Analysis: How did Mexico elect a female president before the United States? Not by accident

Ruling party presidential candidate Claudia Sheinbaum addresses supporters
Claudia Sheinbaum addresses supporters early Monday in Mexico City after the National Electoral Institute announced she held an irreversible lead in the election. (Fernando Llano / Associated Press)

Mexico has elected its first female president — a U.S.-educated climate scientist and former mayor whose landslide victory Sunday reflects both the continued dominance of the country's ruling party as well as the vast strides made by women in politics here.

That Mexico will have a female leader before the United States and the majority of the other countries in the world is no accident.

For years, Mexico has required political parties to ensure that female candidates make up at least 50% of all competitors in federal, state and municipal elections.

It has transformed politics: More than half of the members of Congress and nearly a third of governors are women, and women head the Supreme Court and the ministries of the interior, education, economy, public security and foreign relations.

Political scientists say female leaders have helped push some of Mexico's most progressive policies, including a federal law that gives domestic workers the right to social security and the decriminalization of abortion by several states before the Supreme Court ruled last year that it should be allowed nationwide.

Fireworks go off over a cheering crowd in Mexico City.
Supporters of President-elect Claudia Sheinbaum celebrate early Monday at the Zocalo, Mexico City's main square. (Marco Ugarte / Associated Press)

The election of Claudia Sheinbaum shatters the last glass ceiling in politics in a country where women were barred from voting until 1954, and where a culture of sexism and high rates of violence against women still prevail.

“In 200 years of the Mexican republic, I have become the first woman president,” Sheinbaum, 61, told supporters in her acceptance speech Sunday night, describing her win as a victory for all women.

"I did not arrive alone," she said. "We all arrived."

Read more: She's likely to be Mexico's next president. Can she save the country from cartel violence?

She is set to be sworn in Oct. 1, taking the helm of a prosperous but polarized nation plagued by widespread gang violence.

Sheinbaum has vowed to continue the path cut by outgoing President Andrés Manuel López Obrador, a populist widely known as AMLO who helped slash poverty by doubling the minimum wage and expanding the country's welfare system while giving extraordinary new powers to the military and failing to halt cartel violence.

She backs some of his most divisive proposals, including a series of constitutional changes that critics worry would erode democratic checks and balances.

Her extraordinary margin of victory — she won more than twice as many votes as her main competitor — was largely seen as a vote of confidence for López Obrador and the party he founded, Morena.

Claudia Sheinbaum and President Andres Manuel Lopez Obrador raise their linked hands.
President Andrés Manuel López Obrador greets supporters in 2019 with then-Mexico City Mayor Claudia Sheinbaum. (Fernando Llano / Associated Press)

But how Sheinbaum will navigate his long shadow is already the central question of her presidency. López Obrador has vowed to retire from politics, but many wonder whether he will find a way to remain in the fray that has animated his entire adult life.

Sheinbaum, for her part, has dismissed the implication that she will be the former president's puppet as sexist. “There’s a hint of misogyny, of machismo there,” she said in one interview.

Veteran Mexican journalist Jorge Zepeda Patterson suggested that Sheinbaum is up against a lot.

"The generals, the union leaders, the party leaders, the managers of the business chambers ... are not only men, they operate culturally with patriarchal codes," he wrote in the Spanish newspaper El Pais.

Read more: Mexico's presidential race is between two women. So why is everyone talking about one man?

Sheinbaum owes her political career to López Obrador, who was mayor of Mexico City when he plucked the then-university professor out of academic obscurity and named her his secretary of environment.

He then encouraged successive electoral bids that catapulted Sheinbaum to his former post as the capital's mayor and, now, to succeed him as president.

Sheinbaum’s standard campaign stump speech routinely refers to her tutor in all things political as Mexico’s “greatest president” ever. She borrows his slogan promising to "put the poor first."

“It’s hard to believe” that López Obrador will stay completely away from politics, said Lila Abed, acting director of the Mexico Institute at the Wilson Center in Washington. “But he will probably allow [Sheinbaum] to stake out her own stands on certain issues.”

One is energy policy. López Obrador has invested billions of dollars in refinery projects and in propping up the plodding state oil giant, Pemex.

When asked about how her policies may differ, Sheinbaum inevitably refers generally to her scientific background, which includes a doctorate in environmental engineering and four years of study at the Lawrence Berkeley National Laboratory in California.

“I am a scientist, I have always worked for renewable sources of energy,” she said in an interview last year with the Los Angeles Times. “I am a woman. I believe in scientific development as part of national progress.”

Her adherence to science was evident from the early days of the pandemic as López Obrador defied social distance recommendations and toured the country — pressing the flesh with admirers, hugging and kissing supporters and urging his compatriots to keep eating in restaurants.

Read more: Bullets before ballots: Dozens of Mexican candidates have been killed as cartels seek more control

Sheinbaum, who at the time was mayor of Mexico City, was one of several insiders credited with working behind the scenes to persuade the president to reverse course and embrace mask-wearing and more caution.

“She urged people to wear masks, she closed the city and favored social distancing at a time when AMLO was saying the contrary,” Abed said.

Experts said Sheinbaum is also likely to take a more pronounced stand than her predecessor on gender issues — an area that activists routinely accused López Obrador of neglecting.

Their criticism has often extended to Sheinbaum as well, though she did speak out against violence against women and the grim statistic that an average of 10 women are killed every day.

In 2022, she pushed for the arrest and prosecution of the alleged killers in one of the country’s most high-profile cases: the slaying of Ariadna Fernanda López Ruiz, whose battered body was found dumped on a highway outside the capital. Sheinbaum alleged a cover-up on the part of a state prosecutor, who was later charged in the case.

Early returns suggested that Sheinbaum captured a broader share of the vote than any candidate in decades.

As of Monday afternoon, she was winning with 59% of the vote compared with 28% for her closest rival, Xóchitl Gálvez Ruiz, a former senator on a ticket with a coalition of opposition parties largely united against López Obrador.

With two women front-runners, it was clear for months that Mexico would elect a female president.

A woman holds a large Mexican flag.
A supporter of President-elect Claudia Sheinbaum awaits her arrival at the Zocalo, Mexico City's main square, in the early hours of Monday after the election. (Matias Delacroix / Associated Press)

Many credited the work of activists that resulted in gender quotas, an effort that dates back to the country's transition to democracy.

After more than seven decades of domination by the Institutional Revolutionary Party, politicians began rewriting laws in the 1990s to make elections more fair. Feminist activists saw an opening.

Lawmakers first set a mandatory 30% quota for female candidates in the 2003 elections and later raised the threshold to 40% for the 2009 vote.

For a while, parties tried to evade the requirements, running women in losing districts or making backroom deals so female candidates would resign once elected and cede their positions to men.

Read more: Soldiers and civilians are dying as Mexican cartels embrace a terrifying new weapon: Land mines

In response, female politicians from across the ideological spectrum formed a coalition to push back, taking parties to court and pressing election officials to strengthen the quota rules.

Fewer than a third of the member states of the United Nations have ever had a female leader, according to a Pew Research Center analysis.

Jennifer Piscopo, a professor of gender and politics at the University of London who studies Mexico, said her research shows that having women in office shapes not only policy but culture.

"Even if all forms of gender equality are not solved, I think it matters that now there won't be any little girl in Mexico who thinks a woman can't be president," she said.

Cecilia Sánchez Vidal in The Times' Mexico City bureau contributed to this report.

Sign up for Essential California for news, features and recommendations from the L.A. Times and beyond in your inbox six days a week.

This story originally appeared in Los Angeles Times.