Mexico will have a woman president before the US. Here’s why

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While American voters are looking at the same old options in their coming election, Mexican voters will choose between two women as the major-party candidates in their presidential election this weekend.

Women in Mexico did not enjoy universal suffrage until 1953, a full 33 years after women gained the right in the US, but the country is almost sure to have its first female leader before the US does.

CNN’s Tara John points out in an analysis for CNN International that Mexico’s likely election of a woman as president is “a remarkable achievement in a country known for its patriarchal culture and high rates of gender-based violence, where around 10 women are murdered every day.” But the breaking of Mexico’s glass ceiling will also be overshadowed by the multifaceted problems of gang violence, targeted politicians and rampant crime. Read more.

The influence of women in Mexican politics is evident in other branches of government. Mexico’s Supreme Court elected its first female chief justice in January 2023. Her court also decriminalized abortion in Mexico, an inverse of the US, where five conservatives on the US Supreme Court (four men and one woman) overruled the court’s liberals (two women and one man at that time) to take nationwide abortion rights away from American women in June 2022.

Some of the reasons for Mexico’s move toward political gender parity are structural. Mexican law requires political parties there to put equal numbers of women and men up for election. That’s not going to happen in the US.

There are also one-term limits on presidents, forcing more turnover. The current front-runner in Mexico’s presidential election, Claudia Sheinbaum, is on the ballot because her party’s popular president, Andrés Manuel López Obrador, must step aside. The Supreme Court has a woman as chief justice in part because justices in Mexico serve 15-year terms.

I talked to Debbie Walsh, director of the Center for American Women and Politics at Rutgers, The State University of New Jersey, about obstacles American women face in politics.

She noted that the progress American women had been making for decades at the state level, beginning in the 1970s, had stalled until after the election of Donald Trump in 2016, when a new generation of American women got active. Since the 2018 midterms , though, progress has slowed.

Now, according to CAWP’s tally for 2024:

  • More than a quarter of US House members and a quarter of US senators are women.

  • Of 310 officials elected at the statewide level in the 50 US states, nearly 32% are women, including 12 governors and 22 lieutenant governors.

  • An even higher percentage of state legislators, nearly 33%, are women.

Those figures continue to slowly grow, but they are nowhere near gender parity. By comparison, half of the legislators in Mexico’s lower house of Congress are women, according to the Inter-Parliamentary Union.

In countries with quota systems, the move toward parity has been much quicker, but Walsh said we shouldn’t expect such a system in the US.

“The concept of quotas, as you well know, is sort of antithetical to the American image of pulling themselves up by their bootstraps, the best candidates will rise to the top,” Walsh said.

When I asked what obstacles women face in US politics, she rattled off a list.

Republicans elect fewer women

First, Walsh said, there is an obvious partisan element.

More elected women are Democrats, which might seem obvious. But the imbalance is amplified at the state level and in legislatures, where most elected representatives serve.

Just picking one state, Georgia, she pointed out that 59% of Democratic legislators are women compared with 16% of Republican legislators. In Florida, two-thirds of Democratic legislators are women compared with less than a third of Republicans. See data for all the states here.

Walsh argued that both parties must do a better job of recruiting and supporting women who run for office, and she said it’s important to make sure women are running in seats where they can win, as opposed to seats where they have no chance.

Part of the reason for the imbalance is due to policy, but it’s also a matter of priorities in how Republicans recruit candidates, Walsh argued.

“The philosophy of the party generally is the best candidate will rise to the top, and whether it’s a man or a woman or a person of color or a White person, it doesn’t matter,” she said.

Campaign finance is a problem for female candidates

The way campaigns are funded is an obstacle, according to Walsh, because women are less likely to be able to fund their own campaigns.

“We know that parties love self-funders, because a self-funding candidate is less of a strain on the party itself in terms of providing support,” she said.

She argued that women also tend to raise money in smaller amounts, less than $200, which makes the process of fundraising much more arduous.

Politics feels more dangerous

“Politics has gotten particularly ugly, fraught and dangerous,” Walsh said, pointing to the 2020 kidnapping plot against Michigan Gov. Gretchen Whitmer. Walsh argued that online threats seem to disproportionately affect female officeholders and candidates.

That perception could have a chilling effect on women seeking office.

Walsh does think the US will ultimately elect a woman as president. “It’s a frustrating process to see how slow it can be,” she said.

Hillary Clinton was the first woman to be a major-party presidential nominee in 2016, and Kamala Harris became the first woman to be elected to nationwide office when she shared the Democratic presidential ticket with Joe Biden in 2020. Notably, Democrats selected Biden from a field that included six women, including Harris, that cycle.

Trump could also choose a woman as his running mate for this November’s election. But it seems unlikely that he will pick the only Republican woman to ever win a presidential primary, Nikki Haley, who won contests in Vermont and the District of Columbia this year.

When I noted Haley’s success to Walsh as a sign of progress, she countered: “She’s not the nominee.”

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