Melanie Stetson Freeman/Staff
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.

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.

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

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.  

Today, however, winning the presidency is an uphill battle. The business-friendly candidate is currently in last place among the top three parties, and she has suffered a series of campaign gaffes, including logistical errors that meant her opening campaign speech was given to a nearly empty auditorium.

Probably her biggest handicap is the party itself. The PAN won the presidency with Mr. Fox in 2000, taking the top spot from the Institutional Revolutionary Party (PRI) for the first time in 71 years and ushering in a new democratic chapter. But after 12 years, Mexicans are disillusioned with policies that have not generated enough jobs and are profoundly wearied by the country's deadly drug war, which has left 50,000 dead under the current administration.

First presidenta

"I will be Mexico's first presidenta," Vazquez Mota said after winning the party's primary in February.

The words capture a sense of optimism about the rise of women in leadership across the region, where females have held presidencies from Chile to Argentina to Brazil.

But unlike Brazil's President Dilma Rousseff or former Chilean president Michelle Bachelet, who have stood for women's equality, Vazquez Mota has cast herself as a traditional woman who happens to be a politician, and so far, analysts say the message has not resonated. This isn’t the only reason Vazquez Mota is lagging in the race, but it has cost her potential votes among women who crave a female head of state in Mexico as in other Latin America countries.

“A woman candidate who talked about women's rights would have my vote just for being a woman,” says Ontiberos. “She is not offering anything different than the policies of her party.”

Vazquez Mota hails from the nation's most conservative party, and shares its stances and conservatism, says Magda Hinojosa, an expert on women in politics in Latin America at Arizona State University. “It's a difficult line to toe, drawing attention to yourself because you are a woman without taking a stance for women.”

Vazquez Mota has certainly underlined the machista culture that still runs through politics here. In one of PRI candidate Enrique Peña Nieto's gaffes early on in the campaign, he was unable to say how much a kilo of corn tortillas, a staple in Mexico, cost. When called out, he retorted that he was not the “lady of the house,” which the Vazquez Mota campaign immediately denounced.

But even though she once argued for female independence in the book that catapulted her into the national spotlight, provocatively titled “God Please Make Me a Widow,” in large part she has avoided making gender part of the campaign, using it only to emphasize her domestic credentials as a working mother.

“But we don't need a mother,” says Ivonne Acuña, a specialist in gender and politics at the Iberamerican University in Mexico City. “In presenting the image of her being a mother, she is falling back into tradition.”

One of her television spots has shown her saying she may wear skirts but would govern wearing pants, something Ms. Acuña considers a retro comment that sends the wrong message that politics is still a men's club.

Symbolic step

Women only earned the right to vote in Mexico in 1953, but they are well-represented in Congress – far ahead of the US – thanks to quota laws that mandate certain levels of participation of women in politics. Mexico saw its first female governor in 1979, and only a handful have won the top state job since.

And Mexico continues to lag behind others in the region in terms of gender equality, according to the World Economic Forum’s 2011 Global Gender Gap Report. Mexico places 89th – one of the lowest rankings in Latin America – scoring higher only than El Salvador, Belize, Suriname, and Guatemala. Its ranking is dragged down by economic issues such as labor force participation and wage equality.

It is these stubborn gender disparities that have drawn some to Vazquez Mota. Mari Gutierrez, for example, who works in a storefront in the city of San Cristobal de las Casas, in Chiapas state, says Vazquez Mota has her vote. “Women rob less than men, or not at all. I trust a woman more than a man,” she says.

A poll by the firm Mitofsky in Mexico City shows more women than men say they will vote for Vazquez Mota. However, the largest percentage of female votes is going to Peña Nieto, according to Mitofsky.

Acuña says that Vazquez Mota is not behind because of her gender. It is perhaps not a comfort for the candidate but definitely a positive point for the country. Even if she finishes far behind in the race, it's been an important chapter for Mexico. “Symbolically this was very important, it sends the message that other women can reach that high too,” Acuña says.

“The fact that we have a female candidate,” agrees Villanueva, “shows how far we have come.”

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