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Women and power in Argentina

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Cristian Fernandez de Kirchner with Hilary ClintonCristina Fernández de Kirchner with Hillary Clinton

The question of whether or not women in power are making a difference is usually posed in terms of women using power to improve women’s equality. According to international measurements, Argentina compares well in relation to neighbouring and similarly developed countries. The UNDP puts the country’s Gender Equality Index as the highest in Latin America (ranked 67 out of a total of 146 countries in the 2011 index), taking into account access to education, health, economic activity and political participation. And although in terms of political participation and educational attainment Argentina would be much higher up in the rankings, it is pulled down by health problems and unequal income. Maternal mortality related to unsafe (illegal) abortions is thought to account for 30 per cent of deaths, affecting mostly poor women who seek to interrupt their pregnancies. In 2011, for the first time, a bill was brought to Congress to debate the legalization of abortion, but was thrown out on a technicality. At the time, President Fernández went on the record to say that she was personally against legalisation, although deputies of her coalition were allowed to vote according to their own convictions.

If Argentine women are making advances in assuming positions of authority, can this reduce the gaps in other areas? A new index developed by the Latin American Team on Gender Justice argues that in reality women rule in few bastions of power. In their report Sexo y Poder they concluded that out of ten key posts in society, women only filled two. And that although in politics their share was 36 per cent, only 4 per cent held senior posts in business; in unions, only 5 per cent had women in leadership positions, and less than 8 per cent of media were led by women. These results would seem to point to women advancing on the political front while lagging behind in economic and social leadership roles. The high degree of involvement of women in politics is partly explained by the Ley de Cupos, a quota law passed in 1991 that required at least a third of any electoral list to be made up of women. The law has been continuously in force for over 20 years, yet the effects of having women in politics seems to have made little difference to their standing in other fields.

It would be easy to conclude that women in a ‘man’s world’ adapted to the political culture and adopted ‘male’ ways of ruling, ignoring women’s own concerns. How has Cristina Fernández de Kirchner fared under these pressures?

Politician in her own right

International profiles tend to describe her as the ‘wife of’ late President Néstor Kirchner, overlooking the fact that her political career went back as long as his; that she was elected to both houses of Congress; and that politics has been her life since student days. She may have been voted into the presidency in 2007 to succeed her husband as part of a formidable political couple, but her re-election in 2011, after his death, proved that the electorate responded to her personal brand of leadership.

When she first came to the presidency, her inaugural speech contained two memorable narratives: the first was that she was the product of the free state education system, that took her from a working class family in La Plata to a law degree and the highest office in the land. The second was her refrain that she would put all her effort into the job, particularly because ‘everything will be harder for me because I’m a woman’. This last was the newspapers’ headline the following day. It was an acknowledgement that society was not used to women in authority and that her ability and her judgement would be more questioned than a man’s. She never explained fully what she meant with her comment, but whatever it was, it was clearly a challenge rather than resignation: she highlighted her sex when she announced that she wanted to be known as ‘la presidenta’, which is grammatically unnecessary. At first the debate inspired by her title and who used ‘la presidente’ o ‘la presidenta’ provided a map of who supported and who opposed her. Yet over time she won: she is increasingly only known as ‘la presidenta’.

What has she done for other women and their struggles? She has used international women’s day (8th March) as a moment to make announcements dedicated to women, past and present. In 2009, she established the Salón de las Mujeres (The Women’s Room), in the Presidential Palace, hung with portraits of an eclectic choice of notable women. In 2010 she used the occasion to propose improvements to the labour rights of domestic workers; the law she presented abolished the term ‘domestic workers’ as derogatory, and replaced it with ‘personnel in private homes’. The law was put to Congress in 2011 and is yet to be approved.

Yet aside from these events on Women’s Day, she has not made much of her gender since that first speech. She has proceeded to lead forcefully, taking centre stage in words and actions. The press assumed a marriage relationship where she could not control her husband’s incessant political activity; yet their political partnership had never been in doubt and no disagreements were aired that would suggest internal discord.

The death of her husband put an end to the speculation, as she stood alone at the head of the coffin in the public wake for a whole day see picture). She told the press then ‘not to confuse my pain with weakness’, and an image of strength and unshakeable determination were born. People wishing her well wished her ‘strength’ and six months later, as she approached her second term, ‘strength’ became the buzzword of her campaign. The billboards that said only ‘Fuerza Cristina’ played on the double meaning of being wished strength by the people, and the strength she projected. A further play on words in posters identified Cristina with varieties of power, ‘la fuerza de amor’ (the power of love), ‘la fuerza del trabajo (the power of work), ‘la fuerza de El’ (His power [meaning Néstor]).

She has constructed her power with explicit reference to her gender, and yet it is not in the feminist mould. Forbes places her in 17th place among the most powerful women in the world, yet she has been in constant mourning since Néstor died. Unrelieved black is a social norm last observed by first generation Italian immigrants, not one common in present-day Argentina. Her dress code has gone unremarked. Her usual close attention to make-up and appearance has been a trait that foreign observers have interpreted as frivolous. But within Argentina, care of the self, and beauty, are not taken so lightly. Instead, they are seen as forms of what sociologist Catherine Hakim calls ‘erotic capital’, a key resource of the powerful, more amenable to being created than charisma, but similar in its effects.

Tradition of loving politicians

Encouraging ways to be loved as a political figure, as well as feared and respected, has been part of the political culture in Argentina for longer than women’s participation. The culture of power built up by men relies heavily on feelings of loyalty and relationships developed over time, rather than abstract values. Perhaps women will prove to be more effective at using these levers of power, although there are no studies to support this yet. There is also no evidence that the large proportion of women in legislative and executive power is changing the
way in which power is exercised.

There is a general assumption that if more women ruled in the world, life might be better. Partly put forward by women, but also men, as Steven Pinker did most recently, relating the decline of violence in part to the empowerment of women. Some quite hands-on theorists, such
as Joseph S Nye, Jr., a former US Assistant Secretary of Defence, and professor at Harvard, propose that there are ‘male’ values in power dynamics, that men prefer hierarchical, authoritative power structures, while women are better at ‘soft’ power, working horizontally, enabling trust and cooperation. The nature of power may be changing in the world, but for the moment, in Argentina it remains vertical (instructions come from above) and executive (a very limited number of people take decisions). The political culture is based on striking decisions and actions, which require orders from a few, and obedience from many. In spite of the difficulties she may have faced imposing her authority, it is a model of power that is expertly wielded by President Fernández.