Humberto Vergara remembers,
It was like a palace, with marble stairways and an indoor swimming pool. […] In the dark, we could hear screams all day and sobbing all night. It was how I imagined hell would be … The guards would splash in the pool and pass by the cells, saying they were going to kill this one or … that one. (qtd. in Worth 67)
Chilean professor Elizabeth Lira, an expert on the regime, further explains the horrors Michelle would have known:
It was 30 days of total fear. Rape was frequent. Plus the punches, sexual abuse, denigration. They had very long interrogations and the use of electric current was common. You had to listen to others being tortured. (qtd. in Worth 70)
Despite these abuses, Michelle remained strong. A woman who was imprisoned with Michelle recalls,
We could hear the screams from the torture chamber opposite our cell. [Michelle] remained calm and tried to help us with her medical skills, singing with us in the afternoons. […] [The guards] kept telling her that if she didn’t collaborate [and tell them about her political activities] they would kill her mother, but she never broke down. (qtd. in Worth 70)
After a month, Michelle and her mother were forced into exile. In the following years, not only did Michelle organize protests against Pinochet, but she continued her medical studies and later pursued defense policies, becoming the type of person who could nurse a country back to health—and that is exactly what she did.
Shortly after the restoration of democracy in 1990, Michelle became Chile’s Minister of Defense in 2002—the first woman to hold such a position in Latin America. In this role, Michelle captivated Chileans by encouraging the military and human rights advocates to move forward in peace, despite the tragedy Pinochet’s regime had caused her. Before long, Michelle’s political party asked her to run for president.
The campaign revolved around debates over whether a woman could be capable of presidential leadership. Michelle’s main opponent, Sebastián Piñera, drew on a tradition of paternalism in Chilean politics. But Chileans had an appetite for change—for new leaders who would ensure a future of liberty.
Michelle promoted a new style of leadership, “liderazgo femenino” or feminine leadership. As a feminist who raised three children herself, Michelle insisted that women can embrace a style of leadership modeled on motherhood. Michelle earned so much popularity in part because Chileans sought a leader who would give them some sense of nurturing reassurance. John Powers writes, “Bachelet’s soothingly sensible demeanor seems ideal for a country that’s shaking off its old ways. Her style is gentle, almost consciously maternal” (Vogue). Michelle claimed the gendered critiques of her leadership potential as sexist and asserted:
Strength knows no gender, and neither does honesty, conviction or ability. I bring a different kind of leadership, with the perspective of someone who looks at things from a different angle. Let us change our mentality. (qtd. in Thomas 76)
More than anything, Chileans marveled at Michelle’s approach to life—the resilience she mustered from a heart that knew tragedy. Michelle offered up her pain, allowing her tragic past to inform her leadership in a most selfless and necessary way. She explains, “I saw friends disappear, who were jailed or tortured. But I decided to turn my pain into a constructive force—guaranteeing that future generations never have to go through what we went through” (qtd. in Langman and Contreras).
Michelle won her country’s vote as a symbol of Chile’s new era of democracy. To an exuberant crowd on the night of her victory, Michelle beautifully conveyed in just one line why she ran for president: “Because I was a victim of hate, I’ve dedicated my life to turning hate into understanding, tolerance, and — why not say it? — love” (qtd. in Powers).
As president, Michelle maintained a cabinet of ministers with 50/50 gender parity—one of only few examples in the entire world. She also prioritized initiatives targeted towards women, including:
- A non-discrimination and good labor practices code for the public sector, with voluntary adoption for the private sector
- An end to discrimination against women of childbearing age in private healthcare plans
- A bill to ensure that family welfare benefits and subsidies are paid to mothers
- Stricter laws against domestic abuse along with more shelters for victims
- And her star initiative—a program to provide free public day-care for all working parents
Constitutionally prohibited from serving a second consecutive term, Michelle left office in March 2010 with record-high approval ratings.
