Our History

Colombian Women Zoom Ahead in Politics

Sunday, January 22, 2012

Unlike U.S. women, Colombian women have made great strides in the political arena in a short period of time, says Barbara Frechette in the book "Sharing Power." In this excerpt, she compares this progression to the one in the United States.

Barbara Frechette(WOMENSENEWS)--When I arrived in Colombia in July of 1994, I was surprised to see women in jobs usually held by men in almost every labor field, and especially amazed to see so many women in important leadership positions in finance and economics.

Although more and more American women had entered those fields, none had risen as high as Maria Mercedes Cuellar, who was then co-director of Colombia's central bank.

Also, gender relations were far more peaceful and cordial than in the United States. Female leaders took pride in femininity, in being wives and mothers and in a leadership style they said aided their progress without alienating men. In fact, one successful man told me he admired the achievements of his countrywomen and had mentored several of them. "But," he was quick to add, "It is still muy macho in Colombia's small towns and rural areas."

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In Latin America, conservative Colombia was next to last-place Paraguay in granting voting rights to women. But Colombian women made up for their late start by taking only 41 years of peaceful power sharing to field two highly qualified female candidates in their 1998 presidential election.

Colombian women's remarkable achievement in such a short time led me to question why women in the United States took more time, encountered more bumps, attained a more contentious male-female power relationship and launched only one candidate in our 2008 presidential primaries.

Diverging Paths

Sharing Power

In the 1940s, even though U.S. women successfully assumed jobs normally held by men during World War II, they happily returned to their domestic roles at the end of the war. Most American women stayed at home while husbands went to work throughout the '40s and '50s, in lives lauded in popular weekly television shows such as, "Father Knows Best" and "Leave it to Beaver."

During that same period in the 1950s, Colombian Liberal political activist Esmeralda Arboleda spent several months of self-imposed political exile in the United States in fear of the authoritarian Colombian government that she and Conservative Minister of Education Josefina Valencia de Hubach had criticized.

By organizing a Union of Colombian Women, those two political activists welcomed all Colombian women, regardless of their political or religious beliefs, or their educational, social or economic status, to demand that the government end 22 practices that denied women their citizen's rights in a democratic society.

During her exile, Arboleda studied the history of the U.S. League of Women Voters and concluded that Colombian women could not follow the U.S. feminist model. Her greatest departure from that model was her life-long conviction that women must actively participate in legislatures to eliminate the laws that legislators enact to discriminate against women.

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Very interesting article, but I was dismayed to read this sentence:

"In the 1940s, even though U.S. women successfully assumed jobs
normally held by men during World War II, they happily returned to
their domestic roles at the end of the war."

There were many U.S. women who were not happy to go home. The Rosie the Riveter documentary shows the major public relations campaign the U.S. government embarked on to get women to go home so their factory jobs could be taken over by the returning men. I'll never forget the film clip in that documentary in which a white-coated female psychologist is dictating an article about how truly femine women will want to go home and make babies. As if she would leave her own job!

African -American women particularly did not want to leave the factories because they had few options apart from domestic service jobs. And there were women in the military who simply refused to leave, despite major efforts to get them out, because those were the best paying jobs they ever had. Their refusal to leave was the origin of DACOWITS, the Defense Department Committee on Women in the Services, created in the 1950s to figure out what to do with the women who wouldn't leave.

Lynn Hecht Schafran
National Judicial Education Program
Legal Momentum

Thank you. A profound and comprehensive insight into the long-range challenges and what to target for success. Very nice work, and very inspiring!
-- Vermont