Becoming a feminist

I’ve been a feminist all of my life. Or at least since I was four and my only brother was seven. I know I was four because shortly after I got glasses, my brother David sat me down to explain the relationships in our family. He said our father was the boss and our mother had to do what he said, unless she had a very good reason not to. He said because he, my brother, was older, a boy, and smart in school, he would always be the favored child.

“You should just stop trying to get more attention than I get, because that will never happen. You’re a girl.

“But that’s not fair!” I said

He waited for the rise of the “alley cat temper” he loved to provoke.

Cool as a cucumber, he continued. “If you had been beautiful, or brilliant, you might have been the favorite, but you’re a female, so you’ll always be inferior to me.”

That did it. Jumping up, I tried to punch and kick him, but he fended off my attacks easily with his longer arms. Then when Mother yelled from the kitchen, “Stop that you two,” I stormed downstairs to cool off under the clothesline in the backyard.

That experience made me a feminist overachiever bent on proving my worth, determined never to be limited by gender, and keenly interested in the leadership of women who excelled.

So it is easy to understand why I was fascinated with Colombia’s surge of female leaders that started after suffrage in 1957 and was going strong in 1994 when my US ambassador husband and I arrived during the “drug war.” This paradoxical development of women leaders rising so quickly and breaking so many barriers under such unlikely circumstances was attention getting enough, until it was surpassed when two of the highly qualified female leaders profiled declared themselves candidates in Colombia’s 1998 Presidential Primary.

Presenting such stellar leadership in a strictly Colombian context in El Poder Compartido, a book that was translated and published in Colombia in 1999, touched only the surface of their remarkable development. In Sharing Power, today’s newly published English version, traces these inspiring leadership profiles to their roots in the rich Latin American legacies of female political activism that have put elevenP women into presidencies in their hemisphere.


Problems for U.S. Women That Can Be Solved With Equal Feminine Participation

Attaining equal power with men in municipal, county, state, and federal legislatures will give US women the ability to change and strengthen laws and practices that harm them and their children.

Many problems can be solved legislatively, such as:

  • Lack of affordable and safe child care for working women.
  • Inequality in criminal sentencing of women and men.
  • Insufficient policing and punishment of violence against and rape, imprisonment and prostitution of women and children.

Other problems can be solved as US women attain equal judicial power.

Women have already gained considerable judicial power in the United States. Christina L. Boyd and Lee Epstein, a professor of Law at Northwestern, estimated (Washington Post, May 3, 2009) that nearly one-third of all US lawyers are women, and approximately 30 percent of judges serving on the lower federal courts are women. From studies of votes of federal courts of appeal judges in many areas of the law, “for the most part, we found no differences in the voting patterns of male and female judges, except when it comes to sex discrimination cases. There, we found that female judges are approximately 10 percent likely to favor the party bringing the discrimination claim.”

Furthermore their studies proved that in the federal courts, the number of women judges is a force in itself. “When male and female judges serve together to decide a sex discrimination case, the male judges are nearly 15 percent more likely to rule in favor of the party alleging discrimination than when they sit with male judges only.”

US women will make their greatest gains when they attain equal executive leadership power.

In this respect, women in Latin America and the Caribbean are way ahead, in electing since 1974, eleven female presidents. We should learn from their feminist model of unity, inclusion and shared purpose. “Should US women unite to solve problems that affect them all, leaving out religious, ideological, and political issues (that divide them and can never be solved politically),they would eliminate the roadblocks that prohibit the development of the strong female voting bloc they need to elect women as presidents as often as they elect men.” (Sharing Power, p. 8).


Can US Women Learn from Latin America How to Develop and Empower Women?

Electing Women Presidents

Colombian women leaders used personal strengths of ambition, intelligence, and prodigious work habits to bring about Colombia’s extraordinarily rapid era of power sharing with men. These women credit their swift rise to power to their use of Latin America’s inclusive, non-combative leadership style and its regional legacies of female participation in politics. Since 1974, this combination of personal strength, leadership and legacy has elected eleven female presidents in Latin American and Caribbean countries.

