She is being called the Hillary Rodham Clinton of Mexico. But her husband, the governor of the central Mexico state of Tlaxcala, prefers another formula. "Perhaps, Hillary," he says with a smile, "is the Maricarmen of the United States."
Maricarmen Ramrez Garca, wife of Gov. Alfonso Snchez Anaya, is the first wife of a Mexican governor to step out of a largely decorative and supportive role and seek high political office. Following her victory last week in a party primary, Ms. Ramrez will represent the center-left Party of the Democratic Revolution (PRD) as candidate for a Tlaxcala seat in the Mexican Senate.
As such, she represents both the growing role of women in Mexican politics, and the crucial part women will play in deciding the outcome of presidential and congressional elections this July in Mexico.
Ramrez has faced some of the same criticism that Mrs. Clinton has encountered in her bid for a Senate seat from New York: that she is using her husband's position to elevate herself. On Sunday another female senate candidate, Rosalia Peredo Aguila, from the left-wing Labor Party, called Ramrez's candidacy an "imposition, a family whim."
A longtime nonpartisan activist in Mexico's democratization process, Ramrez counters criticism by saying that Mexican women identify with her evolution. They know firsthand how a macho society works, she says, and feel buoyed by a woman stepping out of her husband's shadow.
"Mexican women know what it means to be the power behind the throne," she says.
Even though the PRD, like other Mexican parties, is committed to putting forward at least 30 percent women candidates, Ramrez acknowledges that it is not an easy goal. In the Mexican Senate, 20 senators of the total 128 are women - not 30 percent, but more than many countries, including the United States.
Ramrez gave up her independent political status two years ago, about the time her husband left the Institutional Revolutionary Party (PRI) - which has governed Mexico for 71 years straight - to become the PRD's gubernatorial candidate.
As governor he has named one of the more "female" cabinets among Mexican states. Four of his state department heads are women, as is his chief of staff. And Ramrez has focused her attention on working with mostly poor rural women in Tlaxcala, to help develop ways to capitalize on the central role Mexican women play in their family's decision-making and financial well-being.
Speaking last week at a forum on women in Mexico's 2000 election process, PRD president Amalia Garca called that process "empowerment" - using the English term. In Tlaxcala, with some 1 million people and one of Mexico's highest rates of working women - 37 percent - Ramrez has worked to make women's work count more.
"It's simply unacceptable that in a Mexico of 100 million people, about half live in poverty, and 25 million are stuck in extreme poverty," she says. "Women have a central role in changing that."
In the state's towns, Ramrez has worked with 20,000 women to set up micro-business projects - everything from raising rabbits to growing gourmet mushrooms. "We're developing a chain of women producers getting the training they need to be successful in these new ventures, and marketing their products without intermediaries," says Ramrez.
Rabbit-raising or mushroom-growing may not sound significant, she says, but in a state where malnutrition is a problem, and more than a third of families live on $8 a day or less, allowing women to find ways to supplement family income becomes a key to addressing other problems. School desertion is also high, for example, as children leave to help support the family. By building their earning power, mothers can make dropping out less necessary.
Another effect of women's "empowerment" is a more active role in politics.
But Ramrez says decades of unfulfilled promises have made women wary of politics. "Women are waiting to see what a candidate and party are proposing, and weighing that against records of past accomplishment," she says.
According to Mexico's presidential campaign organizations, women, along with young people aged 18 to 25, are the swing voters of the 2000 election.
Esteban Moctezuma, general director of the presidential campaign of PRI candidate Francisco Labastida Ochoa, says more voters than ever have already decided whom to vote for - except women.
"Women are more rational.... They are reserving judgment while they consider the issues that matter to them, like the future of their children," says Mr. Moctezuma. Labastida's camp says a TV ad promising English and computer education for all children, plus universal prenatal care, aims largely at women. The PRI hopes the ad attracts women with children in public schools.
Ramrez says women see through the "absurdity" of the TV spot. "It's causing a credibility problem for Labastida," she says. "The rural women who have to go long distances to have their baby don't believe it, and you know what they're saying in Tlaxcala...?"
"They are saying, 'We need to eat first.' "
(c) Copyright 2000. The Christian Science Publishing Society