BUENOS AIRES, Argentina - Defying Latin America's longtime reputation as a bastion of machismo, women in South America are winning political power at an unprecedented rate and taking top positions in higher education and even, albeit more slowly, in business.
The election last year of Michelle Bachelet to Chile's presidency and the all-but-certain victory of Cristina Fernandez de Kirchner in Argentina's presidential balloting next Sunday are the most visible examples of the trend.
South American women also are leading important social movements and are earning, studying and speaking out more than ever. For the first time, women are forcing their traditionally male-dominated societies to confront such issues as domestic violence and reproductive health.
"I think there's been a general change," said Elena Highton, who in 2004 became Argentina's first female Supreme Court judge appointed by a democratically elected government. She promptly headed a commission on domestic violence.
"This is the time of the woman, and people want to try something new," Highton said. "Women are seen as more believable, more honest, more direct. And in this world dominated by men, we've seen lots of failures."
It's a fundamental shift in a region long ruled almost exclusively by men, where the influence of women was relegated to the home or, in public life, to supporting roles for powerful spouses.
Such perceptions changed for good, many say, with Bachelet's election last year in one of the most socially conservative countries in the hemisphere. A single mother and an atheist with no family member already in power, Bachelet, 56, won support from male and female Chileans in her historic election.
Public opinion polls in neighboring Argentina show similar widespread support for Kirchner, a longtime politician and current senator who's expected to win the contest to succeed her husband, Nestor, in this country's top job. Kirchner has frequently cited U.S. presidential candidate Sen. Hillary Clinton as an inspiration.
Women are considered possible successors to the top spot elsewhere in South America.
In Paraguay, former education minister Blanca Ovelar is a top candidate to represent the long-ruling Colorado Party in next April's presidential race. In Brazil, presidential chief of staff Dilma Rousseff has emerged as a possible front-runner for the presidency in 2010. They follow women who were elected president in Central America in the 1990s, Violeta Barrios de Chamorro in Nicaragua and Mireya Moscoso Rodriguez in Panama.
The emergence of what's been called a "feminine bloc" in the Western Hemisphere's Southern Cone is yet more evidence of the historic changes that have opened doors for millions of women.
Latin American women also have taken charge in more humble circumstances. Soledad Puebla, 54, runs a bustling day care center in the slums of Santiago, Chile's capital. She's also the activist heart of her neighborhood and a confidante of legislators in Bachelet's government.
Puebla grew up desperately poor on the city's periphery and worked for years as a nanny before she joined a local Lutheran church and became a community organizer. She eventually was appointed the church's regional coordinator, which sent her around the world.
Speaking tearfully in her cramped office, she seemed astonished by her latest accomplishment - earning a college degree in social work, something that was unimaginable to the poorly educated grandparents who raised her.
"When I grew up, we didn't even have a mattress to sleep on," Puebla said. "So this is what I tell people now: When you want to rise as a woman and value your life, you can. But you have to be true to what you think and fulfill the agreement you make with yourself."
Latin American women still trail men in key measures of social well-being, according to the World Economic Forum, which ranks gender equality in 116 countries based on education, health and economic and political participation. Of Latin American countries, Costa Rica ranked the highest, 31st of 116 countries, and Bolivia, the lowest, at 88th.
But women are steadily catching up, United Nations statistics show.
In many instances, the gaps are closing much faster than they are in the United States.
For example, the average wage of urban Latin American women has grown from 70 percent of men's in 1990 to 90 percent this year, and they're expected to reach parity by 2015, U.N. figures show. For comparison, U.S. women earned 77 percent of what men earned working full-time, year-round jobs in 2006.
In the business world, women make up as much as 35 percent of the managers in private companies, also a dramatic increase from just a decade ago, according to the International Labor Organization.
However, they still account for only 10 percent of company presidents and vice presidents, according to a seven-country survey by the U.S.-based think tank the Inter-American Dialogue.
Women have made some of their biggest advances in politics, where thousands of women are reaching public office, many for the first time.
