Source: Yes! Magazine
In March 2006, the socialist candidate, Michelle Bachelet, became the first woman ever elected president of a South American country.
Her rise to power sent shock waves through Chile’s political elites, who still, after a year of her government, remain implacable. Between the lines, their message could be read as this: "She is a woman, she acts like a woman, and women don’t know how to exert authority."
A close look at the private lives of ordinary Chileans reveals changes that were quietly laying the groundwork that made it possible for a woman to become president in spite of the conservative influence of the Catholic Church and the political elites.
But after Bachelet’s first year in the government, many of her critics maintain they were right, since the center-left coalition is experiencing its worst period and showing obvious signs of wear.
If Michelle Bachelet can be criticized for anything it’s her inefficiency in constructing a story, an epic of this new form of governing—that of a woman who wants to govern as a woman, with geniality and greater participation of ordinary citizens.
Women Take Power
As is true of almost all Latin American countries, Chilean society has always been patriarchal. Ever since the Spanish conquest, the figure of the "señor" or "lord" reigned supreme in the large, landed estates and later in the cities. Until the 1960s, women were largely excluded from government, work, and business; their lives centered on matters of the home and child raising.
Military dictator Augusto Pinochet embodied the most stereotypical characteristics of this machismo: those of the omnipotent and authoritarian man. He promised order and security in exchange for liberty and human rights. Lucía Hiriart de Pinochet, wife of the dictator, told women to take a secondary role in support of their husbands.
With the end of the dictatorship in 1990, the democratic coalition installed a more benign patriarch: President Patricio Aylwin. Ricardo Lagos, the third president after the dictatorship, also represented a patriarchal figure who, in moments of conflict, would bang on the table to get the last word—a practice that increased his popularity.
Michelle Bachelet does not fit any of these characteristics. She is a socialist, agnostic, and daughter of a general assassinated by the dictatorship. She is separated, with children from different fathers; her youngest was born when she was single. She is seen as unpredictable in her friendly, feminine, maternal ways.
As Lagos’ minister of health and later of defense, she was well-liked. It was citizens, not the political class, who invested in her candidacy and later in her presidency.
The fact that she has become president is the clearest sign of an erosion of traditional, masculine ways of wielding power. A snapshot of this change was captured on the day Bachelet was elected. Thousands of women gathered in Santiago de Chile’s main avenue wearing the tri-colored presidential ribbon as if to say that the power now belongs to all women.
But how real is this image?
In 2000, journalist and author Pia Rajevic presented her research into changes in the private lives of Chileans during the time of the dictatorship and the first decade of the return of democracy. Her book El Libro Abierto del Amor y el Sexo en Chile (The Open Book of Love and Sex in Chile) debunked various myths. Rajevic showed that Chileans aren’t as conservative as believed; youth lose their virginity earlier than the Dutch; different family models exist (single parents, extended families, and so on); homosexuality, though illegal, is widely accepted. Since the 1960s, Chile has been a pioneer in family planning, and contraceptive methods.
But Rajevic also showed that this openness in private life was not supported by the country’s elites. As a result, the legal code, the public discourse, and the mass media hid the reality of private life in Chile. This explains why the political powers for many years refused to adopt a divorce law, although a majority of marriages had resulted in separations and almost half of all children were born outside of wedlock. It wasn’t until 2004 that the divorce law finally passed, making Chile the last western nation to legalize matrimonial dissolution.
The strong influence in public life of the profoundly conservative Chilean Catholic Church, made the asymmetry possible. Though 80 percent of Chileans call themselves Catholics, they generally do not follow the dictates of the ecclesiastic hierarchy in matters of private life.
Masculine Expressions of Power
The dictatorship, which began with the overthrow of President Salvador Allende in 1973, was not only a huge political setback in a country that had been on an exemplary democratic course. It was also a cultural and social regression in private life. Women lost the ground they had gained over the previous decade. Instead of recommending contraception at public clinics, for example, poor women were told to "have all the children God gave them."
The economic crisis of the early 1980s forced hundreds of thousands of housewives to get jobs, which inevitably brought them a level of empowerment that had not existed until then. Women’s steadily increasing economic autonomy was key to their adopting a role similar to that of men.
Today, after decades of struggle in the home and on the streets, women have advanced substantially. Nobody today would dare to portray Mrs. Pinochet as a symbol of Chilean womanhood. Now she represents a pretentious way of being prevailing in a country crippled by antiquated values inherited from an invented past. The icon of today is Bachelet, a medical doctor, from the middle class, who lives simply as head of a household without a husband, and who built her life through her own effort.
Nonetheless, the majority of the powers-that-be continue to question her leadership style, which is inclusive rather than authoritarian. She creates broad commissions to write bills concerning such issues as pensions and secondary education. While the political class is resistant to this cultural change, the general public continues to award her approval ratings above 50 percent. This is especially remarkable given the bad press and setbacks that resulted from policies of the previous government of President Lagos.
This shows that what Pía Rajevic described in her book seven years ago remains unresolved: the elite still have a taste for masculine expressions of power. But these aspirations collide with reality, and the men—the patriarchs—ramble about in disagreement and puzzlement.
Without doubt, the power of the Catholic Church has receded, allowing changes in the private lives of Chileans that are unlikely to be reversed. However, women still do 95 percent of the housework; they represent only 35 percent of the labor market (below the Latin American average); only 20 percent of company executives are women; and the average income for women is 30 percent lower than that of men.
When Bachelet took office, she kept her campaign promise and appointed a gender-balanced cabinet. This provoked protests in her own coalition as it left out some important male leaders. But it also showed that exerting power is not only for the experts, but is something more commonplace and civic, therefore more maternal than paternal.
But power is still power—in itself conservative—and it’s too soon to predict the effects of a woman president on Chilean society. In the private realm, the feminization of Chile is obvious, but it remains to be seen how far it will turn into a public virtue.
Marcelo Mendoza is a Chilean journalist, sociologist, and writer. He co-authored, together with Fernando Villagrán, the book La Muerte de Pinochet (The Death of Pinochet, 2003). Translation by Lilja Otto.