The two presidential front-runners grew up exposed to sharply different visions of what a woman in Mexico could aspire to be.
In her impoverished home in the state of Hidalgo, Xóchitl Gálvez faced beatings from her alcoholic father, who once threatened to kill her mother. She’d hear the men in her family quip, “Women are only good for the Petate (a sort of bed) and the Metate (a stone to grind grains).”
Claudia Sheinbaum grew up hearing her parents, both scientists and former student activists, talk politics in their home in the state of Mexico. She saw firsthand what a woman could accomplish, spending a night at age 15 at a hunger strike with Rosario Ibarra de Piedra, the pioneering crusader for the disappeared whose work helped build Mexico’s human rights movement.
As the decades ticked by, both women rose in their careers — in academics or business, and then politics — as Mexico pushed to increase women’s participation in the political arena.
Now they’re fighting to become Mexico’s first woman president.
Sen. Xóchitl Gálvez, an opposition presidential hopeful, speaks to journalists in Mexico City after registering as a contender. (Fernando Llano / Associated Press)
Gálvez, a senator, and Sheinbaum, the former mayor of Mexico City, are campaigning hard to get on the ballot in next year’s election. As Sheinbaum aims to represent the president’s party and Gálvez fights for an opposition coalition’s nomination, each is invoking her gender and the glass ceiling she would shatter.
“Mexico is no longer written with the M of machismo … but M of mother, M of mujer” or woman, Sheinbaum declared to thousands of supporters just before leaving her post as mayor to enter the presidential race.
Gálvez has called Mexico’s president a “machista” and told reporters, “You need to have a big set of ovaries like the ones I have to confront such a powerful man.”
But even with two women as front-runners, the election is less likely to turn on issues of gender, including rampant violence against women, than how voters feel about one man. The race is widely seen as a referendum on President Andrés Manuel López Obrador, whose Morena party controls a huge swath of the country.
“People vote for women without a problem. What matters is the political party, and you have to understand that Mexico is not a feminist country,” said Karolina Gilas, a political scientist at the National Autonomous University of Mexico, or UNAM. “Mexican society continues to be very conservative.”
While the presidential hopefuls can’t ignore feminist issues in a country where an average of 10 women a day were slain last year, the movement doesn’t have the weight to tip a national election either, Gilas said.
“Women make up a bit more of the electorate than men and participate a bit more than men, but feminism, in particular, does not decide elections,” said Gilas.
In fact, said UNAM sociologist Georgina Cárdenas, “In this country, saying that you’re a feminist in certain spaces doesn’t generate sympathy.”
“People have the idea that being a feminist is being a radical person, of women burning bras and being against men. They don’t understand it as a social movement to fight for equality.”
Cárdenas has watched the antagonism between Gálvez and López Obrador but views Gálvez’s rhetoric as a way for her to gain recognition as an opposition figure.
Sheinbaum, Cárdenas said, has used less striking language when talking about women’s issues, probably in an attempt to avoid alienating voters for whom they are not a priority.
“She doesn’t need to commit herself to something radical,” Cárdenas said, “because she feels that in one way or another, she’ll inherit the political capital of her leader, so she doesn’t need the risk.”