In Chile, departing president Michelle Bachelet proved women can lead

By Paula Escobar Chavarría
Sunday, March 14, 2010

SANTIAGO -- A nurse or a schoolteacher: Those were the classic answers Chilean girls gave when asked what they wanted to be when they grew up. These days, however, after Michelle Bachelet's four years in La Moneda Palace, many of those same young women offer a different answer, without hesitation: "I want to be president of the republic!"

This is one of the symbols of change following Bachelet's historic tenure as the first female president of Chile -- a country where conservatism, tradition and machismo have long been thought to govern alongside our (invariably male) leaders. Yet on Thursday, Bachelet finished her presidency with an 84 percent approval rating, a level never before attained by a Chilean president.

I remember the first day this transformation became evident. It was the day Bachelet took office, March 11, 2006, when thousands of women took to the streets, smiling, confident and wearing the presidential sash over their clothes; all of us won, they said. But Chile's political, economic and intellectual elites had a harder time coming to terms with Bachelet, and she had more difficulty earning their respect than that of the masses of men and women who voted for her.

In those early months, she was sometimes dismissed because of her physique (some called her la gordi, "the fatty") or her leadership style. In whispers, Santiago's powerful mocked her overt emotion and her talk of intuition, and questioned her intelligence and management skills. Some predicted that Bachelet would perform so poorly that Chile would not elect another woman for a long time to come. Others criticized her efforts to appoint a cabinet balanced between men and women. After all, they wondered, where would all those qualified women come from?

Her performance as our head of state has had highs and lows, triumphs and mistakes. The difficulties included the troubled introduction of an ambitious public transportation system, Transantiago, designed by the prior government; massive protests by high school students in 2006 regarding the quality of education; and strikes by various labor unions. But even as she stood in the crossfire, she showed the strength and resolve to endure.

Beyond the missteps, her positive legacies will be long-lasting: More day-care centers were built during her presidency than ever before in our history; a reformed pension system is now accessible to parts of our population that have too often been left behind; a stronger network of social protections is in place for the poorest, as are laws dealing with violence against women. As for the global financial crisis of the past year, Chile was prepared because Bachelet had adopted fiscally prudent economic policies and stayed true to them.

Perhaps most important, Bachelet remained faithful to her personality-- maternal, affable, nonconfrontational. Even as defense minister, and later as president, she never thought she needed to be compensate for her gender by becoming the toughest person in the room. She was our anti-Thatcher, not adopting all the old male-dominated codes of power but transforming them. She proved that women can govern and wield power in a variety of styles. Hers was not the stuff of brilliant oratory or populist inspiration; it was warmth, closeness, empathy. The instant intimacy she forged with the public compelled everyone, from the lowest socioeconomic classes to our most prominent chief executives, to admire her.

Even after the recent devastating earthquake in Chile -- when the response was marred by delays in aid, confusion over a tsunami alert and criticism that the military was not dispatched to the streets quickly enough -- she garnered high approval for her handling of the crisis.

Now, those who criticized her supposed sentimentalism are taking classes in emotional intelligence, while Chile's politicians must all pass the "Bachelet test" (that is, having "heart" and being close to the people). Our major public and private institutions strive to show they have women in high positions, and if they don't, they must explain themselves. Indeed, our new president, Sebastián Piñera, has received some criticism for appointing six female cabinet ministers out of 22 positions.

There is still much to be done to improve the lives of women in Chile and many issues to resolve: salary discrimination, the dearth of women on top corporate boards and in parliament, and the need for greater labor flexibility to address the balance between work and home. But symbolically and mentally, we've made a huge leap, thanks to Bachelet, and that is a great source of pride for Chilean women. In this small land at the bottom of the world's maps, little girls now want to be president, and no one wonders if it's possible.

Paula Escobar Chavarría is magazines editor of the Chilean daily El Mercurio and the author of "Portraits of Innovators."

© 2010 The Washington Post Company