Mexico Elects First Female President − But Will That Improve the Lot of Country’s Women?

Mexico Elects First Female President − But Will That Improve the Lot of Country’s Women?

Editorial credit: Paola Garcia 1 /

By and | The Conversation

Mexico will have its first woman president following a landmark vote on June 2, 2024.

After an election period marred by violence, ruling Morena party candidate Claudia Sheinbaum, a former Mexico City mayor, emerged as the victor with about 60% of the vote – a larger share of the vote than her mentor and predecessor, President Andrés Manuel López Obrador, won in 2018. Sheinbaum beat rival Xóchitl Gálvez, a senator for the center-right National Action Party, who trailed with less than 30% of the vote.

Acknowledging the significance of the occasion, Sheinbaum said: “For the first time in the 200 years of the republic I will become the first woman president of Mexico.”

But as scholars who study politics and gender in Mexico, we know that optics are one thing, actual power another. Seventy years after women won the right to vote in Mexico, is the country moving any closer to making changes that would give women real equality?

Uneven fight for gender equality

Women now represent half of Congress, after electoral reforms nearly a decade ago mandated gender parity in nominations to Mexico’s legislatures. And two women, Ana Lilia Rivera and Marcela Guerra Castillo, occupy the top posts in both chambers of Congress. Meanwhile, Norma Lucía Piña is the first woman to serve as chief justice of Mexico’s Supreme Court. Preliminary election night results also favor Sheinbaum’s Morena party, giving them a supermajority in Congress. As such, Sheinbaum will very likely have ample support for a feminist political agenda should she pursue one.

But electing women to high office doesn’t necessarily shift power in meaningful ways. It’s what experts on women in politics call “descriptive representation” – when political leaders resemble a group of voters but fail to set policies designed to protect them. In contrast, “substantive representation” occurs when officials enact laws that truly benefit the groups that they claim to represent.

Scholars who study the difference between the two, including Sonia AlvarezMala Htun and Jennifer Piscopo, have found that wins in public spheres, such as the right to vote or hold office, have rarely led to progress for women in private spaces – such as the right to reproductive freedom or protections against domestic violence.

In other words, Mexico may have surpassed many countries, including the U.S., in promoting women to political leadership positions, but it still hasn’t shed its stigma of machismo and its history of authoritarianism.

In the 1990s, a resurgent feminist movement throughout Latin America led to major breakthroughs in women’s rights. By the end of the decade, many countries had passed legislation against gender-based violence and reforms requiring gender quotas in party nomination lists. In the past 17 years, seven women have been elected president across Central and South America.

Yet the fight for gender equality has advanced unevenly. Mexico is a country still rattled by high rates of femicide. Government data shows that, on average, 10 women and girls are killed every day by partners or family members.

Government accused of harassment

A big question now is whether Sheinbaum will be able to address the issue of gender violence, which her predecessors failed to do.

Any skepticism surrounding the willingness of Sheinbaum’s government to implement a truly feminist agenda would be justified: Her campaign theme was one of continuity, and she has hesitated, to date, to deviate much, if at all, from López Obrador’s agenda.

Under López Obrador, Morena was accused of downplaying the extent of the femicide crisis, with at least one critic claiming that López Obrador was “the first president to outright deny” the violence.

Rather, López Obrador used his daily “mañanera” news conference to issue verbal assaults against women in office, including Sheinbaum’s defeated rival, Gálvez. In July 2023, the independent National Electoral Institute found López Obrador guilty of targeting Gálvez in derogatory statements related to her gender.

López Obrador also denounced Piña, the Supreme Court chief justice, in what Mexico’s National Association of Judges has described as hate speech and the federal judiciary condemned as “gender-based violence” and hatred against her. His statements at a rally in March incited his followers to burn Piña in effigy, prompting critics to suggest that such attacks don’t simply reflect López Obrador’s distaste for checks and balances but aim to undermine women in positions of power.

Mexico’s patronage politics

Observers see Sheinbaum as López Obrador’s handpicked successor: He publicly endorsed her, and she has vowed to continue his “fourth transformation,” a campaign promise to end government corruption and reduce poverty that’s had mixed results.

Sheinbaum’s record as mayor of Mexico City is equally mixed. She has publicly described herself as a feminist and has criticized state prosecutors for covering up the killing of Ariadna Lopez, a 27-year-old woman. At the same time, Sheinbaum attempted to criminalize participants of a mass protest over the thousands of women who’ve disappeared in recent years, claiming that these demonstrations were violent.

Political scientists have shown that even when the faces of politics change, the operatives behind the scenes can stay the same – especially in Mexico, where political parties are mired in patronage politics – when party leaders reward loyalty by deciding who gets to run for office and who gets to keep their jobs when the government is handed over to a new administration.

Sheinbaum will likely still be beholden to the Morena coalition and will rely to a large degree on López Obrador to help push through her policies.

A feminist future?

On the campaign trail, Sheinbaum, along with her rival, Gálvez, championed women and shared their experiences as women.

But in the closing stages of the campaign, neither Sheinbaum nor Gálvez offered much more than the “historic first” argument to potential voters. As a result, the extension of women’s rights under the new government remains uncertain.

Aside from front-line politics, women’s rights in Mexico have moved forward when leaders have committed to substantive change.

Notably, Mexico’s Supreme Court under Pinã has declared all federal and state laws prohibiting abortion unconstitutional. When Piña took office, she promised to take on women’s rights in her agenda. So far, she’s delivered.

If Sheinbaum hopes to have similar success, she’ll need to follow Pinã’s lead by centering her platforms on the issues that most affect women in their day-to-day lives, beginning with rising femicide rates. Women may be gaining political power in Mexico, but the question now is whether they’ll use it to fight for the women they represent.

This is an updated version of an article originally published on Nov. 13, 2023.

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