The first female Chilean President. The first female South American President to assume her office independent of her husband’s political responsibility. The first Chilean President to serve two terms since 1990, and the first to be legitimately elected in both terms since 1932. Michelle Bachelet (full name Verónica Michelle Bachelet Jeria) boasts a remarkable political career, and still continues to improve the world, aged 69 (her birthday was last week). She channels, through herself, a voice for the voiceless. An inspirational leader.
Sitting and wondering where to begin my life, it’s impossible not to marvel at her early conviction to helping people, beginning her medical degree in Chile. This would be accomplished by overcoming immense challenges far beyond the rigours of her course. Bachelet’s father, a military general, was arrested and tortured, 1973, for declining to partake in the military coup usurping the government. He would die in detention of a heart attack, whilst Bachelet herself was abducted two years later, alongside her mother, for their connection to her father. Tortured for six months in a facility notorious for ‘disappearances’, she was exiled, and forced to flee to Australia. Unperturbed, Bachelet later moved to East Germany, and resuming her medical studies at Berlin’s Humboldt University. Anyone too hungover for a 9am lecture should take notes…
In 1979, Bachelet would return to Chile and successfully graduate with a medical degree. Outcast from the public sector by the blacklist against her name, Bachelet joined a private clinic specialising in aiding former torture victims. Ever selfless, she downplayed her own torture relative to others.
Whilst in Berlin, her politics developed socialist leanings, this token of demanding equity likely propelling her into politics. Supporting the Socialist Party, Bachelet would be selected to serve as Health Minister in Ricardo Lagos’ Cabinet, 2000-2002. Having also studied military affairs at both Chile’s National Academy of Strategy and Policy, and the Inter-American Defence College, Washington D.C., Bachelet was well qualified for her post as Defence Minister 2002-2006. She brought a fresh perspective to the role, embracing her femininity, not affecting a more familiar masculine façade. Keenly alert to the importance of her gender, Bachelet respected the additional pressure stalking her career. Where men are simply representative of themselves, any failings an individual weakness, she was symbolic of all women, and their capacity for leadership.
“I’m not going to behave like a man to be respected. If I have to do that, I won’t respect myself. People need to understand that there can be different types of leadership, and it’s not that one is better than the other”Michelle Bachelet
A cornerstone of Bachelet’s mission has always been improving living conditions for underrepresented demographics and demanding increased equity for women. Historically, female leaders have been criminally few, most frequently gaining official positions by appointment, not popular vote. Equally, tending to focus on men, generalisations in scholarship examine the male experience as typical, implying female executives as exceptional outliers. This background perhaps elucidates Bachelet’s individual achievements, her re-election testimony to both her popularity and aptitude. Bandaranaike, the first women to assume Sri Lankan Premiership, alongside Perón, the world’s first female President, of Argentina, represent pioneers of executive female power, breaking the glass ceiling. Despite this, both women had followed their deceased husbands into office, and whilst the former ultimately lost her premiership, and the latter was ousted within a year. Too often, the visually desirable qualities of leadership have been attributes inherently associated with men – physical strength, dominance, aggression. A leader might struggle to convey compassion or intelligence (and lacking both never precludes a man’s political career).
An overhaul of our perceptions of leadership in relation to gender is long overdue. It is essential, that we should redefine the meaning of overseeing any position of responsibility, and transition towards a benchmark of basic empathy, which so many in government are devoid of. Gender, succinctly defined as the “culturally constructed meaning of biological sex differences” should have no bearing. Someday it won’t. But, until society accepts blurred gender ‘distinctions’, and women can assume power with no question of their fragility of womanhood, it needs to be pushed.
