Dilma Rousseff dedicated her victory as Brazil’s first female president to the nation’s women, saying it paves the way for their daughters to gain more power in government and business in Latin America’s largest economy.
“I want to state my first commitment after the elections: to honor Brazil’s women so that today’s unprecedented result becomes a normal event,” said the 62-year-old Rousseff, a former cabinet chief and energy minister, in speech last night in Brasilia. “I would very much like that parents look into their daughters’ eyes and say, yes women can.”
The presidential vote yesterday, the sixth since military rule ended in 1985, marks a milestone for a country where only one of the 61 companies that form the Bovespa benchmark stock index is run by a female executive. Rousseff will provide a role model that will empower women in Brazil and help bring more females to senior executive positions, said Maria Eugenia Lopez, who runs Banco Santander Brasil SA’s private banking unit.
“The process to bridge the gender gap in Brazil will probably accelerate with Dilma in power,” Lopez, 44, said in an interview in Sao Paulo.
Since Brazil became a republic in 1889, only one woman, Zelia Cardoso de Mello, has served as finance minister. Outgoing President Luiz Inacio Lula da Silva, who chose Rousseff as his successor, named five female ministers and 47 men in the past eight years.
Nineteen countries currently have women leaders, from Australia to Iceland, Slovakia and Argentina. In Finland, both the president and the prime-minister are women.
In Latin America, Argentina had two female presidents, Isabel Peron, the first woman to become president of a republic, from 1974 to 1976, and Cristina Fernandez de Kirchner, in power since 2007. In Chile, Michelle Bachelet ruled from 2006 until March. Laura Chinchilla was elected Costa Rica’s first female president in February.
“Equal opportunity between men and women is an essential principle of democracy,” Rousseff told supporters yesterday.
Rousseff beat former Sao Paulo state Governor Jose Serra in a runoff vote yesterday 56 percent to 44 percent after 99 percent of ballots were counted.
Her stance on abortion was a central issue during the runoff campaign that started Oct. 4. She had to back away from her past defense of abortion rights after losing support among evangelical Christians, who form an estimated 24 percent of the population and switched allegiance to Serra.
“My position is against abortion, which is a violence against women,” Rousseff said Oct. 5 as she met with Catholic leaders in Belo Horizonte. “No woman is in favor of abortion.”
Rousseff, a twice-divorced grandmother and opera lover, is the daughter of a Bulgarian immigrant lawyer and a Brazilian teacher. She attended an all-girls private school and had read Emile Zola’s “Germinal” and Fyodor Dostoevsky’s “The Insulted and Humiliated” by age 14, according to the biography on her campaign website.
She dropped out of university to fight the military regime that took power in 1964 by joining Marxist underground groups that carried out armed bank robberies and kidnappings. She was jailed for three years and tortured.
After becoming an economist, Rousseff began her public service career in 1986 as finance secretary of the city of Porto Alegre, in Brazil’s southernmost Rio Grande do Sul state. She was appointed mining, energy and communications secretary of that state in 1993. That job gave her national recognition when Rio Grande do Sul was the only Brazilian state that wasn’t required to ration electricity during a power crisis in 2001.
Lula named Rousseff mines and energy minister and chairwoman of state-controlled oil producer Petroleo Brasileiro SA in 2003. Two years later, Lula promoted Rousseff to his chief of staff. Her habit of yelling at subordinates and reputation as a tough negotiator earned her the nickname “Iron Lady” in the Brazilian press.
In December 2008, Rousseff started to soften her Iron Lady image, undergoing a full facelift and replacing her heavy-framed glasses with contact lenses. At the start of the campaign this year, she changed her hairstyle to a shorter look inspired by Carolina Herrera’s.
Rousseff said she was feeling “great” after the facelift.
“I look more like I did when I was 40 than at 60 years old. I didn’t get to 30, which was my dream,” she said in an interview with Marie Claire magazine in April last year.
Rousseff announced in April 2009 that she was being treated for lymphoma. She joked about the fact she was wearing “a basic wig” when she left the hospital after treatment in May. In September, her doctors pronounced her in “excellent health.”
Rousseff had more support among men than women, according to polls before yesterday’s vote. She had 53 percent of support among male voters and 46 percent among women in an Oct. 26 Datafolha poll of 4,066 people in 246 cities said. Serra had 37 percent among male voters and 39 percent among women, according to the same poll, which had a margin of error of 2 percentage points.
The newly elected president doesn’t have specific policies for women in her proposed government program announced Oct. 25. The plan mentions an expansion of “legal and administrative initiatives that in the Lula government fostered equal rights for women, blacks, indigenous populations, the elderly and all sectors of society that have been discriminated.”