A simplified, agreed upon definition of feminism

Liberal Esmeralda Arboleda, with a female Conservative activist, is credited with developing the highly effective women’s movement in Colombia. She defined a feminist as “a woman who defends the rights of women.” She also believed “all women have that duty.”

A Unified, Inclusive Women’s Organization with Shared Political Goals

Defining themselves behind bipartisan leaders in the 1950s, Colombian women then mounted a twenty-two point national campaign to end the then destructive warfare between political parties, and to win the vote for women. The subsequent twenty shared goals aimed at legislative abolishment of laws that denigrated women and failed to protect them and their children. Their Union of Women welcomed all Colombian women, regardless of political or religious beliefs, or educational, social or economic status.

Latin America’s Less Combative Women’s Leadership Style

Colombian women were mentored by male leaders. They believed in meritocracy; that women must earn leadership positions and be willing to work hard to rise through the ranks. They believed they had been helped by men and, in turn, wanted to cooperate, not compete with them.

Learning from Others

Colombian women leaders adapted their wise Latina neighbors’ ideology of cherishing femininity, and honoring the roles of wives and mothers as protectors of children. Ironically, Esmeralda Arboleda studied the feminism of the US League of Women Voters, during a year of self imposed exile in the US after her life had been threatened because of her vociferous opposition to the authoritarian regime in power. Because she was a great admirer of the United States, she was dismayed to learn that the US feminist model did not offer the political activism she sought for Colombian women. She therefore helped to formulate a Colombian feminism based on her life-long conviction that only women in legislative positions had the power to change laws that denied women their citizens’ rights in democratic societies. Economic parity for women was not a goal.

However, in the 1960s and 70s, US women set economic parity as their primary goal and have done very well in their quest toward achieving it. Colombian women did equally well in developing female political leaders, while ignoring economic parity

Both feminist movements should now learn from one another, and reorganize to work toward both political and economic goals


What is Wrong with US Feminism and Why it Can’t Fix Women’s Problems


In comparing US and Colombian feminism, it is important to note that both movements have been extraordinarily successful in achieving the goals they set for themselves. This is a win-win comparison. Although radically different in approach, the movements share fascinating similarities. Both movements started with similar ideologies in the 19th century, “to better the lives of women and children,” and Latin American women have, to this day, continued their activism in public spheres. But US women, after gaining the vote in 1920, traded a major part of their public activism for what they mistakenly thought would be the economic and political power of a female voting bloc that has, alas, never materialized.

Women’s movements in both hemispheres are uniquely dependent on timing and political events in their particular nations, but all Latin American and Caribbean countries share similar ideologies of cherished femininity and revered roles of wife and mother as protectors of children; a less combative women’s leadership style; and regional legacies of strong women leaders as protagonists, not second class citizens playing minor roles in national politics. Thus, unlike in the US, all little girls in Latin America and the Caribbean can dream of being president, and eleven women have been elected president in the region since 1974.

Neither Colombia nor the United States has been able to elect a female president and neither has been able to prevent a loss of momentum since 2006. Another anomaly these countries share is the strength of one is the weakness of the other. The United States feminist movement set economic equality with men as its goal, and Colombian women aimed for political equality with men, believing that laws that discriminate against women and children will end only when women have the legislative power to eliminate such laws.

The results of those choices were: In Colombia, after gaining the vote in 1957, women rose rapidly and amiably to increasingly powerful positions in government. Two women, one Liberal and the other Conservative had ormed a Union of Colombian Women, united by a 22 point agenda of women’s issues that included all Colombian women. No one was excluded because of political, economic, social, regional, religious, ethnic, marital, or racial differences.  In the United States, a women’s movement arose in 1963 after the publication of Betty Friedan’s book, The Feminine Msystique, decrying women’s lack of equal rights with men. Lacking the unity, inclusion and shared purpose of Colombia’s more comprehensive women’s movement, the United States’ movement  has become increasingly discordant and divided by differences between Liberals and Conservatives; Democrats and Republicans; stay at home moms and working women; pro choice and antiabortion proponents; East coast elites and Southern tea party members and numerous other warring factions.