In 2014, we witnessed a record high of 22 female leaders across the globe. Angela Merkel, Jacinda Ardern, and Theresa May, three recent, powerful female leaders (though one significantly less popular than the others) potentially suggests a shift in attitudes. This could even be compounded by the appointment of Kamala Harris as Vice President. But gender power dynamics remain essential. Outside of government, as managers and bosses, women are routinely ignored, or vitriolically criticised for their appointments should they ever displace a man. Their identity always overtly and discriminately scrutinised, even when promoted, it seems so many quickly decide it was from pity, or unjust progressive action, only because they were a woman. Struggling to draw the abilities of women out of the shadows, Bachelet believed:
“Gender inequality and disempowerment of women have deep roots that plunge into the furthest recesses of our societies … Increasing women’s participation in power across different arenas will facilitate policy and progress. We need to overthrow the difficult and persistent barriers so that women of tomorrow can live without the burden of inequality and discrimination we currently experience”Michelle Bachelet
It is important, of course, to credit with recognition, Bachelet’s achievements as an individual, not just as a woman and role model. Recognising the inherent unfairness of capitalism, the free market system increasing GDP at the expense of a broadening chasm between the ultra-rich and the majority, Bachelet aimed to provide equality. Her 2005 campaign was founded upon such principles of decency, hoping to:
- Meet the needs of the country’s poor
- Reform the outdated pension system
- Promote women’s rights
- Recognise the constitutional rights of the indigenous Mapuche people
- Promote foreign affairs continuity, maintaining US and Latin American ties
Naturally, public discussion prior to the 2005 election was on Bachelet’s appearance – specifically her weight – not her policies. Persevering, her persona would prove invaluable in unifying the disparate elements within the Socialist Party, enabling her to gain a majority vote. Additionally, her first Cabinet was a direct 50-50 split between men and women, all of equal talent, rapidly delivering a campaign promise. Bachelet was crucial in delivering another socialist victory. The fragility of her party was exposed in 2010 when, constitutionally prohibited from running, the Presidential office was ceded to the Conservative party.
Despite initial problems mounting during her first term, Bachelet converted her policies into successes and enacted major improvements to the country. Both a chaotic transport bill in Santiago, a hangover from Lagos’ tenure, and student protests were ultimately overcome. Introducing legislative protections to women in workplaces, pregnant mothers were welcomed into the labour force, now during and after their pregnancies. Tripling the number of free early childcare centres for working mothers massively improved education, and catalysed positive overall health outcomes, by reducing infant mortality and advancing women’s living conditions.
Discussing her own campaign, Bachelet revealed that such methods fit within a concerted target of pro-actively tackling the numerous socioeconomic factors often responsible for influencing people’s health. Such changes massively disproportionately benefit poorer communities. Effectively, her percolation of socialism was converted into a more representative GDP rise across Chile, enhancing the daily existence of her population. Socialism is, fundamentally, fairer than capitalism, an intrinsically violent a self-destructive system of oppression, implemented by rigid class barriers which restrict social mobility. Governments should only exist to support people. Yet, there is the widespread misconception that corrupt or incompetent leaders should be tolerated as the status quo, with no suitable alternative.
Our world should not, however, be designed around the whims of the ultra-rich. Never has this been more brutally exposed than during lockdown, as billionaires expand their wealth empires at the expense of massive unemployment and economic decline. Huge corporations have greedily accepted colossal government subsidies and socialist packages, whilst simultaneously demanding working-class individuals survive without jobs.
Bernie Sanders said it best – socialism for the rich.
Instead, responding to growing wealth disparity, Bachelet increased corporate tax from 20 – 27%, and eradicated a tax loophole frequently exploited by major stockholders, known as FUT. These tax earnings were subsequently channelled towards expanding public education, including the introduction of free universities.
2014 witnessed Bachelet’s second successful election campaign, gaining a more considerable victory margin of 62% to 38% in the secondary run-off voting. During the interim, she had become an increasingly prominent civil rights advocate, heading the newly-created UN Women body. Progressive changes were carried forwards into her second term, as Bachelet legalised gay marriage and sponsored a reproductive rights bill. Even when gripped by scandal, her daughter-in-law attempting to illegitimately funnel money into personal accounts, Bachelet devised a unique solution, requesting her entire Cabinet resign, in May 2015, to restore public confidence.
