Envío Digital
Central American University - UCA  
  Number 294 | Enero 2006


Latin America

Michelle Bachelet: A Mother for Chile?

We congratulate Michelle Bachelet, Chile’s new President, the first women who will be governing a Latin American country due to the votes she received for her own political trajectory and merits, not political convenience or the legitimization of a hovering male shadow. Many years of changes and interesting challenges are expressed in this magnificent and promising event.

Paul Walder

When Michelle Bachelet took over Chile’s defense portfolio, her first meeting with the top command began with the following declaration: “I’m a socialist, an agnostic, separated and a woman… but we’ll work together.” That anecdote, which has appeared in many media, reveals not only the complex and discriminating cultural reality that runs from Chile’s elites to its urban and rural grass roots, but also Bachelet’s full awareness of what it means to be entering, one might even say infiltrating, such a bastion of masculinity.

A genuine cultural and political phenomenon

The differences couldn’t have been greater. Military formation is separated from that of a female Socialist Party activist by the seemingly fathomless gap of an ideological, cultural and of course gender disparity. This woman not only entered the inner sanctum of the armed forces, but worse yet, entered to some extent as their superior, which is very functional—or in this case dysfunctional—to hierarchical military logic.

Her performance could be measured in various ways, but only one way matters to the onlooker in modern politics: public opinion as shaped by the media. Michelle Bachelet probably did a very efficient job in her new post, but her greatest achievement was to do it well “despite” being a woman. And it is precisely from that post within an institution that is masculine by definition that she has mutated into a political figure meteorically catapulted into first place in all polls. She represents a genuine cultural and political phenomenon: a socialist woman, daughter of Air Force General Alberto Bachelet, who was tortured by fellow military men and died in prison. She too was detained by the military in Villa Grimaldi, together with her mother. She has leapt into political battle, to use a military metaphor, from within the very army that almost “disappeared” her over thirty years ago.

Bachelet emerged from her stint as defense minister strengthened like a warrior. But she didn’t triumph with men’s weapons, such as harsh treatment, rough language or bowing to hierarchies. She did it without shedding a formation and style so different from military formality and discipline; without losing her original attributes. For months the country and the media delighted in seeing her riding atop a tank wearing a helmet, or reviewing the troops in a military jeep. But nothing could have been further from the rigid military norm than her gestures and smile.

If she could handle the army,
couldn’t I handle my husband?

What came out of those months is an intense empathy from the media and the population, something that grows out of that very paradox. How could an apparently classic woman put the fearsome Chilean army in order, and maybe even have disciplined it? Why did she leap to the top of the polls instead of Soledad Alvear, who had run the justice and foreign relations ministries just as efficiently? Perhaps because Bachelet’s frankness and simplicity led us to perceive her as the traditional female figure so deeply rooted in our self-image as a nation and submerged in our consciousness, or subconscious. Her spontaneity and extroversion, not to mention her biography, give the impression that Bachelet is a classic Chilean woman, a definition I’ll try to explain.

How did Michelle Bachelet climb to the top of the opinion polls virtually overnight? Despite her socialist activism, her magnetism is based on strong empathy with her gender condition in a society in a headlong—or at least desired—modernization process that has involved a powerful change of habits over the past ten or fifteen years. As a political phenomenon, Bachelet burst right into the center of this change, in which women’s condition is a fundamental focal point. The greatest social and cultural changes of the 20th century—which will continue more forcefully for us men in the 21st—have been impelled by women moving from the exclusively private sphere to the public one.

Sociologists like Anthony Giddens argue that this change—women in the workplace, in public life, as heads of household—is probably the greatest social transformation of this late phase of modernity, altering not only social and work relations but also the traditional institution of the family. Nothing will ever be the same again.

In Chile this change is being experienced in a process strained by strong atavisms rooted in masculinity. The fight for gender equality, like that of salary equity, is an issue shared and raised with different nuances by political parties ranging from the Independent Democratic Union to the Communist Party. And in this respect both the Right and the Left elevate Bachelet to heroic levels. She symbolizes reason, access to the equality of modernity, a break with the baggage of macho tradition.

