Where the World Has Us Beat
As we head into the 2016 presidential election, two women have already thrown their hats into the ring, with Hillary Clinton as the presumptive Democratic nominee and Carly Fiorina as a Republican hopeful. While this is not the first time America has seen a prospective female candidate, Clinton is seemingly the woman who has gotten closest — as First Lady and then Secretary of State.
But while America prides itself on being a world leader, countries that have been dubbed “developing” — or the term’s more insulting cousin, “third world” — have beaten us to electing a female head of state.
Here are 17 women currently running countries around the world.
[Editor’s note: This list omits female prime ministers from countries where that position is second in command to a president.]
Angela Merkel, Chancellor of Germany
Merkel has been the chancellor of Germany since 2005, and is widely regarded as the most powerful woman in the world. She holds a PhD in chemistry and has been a fixture in German politics since 1989. Merkel is a force to be reckoned with — see this incredible quote following a meeting with Putin during which he trotted out his pet dog, despite knowing she had a significant phobia: “I understand why he has to do this — to prove he’s a man. He’s afraid of his own weakness. Russia has nothing, no successful politics or economy. All they have is this.”
Ameenah Gurib-Fakim, President of the Republic of Mauritius
Gurib-Fakim is the first elected female president of Mauritius. In addition to running the country, Gurib-Fakim is the managing director of the Cephyr research institute and studies the medical properties of the country’s indigenous plants. She holds a PhD in organic chemistry from Exeter, and as such, is addressed as “President Dr. Gurib-Fakim.”
Ellen Johnson Sirleaf, President of Liberia
President Sirleaf is the first female elected head of state in Africa, a former stay-at-home-mom, a winner of a Nobel Peace Prize, and a tireless advocate of women’s rights. As president, Sirleaf made education free and mandatory for children by executive order, and established a Truth and Reconciliation Commission to investigate the 20 years of civil war in Liberia. The commission aimed to identify the people responsible for human rights abuses, give both victims and abusers the opportunity to talk about their experiences, and to suggest government reforms and reparations.
Nicola Sturgeon, First Minister of Scotland
Sturgeon is the fifth — and first female — First Minister of Scotland. Currently in her second term, she is considered one of the most well-liked politicians in the UK. Like most women in power, Sturgeon gets asked all manner of wildly irrelevant questions. Note her pointed response to a fashion question, in an article that touted her lack of culinary ability, no less: “That’s the hardest thing about being a woman in politics. Everyone has an opinion on what you wear and how you look that guys just don’t have to put up with at all.”
Atifete Jahjaga, President of Kosovo
President Jahjaga is the fourth president of Kosovo, following an impressive career with the Kosovo Police, where she served as deputy director. As president, she has worked to stabilize the young country’s place in the world and to join the EU, fought against corruption, and significantly advanced the rights of women and minorities. She has been resolute about giving victims of rape during the civil war access to legal aid and compensation.
Park Geun-hye, President of South Korea
Park is the 11th president of South Korea, and the first woman to hold that position. Park has remained a strong defensive force against North Korea, and has been clear that peace and unification between the two countries is a goal. Park’s leadership has not been without criticism, and she has faced backlash for her family associations (her father, Park Chung-hee, led South Korea from 1962 to 1979 and is widely regarded as a dictator), and for allegations of election tampering. Additionally (and arbitrarily), Park is unmarried, which makes her an anomaly in the conservative nation.
Catherine Samba-Panza, Interim President of the Central African Republic
Samba-Panza is the first woman president of the Central African Republic. She assumed office in 2014 after a career as a corporate lawyer and mayor of the capital city of Bangui. A nonpartisan candidate, Samba-Panza has taken on the gargantuan, near-impossible task of reunifying a country mired by civil war. She has her work cut out for her, and yet her election brought a sense of hope to the country: “There was singing and dancing in the streets of the dilapidated capital … and inside the cavernous chamber of the assembly, female spectators broke into joyful shouts, cheers, and trilling. The consensus, in the chamber and on the street, was that men had inexorably led the country into a spiral of vicious violence, and that the only hope was for a woman to lead it out.”
Marie Louise Coleiro Preca, President of Malta
Coleiro Preca is the youngest-ever president of Malta, and has been active in Maltese politics since she was just 16 years old. She has made social issues a foundation of her presidency, and established the President’s Foundation for the Wellbeing of Society to study ways to improve Maltese quality of life. The foundation is currently sponsoring a study on relationships, with the goal of providing better information to couple’s therapists.
