Michelle Bachelet on Being a Woman in Politics

In a series exploring women in international affairs, Michelle Bachelet speaks to Gitika Bhardwaj about being a woman in politics, her concerns about the pace of change for women’s rights and how to address the social inequalities driving people to protest around the world.

Interview Updated 24 July 2023 Published 12 December 2019 9 minute READ

Michelle Bachelet

UN High Commissioner for Human Rights; President of Chile (2006-10 and 2014-18)

Gitika Bhardwaj

Former Editor, Communications and Publishing

Michelle Bachelet, as a young woman you became involved with political issues, supporting Chile’s transition to democracy following the Augusto Pinochet regime. What was it like for you in Chile at this time?

I guess it’s related to the environment that I lived in as a child because none of my parents were involved in politics but they were people who were interested in what happened to other people. We would have interesting discussions about what was going on in Chile and around the world and I had grown up being a person who wanted to be part of finding solutions to different challenges.

We’re all human beings and, although we might have differences, we should all have the same rights.

When I was a student, there were lots of things happening in Chile that I became interested in even though I was in medical school at the time. Then there came an important political moment in the 1970s for Chile and I thought that I needed to help make Chile a better place for everyone – that my voice alone would not be enough – so I wanted to meet other people who might have answers to the questions I had. That’s when I became politically active.

I always say that, in my milk bottle, the word responsibility was included because I always have felt responsible for things. My parents also used to tell me that we’re all human beings and, although we might have differences, we should all have dignity and be respected and have the same rights and opportunities because it is the right thing to do. So that’s how I became what I became.

You became the first woman in Latin America to hold the post of minister of national defence in 2002 where you pushed to include more women in conflict resolution. Given that the inclusion of women in peace processes increases the likelihood of agreements being reached, yet women are largely excluded from the negotiating tables, why did you feel more women in conflict resolution should be prioritized?

I used to push hard to have more women as negotiators at different levels when I was minister of national defence but I was told: ‘We don’t have enough women with the capacity’. Of course that was not true. So one of the tasks I set myself was to build a roster of capable women so that tomorrow nobody could use this excuse.

We built a roster, but still, as you say, there was a tendency not to have women included at all levels. I think this is because there’s still machoism and sexism that exists at some levels. Some men feel that women are weaker, that they’re not capable enough, and that’s not true. Women are important because women have the right skills to be negotiators.

Women are half of the population of the world and we need them to be represented.

I have to say that UN Secretary-General António Guterres has done a great job by appointing women in half of all the posts for special envoys and special representatives in conflict places. But we still need to do more.

Why do I believe women make a difference? Conflicts matter to both women and men because they impact both, but usually, the experiences of women are invisible in the eyes of many who work in negotiating peace. That’s why you need people that can bring this perspective to the table.

The other thing is that women can often get close to other women in conflict places, and in that case, they can get a lot of useful information from women on the ground because they don’t feel threatened by other women. This is particularly true of women who have been victims of sexual violence who are more willing to tell another woman what they have experienced.

But, at the end of the day, women are half of the population of the world and I think we need them to be represented adequately.

In 2006, you became the first woman to become president of Chile. How much pressure did you feel taking up this mantle?

Yes, of course, I mean, there were a lot of people who would say: ‘I want to vote for you but I don’t think it’s a woman’s place’. Journalists would also ask: ‘You are divorced and don’t have a man by your side. How are you going to cope?’. I would respond by saying: ‘I have always done it myself.’

There will be a lot of attempts to bring a woman’s self-esteem down.

Sometimes if I took some time to make a decision, because I thought it needed a bit more time to reflect on, they would say: ‘She doesn’t take decisions.’ But if you made a quick decision then they would say: ‘She improvises’. [These are] the kinds of things that I have spoken about with other female leaders from around the world.

For example, I once talked to Helle Thorning-Schmidt, the former prime minister of Denmark, and she would tell me that during the election campaign they would discuss the size of her purse and if she had a boyfriend. I mean, really, people tend to diminish women by talking about unsubstantial issues. There will be a lot of attempts to try to bring a woman’s self-esteem down.

