The New Mami-ism: A Victory for Women in Brazil

11/03/2010 03:37 pm ET | Updated May 25, 2011
  • Roberto Ramos SVP, Global Strategy & Communications, The Doneger Group

As expected, Dilma Roussef easily won Brazil's run-off presidential election this past Sunday, surpassing her more politically-experienced (and conservative) opponent, José Serra, by more than 10% of the vote. This is not terribly surprising: Ms. Roussef was a close advisor to popular outgoing President Luis Inácio Lula de Silva, serving as his chief of staff and energy minister, and her win is also seen as a positive referendum on his progressive policies, which for the time being have successfully managed to marry economic growth with social innovation.

Dilma's win is also being heralded as a further triumph for Latin American women, the continuation of a precedent first set back in 1990 when Violeta Chamorro of Nicaragua became the first-ever female president elected in the Western Hemisphere, years before the U.S. could even consider a woman as a viable executive candidate. More recently, Chile, Costa Rica, Panama and Argentina have all elected women leaders, and throughout the region the percentage of women holding cabinet positions and local office has more than tripled in the past two decades.

But this particular victory stands apart for its timing not just in Brazil, but in the world overall. If progress continues apace, Dilma Rouseff has the opportunity to emerge as the leader of a new global superpower -- by the time the Rio Olympics roll around in 2016, Brazil is projected to be one of the top five economies in the world -- and she could feasibly by then be considered one of the most influential presidents on the planet. Concurrently, in the United States -- especially during the recent round of mid-terms -- female candidates and influencers are also emerging to control the political discourse. Yet ironically, this is happening at a point when American dominance as the world's leading superpower is also beginning to topple.

This past weekend, The New York Times magazine published an essay on "The New Momism" tracing the evolution of motherhood in America as political clout. Gone are the days when trailblazers like Hilary Clinton felt the need to publicly distance themselves from those who "stayed home to bake cookies." The strategy now among women on both ends of the spectrum is to accentuate their motherhood as an asset that will only serve to protect a nation at risk of everything from terrorism to illegal immigration to obesity. Sarah Palin calls herself a "Mama Grizzly," wielding her maternal instinct to mask her ignorance of foreign policy. Sharron Angle tried to unnerve Harry Reid's quarter century of liberal leadership in the Senate by claiming grandmother status. Even Michelle Obama seemingly shucked her storied academic and professional pedigree to peddle herself on behalf of beleaguered Democrats as "Mom-in-Chief," concerned about fixing the country for the sake of her daughters' futures, not necessarily to preserve American strength in the world.

The motherhood narrative, of course, is one of the oldest ploys in advertising, and female politicians in every culture will use it: It can be the trump card that humanizes them in a nasty game. And machista stereotypes aside, Latin American culture, in particular, is extremely matriarchal, and women are revered as maternal even when they don't necessarily have children. "Mami" is not just what young Hispanic children call their mothers. In many Latin countries, the word is also used as a term of endearment for a sister, cousin or close girlfriend, and savvy Latina politicians have been casting themselves as mother-leaders long before Hilary Clinton decided to capitulate and start baking cookies.

Dilma has children, and grandchildren, but she didn't need to prove herself as a multi-tasking Mom, rest on rhetoric about family values, or even downplay a more radical youth. (Which, for the record, entailed being jailed and tortured by a repressive military regime for her involvement with an underground revolutionary movement, and did not entail experimenting with witchcraft).

Dilma won the presidency because she was part of a government that has already effectively improved the lot of families across Brazil, by addressing those very issues that directly impact the daily lives of women and their children: education, public health, day care, access to technology and the environment. She won because she promised to adhere to the same progressive, center-left plan that has so far lifted tens of millions of Brazilians out of poverty, creating a new class of small business owners and consumers who also happen to be overwhelmingly female. And -- like so many of her fellow female politicians in the region -- she won not by sheer force of the Mom card, but simply because she had the chops to play it smart.

This is significant because in a region often painted as "traditional," the women who lead Latin America have shown themselves to be anything but. Apart from her past as a revolutionary, Dilma is twice divorced and supports gay civil unions. Michelle Batchelet -- the former President of Chile and also a survivor of torture under the Pinochet regime -- never got around to marrying the father of her three children, publicly declared herself an agnostic, and one of her first official acts as President was to lift a ban on the morning after pill and contraception to teenagers. Compare their stories -- and compare their socially progressive politics -- with the flock of American Mom candidates whose visions seem to barely extend beyond their own narrow definitions of Main Street, and it's hard not to see on which side of the Hemisphere the future may belong.

If the day ever arrives when immigration flows start to reverse, I suspect Latin American women -- mothers or otherwise -- would be open enough to accept even Sharron Angle without prejudice.