Bachelet has succeeded in breaking deeply rooted traditions without engaging in an ideological discourse on gender, even though as a candidate she revealed a solid feminist formation. As defense minister she managed to eat away at the institutionality of masculine power with lightweight tools devoid of ideology. She acted like she is: a Chilean women, who is separated, socialist and agnostic—and a captive of public opinion. Consciously or unconsciously she has generated a link between her way of acting and being on the one hand, and the aspirations of a large part of Chilean society for change and modernity on the other. What woman didn’t identify with her as she seduced the army without contrivances? If she could do it, why couldn’t other working women control their labor relations, or at least their own husbands? And if she could tame the army, why couldn’t she tame the political class and run the country from La Moneda [Chile’s presidential palace]?

The myth of the Virgin Mary is also
that of the single mother, the mother-father

Why have people supported a woman who apparently lacks the typical characteristics attributed to politicians or technocrats? There is a strong cultural current in Latin America based on the Mariana myth, the Virgin Mary who ever since the Conquest has provided the symbolic female model discriminated against and subordinated by male power. But this myth turns the subordinated, solitary woman abandoned by the macho man into a powerful referent: the female head of household who, from a position of weakness and not without suffering, manages to impose her will, educate her children, forge an identity and assert her worth. In these difficult circumstances the mother assumes the role of father. She’s all there is.

This thesis, developed by numerous Latin American anthropologists and commented on extensively by Chilean anthropologist Sonia Montecino in her essay “Madres y huachos” [Mothers and children born out of wedlock], brings us to the Bachelet phenomenon. Being separated, which she has alluded to on numerous occasions, strengthens rather than weakening her, turning her into a new public referent through this profound and previously private sort of myth. We could say that being separated was until recently a kind of trauma for women, a sin that has now been inverted into a natural civil status, if not necessarily an icon of feminism—although it is in more than a few women’s currents.

Chile’s birth statistics reveal that virtually half of all children are born outside of marriage, which implies many single women identified with the Mariana myth. They play the role of both parents; they’re the whole package.

We could also say that Chile as a nation relates strongly to the maternal figure, which also implies an absent father. This mother who is also father is a reference point for almost half of us. This totality of the mother arises from the father’s absence, which also means discussing the children’s weakness. Our culture is to some degree built on the idea of abandonment; an idealized but abstract and distant image of the father and an objectively weak but stable and real mother.

Up to now, this maternal image has been present in numerous episodes of Chilean and Latin American politics, from the Mothers of the Plaza de Mayo and the soup kitchens to the use of the cooking pot as a symbolic protest weapon and the cuecas [a national Chilean dance] performed by women alone. But this image had never previously been donned by a figure with presidential aspirations and possibilities. The case of Eva Perón, who also had a strong mythical content, was incarnated at the side of masculine power: they were the perfect couple with Eva the woman behind the throne of male power.

Will power change her?

We have the myth and we have the cultural modernization project based on economic and social changes. One way or another the mass incorporation of women into the world of paid labor has transformed gender relations. Just like Soledad Alvear in her days, Bachelet appears in a setting that claims gender equality as a discourse of modernity itself. Along with professional women, temp workers, telephone operators and cashiers are playing an increasingly leading role in the labor force and demanding an equal salary and equal treatment. The demands of all these women, with their own differences, cut across political leanings.

It’s the same in domestic life as it is in the workplace. Women’s incorporation into paid labor is often encouraged by men’s retreat from it. In more than a few households the woman’s income is becoming the main source of family revenue. This phenomenon entails huge changes that involve not only women but also male power. There is an objective transformation in the couple’s family life.

At first glance, the idea of a woman President of Chile, which became established in the national self-image in little over a year, represents a break with traditional habits, both private and public. With private ones because she’s accepted by potential voters in a country where women won the right to vote only a little over fifty years ago, and with public ones not only because she ran for a traditionally male public office, but also because there is still strong discrimination against women in other institutions. Women are a minority in ministries, in top public administration posts and in economic and political power in general.

Now with her own discourse about historic gender demands, Bachelet repeats that taking presidential office will also be a symbol to buttress and crystallize women’s power. An ongoing discourse will radiate from the pinnacle of public affairs to eat away at discrimination, which is also mistreatment and abuse.

But her march towards La Moneda could prove to be a turning point in which Michelle Bachelet will suffer more of the mutations we’ve observed in recent months. As happens with no few women in the political front line, from Thatcher to Condoleezza Rice, the feminine condition becomes colored by political power, which is and historically has been male. Such women are very efficient in managing the current state of affairs, which simply means maintaining the same power structures. It’s “gatopardo” politics [making only cosmetic changes so everything remains the same] in full bloom.

