Last weekend Mexican presidential candidate Josefina Vázquez Mota officially launched her election campaign, as did the other two primary contenders, Enrique Peña Nieto and Andrés Manuel López Obrador. The media have focused on whether Peña Nieto can convince voters that he represents a new Partido Revolucionario Institucional (PRI, the governing party for 70 years until the election of Vicente Fox in 2000), and if López Obrador (of the Partido Revolucionario Democrático—PRD) can make a comeback after narrowly losing the 2006 election. As for Vázquez Mota, the candidate of the incumbent Partido de Acción Nacional (PAN), one central question has been whether she can become the country’s first female president.
The Vázquez Mota candidacy is a symbolic victory for feminists. Globally, women are disproportionately less represented in politics (making up only 17.2 percent of national legislatures), and only a handful of world leaders are women. Mexico in particular is known for a deeply-rooted culture of machismo, which pervades politics and business as much as it does society at large. Only 6 percent of Mexico’s mayors are women, although 25 percent of its national legislators are (thanks to a law that requires at least 40 percent of a party’s candidates to be women). No major company is led by a female CEO. Only one, Grupo Modelo, has a female board chair—and that because her father passed it on to her when he died without a male heir in 1995.
Vázquez Mota, in contrast, has risen to the candidacy on her own merits; the 51-year-old mother of three is a trained economist, former congresswoman and ex-cabinet minister (in each of the last two administrations). While Vázquez Mota has embraced her gender head-on since Day 1 (in accepting PAN’s official nomination, she declared, “I will be the first woman president of Mexico”), it remains to be seen whether the candidate of the socially conservative, Catholic PAN will campaign—and potentially govern—with a large focus on women’s issues.
The challenges facing women in Mexico are numerous and complex. Besides low levels of political and corporate representation and gendered income disparities, challenges include preventing maternal mortality, reducing violence against women, enhancing women’s access to family planning services, and addressing the more than 800,000 abortions that take place illegally and in often unsafe conditions.
In other countries in the region facing similar difficulties and institutional barriers, Vázquez Mota’s predecessors have trod a variety of paths. During her tenure, former Chilean President Michelle Bachelet (2006-2010) expanded public day care, created domestic violence shelters for women, increased the number of women in her cabinet, and expended substantial political capital to pass a law making the morning-after pill available. Vázquez Mota has repeatedly cited Bachelet’s advice “not to put on a mustache” to govern, but to govern “as we women do." In the U.S., then-candidate Hillary Clinton came to the 2008 presidential campaign with a stridently pro-women record, having fought for universal health care, lobbied her husband to increase the number of women in his cabinet, and put sexual and reproductive rights on the agenda of international organizations.
Elsewhere in the region, Argentine President Cristina Fernández de Kirchner and Costa Rican President Laura Chinchilla have opposed expanding reproductive rights and neither has explicitly focused on pro-women policies, though some of their policies directed toward enhancing economic security and improving education favor women and heads of households. Brazil’s Dilma Rousseff has followed an intermediary path, increasing the number of female ministers and favoring government programs combating poverty through assistance to women and heads of single-parent households while having renounced her formerly pro-choice stance and enacted a law requiring all women to register their pregnancies with the state.
So far Vázquez Mota, who once wrote a book called Diós Mío, Hazme Viuda, Por Favor (“Dear God, Please Make Me a Widow”) as a call to women not to be afraid of developing their professional potential, has suggested she will take a more feminine than feminist political approach. On the campaign trail and during the kick-off of the campaign season last weekend, she has cast herself as an everywoman, sympathizing with other working mothers.
In a well-known early February exchange with Peña Nieto, who said he didn’t know the price of tortillas because he was “not the woman of the house,” Vázquez Mota responded by saying she had not only headed her own household, she had done so while running a federal agency. Always smiling, amiable and dressed in white—the color of peace—Vázquez Mota has said she would like to be a “strong and brave” president, but also one who “will take care” of the country’s citizens as she would a family. Though her and the other candidates’ policy proposals remain nebulous at this stage, she has voiced a commitment for greater social equality and pro-poor policies, which tend to have a positive impact on women in particular.
On the reproductive rights front, though, Vázquez Mota hews to her party’s line, which opposes abortion. However, she has also said she does not favor criminalizing women who seek out abortion services. Abortion is currently illegal in Mexico, except in Mexico City, where the procedure during the first trimester of pregnancy was made legal in 2007. (Last fall the Mexican Supreme Court upheld an anti-abortion amendment to Baja California’s constitution; the state was one of 17 to file such an amendment, sponsored by the PAN and PRI.)
Women make up more than half of Mexico’s electorate. Vázquez Mota needs 51 percent of the vote to win outright. If she can prove between now and July 1 that electing her is also a vote for women, she will certainly increase her chances of finding a home in Los Pinos.
*Nina Agrawal is departments editor of Americas Quarterly and policy associate at Americas Society and Council of the Americas.