Woman speaking to a crowd withher arm raised high
On the ballot: either Claudia Sheinbaum . . .  © Jaime Lopez/Getty Images
Woman speaking on a podium
. . . or Xóchitl Gálvez — born less than a year apart — is likely to be Mexico’s next president © Luis Barron/Eyepix Group

Nearly 40 years ago, two young women were studying traditionally male-dominated science subjects at Mexico’s public National Autonomous University.

Their degrees were different and they were from sharply different backgrounds. But physicist Claudia Shein­­baum and computer engineer Xóchitl Gálvez went on to parallel careers in, respectively, academia and business, before converging in politics.

Now, they are the two leading candidates in Mexico’s presidential election, taking place in June 2024 — a historic race that looks set to result in the country’s first female leader.

“This is the product of decades of work,” says Patricia Mercado, a senator with the Citizens’ Movement party, and a former presidential candidate in 2006 for a now defunct party. “The question is no longer ‘are we ready for a female president?’ — it’s ‘which is better?’ or ‘which is closer to me?’.”

Their candidacies reflect remarkable progress in female representation in positions of power across the public sector in Mexico, where women first got the right to vote in 1953.

Today, half of congress, half the cabinet, the chief justice, central bank governor and almost a third of state governors are all female.

Mexico began a discussion about quotas in politics as far back as the 1990s, as dozens of other countries have also done. By 2014, it enshrined ambitious gender parity laws in the constitution, mandating that half of all electoral candidates had to be women.

“Latin America, generally, and Mexico, specifically, have really been at the forefront of innovating around measures that promote women’s access to politics,” says Jennifer Piscopo, professor of gender and politics at Royal Holloway, University of London. “Young girls are going to look at this campaign . . . the symbolism is huge.”

Born less than a year apart, Sheinbaum and Gálvez have experienced the sweeping changes in Mexican politics first-hand.

Sheinbaum, whose grandparents were Jewish immigrants, participated in student movements while getting a physics degree, before studying for a doctorate, including some time at UC Berkeley in California. Later, she contributed to reports for the UN’s Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change.

Gálvez emphasises her indigenous family roots and her childhood in rural poverty, and tells of selling sweets on the street as a child to help her family. She built her own smart-buildings company, High Tech Services, and a child malnutrition charity from scratch.

“They both give the image of being strong women, educated,” says Ana Lau Jaiven, feminist historian and research­er at Metropolitan Autonomous University in Azcapotzalco.

The two candidates took up public office for the first time after the election in 2000 — a landmark year in Mexico’s democratic transition when the presidency was won by the opposition conservative National Action party after more than 70 years of rule by the Institutional Revolutionary party.

Many politicians were initially opposed to quotas for women, which are often criticised for being anti-democratic, unfair or ineffective. But support grew into a consensus as the democratic transition continued. Dedicated activism by a plethora of groups, and robust implementation by electoral authority INE, were central to its success, commentators say.

Both candidates were pulled into public office by men. Sheinbaum was in the Mexico City cabinet of current president Andrés Manuel López Obrador, widely known as Amlo. Gálvez ran the indigenous affairs institute in the federal government of president Vicente Fox.

In 2015, both became mayors of separate districts of Mexico City, before Gálvez became a senator and Sheinbaum the capital’s first female mayor.

They both broadly support women’s rights, including abortion rights, but there are complicating factors in their relationships with feminism.

Sheinbaum is running for the ruling leftist Morena party and is one of the closest allies of outgoing president López Obrador, who slashed state childcare programmes and has claimed the country’s feminist movement is infiltrated by conservatives.

Gálvez worked on the 2019 equality legislation but, in running for the Nat­ion­al Action party, is standing for a party that is anti-abortion rights. “There is a lot more visibility of women in politics,” Lau Jaiven points out. “[But] having a female body doesn’t guarantee feminist thinking.”

And, in spite of the extraordinary progress in representation, women in Latin America’s second-biggest economy still face huge inequalities and challenges. More than 3,700 women were murdered in Mexico in 2022, with a quarter of those classified as femicides — meaning their deaths were directly gender motivated.

Also, the private sector lags far behind the public realm, with female labour-force participation rates below the global average. Public policy think-tank IMCO recently estimated that, on current trends, Mexican company boards of directors would not reach gender parity until 2052.

Fernanda García, who leads on participation of women in the economy at IMCO, says: “Not many companies are committed [to gender equality] at the director or board level.”

Feminist thinkers and activists are therefore sceptical as to whether the 2024 presidential race will necessarily result in substantive change on the economic, social and violence issues.

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It also looks likely that a third presidential candidate, from the Citizens’ Movement party, in which the frontrunners are men, will emerge. But, argues Citizens’ Movement’s Mercado — the former candidate and “fighter” for the right to participate — “a man might be closer and commit more to the agenda”.

Ana Pecova, director of advancement at the Women First International Fund, sees progress, though: “There are such important lessons to be drawn from the Mexican example; it’s really a testimony that when there is a will, there is a way.”

And, whoever wins the election, Mexico’s ambitious laws and strong institutional backing for them, mean the doors opened for women are unlikely to close — for the moment, at least.

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