Chile presidential election: Why women vote separately from men

In Chile, which goes to the polls again Jan. 17 for a presidential runoff election, women vote in one place and men vote in another.

Melanie Stetson Freeman / Staff
Female voters cast their ballots at a local school in Santiago.

• A local, slice-of-life story from a Monitor correspondent.

At the Luisa Saavedra School No. 7, in a leafy residential neighborhood of Santiago, Chile, voters line up to cast their ballots for president.

Their choices for candidate vary widely, but the 8,000-plus Chileans registered to vote here all have one thing in common: They are all women. And when they go to the polls again Jan. 17 for a presidential race that has gone into a runoff, these voters will come back here, while their husbands, sons, and brothers will head down the street to a separate station.

The sexes have been separated on voting day as long as most people can remember here, certainly since women were first granted the right to vote in municipal elections in the 1930s. Since they could not yet vote in national elections, a special registry was created, says Patricio Navia, a Chilean political analyst and professor at New York University. And even when the registries were merged after women were granted full suffrage in 1949, voting precincts remained segregated by sex, a custom that persisted even after the end of the dictatorship of Augusto Pinochet in 1990.

It rankles some transvestites and cross-gendered Chileans, says Mr. Navia, since they must vote with the gender they are officially listed as in the civil registry. But by and large Chileans tend not to complain about voter sex segregation. Some say they even prefer it.

“It is more tranquil,” says Monica Leighton, who stands in line with her sister, as she has done her entire life, on voting day. “Men are more expressive, more demonstrative.” She should fear not: There is no risk of any male influence here. School No. 7 happens to be an all-girls school. Even the military captain in charge of this polling station is a woman.

“It has just always been like this,” says Capt. Cristina Cartagena.

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