Mexico’s Next President May Be A Woman. But Some Mexican Women Aren’t Celebrating

It’s officially election campaign season in Mexico. Since November 20, candidates have begun addressing members of their parties and launching policy proposals. Although the primary season doesn’t officially end until January 2024, the main parties have already selected their candidates, and polls have been gauging electoral scenarios for months. While there have been some changes in terms of the size of frontrunner leads, two women, Claudia Sheinbaum from the governing Morena Party and Xóchitl Gálvez from the opposing Frente Amplio por México Party, have, at present, the only realistic chances of winning the presidential election in June 2024. 
The prospect of Mexico electing a woman as president for the first time is significant and has received international news coverage. Throughout Mexico’s history, women have faced persistent discrimination and marginalization in all aspects of society. For many decades, Mexican women fought for equal rights and representation. Women in Mexico could only vote in federal elections after 1955, a quarter of a century after the United States adopted the Nineteenth Amendment. Since then, progress has been slow and uneven, and only in recent years have Mexican women begun to make remarkable inroads into the political arena. 
It is newsworthy for a country with a reputation for rampant machismo to potentially have a woman leading at the highest levels of government, but feminists in the country question if it will actually be effective for their struggle. Women in Mexico are still being discriminated against, attacked, and killed. Mexican women are paid much less than men. For every 100 pesos a Mexican man earns in one month, a Mexican woman makes 65. The gap grows when women have children and spend more time doing unpaid labor at home. More than 70% of Mexican women over the age of 15 have experienced at least one incident of psychological, economic, physical, or sexual violence. Femicides, which the United Nations defines as “intentional killing with a gender-related motivation,” have been a long-standing issue in Mexico. And, even with one of the most progressive presidents in the country's history, Andrés Manuel López Obrador, at the helm since 2018, the Mexican government has not made much headway in solving these issues. It should thus come as no surprise that Mexican feminists are skeptical, if not outright pessimistic, when presented with the possibility of a presidenta. 

"Mexican feminists are skeptical, if not outright pessimistic, when presented with the possibility of a presidenta."

Bárbara González
“They are not feminists,” Paola González, an activist from Ya Basta Nuevo León, a feminist organization based in Monterrey and an M.Phil student at the University of Cambridge, tells Refinery29 Somos. “Claudia Sheinbaum did not support the feminist movement in Mexico City. Quite the contrary, she continually made statements against it. She used the police against feminists. And Xóchitl Gálvez comes from the right in Mexico. They have always opposed the recognition of the rights of women and other minorities," she adds. 
Despite both candidates' hesitance to espouse feminist politics, they have embraced the label. Sheinbaum and Gálvez, formerly the Head of Government of Mexico City and a Senator, respectively, are keenly aware of the need to present themselves as feminist candidates, ready and willing to address issues affecting women like no male president has done before. Yet the two, who have undoubtedly experienced firsthand the fierce resistance of the male-dominated political class to women taking up space, have faced criticism for playing the game to win their candidacies. Sheinbaum, currently with a sizeable lead in the polls, has been called out for closely aligning herself with President López Obrador, who has had a fraught relationship with the feminist movement and deemed women’s rights activists enemies. Meanwhile, Gálvez has been criticized for letting conservative male party bosses dictate her campaign and for flip-flopping on abortion.
Fátima Gamboa, director of EQUIS Justicia para las Mujeres, challenges the assumption that a presidenta will be the magic bullet that will solve Mexican women’s problems. While she acknowledges that “it is always important and that more and more positions of power and political representation are occupied by women," she also tells Somos that “a female president does not automatically translate into improving the situation of insecurity, poverty, inequality, and violence.” Moreover, Gamboa says that the current trend of militarization, unlikely to be reversed by either of the women candidates, does not bode well for the end of violence against Mexican women.

"A female president does not automatically translate into improving the situation of insecurity, poverty, inequality, and violence"

Fátima Gamboa
To be sure, there is still time for Sheinbaum and Gálvez to commit to a feminist agenda to address violence against women, the gender pay gap, women’s access to education, social security, and the full recognition of their reproductive rights. But so far, they seem content with slogans and vague offers. Sheinbaum and Gálvez have turned to sympathizers to validate their feminist credentials, and male politicians from Morena and the Frente are using the gender of their presidential candidates to absolve themselves of their roles in encouraging inequality. These efforts risk drowning out valid critiques of those who refuse to settle for merely symbolic representation. As Helena Varela, coordinator of the Ph. D. Program in Critical Gender Studies at the Universidad Iberoamericana, shared in a recent piece, there is a pressing need to go beyond worrying about who will exercise power and focus on how that power will be exercised. 
For women in Mexico, it’s important for those of Mexican descent in the United States to recognize this distinction. All Mexican citizens can vote from abroad in presidential elections. In the country’s 2018 presidential elections, 77% of the votes cast abroad came from the U.S. In 2021, the Mexican Constitution was reformed to allow for the transmission of Mexican nationality by birth to descendants of Mexicans, father or mother, who were also born outside of Mexico, meaning that many more voters in the U.S. (and elsewhere) could vote in Mexico’s future elections. Both Sheinbaum and Gálvez are already seeking to capitalize on the symbolic character of their candidacies while trying to appeal to this large pool of voters abroad. In September, Gálvez campaigned in Los Angeles, and the following month Sheinbaum did, too.
But, as many Americans know with historic firsts like former President Barack Obama and current Vice President Kamala Harris, marginalized representation doesn’t always, or even usually, lead to politics that help and support marginalized people. As such, there are limits to how much symbolism can work to both Sheinbaum’s and Gálvez’s advantage. 

"These two candidacies are a welcome advance in terms of descriptive representation, but there is still much work to be done to address the deep-rooted issues that continue to affect Mexican women."

Gloria González-López, a professor of sociology at The University of Texas at Austin, notes how Sheinbaum and Gálvez can inspire Mexican-American women in the U.S. González-López emphasizes that this is not a homogenous group and that the impact of a woman president in Mexico will differ for specific communities, subgroups like recent immigrants and their daughters, and women who are in touch with friends and family in Mexico. Despite expectations to the contrary, Sheinbaum or Gálvez would actually need to work hard at sparking the enthusiasm of these women voters. “They will all need a reason to trust, a reason to find Sheinbaum and Gálvez inspirational,” González-López tells Somos.
The upcoming Mexican presidential election will undoubtedly be historic. These two candidacies are a welcome advance in terms of descriptive representation, but there is still much work to be done to address the deep-rooted issues that continue to affect Mexican women. If neither candidate commits to a genuinely feminist agenda that tackles pressing issues head-on, rather than relying on mere symbolism, then little will change. But if they use their platforms to advance gender equality, then their position in Mexican politics and society would be far more than historic — it’d be revolutionary.

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