Struggle at the Top: Popular Views of Cristina de Kirchner
Last spring I was backpacking through South America, for no reason other than to experience new worlds and escape the “sameness” and familiarity of the U.S. for a while. While each new culture I encountered was new and challenging, I was most intrigued by the treatment of powerful female figures in Argentinian culture, the most notable example of which is the 2007 election of Cristina Fernández de Kirchner to the Presidency.
As the first female President of Argentina, President de Kirchner, the “#11 most powerful woman in the world,” has won a victory for gender equality that has yet to occur in the United States. In her term, she has succeeded in bolstering the wavering Argentine economy and expanding nationalized social welfare programs in ways that have proven incredibly beneficial. Furthermore, she is a member of the Council of Women World Leaders, which strives to tackle the highest priority issues of gender and sexism in the world from the top down.
And yet, the importance of her leadership as the first female president has been undermined by the fact that most believe her husband, Néstor Kirchner, whose presidency directly preceded Ms. Kirchner’s, to be the de facto president. The feeling I got when speaking to native Argentinians —mostly liberal, educated, and “socially aware” college students from Buenos Aires—was one of distrust and cynicism. To them, de Kirchner’s success is directly attributable to her husband’s fame and power, and nothing she accomplishes is owned by her.
The way in which she is perceived by Argentinians varies drastically depending on political ideology, socioeconomic background, and yes, also by gender. For the most part, she is favored by women and despised by the majority of rural Argentinians. However, perhaps due to the extensive reach of machismo, there is a general consensus among Argentinians that de Kirchner’s presidency is doing more harm than good for the country.
One explanation I received for this wariness was that as a very appearance-oriented society (one out of ten residents of Buenos Aires has had cosmetic surgery) with a bloody past, the country cannot afford to look “weak” in a very traditionally masculine way. This attitude has roots in the strongly federalist, pseudo-fascist regime of Juan Perón, whose heavy-handed tactics brought victories to the working class at the expense of the rich. Perón’s governing style is still controversial today, but most Argentinians still measure current presidents against Perón’s landmark regime.
Perhaps this explains the fact that even if Mrs. De Kirchner really is standing on her own two feet, it appears as though she’s ridden the coattails of her husband, and thus makes Argentine politics look like a joke. On its surface, this argument seems to be drenched in the male-superiority complex that resides at the center of machismo culture, and these are clearly criticisms that previous male presidents were not forced to deal with. While in a post-sexist world (we don’t live in one of those) we would hope to see her presidency heralded as the beginning of a new era, the reality is, Argentina still has a long way to go.
So, in light of the glaring sexism, I don’t want to pretend that de Kirchner’s lack of public support is the only issue. For instance, why was it necessary for Néstor’s presidency to occur before Cristina was considered as a candidate? Her political history is long and successful, and in many ways, her polarizing personality and strong liberal policies more embody the Peronista governing style of her predecessors than did her husband.
The sexism inherent in this sequence of events reeks of the same paternalism found in the case of the Clintons: Hillary’s bid for presidency came eight years after her husband’s last term ended, and when she began campaigning, she was accused of taking direction from Bill in a similar manner as Ms. Kirchner.
Both cases highlight an intense misogynist need in our societies to negate the strength and power of successful, intelligent, well-spoken women. We see this all the time in our daily lives, but at this level it becomes clear that this brand of sexism is still part of the institution itself, and shows no signs of diminishing.
And so here we are. De Kirchner is still in office, and suffering from extremely low popularity (23% approval, 53% disapproval—that’s GWB low!). The jury is still out on her husband’s ACTUAL role in her presidency, although in my opinion it is just as ridiculous to claim he has no role as to say he is running the country behind the curtain. De Kirchner may have started a positive trend, but just like with President Obama’s election in the U.S., we cannot be too eager to declare the election itself as a sign that sexism (or racism, in Obama’s case) no longer affects us.
Sam Gimbel blogs from Brooklyn, NY, where he is currently enjoying the brisk winds that usher in his first northern winter. He spends his time writing, drinking warm beverages, and nesting to ward off the cold.