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Week of 9.19.08

Reporter's Notebook: Maria Hinojosa

I was as surprised as anyone when news broke that Sen. John McCain had chosen Gov. Sarah Palin as his running mate. I was in the midst of working on "Women, Power and Politics," a special hour-long episode of NOW on PBS airing this Friday (check your local listings), and the experience of meeting female political leaders around the world had given me fresh perspectives on what it means to have a woman in office.

During my interviews with a new generation of female politicians — in the U.S., in Chile, in Rwanda, and elsewhere — it became increasingly clear what they seemed to have in common. They did not want power for power's sake, but to enact policies that would directly improve the lives of other women. And they were doing it.

For me, Palin's nomination raises a significant question: Is a woman candidate always a women's candidate? Would she fight for women's causes like the female politicians I had met on my trip? Some of these questions are addressed in our interactive debate.

With Chile's first elected female president, Michelle Bachelet, the intentions are clear: she legalized divorce, created free pre-kindergarten, brought the morning-after pill to her country, built shelters for abused women, targeted deadbeat dads, cracked down on sexual harassment and is currently trying to pass an equal pay law.

Maria interviews a female cadet.
Maria interviews a female cadet, Yasna Astorga Pérez, in Chile.
In downtown Santiago, Chile, women from all walks of life told me Bachelet's policies were having a positive impact on their lives. As a trailblazer for other women, she was empowering young girls and women, who had learned that they could run for office, and win. Some women from this traditionally male-dominated culture even told me that having Bachelet in office changed the relationship dynamics with their husbands at home.

What impressed me about Bachelet was how she has found her own uniquely female voice as president. She shared with me her belief that women can and should find their own style of leadership — they don't need to act "just like a man" to be taken seriously.

In Rwanda, one of the last places I expected to end up for "Women, Power and Politics," it's surprising to learn that women actually make up nearly half of parliament, putting it in the top tier among nations for the percentage of women in government. In fact, preliminary election results out this week from Rwanda show that it will be the first country where women outnumber men in parliament. The story of how women gained power in Rwanda is inspirational.

In Rwanda, Maria speaks to Beatrice Gakuba, a local businesswoman
In Rwanda, Maria speaks to Beatrice Gakuba, a local businesswoman
After the horrific genocide some 14 years ago, women were brought in to help rewrite the constitution because it was believed that they would be better at the process of reconciliation than men. These women used their power to create concrete changes in policy that would directly impact women's lives for the better. As a result, women can now work without their husbands' permission, inherit property, and created a law, whereby 30 percent of parliamentary positions must be held by women. Imagine half of the U.S. Congress being women!

We witnessed the influence of female Rwandan leaders first hand, when male legislators in parliament wanted to pass a health care bill that female legislators worried would not be beneficial to women. The women flooded onto the floor and literally got into the faces of their male counterparts, pointing their fingers and raising their voices.

The notion of global women in power actually hit me last November at a conference in New York City. More than 100 women political leaders from around the world were there, including the female presidents of Sri Lanka and the Netherlands Antilles, the former president of Latvia, the former prime ministers or presidents of Ireland, New Zealand, Australia, and Canada, as well as ministers serving in governments across Africa, Asia and Latin America. Even though I was a women's studies major at Barnard College, and have been surrounded by powerful women my entire life, something felt different in this room. As I scanned the crowd at the Essex Park Hotel, where white men once dominated in the recent past, I couldn't help but feel the sea change.

What motivated me to make this documentary were very personal issues around women and power and specifically my own issues with owning my power. I have struggled personally in dealing with power as a woman. My husband has been my greatest champion in forcing me to own my power and for that I am truly grateful. It is something we are passing down to our ten-year-old daughter — so she learns to stand up for herself at any moment.

Maria with former New Hampshire governor Jeanne Shaheen
Maria with former New Hampshire governor Jeanne Shaheen and her daughter Molly Shaheen.
Clearly, Sarah Palin has no issues owning her power. Even those who might disagree with her politics have to give her kudos for stepping onto that stage at the Republican National Convention and giving a powerful, perfectly-delivered speech. She inspired the same feelings in me as when I saw Michelle Obama speaking in New Hampshire back in June. She stood tall, and held it together as cameras followed her every move.

Perhaps in the year 2009 American women and their daughters will be a little less afraid, and have a little more confidence that we can claim power, own it, and govern fairly. Just how I've seen around the world. No matter who wins in November, it's time to up the ante in gender politics in this country to make the lives of women in the United States better.

Truth is, we're already on our way. I wish you could see the determination and ambition I saw in the eyes of students I met at a girls-only high school debate tournament in New York City. As one of them said:
"It's very important for our country to have a woman leader because for a country that preaches so much about equality, I think that we don't offer such equal opportunities within society…why are we still struggling with this issue? Every woman needs to see…a woman be a leader of this country."
As a woman, mother, and journalist, I'm proud to have envisioned this show which takes a close look at how women use their political power. For me, the real success stories come from those women who seek power not for power's sake, but to improve the lives of other women.

Let's hope that America fosters the growth of more such female leaders in the future.