The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

Here are the dozens of democracies that have elected a female leader

Voters defied polls and predictions last Tuesday and punctured the ascent of the woman who has come closest to holding the United States' top office. As Democratic presidential nominee Hillary Clinton said in her concession speech, she did not manage to shatter that “highest and hardest glass ceiling.”

Before Tuesday, however, Clinton's campaign was imbued with an air of triumphal inevitability. In the eyes of many of her supporters, the time had surely come (if not now, then long ago) for a female president — and here she was, facing a man they viewed as a historically weak candidate. Not only did she lose, but a man accused of numerous sexual assaults is now the U.S. president-elect. As others debate how big a role sexism played in her defeat, we are looking around the world at modern democracies that have elected women to their highest leadership position.

Since 1960, 49 democracies around the world have elected at least one woman to lead. The map above shows the 15 that have a female leader, and the 34 that have had one in the past but do not now. The United States will have to wait at least four more years to join this club — for that matter, the nation hasn't had a female vice president.

Figuring out which female leaders made the cut for the map was a task in and of itself. Executive power structures vary widely from country to country, and so do the terminologies that denote who is ultimately in charge. For instance, in one country, the president may be the head of the executive, whereas in another, the president may be a largely ceremonial role appointed by a prime minister — or a chancellor, or state counselor, or some other title. Some organizations we reached out to, such as UN Women, gave us numbers higher than 49 because they included women who, say, headed their country's parliaments, or who were appointed as chief executive during a brief interim, or transition, between two men.

For our map, we decided to eschew terminology as much as we could. Instead, we sought to display countries where women were either directly elected or were the head of a political party that was elected, thus becoming their country's chief decision-maker, whatever they ended up being called.

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The first woman to do so was Sirimavo Bandaranaike, who was elected prime minister of Sri Lanka, then known as Ceylon, in 1960 — 56 years ago. Bandaranaike's story mirrors that of many of the initial female leaders: She came into power after the death of a father or a husband who had led the country before her.

Bandaranaike's husband was assassinated, but she quickly established herself as a deserving replacement and was elected on two occasions, serving as head of state for a total of 12 years. Known simply as “Mrs. B,” she strengthened her husband's Sri Lanka Freedom Party, which she eventually handed over to her daughter, Chandrika Kumaratunga, who became the country's second female leader.

Bandaranaike's was a political family, like many that followed her. Indira Gandhi, for example, was the daughter of India's first prime minister, Jawaharlal Nehru. The same goes for South Asia's other female heads of state: Benazir Bhutto was the daughter of a previous prime minister of Pakistan, and the two women who have led Bangladesh in alternating terms since 1991 are the wife of a previous prime minster and the daughter of the country's first prime minister.

But in Europe and South America in particular, women began rising to the top positions of power through the 1980s and 1990s, without necessarily being part of political dynasties. Thirteen European nations have elected a woman to lead, and two of the continent's most powerful leaders today are women: Angela Merkel of Germany and Theresa May of the United Kingdom.

Women have led countries that are majority Christian, Muslim, Hindu, Buddhist and Jewish, on each of the six continents with countries on them. Women are slowly gaining better representation in legislatures, too. As of this summer, 22.8 percent were women, about twice as many as 20 years ago.

But why hasn't the United States had a female president? There may be as many theories as there are reasons, one of which may be that it is harder to achieve something without precedent. This map just asks that American girls and women look beyond their country's borders, for the time being. 

Here is a list of the 49 countries that have or have had a women lead them:


Marshall Islands
South Korea
United Kingdom


Bosnia and Herzegovina
Central African Republic
Costa Rica
Kyrgyz Republic
New Zealand
San Marino
Saõ Tomé and Principe
Sri Lanka

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