In Argentina, meanwhile, Fernández – also a leftist – actually quashed activists’ efforts to expand reproductive rights. Perhaps unsurprisingly, so did the conservative Laura Chinchilla in Costa Rica.
That’s because major social change requires more than just a woman president. The kind of political party she leads matters a lot – more, in fact, than her gender.
The left-wing populist parties that ruled Ecuador, Argentina and Venezuela during the period we analyzed made no effort to liberalize abortions. In fact, we found that populist leaders, in their quest to appeal to the masses, actively shut out feminist activists and ignored the demands of female constituents.
Fernández didn’t just uphold Argentina’s harsh abortion restrictions – she actually cut off funding for the country’s universal contraception program, too. Rather than focus on women’s issues, her Justicialist Party expanded social welfare programs, including a hallmark cash-transfer program that subsidizes families with young children.
Anti-poverty policies are typical of the populist Peronist movement that brought Fernández and her husband, former president Nestor Kirchner, into power. These initiatives may also help women, since they are poorer than men, but that’s not the main goal.
In the Latin American countries we studied, those where reproductive rights most improved in the early 21st century were ruled by what political scientists call “institutionalized parties.” Such parties generally have a cogent ideology – though it could be left, right or center – a broad base of support and clear structures for responding to constituent demands.
When Bachelet finally loosened abortion restrictions, it was at the helm of a broad-based coalition called the New Majority. Likewise, Uruguay fully legalized abortion in 2012 under the presidency of José Mujica and his Broad Front alliance.
Legalizing abortion – one of the world’s most polarizing policy debates – may be asking a lot. So we also assessed whether these four presidentas promoted gender equality in other ways.
We found they did somewhat better on childcare, which enables women to return to the labor market after becoming mothers. Argentina’s Fernández paid the topic little mind, but Bachelet, Rousseff and even Costa Rica’s center-rightist Chinchilla all expanded access to childcare during their tenures.
But so did the men who governed Uruguay during the same period. That supports the idea that party type matters more than the chief executive’s gender when it comes to a country’s women’s rights.
And when looking at perhaps the most dramatic improvement in gender equality in Latin American in recent years – the high number of women in politics – we see that these changes, too, were led by male and female politicians alike.
Improvements began in the early 1990s. Back then, nearly every Latin American country adopted some form of gender quota, which requires political parties to nominate a certain percentage of women for legislative office. In many cases, though, the early laws were rather weak. Parties put women on the ballot in districts they could never win or didn’t get fully behind their campaigns.
Over the past decade, women politicians and feminists across the region have organized to improve political participation among women. In every country where women pushed stronger gender quotas through Congress, those initiatives became law.
The payoff of this popular women’s mobilization has been huge: Between 1990 and 2018, the percentage of female lawmakers in Latin America shot up, from 9 percent to 28 percent.
By Merike Blofield, Christina Ewig, and Jennifer M. Piscopo. This article was first published by The Conversation