What I would say is, if you know exactly why you are there and what you want to do as a president, parliamentarian or whatever, and you’re sure that what you want to do is the right thing – and the smart thing – then do it. Pick a team that is honest, that works with the same passion as you and that is loyal to you but is not afraid to tell you when things aren’t working. But it’s hard and difficult and politics is getting nastier every day.

You have mentioned that politics is getting nastier. Julia Gillard spoke to me about the negative side of social media platforms for women in politics. In what ways do you think politics has been changing for women?

I remember seeing that, in the European Parliament, about 85 per cent of women have experienced psychological violence whether they have received death threats or threats of rape or all kinds of things just because they’re female.

There is also bias against women during election campaigns where people say she cannot be elected because she’s not capable just because she’s a woman.

Then there are those that, as I mentioned before, try to talk about personal things or spread fake news. Politics has always been about debate between people with different positions, and that’s fine, but I think sometimes it goes past the limit in terms of respect for the other person.

Then there is the language. Failing to understand that the other person is a competitor, not an enemy, and using language to symbolically destroy the other one is not right. I see it everywhere and I think that’s not what politics is for. We serve the people and words matter.

I think all of these things are making a lot of people not want to get involved in politics anymore because it’s not the kind of environment that we want to be in. But I hope, on the other hand, that if we have more women in politics, maybe we can turn that trend to a more positive one, where there can still be intense debate but in a way where everybody feels that we’re all part of the same country and we can all build the country together.

How did you find your male counterparts responding to you as leader? Was there a time, for example, your gender became an issue for you while you were in office?

When I was a student of medicine, what mattered was whether you were a good student or a good doctor, not if you were a man or a woman. But, in politics, I found that when I appointed ministers, some of them struggled with me being a woman. For example, sometimes I would conclude a meeting by saying: ‘We’re going to do this.’ But there would be a male minister who would have to have the last word. Or some of them, particularly the more senior ones who had been in senior positions before, found it challenging to accept a secondary role to a woman.

On the other hand, with the military, I had no problem, neither as minister of defence and neither as president, because they understood the chain of command.

It’s interesting to look at women in other leadership positions too. For example, I remember a friend who worked in a place many years ago and she would tell me that she needed to swear so that men would respect her because the majority of the leaders there were men. I said to her: ‘You don’t need to look like a man to be a leader.’ Perhaps sometimes it’s more difficult because strength is understood in different ways but my message would be that you can be a leader in your own way.

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Michelle Bachelet takes part in a ceremonial parade following her inauguration on 11 March 2006 outside the Congress in Valparaiso, Chile. Michelle Bachelet was sworn in as Chile's first woman president in the history of the socially conservative country. Photo: Getty Images.

Michelle Bachelet takes part in a ceremonial parade following her inauguration on 11 March 2006 outside the Congress in Valparaiso, Chile. Michelle Bachelet was sworn in as Chile’s first woman president in the history of the socially conservative country. Photo: Getty Images.

— Michelle Bachelet takes part in a ceremonial parade following her inauguration on 11 March 2006 outside the Congress in Valparaiso, Chile. Michelle Bachelet was sworn in as Chile's first woman president in the history of the socially conservative country. Photo: Getty Images.

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While president of Chile, you introduced a number of policies aimed at addressing women’s rights issues, such as on the gender pay gap and on reproductive rights for women. How do you see your legacy on these issues? Were there other policies you wanted to implement but were unable to? In addition, how would you like these issues to be addressed today in light of the rolling back of some of these rights for women in parts of the world?

We went from trying to improve the legal framework that applies to women to creating the Ministry of Women and Gender Equity. We also tried to push for changing the electoral roll with quotas for women which we got to an extent but not as much as I wanted. There was no appetite for having a quota for 40 per cent of all those elected to be women so we settled for 40 per cent of all candidates to be women. We still improved a little bit in terms of the number of women being elected from 14 per cent to 24 per cent through this but I didn’t get everything I wanted. Nevertheless, during my time in office, we were able to increase the representation of women in the Senate and the House which was positive.

