A good weekend for women in politics -- at least overseas

Michelle Bachelet is elected president of Chile, while Ellen Johnson Sirleaf is sworn in as president of Liberia.

Published January 17, 2006 1:00PM (EST)

Felicitaciones a Presidente Bachelet!

Michelle Bachelet -- a socialist, agnostic, pediatrician, folk singer and single divorced mother of three -- was elected president of Chile on Sunday with 53 percent of the vote. She is the first woman to be elected head of state in Chile, a country that is male dominated and deeply religious, and one of only a handful of women elected president in the Americas.

According to the New York Times, Bachelet made few campaign promises beyond "social inclusion" -- vowing to meet better the needs of women and the poor -- preserving Chile's strong economy and maintaining a good relationship with the United States. And as Broadsheet reported on Friday, she has promised to make at least half of her cabinet female.

Bachelet's personal history and rise to power are so astonishing as to be almost novelistic. "In barely a decade, she has gone from being a pediatrician at a humble, underfinanced clinic  to the first woman to be her country's chief of state," noted the Times. "She is a toughened survivor of the Pinochet dictatorship, which was responsible for her father's death and her imprisonment, torture and exile, and she embodies for many Chile's painful reconciliation with those dark years."

"Violence ravaged my life," Bachelet said Sunday night in a passionate victory speech. "I was a victim of hatred, and I have dedicated my life to reversing that hatred."

On the African continent, Ellen Johnson Sirleaf, a Harvard-trained banker, took the oath of office on Monday in Liberia, becoming the first female president of an African nation. According to the Times, she was greeted by shouts of "Queen of Africa!" and told the ecstatic crowd that she would bring "a fundamental break with the past." Liberia has been mired in civil war for 14 years, and the country's public works and infrastructure are in shambles.

Like President Bachelet, President Sirleaf -- who is referred to as both "Ma Ellen" and "The Iron Lady" -- spent time in prison and was involved in opposition politics.

"The iron lady, of course that comes from the toughness of many years of being a professional in a male-dominated world," Sirleaf told the Times. "But ... the suffering I have seen, and the despair and lack of hope, brought out the motherliness in me, and that is where the Ma Ellen comes from."

By Lori Leibovich

Lori Leibovich is a contributing editor at Salon and the former editor of the Life section.

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