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Odile Weissenborn

Odile Weissenborn

Posted March 9, 2009 | 11:05 AM (EST)

Cristina vs. Hillary: International Women's Day in Argentina


Despite the Argentine government's effort to make International Women's Day a national public holiday (and despite the appropriate color of the presidential compound--known as "the Pink House," la Casa Rosada), Argentina isn't recognized for its prominent women.

Evita Peron is the exception, I suppose, although she's known for her glamour and hardly for the advancement of her gender. Evita's successor, Isabel Peron, enjoyed the dubious distinction of being Juan Peron's puppet Vice President; she became Argentina's first female president in 1974, but alas, her lack of political experience lent nothing to the status of women.

In 2007, Argentina got its second female president, its first elected female president: Cristina Fernandez Kirchner. Cristina Kirchner had previously served as First Lady when her husband Nestor Kirchner was president, just as presidential candidate Hillary Clinton had served as First Lady when Bill was president.

Like Hillary, Cristina had a distinguished professional career. Unlike Hillary, whose real career in politics began only 8 years before she ran for president, Cristina was first elected to political office some 17 years before, in 1989. Although Cristina looks up to Hillary (a picture of Hillary was projected on the wall when Cristina announced her candidacy), Cristina is quick to remind us that her political career began well before her husband became president. When she was asked to compare herself to Hillary in an interview with Time magazine, Cristina pointedly answered: "Don't forget, one difference is that I was a Senator before my husband became President."

So why is it that the world seems to dismiss Cristina--but not Hillary--as someone who "owes her job to a prominent husband"? The Economist wrote just those words in 2007, along with this statement: "for Argentine women, the best route to the political summit is still to be a Peronist wife."

When discussing her candidacy, the Times of the UK ignored her previous career, instead telling its readers, "at least an hour a day [is] set aside for her makeup." According to the Times, her "enthusiasm for mascara and designer handbags...played no small part in her seemingly effortless stroll towards victory." Disregarding her history in politics, the Times concluded, "lipstick goes a long way in dazzling the masses."

Perhaps the esteemed media know more than I do about Cristina Kirchner. Maybe, on the occasion of International Women's Day, she's really not a woman worth lauding. I turned to Dora Barrancos, a leading academic, former politician and international authority on politics and gender.

When Buenos Aires was recognized as an autonomous state (like Washington, D.C. in the U.S.), Barrancos was elected to its very first legislature. She used her platform to help draft what remains the most progressive law on access to contraception in Argentina, no small feat in a country that outlaws abortion.

Now, she's Director of the Interdisciplinary Institute of Gender Studies and Chair of the department of Latin American Social History at the University of Buenos Aires; she also coordinates the Masters program in Social and Cultural Studies at the National University of La Pampa. Our meeting at her home was interrupted several times by calls from radio stations seeking interviews.

"Cristina had a longer political career than her husband, and she was much more well known," said Barrancos, giving me a refresher course on Cristina's early days as a Congresswoman in Buenos Aires while her husband remained in the small, faraway province of Santa Cruz. "What the media says about her is very misogynistic."

"Political life is tremendously difficult, especially for women in this country," Barrancos continued. Keeping up with the old boys' network is that much harder in a machista culture where dinner begins at 10pm although school still begins at 8 in the morning. Barrancos told me that meetings are often called for 9pm and 11pm; when she served on the legislature, she was one of the few women who had to balance this with motherhood, still responsible for getting her kids to school on time the next morning. "Any woman who has succeeded here in politics," said Barrancos, "should be given a lot of credit."

But Cristina herself seems to have no problem with this double standard. According to an article published in the Buenos Aires Herald, Cristina "sees herself in a traditional role" and this was her motivation to initiate a credit program for the purchase of washing machines and kitchen supplies. Indeed, she freely uses the word "housewife" to describe herself, and she has said proudly, "I never lose my place in the house."

What's really distressing is Cristina's stance against abortion. Although abortion has always been illegal in Argentina, a Catholic country, Cristina has a long affiliation with the leftist Peronist party, and the party hasn't always taken such a hardline stance. What's more, Cristina's husband seemed to be a pro-choice president. His administration, which directly preceded hers, had even been called "pro-abortion"; his health minister openly supported use of the "morning after" pill.

Not everyone thinks Cristina has a pro-life agenda; they say perhaps now she's just trying to placate the Catholic church. Conservatives, on the other hand, charge her with holding a "pro-life" placard over the front door while hoping to sneak abortion in through the back door. But in a radio interview just days before the presidential election in 2007, Cristina said unequivocally, "I have always defined myself as being against abortion."

Sure enough, just months into her presidency, Cristina canceled a vote scheduled for legislation that may have made it easier to obtain abortions in the case of rape. And her new health minister -in a complete reversal from the position of her husband's health minister--essentially equated illegal abortions with criminal acts. Responding to a report on maternal deaths due to illegal abortions, health minister Graciela Ocaña said, "This is a topic having to do with criminal policy; it isn't relevant for the Ministry [of Health]."

This can't bode well for feminists like Barrancos. How can she defend Kirchner? "Cristina isn't a feminist," agrees Barrancos. "But her stance on abortion doesn't take away from the effort she put forward in her career. She may seem to be anti-feminist, but her very life -her success as a woman--is feminist."

Barrancos doesn't shy away from criticizing Cristina. "She sometimes expresses herself with a total lack of consciousness of feminism," she complains. "I've heard her say, 'Women shouldn't walk behind their men or get in front of their men; they should only stand beside their men.' She can sound like a woman from the 1940's."

"She's in denial," smiles Barrancos. "But such an intelligent woman with so many accomplishments can't really deny feminism!" And it's impossible, anyway, to find a perfect poster child for feminism. Even the famous Hillary Clinton, Barrancos points out, failed there. She stood passively by an adulterous husband.

Perhaps we should just stop trying to turn prominent women into perfect role models. Are prominent men expected to be perfect role models? Let's appreciate the successes of all women without castigating them for falling short as feminists. This has been said before, and I know it's cliché, but maybe one day women won't need their own "international day." Women can be recognized every day, just like men, and they can be just as blessedly imperfect.