Kolinda Grabar-Kitarović, President of Croatia
President since February 2015, Grabar-Kitarovic served as the assistant secretary general for public diplomacy at NATO (the first woman to hold that position), the minister of foreign affairs, and the ambassador to the United States. When she beat presidential incumbent Ivo Josipovic, he shouted, “It’s over, the lady won!” Indeed. She is a member of Croatia’s conservative party and favors nationalistic policies. NATO Secretary General Secretary General Jens Stoltenberg praised Grabar-Kitarovic’s presidency, saying: “Your experiences and your leadership [are] important for many of your neighbors.”
Kamla Persad-Bissessar, Prime Minister of Trinidad and Tobago
Serving since 2010, Persad-Bissessar is the first female prime minister of Trinidad and Tobago. She was also the first female attorney general and the minister of education prior to taking office. Persad-Bissessar grew up in a rural community where women were typically relegated to the home, but her mother encouraged her to prioritize education. She has consistently advocated for women in positions of government and leadership. A centerpiece of her administration is to address the nation’s staggeringly high murder rate.
Michelle Bachelet, President of Chile
This is Bachelet’s second time serving as president — she first served from 2006 to 2010. The daughter of an Air Force general who died while detained by dictator Augusto Pinochet, Bachelet was also detained, tortured, and eventually released into exile. She returned to Chile four years later and began her career in politics. Bachelet is trained as a physician and served as health minister and defense minister before her first term as president.
Cristina Fernàndez de Kirchner, President of Argentina
Cristina Fernàndez de Kirchner is the second female president of Argentina. Before she was sworn in in 2007, she served in the National Congress and as First Lady during her late husband Nestor Kirchner’s presidency.
She’s made remarkable progress during her presidency: Her universal child benefit plan has boosted school attendance and lowered poverty levels. But this has largely been overshadowed by corruptions scandals, such as the accusation that Kirchner hid details of a 1994 Jewish community center bombing.
Simonetta Sommaruga, President of Switzerland
Sommaruga has lead the governing body of Switzerland since January 2015. She was the director of Swiss Consumer Protection Foundation in the late 1990s and studied to be a concert pianist before pursuing politics. Of her leadership, she says: “I harbor a strong sense of justice, and this office will enable me to look after the rights of the weakest [members of society] and those who need greater protection.”
Erna Solberg, Prime Minister of Norway
Solberg has been a member of the Norwegian parliament since 1989. In 2013, she was elected prime minister. She is frequently referred to as “Iron Erna” due to her anti-immigration stance, (meanwhile, we refer to tough men in power as simply “leaders”).
In addition to running Norway, Solberg is a Candy Crush champion who — just like you — gets frustrated with her gaming addiction. She said “Right now, I'm a bit fed up. I reached level 300 and I haven't played for a few weeks, but it'll come back," she told a reporter. Get back in the game, Erna!
Dilma Rousseff, President of Brazil
Rousseff spent her youth as a socialist. She joined Marxist urban guerrilla groups as part of the resistance against Brazil’s military dictatorship. She spent 1970 to 1972 in jail for her part in the resistance, where she endured torture. During her tenure as president, she’s made electricity widely available, smacked down corruption in the government, and has ridden an oscillating wave of popularity. A despairing economy and corruption scandal caused Rousseff’s approval ratings sink to record lows as of late.
Portia Simpson Miller, Prime Minister of Jamaica
Although not technically a head of state, Jamaica’s Simpson Miller is outranked only by the ceremonial Queen of England and her representative, who hold no real power. This marks her second term in office; she served from 2006 to 2007.
Simpson Miller has held a truly staggering number of positions in the Jamaican government, including minister of labor; minister of welfare and sport; minister of tourism and sport; and minister of local government, community development, and sport. She pledged to end the British monarchy’s involvement during her inauguration in 2012. As of this writing, Elizabeth II is still Jamaica’s monarch.
Dalia Grybauskaite, President of Lithuania
Not only is Dalia Grybauskaite the first female president of Lithuania, she also won in a landslide victory in 2009, nabbing her 69.1 percent of the vote — the largest victory in Lithuanian history. She began her presidency by vowing to curb Lithuania’s recession, and famously took only half of her salary to prove her commitment.