Thursday, October 29, 2009

Chilean President succeeds in spite (or because?) of her gender--and her focus on women and children

A story in today's New York Times report on the current popularity and recent successes of Michelle Bachelet, Chile's first woman president and a pediatrician by training. Though Bachelet's start was rough when she took office back in 2006, her approval ratings are now at about 70% as her time in office nears an end. Term limits prevent her from seeking re-election. Alexei Barrionuevo reports that she is likely to be remembered as one of the nation's best presidents ever. Bachelet's popularity is presented as especially surprising because she is an agnostic, single mother of three in a deeply religious and traditional country that only recently legalized divorce.

How has Bachelet, now 58, managed this feat? Barrionuevo attributes it to her fiscal prudence, which ultimately has permitted her to advance her social reform agenda. In particular, when economic times were good, Bachelet chose to set aside $35 billion in copper revenues. When the global financial crisis hit, Chile was in good shape. Barrionuevo writes:

With billions of dollars saved, Ms. Bachelet’s government legalized alimony payments to divorced women and tripled the number of free early child care centers for low-income families. It added a minimum pension guarantee for the very poor and for low-income homemakers. The government is on pace to complete its goal of creating 3,500 child care centers, said MarĂ­a Estela Ortiz, executive vice president of Chile’s National Board of Day Care Centers.

* * *

Opposition politicians who once criticized her social-protection efforts as a retreat to an era of big government are now saying they will try to expand her programs to the middle class.
So Bachelet, presumably inspired by her past profession as a pediatrician, has chosen to invest in her county's future. She is quoted as saying, “I believe that if you want to fight inequality you have to do it starting at infancy.”

The NYT story also takes up what might be considered Bachelet's common touch, a "personal air" that has caused some to see her as not respectful of the presidency. The examples cited include joking about losing a shoe while kicking a soccer ball at a stadium inauguration and taking an early morning ocean swim while in Brazil for a meeting of regional leaders. The photo that accompanies the NYT story shows her dancing in front of the presidential palace as part of independence anniversary celebrations. A Chilean pollster is quoted as observing: “She lowered the presidency closer to the people.”

Is there something gendered in this behavior, which doesn't strike me as all that remarkable? Or is there something gendered in how the behavior is interpreted?

NB I am surprised--but pleased--to see that at 9:30 pm on the day of its publication, this story is on the's most emailed list.


samina hitch said...

I think that this is a great story to accompany our class's continued search for "solutions." When Bachelet says, “I believe that if you want to fight inequality you have to do it starting at infancy,” I think it is a sound and simple philosophy that she seems to have taken to heart.

I do think that the press handling of the story is gendered, but for some reason in this case I don't mind it. Her behavior is radical and real, and I think that that is the first step towards solutions -- to be unafraid and bold about your convictions.

It is obvious that Bachelet paid more attention to areas where she may have had more experiences (for instance creating more child care centers after experiencing motherhood and single motherhood) -- and that may be interpreted as gendered behavior, but again, in the name of radical progress, does it matter?

It seems like the "lowering the presidency...closer to the people" notion is perpetuated in Obama's presidency as well. I notice it particularly with the constant mentioning of the First Lady's "affordable" wardrobe, candid photos of the Obamas dressed down & minute-to-minute updates on the victory garden full of sweet potatoes. I don't think of all of the above as gendered-- instead, it seems like a radical shift that is exciting and different to the public-- and the public reports back by emphasizing how often the First Lady wears J Crew instead of discussing her political life.

Personally, I think bringing the Presidency lower to the people is good, as is radical change -- regardless of whether it is gendered by public perception or press portrayal. At least something extraordinary is happening (and unfortunately gendering is something that will not stop happening).

Anon5 said...

This might be way off track but sometimes I wonder if media focus on the actions of government leaders is meant to distract us from investigating the workings of the real power players in a society- owners of capital.

I have read a lot about a concept called "capital flight" in the past. Capital flight is disinvestment in the economy in response to government policies that owners of capital disapprove of. In the United States, if the government really decided to soak the rich with higher corporate taxes for example, some argue that capital would flow out of the country in response, destroying the economy. Maybe in Chile the government has laws against capital flight that they are willing to enforce; I read that in some countries, such as South Korea, capital flight was a crime punishable by death. But if not, it doesn't seem to me that any president, whether female or male, could effect major change without the approval of the economic power players.

Maybe the focus on the possibility of a female leader capitalizing on her gender qualities to navigate the political waters is just a pleasant and easy story to write, rather than looking really deeply at what role was played by the capitalists. Or maybe I'm completely wrong about who holds societal power, or at least in Chile.