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The White House Project Heads to Chile


Today is International Women's Day, a day that unites women around the world in recognition of the struggles we've faced and the progress we've made. It allows us to look forward to a time when women around the globe will lead alongside men in equal numbers and form a representative part of all leadership sectors. At home in America, it's a reminder to look inward and think about how and when our country will realize the importance of having women in the top positions in government and business.

Tomorrow, the White House Project will lead a 30-person delegation down to Chile for the inauguration of its first woman president, Michelle Bachelet, on March 11th. The White House Project is looking to Chile for lessons on how they've embraced women as leaders. Chile's choice of Michelle Bachelet as president is fascinating for several reasons. First, Chile is a relatively young democracy, which until several decades ago was led by both a Marxist leader and a dictatorial military regime. Second, Chile is considered one of the most socially conservative of the Latin American countries, and wedded to tradition. Yet, Chileans just elected a woman, who is both single and agnostic--not exactly a reflection of those conservative mores (Larry Rohter is today's NYTimes gives thought-provoking analysis of the current social-political climate in Chile).

So, how did it happen?

Unlike other notable female world leaders, Bachelet came to power not on the coattails of her father or husband, or through a parliamentary system, but through a majority vote in a winner-take-all election based on her agenda and background. The impact of her election has already made its mark on the Chilean government; women now comprise half of the appointed posts in the administration's cabinet.

There's no doubt that Bachelet is qualified--she comes to the office with an impressive resume and personal background. Bachelet's prior positions as Health Minister and Defense Minister, as well as her experience as a torture victim during Pinochet's regime, give her a unique understanding of the interconnectedness of health, economics, terrorism, and security in our increasingly globalized world.

There is no doubt that the United States has leaders of Bachelet's caliber to put up for high-office. We have more than a few women--including current governors, senators, and cabinet members--who are tough-enough, smart-enough and have the experience to lead our country. Our goal is to find out how to advance these women up to the Oval Office. The White House Project delegation to Santiago, which includes Congresswoman Jan Schakowsky from Illinois and the United Nations Foundation Director of Peace, Security and Human Rights Johanna Mendelson-Forman, is looking for lessons on how Bachelet came to power, the role of culture in her victory, and how she is perceived by Chilean men and women. Using the information gathered, the delegation will return to the US to share its findings with policymakers, media and the public.

During the past six months, we've witnessed remarkable developments in the realm of global women's leadership. Last November, Germany and Liberia elected their first female heads of state, Angela Merkel and Ellen Johnson-Sirleaf, respectively. Tarja Halonen, Finland's first female president, was re-elected to a second term on January 29th. Jamaica elected Portia Simpson Miller at the end of last month to be its first female parliamentary head and first president. Next month, Peru is on the cusp of doing the same.

On the ninety-seventh anniversary of International Women's Day, American women and men should celebrate these global milestones but also seriously consider the possibility of sending a woman to the helm at home. According to a recent CBS News/New York Times poll, nearly 92% of Americans would vote for a woman for president from their party if she were qualified for the job. Judging from this poll, putting a woman in the White House doesn't seem like such an impossible feat. The United States, the world's oldest democracy and arguably the most successful, needs to stop dragging her feet.

Follow Marie Wilson on Twitter: www.twitter.com/twhp