We have a lot to learn from Argentina, that country at the bottom of the world not known for much more than its steak, its leather and Evita. Evita Peron was nominated as Vice President in 1951. She never ran, but she was nominated.
It has taken the Republican Party more than fifty-five years to catch up. The United States, despite its prominent geographical location and its worldwide renown, lags behind Argentina when it comes to women in government.
Evita set a precedent for Argentina: her husband's next wife, Isabel Peron, became Argentina's first female president. Last year, Argentina got its second female president, Cristina Fernandez de Kirchner (the first to be elected into office, with 45% of the vote).
Among Buenos Aires intellectuals, the thought of a female in charge of the U.S. is hardly a concern. Here, we can't even imagine a female vice president without a meticulous analysis of what that might mean, and cries of "sexism!" at every turn.
In Buenos Aires, they talk about Palin's platform, not the fact that she's a woman. Even those who don't like her don't deride her for anything related to her sex. "I've had enough with Bush, with the war, conservative politics, and so on," says Daniel Godoy, a physician. "But Sarah Palin's lack of good experience should be considered, not that she's a woman."
"With China & Russia asserting their powers, the world is in a very unique place right now. If the U.S. doesn't stand up to its leadership position, things are going to go very badly," said a psychiatrist who wanted to remain anonymous, fearful that having any political opinion on record, no matter how benign, could be dangerous--a vestige of Argentina's past as a military dictatorship. "I think having a woman in government is a great idea," he told me, "but how she governs is more important."
Augusto Stigol, an architect who suffered through years of unemployment during Argentina's economic crisis, said, "I always would have voted Republican, from Roosevelt on. Look at the history of the last fifty years: usually the Democrats started the wars & the Republicans ended them." Regarding Palin, he scoffed, "All this attention on the fact that Sarah Palin is a woman is just as discriminatory as all the attention on Barak Obama's skin color." Argentines view race as insignificant because it's literally not part of their daily lives. Ninety-seven percent of the country is white, according to U.S. government figures; other sources put the figure at 85%. They are quite naive about the role race can play. An Argentine attorney who's rooting for Obama told me, "I don't think the color of his skin is important, and I don't think it will affect his popularity in the election."
Not one person I spoke with drew any parallel between Argentina's President Kirchner and our Vice Presidential candidate Palin. No one focused on their gender, so they saw no reason to compare the two. When I pushed for a conversation about "first females" in government, they complained about Kirchner's policies but stopped there. Any comparison to Palin was dismissed as too simplistic to even consider.
"A woman in an executive position of government seems normal," explained Fernando Copello, a professor of literature. "There are already many women in government roles," said Vera Spinadel, President of the International Mathematics & Design Association. "Gender doesn't determine whether they're better or worse than the men."
Just as these Buenos Aires professionals were unimpressed by Palin's gender, they appeared uninterested in her personal life. Dr. Godoy seemed to speak for everyone when he said, "In our times, I really don't attach any importance to her young daughter being a single mother."
Stigol espoused a typically European view: "I just wouldn't consider the personal situation of a candidate. That's related to his or her private life." (Buenos Aires, with a high percentage of European immigrants, likes to think of itself as "the Paris of Latin America.")
But Palin's personal life suddenly became fair game when linked with her conservative agenda. "She has a daughter who is okay with premarital sex. It's difficult to imagine, with such a mother. There seems to be a lot of hypocrisy in that," said Copello, the professor.
"We think her conservative ideas are pretty horrible," the psychiatrist told me. "This is the old contradiction of not practicing what you preach. Preaching one thing in public and doing another thing in private - it's hypocritical." Even Stigol, the self-described Republican, said, "With respect to abortion, it's important to listen to those who are Catholic, but one has to represent the opinion of all women." About 90% of all Argentines are Catholic.
I was struck by the uniform dislike for Palin's social conservatism and the impassioned pro-choice sentiment. In Argentina, after all, abortion is illegal. But that makes it an even more compelling topic, and these people in Buenos Aires can't understand how we can take our right to be pro-choice for granted.
Not only are we in the United States just starting to think about women in the executive branch of government, but we have a presidential candidate -with a female running mate, no less--running on a pro-life ticket. This puzzles people who live in a country where 500,000 illegal abortions are performed each year, in makeshift clinics where the only surgical instruments are coat hangers wrapped in rubber.
Argentina can show us that gender-blind politics are possible, and it can also remind us what's at stake in this election.
This week OffTheBus is publishing a variety of stories that cover the presidential election from an international perspective.