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Although there is still a long way to go before substantial gender equality is achieved in public life, Mexico’s progress can and should serve as a valuable lesson for the United States.

Mexico’s President-elect Claudia Sheinbaum speaks during a press conference at the Palacio Nacional on June 10, 2024 in Mexico City, Mexico. (Photo by Hector Vivas/Getty Images)

On June 2, over 60 percent of registered Mexican voters turned out to vote in a monumental election that included over 20,000 federal and local public offices. This election was historic because it was the first time a woman had been elected to Mexico’s highest office. This came more than 70 years after women were granted the right to vote and stand for election. In recent years, women in Mexico have gone from being marginal figures in the political arena to central figures. Yet this change took time and targeted action to achieve.

Although gender quotas have been in place in Mexico since the early 2000s, they were not enough to achieve equality. In 2014, Mexico moved from its quota system to a “gender parity” system that requires gender equality on candidate lists for local and national offices. This transition did not happen by itself; it was the result of a consistent, permanent debate at all levels between activists, institutions, academics and women in politics, working across party lines to close the political gender gap.

The impact of gender quotas in Mexico

In 2002, Mexico’s Congress passed its first gender quota, requiring that 30 percent of candidates be women. Parties faced specific penalties for noncompliance. In 2008, the gender quota was increased to 40 percent, but parties were exempt from the requirement if their candidates were selected in democratic primaries. Six years later, in 2014, gender parity was enshrined in the Mexican Constitution, providing the highest standard of protection for women’s political rights. The impact of this hard-fought effort is undeniable; women’s participation in Congress has steadily increased with each reform.

Combating violence against women

But women soon realized that gender parity as an electoral mandate was no guarantee of representation throughout the public administration. In response, female lawmakers, who make up nearly 50 percent of Congress, worked with feminist activists and organizations to push through a mandate for “parity in all areas” in 2019. A year later, political violence against women was recognized as a crime under a reform that included a comprehensive catalog of 22 different behaviors, including withholding information, intimidation, physical assault and harassment both online and in person.

Women in the 2024 elections

In 2024, women vying for political office at all levels of government have become the norm. This year, the two leading candidates for the presidency, who received nearly 90 percent of the vote, were women from minority groups. One was a former mayor of Mexico City of Jewish descent, the other a former senator of indigenous descent. The “parity in everything” mandate has also influenced unitary offices such as governorships. In at least five of the nine states that held gubernatorial elections, parties were required to register female candidates. As a result, 55 percent of all gubernatorial candidates were women, and two states, Morelos and Guanajuato, held women-only elections

Female candidates also outnumbered male candidates for both houses of Congress, totaling 57 percent, according to the Instituto Nacional Electoral (INE), the database of Mexico’s national independent electoral body. But expanded opportunities to run as candidates are no panacea. Women are often underfunded in electoral campaigns. Recognizing this, the female-led INE and the Electoral Tribunal have adopted a second-generation quota that further boosts equal opportunities for women by ensuring that parties meet conditions requiring their female candidates to receive at least 50 percent of public campaign funding and 50 percent of party advertising time.

Presidential candidate Xóchitl Gálvez of the “Fuerza y ​​​​Corazón por México” coalition speaks during the closing event of the 2024 electoral campaign at Arena Monterrey on May 29, 2024 in Monterrey, Mexico. (Photo by Medios y Media/Getty Images)

Ongoing challenges

Despite these significant advances for women in politics in Mexico, there is still a long way to go. Sexism and the reproduction of gender stereotypes in both public debate and media coverage remain widespread. Throughout the campaign, the ruling party’s presidential candidate, Claudia Sheinbaum, was often described as a puppet of President López Obrador. Among opposition leaders and in public opinion, Sheinbaum, who holds a doctorate in energy engineering and has had a political career spanning over 20 years, was perceived as inferior to Obrador in her decision-making.

President López Obrador reinforced gender stereotypes by declaring in one of his daily press conferences that powerful men had imposed opposition candidate Xóchitl Gálvez. Gálvez responded to these attacks by noting that, unlike Sheinbaum, men did not have to tell her what to do. Demeaning remarks about both candidates’ appearance were also common. Gálvez, for example, was widely criticized for her teeth and weight.

Despite the general presence of women in elections across the country, it must also be acknowledged that the women’s agenda was sorely absent, especially in the presidential campaigns. The “first female president” narrative overshadowed much of any substantive discussion of women’s rights and the national emergency caused by violence against women and girls. Even in the first presidential debate organized by INE, where violence against women was one of the topics of discussion, the candidates failed to address the issue effectively. Sheinbaum, for example, lied that she had reduced femicide by 30 percent during her tenure as mayor of Mexico City and had a zero-tolerance policy. The only male presidential candidate, Jorge Álvarez Máynez, proposed the implementation of a national care system to reduce the unequal burden on women, and during the debate referred to feminism as the most important social movement of our time.

In a country where seven to 10 women are victims of femicide every day and dozens more face sexual violence or even disappearance, Mexico’s first female president must recognize the historic and heroic efforts of her predecessor. She must also build bridges with existing feminist groups with whom she has had a strained relationship since her time as mayor of Mexico City. For example, the use of tear gas against feminist protesters in the Mexican capital, which Sheinbaum has repeatedly denied, has sparked outrage among feminist groups and raised serious doubts about her commitment to feminist causes. She has also supported other measures enacted by the president that hit women hardest, such as the closure of public daycare centers that benefited working mothers without access to the state social security system.

With the US presidential election scheduled for later this year, the comparison between the two neighboring countries is shockingly disappointing. Mexico finally has its first female president, and the United States will elect another man in the fall.

Although there is still a long way to go before true gender parity is achieved in public life, Mexico’s progress can and should be a valuable lesson for the United States. Mexico has accomplished what the United States has not, including having its first female president and gender parity at the national and local levels. The United States must recognize Mexico’s efforts to reduce systemic barriers women face in running for office. Solutions to the barriers women face include adopting a proportional representation system, applying and enforcing gender quotas, and recognizing political violence against women as a crime. Many American politicians are unwilling even to put these issues at the top of their agenda.

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