When it comes to women in high-level politics, the U.S. lags behind

Friday, October 24, 2008 | 4:24 p.m. CDT; updated 10:00 a.m. CDT, Wednesday, October 29, 2008

Loory: At election time in the United States, it is interesting to consider the political status of women around the world. There are woman leaders in Finland, Germany, Sri Lanka, Chile, Argentina and many other countries around the world. Half of the cabinet members in Spain are women. Here, the matter of whether a woman is electable for one of the two highest offices in the land is still on the table. Latin America is known for its male chauvinism, but the presidents of both Argentina and Chile are women. How are these two women getting along and how does their gender affect politics in those countries?

Lucia Newman, Latin American editor for Al Jazeera English, Buenos Aires, Argentina: Michelle Bachelet in Chile is a self-made woman. She did not reach the presidency by marriage or relation. She has to be prodded to admit being a woman makes it more difficult to be president. In the beginning, she was criticized for being a less forceful leader to her predecessor. Now, she is definitely accepted as the country's leader. Cristina Kirchner in Argentina is the wife of the previous president who is a Peronist. This is the third time the wife of a famous Peronist has become leader. The previous two were weak; Kirchner is having the same problem.

Loory: Do you think the role Bill would have had in the White House was a problem for Hillary Clinton not being nominated?

Mark Silva, White House correspondent, Chicago Tribune, Washington, D.C.: It may be a small part, but Hillary has developed a persona of her own on the national stage that goes back to advocating health care reform during her husband's term. She has been a high-profile senator from New York. Hillary's public image has polarized people evenly disposed to like or dislike her, with high negative numbers for a political candidate.

Loory: Indira Gandhi and Benazir Bhutto were both assassinated. Did that have anything to do with their gender or was it a matter of their politics?

Sunita Aron, roving editor, Hindustan Times, Mumbai, India: No, it has to do with politics, not gender. Women are powerful in India: Sonia Gandhi is the president of the Congress Parliamentary Party; Kumari Mayawati is Chief Minister of Uttar Pradesh, the biggest province of the country; and Mamata Banerjee runs West Bengal. India is a contrast, a country of diversity, even in politics.

Loory: Does the success of women in politics have any impact on the success of women elsewhere in society?

Aron: There are a lot of changes. In the film industry, women rule the roost; in the past, they did not dictate terms. And, a women's movement is occurring in small little groups working in the countryside. Bangladesh is a Muslim-dominated country and it also has a strong women's movement. Illiteracy, domestic violence, dowries, child matters and other social problems still exist, but women today are not denied jobs or positions because they are women.

Loory: Women in the United States have done well in other parts of society such as business, professional associations, law and medicine; why is the U.S. backward in high-level politics?

Silva: There are currently some 15 or 16 female members of the U.S. Senate, a significant gain over recent years, and women are well represented as governors and in state legislatures. These candidates are not interchangeable; women politicians have their own nuances. Sarah Palin is a charismatic figure that appeals to the base of the Republican Party. She is a post-feminist figure politically; she opposes abortion, which puts her at odds with most women voters. It appears John McCain is paying a greater price for Palin on the ticket than the advantage he had initially. I think Clinton met the qualification test, but people are questioning Palin's credentials.

Loory: What is the situation in Japan regarding women in politics?

Linda Sieg, chief correspondent, Reuters, Tokyo, Japan: Women are seriously underrepresented. Females represent only 9.4 percent of members in the House of Representatives, the stronger of the two chambers in Parliament. It is closer to 18 percent in the Upper House, the weaker chamber. In September, Yuriko Koike tried to become president of the ruling party, the Liberal Democrats. She already put a crack in — not a glass ceiling, but what she calls an iron plate barrier — by becoming the first female defense minister. Her candidacy for the presidency of the ruling party, which would automatically have made her prime minister, was a historic candidacy. Unlike Clinton, Koike never appeared to have a chance of winning, so people did not get as excited as Clinton.

Loory: How does the status of women in politics in Latin America rub off on the ability of women to gain high positions in other parts of society?

Newman: Strangely, inversely to the U.S., it doesn't rub off. More women are in politics than in high executive positions in the private sector; male chauvinism is a factor. If people believed nominating Palin would bring in Clinton voters because women are interchangeable, then that is not only naïve but chauvinistic in a society generally thought to be more progressive than Latin American society. Women are in high positions of power in Latin America but are also still under the boot of men at home and certainly in the executive field.

Loory: How is Japan looking at the American situation, particularly the nomination of Sarah Palin?

Sieg: There was more interest in Clinton's candidacy in Japan. People knew the Clintons and saw a real possibility of her becoming president. People here cannot relate to Palin, partly because Japan does not have an equivalent of the Republican base, the religious pro-life aspect.

Loory: Does Palin get much coverage on television?

Sieg: No, the coverage is primarily of Obama and McCain. Interest is clearly in Obama and to what extent race is a factor.

Loory: How is the American presidential campaign being covered in Latin America?

Newman: The vast majority of people in this region are rooting for Obama, not just because he is a different color than the normal American president, but especially because he is a Democrat. President Bush is extremely unpopular in Latin America, so everyone is waiting to see if the Republicans will be unseated. Most attention about Palin is focused on the fact that she loves guns, a negative in this part of the world, and the recent news about the budget for her clothes. The Argentines had a field day with that because of immediate comparisons to Kirchner, who is well known for spending money on clothes.

Loory: So, the peripheral issues are getting attention in Latin America, as they are in this country?

Newman: Most people see the Republicans and the Democrats as like the difference between Pepsi-Cola and Coca-Cola. But, there is this general feeling that a Democratic president would bring more peace to the world and less antagonism. Latin America has been largely ignored, not only by the current U.S. administration, but also by both candidates.

Loory: How is the American election campaign being covered in India?

Aron: Extensively — it is front-page news. India may have as much interest as Americans.

Loory: The matter of women in high-level politics appears to be more established elsewhere in the world than it is here in the United States.

Producers of Global Journalist are Missouri School of Journalism graduate students Jared Gassen, Chris Hamby, Sananda Sahoo and Hui Wang. The transcriber is Pat Kelly.


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