Currently working as UN High Commissioner for Human Rights, her twitter feed is a constant demand for universal human rights, in both English and Spanish. Major human rights violations persist globally, conducted from hatred and misunderstanding. Lebanon represents a major humanitarian crisis, as does the mistreatment and detention of Muslims in China and India. Azerbaijan and Armenia are embroiled in conflict, whilst Bachelet has already condemned the treatment of immigrants on the US-Mexico border. Here, a recent whistle-blower report has exacerbated concerns over the region. Allegations that forced hysterectomies have been conducted on Mexican immigrants is beyond despicable.
Indulge me in a brief tangent. Immigration from the US into Mexico bizarrely became so contentious an issue, Mexico closed its borders during the 1830’s to American citizens. That didn’t vibe with the US, who, following a tense decade of increasingly grave disputes, embarked upon the 1846-8 US-Mexican war, claiming vast swathes of territory, forming modern California, Utah, Nevada, Arizona, Texas and, aptly, New Mexico. Discontent surrounding America’s self-declared superiority unresolved, the early 20th Century brought the introduction of eugenics laws, arising in 1907. California began mandating the forced sterilisations of the ‘mentally inferior’ with thirty states to follow. An official, national campaign, the US Public Health Service allied itself with the eugenics movement in 1914, disinfecting migrants from 1916. With the 1920’s introducing strict immigration quotas and an increasing ‘science of race’, disproportionately impeding Mexicans, accompanied by the ‘Yellow Peril’ fears of Chinese invasion, this model of control would be capitalised upon by Nazi Germany. Though most laws were repealed during the 1970’s, 2006 and 2010 saw the forced sterilisation of one hundred and fifty female inmates. ICE’s modern treatment of immigrants, separating young families and holding children in cages, is reminiscent of Proposition 187, demanding the identification of undocumented immigrants and denying them public services.
Bachelet has forged an incredible career and an incredible life, above any comparison, progressive changes in Chile evidencing her excellence. It is, however, interesting to consider how she might have responded to the ongoing global crisis of COVID, had she been President this year. Bachelet, with a comprehensive and continued expertise in health, might have conducted a more effective programme than Sebastián Piñera, perhaps closely mirroring her overseeing relief efforts in the wake of the 8.8 magnitude 2010 earthquake. Bachelet’s excellent management during the 2008 economic recession also enabled Chile to prosper in the aftermath, whilst South American neighbours didn’t fare so well. Enjoying a peak in copper exports, Bachelet redirected government savings into pension reforms, social programmes and job stimuli packages, guiding Chile comfortably through the aftermath. This caveat fits neatly within the assessment that female leaders have generally performed better during the pandemic than their male counterparts, limiting case numbers and fatalities.
Always demanding note, Trump and Johnson, poster boys for mismanagement, are pathetic examples of leadership. Boris now faces a rebellion from his own backbenchers, indicating a loss of control reflecting his slipping grasp over the pandemic as cases rise again. Trump was obviously never concerned with mitigating the COVID pandemic, openly downplaying its severity for political purposes and continuing his onslaught on democracy and decency. His petty feud with the truth was on full display during the first Presidential debate and, how having supposedly contracted COVID, received advanced, socialised medical care (a plan he hopes to abolish next month). No doubt his ‘miraculous recovery’ will pave a patriotic surge in approval and voter turnout, which hopefully won’t impact the election outcome.
Only when women occupy 100% of executive roles will we have true equity.
To paraphrase another inspiration, the late, fantastic, Ruth Bader Ginsburg would say, they were once all men, and nobody raised a question about that.
Thanks for reading! I regularly post short stories, travel blogs, or contemporary commentaries like this one, so stay tuned!
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- Jalalzai, F., Shattered, Cracked, or Firmly Intact?: Women Executive Glass Ceiling Worldwide (2013).
- Bachelet, M., ‘Towards universal health coverage: applying a gender lens’, The Lancet, 385/9975 (2015), pp. 25-26.
- Bachelet, M., ‘Women, power, and the cancer divide’, The Lancet, 389/10071 (2017), pp. 773-774.
Intro to US eugenics: