Ellen Johnson Sirleaf enters the room quietly.
“Madam President, would you like to sit here?” an aide asks, motioning to a love seat in the Ritz-Carlton Georgetown suite that is serving as a makeshift office for the Liberian leader.
At 77, she still holds herself rigidly upright, head adorned with a regal swirl of fabric. She is president of Liberia, a West African nation roughly the size of Tennessee, and one of the few madam presidents the world has ever seen. Elected to the office a decade ago as the first woman to lead an African nation’s government, Sirleaf finds herself “always a bit lonely” at meetings of the continent’s leaders.
“There is not another woman that you can huddle with and plan your strategies with, and certainly you can’t do what the men do,” she says, during an interview between a flurry of Washington meetings. “You’re not going to go out and have beer together. . . . You keep saying, ‘Oh jeez, there are 30 of them, and I alone.’ ”
Her place as one of the few women to attain the presidency has given her a reach far beyond her nation’s 4.5 million citizens. In Liberia she is known as “The Iron Lady” or “Ma Ellen,” but across the globe, Sirleaf has become symbolic of the burgeoning ascendancy of African women, a legacy for which she was awarded the Nobel Prize in 2011, along with two other female leaders.
She drew an avid crowd Tuesday night to Politics & Prose bookstore, where she helped to promote a book by Riva Levinson, her longtime D.C. lobbyist, whose “Choosing the Hero” chronicles Sirleaf’s path to the presidency. At the reading, a man asked Sirleaf what she would tell the next U.S. president when “he takes office.”
“She!” shouted the bookish audience, booing his use of the male pronoun.
Naturally, Sirleaf is interested in the possibility of a woman taking the helm of the most powerful nation in the world.
“In Liberia — a country, by tradition, male-dominated over all the years of [its] existence — women have always played a lesser role, an unimportant role,” Sirleaf says flatly. “My coming into leadership gave women much more of their own power.”
Sirleaf, who has a master’s degree in public administration from Harvard and served as a government minister in the 1970s before a coup forced her into exile for several years, ran for president with a reputation as an unflappable technocrat. In the final year of her second six-year term, one would expect her to feel free to express herself — but Sirleaf was initially reluctant to weigh in on the complicated mess of the 2016 U.S. presidential race. (“I didn’t want to get into politics,” she demurs when asked about it.)
Still, her facial expressions do not mask her feelings very well. Allowing that the world expects the next U.S. president to “be presidential,” she frowns a little and raises her eyebrows, without actually uttering Donald Trump’s name.
Later, she notes that Hillary Clinton is a friend, someone she has been able to personally call. Clinton, in turn, has pointed to the leadership of Sirleaf and German Chancellor Angela Merkel as models of achievement. Message: Other countries have been led by women without falling apart.
Sirleaf is credited with rebuilding her nation and maintaining peace following 14 years of civil war that preceded her election. After a rocky start, she also helped lead the nation out of the Ebola crisis in 2014, and she says the nation’s economy has begun to grow.
The nation’s poverty rates, although lower than when Sirleaf took office, are still high, and a recent report by the nonprofit Global Witness found widespread bribery throughout the government. Sirleaf was not implicated and says those who were will stand trial.
While Liberians recognized her election as a milestone and say that it has encouraged other women to rise throughout government, the novelty has worn off, says Elwood Dunn, a retired professor living in Tennessee who is serving on Liberia’s constitutional reform committee.
“Over time, the emphasis has been more on her performance in office, the public policies she has advanced, and how she has fared in terms of trying to lead a post-conflict country,” says Dunn, “. . . more than her person.”
Is that a form of progress?
Despite Trump’s talk of a “woman’s card,” the irony in 2016 is that the potential history-making moment of Clinton clinching the Democratic nomination and possibly ascending to the presidency is barely noticed anymore. Pollsters have found that Clinton’s gender is not a determining factor for U.S. voters.
“The reasons that people find [Clinton] unappealing are not because she’s a woman. The reasons people find her appealing are not because she’s a woman,” says Jennifer Lawless, the director of the Women & Politics Institute at American University. “That’s not to say that for some segment of the population [gender is] not relevant, but we’ve reached the point where it is usually not decisive.”
Sirleaf understands that American voters are operating in a different context than the environment in which she rose to power. She is of a generation in Africa in which rule by “strong men” and warlords wreaked havoc on women’s lives. Women were victims in the war — their children forced to fight as boy soldiers, their daughters raped, their livelihoods threatened. When she ran for office the rallying cry in the streets was “Ellen, She’s Our Man!” recalls Levinson. The slogan was a clear rebuke of the men who ruled before her.
Now, the early stages of the campaign for Liberia’s next president have begun, and nearly two dozen are expected to compete. At this point not one candidate is female. Sirleaf, rising from the sofa in her hotel suite, says she is not bothered by this.
“With the freedoms we have created, Liberia cannot retrogress,” she says. “The tradition of male domination in Liberia has been punctured.”
With that, Madam President takes her leave.
Correction: An earlier version of this article refered to Chancellor Angela Merkel by an incorrect title.