Lisa Witter: The Bachelet Challenge: a new political line in the sand?

Lisa Witter is a political commentator and General Manager of Fenton Communications.

March 11, 2006 will go down as not only a historic day for Chile, but for women throughout the world. On that sunny late fall afternoon, President Lagos ceremoniously and emotionally handed over the presidential sash to Chile's first female president: Michelle Bachelet.

President Bachelet represents the imperfection that we all feel in one way or another. She's a single mother, divorced, agnostic, and fully-figured. She represents the strength and fortitude in character that we all respect. As a young woman, she was tortured by Dictator Agosto Pinochet's thugs soon after Chile's September 11th -- the 1973 violent military takeover of Socialist then-President Allende's democratically elected government. Bachelet represents the forgiveness many of us long for with her reconciliation as Defense Minister under President Lagos with the military that tortured her and her mother and killed her father.

After meeting this charismatically Clintonesque woman I have no doubt that she'll make the history books -- not just for who she is, but what she will do. During Bachelet's campaign, she committed to having her cabinet be 50% men and 50% women. She made it clear that it wasn't just about her as a woman: it was about representing all of Chile's women. On International Women's Day, just three days before her inauguration, she announced that she was also committing to gender parity in all 3,000-plus political appointees.

As one Chilean political activist said, President Bachelet's victory and commitment to parity has made women in Chile "a public good." She said that after this precedent, hell hath no fury on the next President that doesn't honor this 50/50 commitment. President Bachelet knows she is forever leaving a legacy by drawing this new political line in the sand.

I had the honor and pleasure of attending the weekend's inaugural activities for the new Presidenta with the largest foreign delegation in attendance, 23 women from the White House Project. Our delegation of U.S. political leaders, Latin American scholars, corporate executives and philanthropists were on a fact-finding mission. What lessons could we bring back to the gender-parity-challenged American government which still ranks 69th in the world for percentage of women in legislature... behind Rwanda, Cuba, Iraq and Afghanistan?

What I'm bringing back is both a lesson and a challenge. With the 2008 Presidential election beginning to heat up, I'm calling for the Bachelet Challenge. We need to ask all of our Presidential candidates to take the early pledge for their cabinet and political appointees be 50 percent men and 50 percent women. In fact, Presidential candidates around the world can be asked to take the challenge.

For the candidates who say yes, this will be an excellent selling point to the golden women's swing vote. For the candidates that say no, it begs the question on whether or not these Presidential hopefuls believe that women have the right stuff to do the jobs. And most of all, the elected President that meets this challenge will leave his/her own legacy of gender parity for generations to come.

President Bachelet is calling for parity not just because it's fair thing and politically smart thing to do. She's calling for parity because she believes that women are a public good. For a government to function on all of its cylinders, it needs to fully engage the horsepower and brainpower of half of its population: women. I couldn't agree with her more. Presidential candidate X, do you?

These views do not represent Fenton Communications or the White House Project.

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