When Women’s Day Is a Thing of the Past
Talking to the head of U.N. Women about what a true post-feminist world would look like.
Michelle Bachelet has broken a lot of glass ceilings in her time: first female defense minister in all of Latin America, first female president of Chile, and now the first head of U.N. Women, the first U.N. body entirely devoted to holding the world accountable for the treatment of women and girls. Bachelet has already earned plaudits in this realm from her days as chief executive in Santiago, where the former pediatrician extended daycare for poor families, widened health insurance coverage, and improved pensions. In her new job, she told FP‘s Elizabeth Dickinson that she plans to use hard facts to convince governments worldwide that helping women is in their interests — and, hopefully, bring us closer to a day when International Women’s Day, and her own organization, will become unnecessary.
Foreign Policy: Imagine a world in which we don’t need U.N. Women. What does that look like, and how do we know when we have gotten there?
Michelle Bachelet: I can imagine a world where women and girls have the same opportunities to develop their capacities, their talents, their merits, and their dreams. Where women do not suffer from gender-based violence, where children can study at school freely without the threat of being raped on the way to school, where girls can get married at an age they decide, where girls are not victims of female genital mutilation. Where women can contribute to improve their societies as full citizens and full economic actors, so the world won’t lose the capacities of men and women in those different dimensions. Where there’s no exclusion, where there’s no discrimination, where there’s no harmful practices, where women don’t die when they give birth, where children don’t die when they are born; in that world, [U.N. Women] wouldn’t be necessary.
But the other day, I was invited to Hunter College in New York, and there was a lecture about women in peace and security in Roosevelt’s house. I ended my remarks saying, “What would Eleanor Roosevelt think of U.N. Women?” And many people probably thought that I was going to say that she would be so happy. I said she would have said, “So many years! And still, women are battling the same things from 60 years before.”
Having said that, I have to say that during these 100 years that the world has celebrated International Women’s Day there has been progress, but there’s still so much to do.
FP: How will you convince states that working for women is in their best interest?
MB: The women’s movement for so many years developed this central concept that is completely right, that women’s rights are human rights. But having been a minister and a president, I know that heads of state and heads of government have so many different challenges, and there are so many human rights that they have to deal with. Usually women’s issues are not so relevant for them. If you look at the ministries of gender, usually their budgets are not very high because they think that through the other ministries you are also dealing with women. But that doesn’t happen. It has to be mainstreamed, pushed in a very specific way.
We need to work on showing more clearly — with stronger arguments — how important women are as an economic actor, as a political actor, as a social actor, so that presidents and prime ministers see how they cannot lose the important contribution that women are in the community. I will try to produce this information linked to the region, and I hope someday [to produce it] country by country because I think each president needs to have good arguments to make good economic and political decisions. We will be working on that and also work on trying to build a big network of universities, research centers, women’s centers, so that we can have the strongest possible data in terms that will permit people who make decisions to make the best possible decisions.
FP: Tell me a little more about your history with women’s issues. Did you always know that you wanted to target these questions politically, or did you realize it later?
MB: I came into politics, as I say, because I couldn’t help myself. I couldn’t tolerate injustice and inequality. And, of course, women’s issues were important because they were one of the inequalities that you can see in my country and all over the world. So the women’s issue for me was the same issue of equality, and also I had this personal experience.
My mother was a very strong woman, and ever since I was in adolescence, she told me, you know what, marriage is not the only thing in a woman’s life. If you want, you can get married and have a child; but if you want to go to university we will support you, whatever you want. The important thing is that you develop your own capacities and you don’t depend on anybody else; then you can decide what you want to do. But you need to have choices, and in order to have choices — and real choices — you need to be able to define your career.
In politics I think that women must always look after women’s rights and opportunities, but also that women need to have opinions and ideas about all kinds of things. We have to speak about economy, about international politics, because we do have the capacity and ideas in all kinds of things. So I always worked on all kinds of levels. And that opened for me so many doors and it made me able to become the president of the republic.
FP: What was it like being a woman in the Defense Ministry, right after the end of a military dictatorship?
MB: When we recovered democracy at the beginning, I still had some special feelings for uniforms in terms of remembering the bad days. But I came from a military family so that was nothing new for me. But on the other hand, I realized that my country had gone into those terrible times, for many reasons, but some of the reasons were that the civilians — the politicians — did not speak to the military. And it was very important to be able to be a counterpart — somebody you could dialogue and discuss with, but who also had the knowledge. And I started studying defense issues. I started in Chile, then I went to the U.S., and then I came back, and then I started working in the Ministry of Defense.
Because I came from a military family, I knew the military codes; I knew how their feelings were, and how for them the most important patriotic service was service to the country. I came also from the other part — the political part — that people from politics want to do the biggest patriotic service to the country. So I tried to build bridges between the two worlds that in the past were so separated. And when I was minister of defense, I knew that probably I was somebody whose characteristics could be suspicious: Being a woman, being divorced, being Socialist, being agnostic, it was like — as I told them — all the sins in one person. At the first meeting, I told them: Maybe some of you are looking at me, who is this woman and what does she know about what we’re doing? I said: Believe me, I know your work, I studied it a lot, I respect it, I think defense is central in policy. And it did work very well. I had no problem at all.
FP: You’ve said that in your first few years in office you struggled to “be yourself.” What do you mean by that?
MB: If I went on a field trip and people ask me to dance, I will dance. In a more traditional way, people try to behave as president of the republic. But I also was able to having a good time with the people, to sing with them — not crazy things, just human, natural things. And I would be with them and talking to them, kissing the people and relating to the people in a human way, because that’s what I think people deserve — to be treated as a human being. So at the beginning, you could see articles criticizing the way I dress, my weight, or if any moment I had tears in my eyes because of a terrible situation. But I was just at the beginning; and when it’s something new, always people have to adjust to that. I’m so convinced that if you’re a president or in charge of something, you have to put people in the center of your policy. The objective of your policy is your people, nothing else.
FP: You look like you are enjoying the work at U.N. Women so much. What drives you?
MB: I enjoy it, even though I know it’s very challenging. The problems we’re dealing with are not one-week solutions and one size doesn’t fit all. We are not going to do it by ourselves; we need to move governments, women’s organizations, partners in the U.N. system. So it’s very challenging; I don’t think that I’m in denial of the reality. But you know what moves me? To see their faces. To see their hopes — but also that we have done something that really works. It’s very energetic to see the smiles of the women.