Michelle Bachelet is a divorced mother of three, a self-described socialist and an unapologetic atheist, an unlikely profile for the president of Chile, a conservative, Catholic country, which elected her in 2006, the first woman to rise to the top of the dominantly male hierarchy.
Before achieving the presidency, she was the first female defense minister in all of the Americas (that includes the United States and Canada) and when she first sat down with her stunned male counterparts in Latin America, she ticked off all that was obvious – "I'm a woman" – along with her marital status, or lack thereof, her leftist ideology and her attitude toward religion, ending with the declaration, "I still think we can work well together."
And indeed they did. Bachelet had paid her dues. She and her mother were imprisoned and tortured after a U.S.-backed coup brought to power the much despised Gen. Augusto Pinochet. Her father, a military general who advised the deposed President Salvador Allende, died in prison. Bachelet's family ties and heroism served as a buffer as she navigated her way to power in Chile, but her success after four years as president is entirely her own, and it came after a very rocky start.
I was in Chile acting as a resource on women and politics with the Women Donors Network
, a group of well-heeled women looking for philanthropic opportunities. We were granted an interview with Bachelet the first spring after she was elected, and the exuberance from her historic election seemed a distant memory as she struggled to gain control of a transportation plan that she had inherited, and that had gone awry, stranding commuters from rural areas that it was meant to serve. All the buzz was that she would be such a failure that the country would never elect another woman.
Today she is regarded as a transformational president who created positive and enduring social change
. She strengthened social security employment insurance, steered the Chilean economy through last year's downturn without having to cut benefits, and 11 days before she left office in March, oversaw her country's reaction to a devastating earthquake. The reception she received in Washington this week, where she attended a global conference on maternal health, affirms her status as a stateswoman on the national stage and a rock star for women.
Many of the policies she put in place grew out of her own experience, she told an audience of mostly women at the National Press Club on Monday afternoon, just hours before she was scheduled to fly back to Chile. Because she remembered how hard it was to juggle her growing family while she was at the university studying to become a physician, she set out as president to vastly expand the number of nurseries and child centers available, and there are five times as many today as when she took office. She established domestic violence shelters for women and children, tightened penalties for men who default on their alimony, saw that women would be admitted for the first time to the naval academy, and that women have the right to breast feed at work.
She drew admiring laughter when asked if she would write her memoir, and replied that of course she would. "I'm a very good student," she said, explaining that she kept notes throughout her four years. (Chilean law restricts the president to a single term.) "I have all my notebooks -- 40 notebooks!" she exclaimed. She always kept one next to her bed, and it was a rare night that she did not write down her thoughts. Her memoir will be more than a summary of facts, she promises. It will be about a style of leadership that understands what it is like to be "in the skin" of those you serve. As minister of health, another post she held before becoming president, she would not only visit the director of the hospital, she would go to the basement to meet with the people who clean the beds and prepare the milk for the babies; only then would she feel confident that she had a full picture of what was needed.
Women in politics still lag far behind men in Chile, holding only 12 percent of the seats in Congress (compared with 17 percent in the United States). Bachelet has demonstrated what is possible by both her own ascent in politics, and the policies she championed to pave the way for others. Celebrating International Women's Day
in March 2007, just one year into her term, Bachelet said that leaders will find it hard to "go back to the days when the top jobs were filled with dark suits and neckties." Through her economic policies, not only for women, but for everybody, Bachelet is a role model for female leadership
in a world where women are still greatly outnumbered.