About a quarter of all Latin American local council members are women, more than double the percentage from a decade ago.
Women also make up more than a quarter of the Cabinet ministers in the region and more than a fifth of lower-chamber national legislators in Costa Rica, Cuba, Argentina, Peru, Guyana, Suriname, Ecuador, Honduras and Mexico, double the regional rate in 1990. By comparison, only 16 percent of the U.S. Congress is female.
In the eyes of Ana Maria Romero de Campero, who was Bolivia's top human rights official, women are riding the same democratic wave that's empowered other marginalized groups, such as indigenous people and the poor working class.
It's no coincidence, she said, that women are making gains at the same time that her country elected its first indigenous president, Evo Morales, or neighboring Brazil chose Luiz Inacio Lula da Silva, a former factory worker, as its president. Both leaders were the first presidents in their countries not to come from white, privileged backgrounds.
"This democratic process is raising the question of the rights of different people," Romero de Campero said. "And people are asking, 'Do women have the rights of equality along with human rights?'"
Fourteen countries in Latin America have passed quota laws requiring that as many as 40 percent of the candidates for political posts be women. Similar laws require that women fill a minimum number of union leadership posts and even executive-branch positions.
That's produced dramatic results in countries such as Argentina, the first in the region to implement quotas. Women now make up 35 percent of the lower house and 43 percent of the Senate. Only nine countries claim higher percentages of female lower-house legislators, and two of those are in Latin America _ Costa Rica and Cuba. The other seven are Rwanda, Sweden, Finland, Norway, Denmark, the Netherlands and Spain.
"We women in the Congress have managed to be respected, but the road here was a long road, and there were many acts of discrimination along the way," said Argentine Sen. Silvia Ester Gallego, who helped lead the push in 1991 to pass the quota laws.
But the shift isn't just a political one, said Lidia Casas Becerra, a law professor and women's rights activist in Chile. Traditional notions about gender roles are changing, and women, as well as men, are taking on new responsibilities.
"This is still a very machista country, and it's hard to make that cultural transformation, but Bachelet was a beginning," Casas Becerra said. "Chileans are, in fact, much more liberal now than their political elite."
One sign of the change: The big hit on Chilean television this year was a soap opera named "Papi Ricky" about the misadventures of a widowed young man raising his daughter alone.
"Things have changed a lot since our parents' generation," said Rodrigo Delgado, 31, who was picking up his son from a Santiago, Chile, day care center while his wife worked. "There are more women working now because that's what we need to do to survive. And at home, we share the responsibilities."
Not everybody sees the changes as a step in the right direction.
Argentine community leader Monica Carranza said the breakdown of the traditional, male-headed household is to blame for the abandonment of thousands of women and children on the poor outskirts of Buenos Aires, where she runs a network of shelters and a soup kitchen.
"For me, the man had his home, his family, his children, and the man was the strong machine, and the woman took care of her children and her man, and now everything has been turned around," Carranza said. "I think the changes have been lamentable."
Other women, such as Brazilian legislator Marina Maggessi, complain that women are still denied real power. Brazilian women, for example, make up only 9 percent of federal legislators, although quota laws require that women comprise a quarter of each party's candidate list. Like several other countries with quota laws, Brazil's government has dragged its feet on enforcing them.
"What we need is women to wake up," said Maggessi, who was the chief of Rio de Janeiro state's anti-narcotics police before being elected last year. "The majority of the electorate are women, but they still elect men."
Many women find their path to power in extraordinary circumstances. Roxana Argandona Vargas was a poor farmer with four children in Bolivia's Chapare region when she began protesting a U.S.-backed campaign to eradicate coca plants, the primary ingredient of cocaine, but an economic mainstay for growers.
Eventually she was elected president of the women's branch of the local coca growers union and then the president of the city council of Villa Tunari.
"Before, we women were totally excluded from the union meetings and were just asked to serve food to the men," Argandona Vargas said. "There's still machismo here. Some men will die as machistas. But now we women know what our rights are."
McClatchy Newspapers 2007