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Mexico's first female presidential candidate: not 'different' enough

Josefina Vazquez Mota is presenting herself as a female presidential candidate in machista Mexico, but she hasn't gained significant female backing ahead of July vote.

By Staff writer / June 4, 2012

Friends Lizbeth Villanueva (l.) and Columba Ontibero enjoy time together in a park with their children in Mexico City, Mexico, in February. Women in Mexico, especially in the middle and upper class, are having fewer children than generations before them.

Melanie Stetson Freeman/Staff

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Mexico City

Mexico's National Action Party (PAN) was targeting women like Lizbeth Villanueva and Columba Ontiberos when it nominated Josefina Vazquez Mota for president.

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Ms. Villanueva and Ms. Ontiberos consider themselves modern. Unlike their mothers' generation, when women had a half-dozen kids on average and were confined to the home, Villanueva had two and then promptly had her tubes tied. Her reasons: she wants to continue to work as a computer instructor, invest hours and money in her children's education, and have the remaining time for her marriage and for herself.

“More children means more housework, more washing, more food to make,” she says, chatting on a park bench on a recent morning in Mexico City with Ontiberos, who has one child and also plans to stop at two.

But the PAN’s strategic move – becoming the first major party to nominate a female candidate for president – hasn’t worked out as planned.  Mexico has hit a milestone with Ms. Vazquez Mota’s nomination, but she has been unable to disassociate herself from the public’s discontent with her party’s 12 years in power, especially on security.  And even if some women are drawn to her, for many others, she hasn’t come off as modern enough.

Vazquez Mota chose one simple word as her campaign slogan: “Different.” She is presenting herself as a leader in machista Mexico who intimately understands how to navigate work and mothering, and a woman who would be more honest and sensitive to the needs of working families. In a country where fertility rates have dropped precipitously, the education gap between sexes has narrowed, and women are increasingly entering the workforce, many say it’s time Mexico had a female in the top office. But, boxed in by party ideology and her own beliefs, she has been unable to capture a significant “female” vote to tip the race in the PAN’s favor.

“She [has] tried to promote herself as different because she is a woman but she does not embody any of the feminist discourses,” says Fernando Dworak, a political analyst in Mexico City. “She says she is different, but she can't say how she is different.”

Rising through the ranks 

Having worked as a motivational speaker and author, Vazquez Mota, a mother of three who married her first boyfriend, entered politics in 2000 as a national legislator for the PAN. Shortly thereafter, former president Vicente Fox named her to head the Social Development Ministry. From there she moved up the ranks of the party, serving on President Felipe Calderón's campaign and then as his education secretary. She was not Mr. Calderón's favored candidate, but she beat out two other influential men to become the party's pick.  

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