She then pioneered the United Nations’ gender equality agenda as the Executive Director of the newly-established UN-Women. But in March 2013, Michelle resigned in order to campaign for a second term as president of Chile. Upon learning of her resignation, Secretary General Ban Ki Moon stated,
Her visionary leadership gave UN-Women the dynamic start it needed. Her fearlessness in advocating for women’s rights raised the global profile of this key issue. Her drive and compassion enabled her to mobilize and make a difference for millions of people across the world. […] This is a stellar legacy, and I am determined to build on it. (“Secretary-General”)
Back in Chile, Michelle once again became president on March 11, 2014, having come so far since the young victim of detention, interrogation, and exile she once was. In comparing her two campaigns, there is one remarkable difference. In the first election, Michelle had to assert women’s leadership potential against an overtly patriarchal man. In the second, Michelle’s main opponent was in fact another woman. This campaign is made even more phenomenal by the intertwining fates of Michelle Bachelet and Evelyn Matthei. They are both the daughters of generals. However, Matthei’s father was a member of Pinochet’s regime, the same regime that caused Michelle so much tragedy. Defeating Matthei in the election, Michelle’s story came full circle.
Her story demonstrates that women can gain respect for a special kind of feminine leadership—a nurturing, moral, and reconciliatory approach. Upon winning her first election, Michelle pondered,
Maybe history will tell what happened and why I came here because there are so many interpretations. Some people said it’s because people need on one hand, authority, but also need somebody to protect them. So some people said, ‘You are the big mother of everybody.’ (qtd. in Women, Power and Politics)
In a 2013 interview with the Journal of International Affairs, Michelle discussed the importance of women in leadership. She noted that in 2013, after years of patriarchal dictators, Latin America emerged as the leading region in terms of women parliamentarians—the legacy of countless women who fought against corrupt regimes. Michelle emphasized that the lessons from Latin America should be expanded worldwide:
The participation of women in politics is firstly, a matter of justice; secondly, a democratic necessity; and thirdly, efficient, because improving deliberative representation can lead to better policies that will have a positive impact on society as a whole.
In the manner of a true visionary, Michelle ended with this call to action: “If we are serious about the importance of increasing the involvement of women in politics, then we need to move towards a critical mass of female political leaders.”
One can only marvel at what Michelle will accomplish in her two remaining years this presidential term, and what wonders Michelle will contribute to history in all the years of her life yet to come. One thing is certain—we are all living in a truly remarkable world where a story like this can be the work of real life.
Bachelet, Michelle. Interview. “Making Gender Rights Visible.” Journal of International Affairs 66.2 (2013): 145-50. ProQuest. Web. 01 Apr. 2016.
Gutsch, Bonnie. “Michelle Bachelet.” Ffrf.org. Web. 14 Dec. 2015.
Langman, Jimmy, and Joseph Contreras. “An Unlikely Pioneer; Michelle Bachelet: The first woman to be elected to lead a major Latin American nation could well be an agnostic, socialist, single mother. but that’s just what Chileans like about her.” Newsweek Dec 26 2005: 66. ProQuest. Web. 01 Apr. 2016.
Powers, John. “A Woman of the People.” Vogue 05 2006: 268-271+. ProQuest. Web. 01 Apr. 2016.
“Secretary-General Praises ‘Visionary’ Leadership of Michelle Bachelet, Following Announcement by UN-Women Chief of Departure.” Targeted News Service Mar. 15 2013. ProQuest. Web. 01 Apr. 2016.
Thomas, Gwynn. “Michelle Bachelet’s Liderazgo Femenino (Feminine Leadership).” International Feminist Journal of Politics. 13.1 (2011): 63-82. Print.
Women, Power and Politics. Dir. Mary Olive Smith. Supervising Prod. & Writ. Maria Hinojosa. Senior Ed. & Writ. David Brancaccio. JumpStart Productions, 2008. Film. <http://www.pbs.org/now/shows/437/index.html>.
Worth, Richard. Modern World Leaders: Michelle Bachelet. New York, NY: Chelsea House, 2008. Print.