The Colombian movement needs more economic clout and the United States effort must attempt to gain more political power to attain the economic and political equality that both movements desire.


Colombia: Unusual Development of Women Leaders

When I arrived in Colombia in July of 1994, I was fascinated by how many women were in jobs usually held by men; by the presence of women in almost every labor field; and by so many women in leadership positions in the normally male-dominated sectors of finance, economics, banking and foreign relations. At first I planned to publish individual articles with some of these Colombian women leaders asking them to explain their success, and chronicle how and why it happened in Colombia. But after talking with many influential Colombians about the positive experiences of their women leaders, interest and encouragement prompted me to write the book called, Sharing Power, which was translated into Spanish and published in Colombia, as El Poder Compartido, in 1999.

There were three distinct characteristics of Colombia’s unusual development of women leaders. First, it was rapid. It took merely 41 years after Colombian women received the vote in 1957, for two of the women in Sharing Power to mount 1998 presidential campaigns.

Secondly, Colombian women achieved their success without causing rancor. My interviewees told me some Colombian men prefer to work with equally capable women. Numerical inequality existed between men and women sharing power in the legislature, but even there, and in all other labor fields, gender animosity and male backlash against feminism were less prevalent in Colombia than in the United States.

A third distinction of these women leaders was determined preservation of femininity. Colombian women did not emulate male leadership models when they assumed positions of power. They expressed femininity in the way they dressed, with their personal mannerisms and by their less-combative, but no less effective, leadership style.

Successful women’s determined retention of feminine role models also might explain three additional positive Colombian phenomena. First, maternal and homemaker roles were not debased or made to appear second-rate in Colombia. Second, women relatives, coworkers and trusted household employees were willing to work to help fellow women attain and maintain leadership positions. (This was so prevalent, one could almost say, “Behind every successful Colombian woman, is another Colombian woman, helping her.”) A third positive aspect of retained femininity was the value still given to voluntary community development and charitable work. When Colombian women can afford to, they continue to perform this unpaid work.

It is ironic that with neither an overt feminist protest movement nor affirmative action program, many Colombian women attained the equal-opportunity feminist goals of progress based on merit. The books, Movimientos de mujeres y participacion politica en Colombia, 1930-1991 by Norma Villarreal and Women in the history of Colombia by Magdala Velasquez Toro document a true 1950s Colombian feminist movement led by Liberal Esmeralda Arboleda and Conservative Josefina Valencia de Hubach. Colombian feminism differs from many other world-wide feminist movements, however, because it was conducted largely by pamphlet, flyer and national petition. It arose in the restrictive, authoritarian regime of President Rojas Pinilla, (1953-1957) when public protests were forbidden, and severe restrictions on freedom of the press prevented national circulation of printed criticism of existing governmental policies. The Colombian women’s movement was based on unity of shared purpose and inclusion of all women.

Women leaders for Power Sharing were chosen from lists of names given to me by many Colombian men and women. and suggestions from those interviewed. With more candidates than space to do them justice, I had to limit their number to seven.  The book’s theme became leadership, not feminism, and it included only women who were the first in positions formerly held exclusively by men; and women who became leaders after 1957 and continued to work in Colombia

Note: The above contains portions of my work published in October 13, 1997 edition of Semana magazine.


Sharing Power: Colombia’s Dramatic Surge of Women Leaders (1957–1998)

Unlike when Sharing Power was first published in Spanish as El Poder Compartido, and when its leadership profiles were defined by various leadership theories and presented in an exclusively Colombian context, in this English version, Sharing Power’s seven profiles are presented in a Latin American context as outlier leaders in a 41 year Colombian era of male-female power sharing whose female leaders attribute their swift, inclusive, non combative empowerment to family, distinctly Latin American feminine leadership, and legacies of politically active females in powerful national positions. Thus no longer solely “a book about Colombian women,” today’s Sharing Power now also extols the leadership and legacy they inherited from many Latin American and Caribbean nations.