MEXICO CITY — Mexico's conservative ruling party is gambling that this country known for machismo is ready for a female president and have chosen a devout Roman Catholic and popular former congresswoman who says she sympathizes with the causes of the poor.
Josefina Vazquez Mota, a 51-year-old economist, became the first female presidential candidate from any of Mexico's major parties late Sunday when she convincingly won the National Action Party's primary.
Her victory marks a milestone for women in Mexico, a country where they were not allowed to vote until 1953. The first female governor did not take office until 1989. Only a handful have been elected since.
National Action hopes Mexico is ready to follow in the footsteps of Brazil, Argentina, Costa Rica, Chile and other Latin American countries that have elected female leaders recently.
Vazquez Mota, who is still married to her high school sweetheart, won national attention after publishing a 1999 book titled "God, Please Make Me A Widow," which is described as a call to women to stop being afraid of developing their potential.
She has said she wrote the book based on her own experience of being a woman who chose to work over staying at home to raise her three daughters, defying the role she was expected to fulfill.
Vazquez Mota told El Universal newspaper in an interview published Monday that she has experienced Mexico's machismo first hand during her campaign.
"One of the hardest questions I have been asked is 'How will you manage the army if you are having menstrual cramps?'" she told the newspaper. "I have also been asked if I will have the courage to face criminals. My answer is that courage is not a matter of gender."
Born in Mexico City on Jan. 20, 1961, Vazquez Mota was educated at some of the country's more costly private universities and graduate schools, then worked as a financial consultant and business columnist for several years.
The fourth of seven siblings born to a paint store franchise owner and a housewife, she grew up in a middle class, traditional family. She is married to businessman Sergio Ocampo, who was her first boyfriend.
A religious woman, she asked PAN members to go to church first Sunday and then go vote for her. But she is not a typical conservative.
Vazquez Mota told Univision in an interview last year that although she didn't support abortion rights, she doesn't think the practice should be criminalized. She also told the network she believed marriage was between a man and a woman but that gay couples deserve respect.
She told El Universal that she is sympathetic with Liberation Theology, which advocates activism on behalf of the poor, and admires slain Roman Catholic Archbishop Oscar Arnulfo Romero, whose fight for the poor during El Salvador's bloody civil war made him a national hero.
Vazquez Mota formally jumped into politics when she was elected to Congress in 2000, part of a wave of political change that rolled across Mexico as Vicente Fox of her National Action Party captured the presidency and ended the 71-year hold on power of the Institutional Revolutionary Party, or PRI.
After only three months as a legislator, Vazquez Mota was pulled into Fox's Cabinet to head the Social Development Department, the first woman to hold the post.
She continued to build her political skills and reputation within her party by managing Felipe Calderon's successful 2006 presidential race, then serving as his education secretary after being elected to Congress for a second time. She supposedly had a falling out with Calderon after she was removed from Education Department.
But the affable candidate with a permanent smile faces an uphill battle against former Mexico State Gov. Enrique Pena Nieto, the PRI candidate who leads in all recent polls.
Many voters have grown disillusioned with National Action after 12 years in power, and due to growing frustration with a drug war in which more than 47,000 people have died over the past five years.
"She is offering to combat corruption, but Fox first offered that and after 12 years nothing has happened," said political analyst Jose Antonio Crespo. "Why would people believe her now?"
Besides ending corruption and improving education, she has said little about what direction she would take the country.
She won the nomination even though most analysts considered rival Ernesto Cordero, the former finance secretary, as the top choice of Calderon and the party establishment.
For Crespo, her victory was thanks to the support of PAN members displeased with Calderon's administration.
The fact that she is seen as an outsider in Calderon's camp will help her, said Andrew Selee, director of the Washington-based Mexico Institute.
"One thing that benefits her is that she has a certain amount of distance from President Calderon," Selee said. "I think she will try to project a sense of openness to new ideas ... but that may not be enough to overcome people's desire to entirely change direction."
Vazquez Mota, who was elected to the lower house of Congress for a second time in 2009 and became speaker of the house, is known as a good negotiator.
She could attract independent voters because many of them "might be reluctant on supporting the PRI because of its past authoritarian record or PRD candidate Andres Manuel Lopez Obrador (AMLO) because of his past radicalism," the U.S.-based Eurasia Group consulting firm wrote in a research note Monday.
Lopez Obrador is the candidate for the leftist Democratic Revolution Party, best remembered for narrowly losing against Calderon in 2006.
Though she has said she won't use gender as an issue during her campaign, the married mother of three, has used her family life on the campaign trail to garner the support of Mexican mothers and young voters.
"She is playing the gender card," said Soledad Loaeza, a political science professor in Colegio de Mexico who has studied the evolution of the PAN. "What I don't know is if that card will help her."
"She is a serious, hard working woman," Loaeza added. "Her main virtue was surrounding herself with experts."