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."

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.

22 Demands

The Colombian Women’s Union’s first demand was for a peaceful resolution of Colombia’s internal war between its Liberal and Conservative parties. Its second demand was for women’s voting rights. The next 20 demands are many of the rights the world’s feminists sought, and are still seeking today.

When Arboleda returned to Colombia in 1957, she was just in time to witness the success of efforts she had spearheaded to win voting rights for women. Soon after, she became her country’s first national senator.

Meanwhile in the United States, women were beginning to feel trapped and stifled in restrictive domestic roles and their resentment found voice in Betty Friedan’s 1963 book, "The Feminine Mystique." The resultant National Organization of Women was created to fight for rights that were equal to those enjoyed by males in the United States, and from it, U.S. women’s-rights feminism was born.

Many U.S. women believed they had been pushed backward into patriarchal, Victorian roles and they determined escape from patriarchy depended on women’s economic progress in the labor market.

Focusing on paid employment as their equalizer, the majority of U.S. women joined the labor force and steadily narrowed the salary gap in wide sectors of the labor market. By focusing most of their attention on economic equality, they greatly increased their economic power in the United States, but by not paying enough attention to bridging their cultural, political and religious differences, they have slowed their political empowerment.

Should U.S. women unite to solve problems that affect them all, leaving out religious, ideological and political issues (that divide them and can never be solved politically), they would eliminate the roadblocks that prohibit the development of the strong female voting bloc they need to elect women as presidents as often as they elect men.

Barbara Frechette has a bachelor’s degree in journalism from Gonzaga University in Spokane, Wash., and advanced studies in economics and journalism from American University and the University of Maryland. Accompanying her husband in his 35-year foreign service career, she was editor of the American Foreign Service Women’s Newsletter and published an article about the role of the foreign service spouse in the American Foreign Service Journal.

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