On sexual and reproductive rights, in Chile, abortion was criminalized so we were able to decriminalize abortion and we also advanced LGBTI rights and so on. We also developed a better legal framework for dealing with sexual violence but of course sexual violence is a complicated issue that cannot be solved in a short period of time and we need to continue working strongly on that.

The other thing I’m a believer of is the importance of early child development which is good for both boys and girls. So we set up a network of kindergartens free of charge, particularly for poorer people, because there are so many women who cannot afford to put their children in kindergartens while they study or work. So we tried to do lots of things to expand women’s opportunities during my time in office.

Women are increasingly making it to the top level of politics around the world, yet in Latin America, the number of women as heads of states has dropped to 0 following a generation of women political leaders across the continent. Why do you think this is the case and could we see this change again in the future? Do you think Chile, in particular, is likely to see another woman as president soon, and if so, who do you think could take up this role?

The truth is that there was a moment that I think the region had four or so female heads of states, and although there are currently some female vice presidents, the number of presidents is 0 but I wouldn’t be able to say that this is necessarily a bad thing. There doesn’t need to be a female president every time. We need to have female leaders where their citizens believe that they’re the best people to lead their countries.

We need to have female leaders where they’re the best people to lead their countries.

But we do need to do more to support women making it to the top so they can have all the skills needed to be a president or a prime minister and work more with young women too so that they can think of themselves as being able to take up such positions of leadership in the future.

In Chile, I hope, of course, there will be another woman president one day but I have no idea when. I will not run again, I can tell you that, but I hope when the time comes, the people of Chile will believe in them.

In your current role as UN High Commissioner for Human Rights, you have said that climate change and gender equality are linked. How do you see this link and what does that mean for how both of these issues should be addressed?

Climate change is the biggest threat to human rights because it affects the right to life, to health and to live without violence, and if we are not able to tackle it, it will lead to water scarcity, food insecurity, forced migration and conflict – all of which we are seeing already.

Climate change is the biggest threat to human rights because it affects the right to life, health and to live without violence.

Why is it linked to gender equality? There are many reasons. One of them is that women, who make up half the global population, are usually among the most vulnerable people in the world. Today, there are billions of people who don’t have access to water, sanitation or housing, with women having less access to all of the tools that would permit them to adapt [to a changing climate].

For example, women will be more affected by food insecurity because imagine a woman who is pregnant without food. She will likely end up being underweight, and then afterwards, this will impact her child who will be at risk of malnourishment. We see it everywhere where women avoid eating so that their children can eat.

Furthermore, if we have water scarcity, that will also affect women because today, in many parts of the world, women and girls fetch the water for their families. If water becomes increasingly scarce, they will have to walk longer to fetch it, and today we already see women and girls who are subject to sexual gender-based violence as they carry out their day-to-day tasks. That’s why we need to provide women with the tools to empower them and to devise gender-responsive policies to climate change.

Throughout your career, have you seen the scale and pace of change for human rights, particularly women’s rights, around the world that you would have wanted

It depends on how you look at things. It has been over 70 years since the Universal Declaration of Human Rights was written when maternal mortality was incredibly high in many parts of the world and women did not have the vote everywhere.

If you look from that time to now, of course, women’s rights have seen a lot of progress. Maternal mortality has reduced and women can vote I think [in almost every democracy].

But over the last few years, we have seen a pushback on women’s rights, particularly in some areas like sexual and reproductive health rights, and that it something that concerns me a lot.

So I would say we’re not there yet. I hope we will be able to push back the pushback and move forward. Because if we go on along the same trajectory as we are now, we will have economic equality for women in 120 years, which is too long. I mean, nobody wants your great, great, great grandchildren to have to wait so long for equality. We need to stand up for women’s rights – and for all human rights – now and accelerate the progress we’ve been making.