MEXICO CITY — Half of Mexico’s Congress is female. The cabinet is gender-balanced. And now, women have won the primaries of the two leading political blocs — making it likely that this traditionally macho nation will elect its first female president, ahead of the United States.
Her victory came days after an opposition coalition, the Broad Front for Mexico, nominated Xóchitl Gálvez, 60, a business executive and senator of Indigenous origin.
“This is a feminist’s dream,” said Maricruz Ocampo, a women’s rights activist in the central city of Querétaro. The 2024 race, she said, “is going to signify a turn in the way that we see women in politics.”
The matchup underscores how dramatically women have moved into political leadership in the past few years. A woman is chief justice of Mexico’s Supreme Court. Women lead both houses of Congress. Women have made up 50 percent of the legislature since 2021, when Mexico became the largest nation to achieve gender parity.
It’s not quite Barbie Land — but the progress is remarkable in a country where women couldn’t even vote until 1953.
And Mexico’s female politicians are shattering glass ceilings at a faster pace than their colleagues across the border. The United States has yet to elect a female president. Women hold 28 percent of seats in Congress — a U.S. record, but a dismal showing compared to much of the world.
Mexico ranks fourth in the world in female participation in national legislatures, according to the Inter-Parliamentary Union. The United States ranks 71st — just below Iraq.
Mexico’s rapid progress on gender equality is rooted in its transition from an authoritarian state to a multiparty democracy. After decades of domination by the Institutional Revolutionary Party, politicians rewrote laws in the 1990s to make elections more fair — and women’s rights activists seized the moment.
They insisted “democracy is not just about elections, but the kind of equality we deliver to our citizens,” said Jennifer Piscopo, a professor of gender and politics at the University of London who has studied Mexican politics. The women’s activists convinced lawmakers to introduce gender quotas for Congress.
Those quotas were gradually expanded, and in 2019, Mexico passed a constitutional amendment setting a goal of gender parity “in everything” — in all races for elected office, and in appointments to senior jobs in the judicial and executive branches of government.
As more women took office, political scientist Federico Estévez said, “we started getting used to the idea” of them being in charge.
Sheinbaum leads in the presidential race, according to polls. The daughter of left-wing academics, she grew up in the capital and earned a PhD in environmental engineering. She is seen as a protégé of the country’s popular president, Andrés Manuel López Obrador, who named her as Mexico City’s environment secretary when he served as mayor from 2000 to 2005. Sheinbaum won the mayor’s race herself in 2018; she stepped down in June to make her presidential run.
Gálvez has shaken up the race with an up-from-her-bootstraps personal story. As a girl, she sold tamales and Jello cups to help her struggling family in the central state of Hidalgo. She went to college, studied computer science and was running her own firm when conservative President Vicente Fox tapped her in 2003 to be his commissioner for Indigenous affairs. She later became a borough president in Mexico City, and then a senator.
Mexico’s No. 3 political force, Citizens’ Movement, has yet to choose its candidate. Two smaller parties — the Green Party and Workers’ Party — are expected to ally with MORENA.
Sheinbaum and Gálvez are benefiting in part from Mexicans’ frustration with politics as usual, said Patricia Mercado, a senator who ran for president herself with a small party in 2006.
“Citizens who face a lot of problems in their daily lives need new actors,” she said. “Among those new actors are women.”
Both candidates have emphasized their gender as they campaign.
Sheinbaum has adopted the hashtag #EsTiempodeMujeres — roughly, “Now is the time for women.”
Gálvez has used her life story to illustrate the discrimination and violence women face. She has described defying an abusive father to continue her studies. At 17, she says, she used a soldering iron to fight off a rapist.
When López Obrador recently called Gálvez a puppet of powerful men, she accused him of sexism — and persuaded an electoral court to order him to stop. Asked in an interview about combating Mexico’s heavily armed crime groups, she was blunt.
“You need ovaries,” she said on the news show “Entre Todos.” “Not just balls.”
A few women have competed in past presidential elections, but they lost badly. What is different now is that MORENA and the Broad Front alliance, which includes parties from the left and right, hold significant leads over smaller parties, making it highly likely Mexico’s next president will be female.
Still, that might not put an end to the traditional male dominance of politics.
“We have female candidates, but the parties, resources and agendas continue to be controlled by men,” said Bárbara González, a political analyst in the northern city of Monterrey.
López Obrador has sought to swing his sizable following and political machine behind Sheinbaum in the primary, González said, because the ex-mayor doesn’t have a strong political base herself and is more likely than other candidates to maintain his programs. (López Obrador is barred by law from running for a second term).
“He chose her because she’s dependent on him,” González said. Meanwhile, she noted, the three parties in the opposition alliance are led by men.
Many activists say the increasing prominence of female politicians hasn’t led to a notable improvement in women’s day-to-day lives.
There are some obvious changes: Female lawmakers pushed for a law in 2022 that mandated social security for domestic workers. Abortion has been decriminalized in 12 of the 32 states, in part because there are more women in local legislatures and governors’ offices, said Rebeca Ramos, director of the Information Group on Reproductive Choice. The Supreme Court on Wednesday decriminalized the procedure in all federal health facilities.
Still, protesters regularly take to the streets to protest high levels of violence against women.
“Parity has not necessarily translated into better living conditions for women, unfortunately, which was one of the things we would have expected,” said Mónica Meltis, executive director of the independent nonprofit Data Cívica.
López Obrador has named nine women to his 18-member cabinet, a record. But he has clashed with women’s organizations demanding action on issues such as abortion and gender-based killings, alleging that they are manipulated by his political opponents. Sheinbaum, too, has had chilly relations with feminists protesting violence against women.
Piscopo said people should be realistic about their expectations for the rising female political leaders.
“They’re not magical unicorns; they don’t have magic wands,” she said. “They’re not going to fix centuries of discrimination against women overnight.”
Gabriela Martínez contributed to this report.