The United Nations General Assembly convened in New York City last week on September 21, 2011 and history was made when Dilma Rousseff, President of Brazil, delivered the opening address to the delegates from the organization’s 193 members. This marked the first time in the UN’s 66 year history that a woman opened the general debate, a point which President Rousseff noted with both “personal humility” and “justified pride” in her opening remarks. When women make up less than 10 percent of world leaders, this is a major moment and as far as we’re concerned President Rousseff’s pride in celebrating her historic honor requires no humility or justification to accompany it.
But, Dilma is no stranger to historic firsts. Almost 9 months ago, on January 1, 2011, she was sworn in as the first female elected President of Brazil, South America’s largest and most populous country with a still booming economy – considered one of the world’s fastest growing in 2010. In addition, she is her country’s first economist elected to the office of President. 9 of her 37 appointed cabinet members are women – the highest number of female ministers in Brazil’s history. In 2005, Dilma was also the first woman to become Chief of Staff of Brazil, appointed by her mentor, then reformist President Lula da Silva, who stepped down after two terms as the most popular president in the country’s history.
In addition to her “day” job, which is a particularly powerful and BIG one, in large part because of the economic strength and sheer size (geographically and population-wise) of the democratic nation she leads, there are several other aspects to this woman that add value and importance to the sum of her parts. President Rousseff is also a mother, a grandmother and a recent lymphatic cancer survivor. Four decades ago, the then 19-year-old economics student, was a Marxist rebel who was imprisoned and brutally tortured for two years in the early 1970s for opposing the military dictatorship that then ruled Brazil. Though her political thinking has evolved to pragmatic capitalism, she still has that same fight in her… to continue to build a better Brazil.
In her opening remarks at the UN General Assembly, Dilma declared with certainty that “… this will be the century of women.” When a woman and leader like Dilma Rousseff, whose rise to presidential power is remarkable, makes this kind of statement the world has no choice but to listen. In an interview with Newsweek, President Rousseff recounted a great exchange she had with a young girl when she was running for the office she now holds. It is a testament to this being the “century of women”.
“One day in a crowded airport a woman and her young daughter tentatively approached Rousseff to get a closer look at the upstart female frontrunner. ‘Can a woman be president?’ the girl – whose name, fittingly, was Vitoria – wanted to know. ‘She can,’ Rousseff answered. With that Vitoria thanked Rousseff, raised her chin, and walked off a few inches taller.”
“When I was little I wanted to be a ballerina or a firefighter, full stop,” she [Rousseff] said. “I don’t know if it’s a new world, but the world is changing. For a girl even to ask about being president is a sign of progress.”