There are a number of signs of this: her more formal outfits, the containing of her smile and explosive gestures, the shaping of her speeches. In all these cases Bachelet is accommodating her feminine attitudes to gestures associated with male power in politics. The technocratic discourse she employed towards the end is a clear sign of moving into the heart of the discourse of power, which has been and continues to be masculine.

Taking office in a macho country
of paternalistic heads of state

Michelle Bachelet is no revolutionary in the Socialist Party. Nor is she a radical feminist. She shares the social democratic self-image, with a spirit of greater equality in gender relations, which is no small thing for a traditionally macho country whose machismo not only permeates various cultural strata of its private life, but is still very present in its public life. The Chilean political class can take many liberties today, but it cannot put in doubt the power that arises from its masculinity.

President Lagos, who according to the polls is finishing his term with historic levels of support, may be an archetype of this relationship between power and masculinity: a protective, at times authoritarian father. When in Monterrey he responded extremely harshly to then Bolivian President Carlos Mesa, virtually the entire Chilean political class broke into applause. They called it “wearing the pants,” identifying extreme resolution—which also translates as a certain haughtiness and aggressiveness—as a masculine attitude.

Not all the women on this list finished their terms, nor did they all come to power in a classic democratic form. In a number of cases their time in government was cut short by coups, revolts or assassination, as in the case of Indira Gandhi, murdered by her bodyguards.

Has this been the archetype of our Presidents? It’s a hard question to answer and answering it would possibly contain extensive theses and argumentations that are the business of historians. What was Salvador Allende’s paternal stamp? Was there some hidden insecurity and weakness in Pinochet’s bloody authoritarianism? This rather Freudian question has become relevant following the revelation of Pinochet’s relationship with his wife Lucía Hiriart and her apparently not insignificant role in preparing for the military coup. And lastly, how do we weave the more recent good-natured-grandfather figure of Patricio Aylwin and the apparent uncertainty demonstrated by Eduardo Frei Ruiz-Tagle into this? One way or another, paternalism is to be found in all those cases.

Bachelet has already suffered the macho tradition in the campaign, ranging from inappropriate appellatives for a possible future President such as the unfortunate “la gordi” [fatty] used by [Finance Minister] Nicolás Eyzaguirre to the excessively familiar “la Michelle” of Joaquín Lavín [the Alliance presidential candidate, who was eliminated in the first round]. These nicknames reveal an implicit disparaging of any woman in the political arena, albeit with no directly malicious intent. We have yet to hear anyone in the Senate refer to Andrés Zaldívar simply as “boy,” or any of the numerous bald men in the Chamber referred to as “baldy.” While a profoundly macho culture inhibits such treatment of other men in the public terrain, the same cannot be said for a woman who, in all candor, has done nothing to hide the fact that she’s a woman.

Given these circumstances, we can expect a process of impregnation with male power. When Michelle Bachelet takes office in La Moneda on March 11, she will in all probability be invested with this power.

Only 36 women have been Presidents or heads of state since the end of the Second World War. In Europe, the most outstanding have been French Prime Minister Edith Cresson (1991-92) and British Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher (1979-90). And more recently, as of November 22, 2004, Angela Merkel in Germany. Prime Minister Golda Meier (1969-74) was also a strong figure in Israel.

In our part of the world, women have seldom held the reins of government. Those who have include Argentina’s Estela Martínez de Perón (1974 -1976), Nicaragua’s Violeta Barrios de Chamorro (1990-96), Panama’s Mireya Moscoso (2000-2004) and Bolivia’s Lidia Gueiler (1979-80).

There have also been emblematic figures in Asia: Indian Prime Minister Indira Gandhi (1966-77 and 1980-84); Pakistani Premier Benazir Bhutto (1988-90 and 1993-96); Corazón Aquino (1986-92) and current President Gloria Macapagal-Arroyo, both of the Philippines; and current head of Indonesia, Megawati Sukarnoputri. Women are also governing today in New Zealand (Helen Clarke), Bangladesh (Khaleda Zia), Finland (Tarja Halonen), Ireland (Mary MacAleese), Latvia (Vaira Vike-Freiberga), Sri Lanka (Chandrika Kumaratunga) and Liberia (Ellen Johnson-Sirleaf).

Paul Walder is a Chilean journalist. This article was published in the November 25, 2005, issue of the Chilean magazine Punto Final.

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