Honoring the Work of Ellen Johnson Sirleaf, First Female President of Liberia, and Future Women Leaders Everywhere

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While Americans debate whether the United States is really ready for a female president (examples: Michelle Malkin believes that, "This country would certainly have no problem being led by a woman…;" Jess notes, "I hate myself for saying it, but I'm saying it anyway: America is not ready for a woman president."), Ellen Johnson Sirleaf has been leading, healing, and rebuilding Liberia as its president since 2005. I'm a little disturbed that the idea to write about Ms. Johnson Sirleaf came from an ExxonMobil ad honoring her and other women in the op-ed pages of my newspaper, but there is it. (It's nice to think that about 1 or 2 cents of every $3.50 gallon of gas purchased is going to raise awareness that "women can.")

I remember when Johnson Sirleaf won the election in 2005. Not only was she the first female president of Liberia, but also the first in the continent of Africa. Despite the fact that she was running against a former football star, Johnson Sirleaf was able to win on her qualifications: the basis of her experience and her advanced educational background were keys to her victory. Unfortunately, some gender stereotypes played a role in the campaign, too. Many people felt that the years of brutal civil wars that destroyed the country were the fault of men, and that by voting for a woman, she would bring feminine and nurturing qualities to the nation. Others used gender stereotypes against her. ""Only a man can be strong enough to deal with all the ex-combatants. Liberia just isn't ready to have a woman leader yet," a well educated man told BBC News during the election. Still, it was an exciting victory, and I hoped there would be more like it.

Ms. Johnson Sirleaf's background granted her a unique advantage in a country where women traditionally have little voice. A descendant of Liberia's first settlers, she went on to the US to continue studies that she began at the College of West Africa in Monrovia, even she was only 17 when she married James Sirleaf. After graduating from the University of Colorado, she finished at masters in public administration at Harvard. Upon returning to Liberia, Johnson Sirleaf served as the Minister of Finance from 1972-3. She left over a dispute on public spending, and a few years later, the government in which she had served was overthrown in a military coup. Johnson Sirleaf exiled herself to Kenya, where she became the director of Citibank in Nairobi.

In 1984, another government change in Liberia prompted Johnson Sirleaf to return to Liberia. She campaigned against Samuel Doe in 1985, was placed under house arrest and was sentenced to 10 years in prison. She was imprisoned for a short time before she was exiled back to Nairobi. Again, she worked for Citibank, then HSBC in Washington. Moving back into the public sector, oversaw UN Development Program Regional Bureau for Africa (essentially an Assistant Secretary-General of the UN).

Back in Liberia, change and political turmoil continued to take place. A lull in the civil war took place in 1996, and elections were held. Alistair Boddy-Evans describes the next chapter:

Ellen Johnson-Sirleaf returned to Liberia in 1997 to contest the election. She came second to Charles Taylor (gaining 10% of the vote compared to his 75%) out of a field of 14 candidates. The election was declared free and fair by international observers. (Johnson-Sirleaf campaigned against Taylor and was charged with treason.) By 1999 civil war had returned to Liberia, and Taylor was accused of interfering with his neighbours, fomenting unrest and rebellion.

On 11 August 2003, after much persuasion, Charles Taylor handed power over to his deputy Moses Blah. The new interim government and rebel groups signed an historic peace accord and set about installing a new head of state. Ellen Johnson-Sirleaf was proposed as a possible candidate, but in the end the diverse groups selected Charles Gyude Bryant, a political neutral. Johnson-Sirleaf served as head of the Governance Reform Commission.

The rest was history. While I would not say that there are direct comparisons to the 2008 elections in the US, there are some interesting similarities. We have a national polarized by corrupt leadership that led us to war (albeit in another nation), a hunger for change, and a woman running for president who could actually win. Like Johnson Sirleaf, Clinton is a policy wonk from a privileged background.

The similarities may end there, but as International Women's Day (March 8!) approaches, I couldn't help but think how inspiring it is to see women continue to step up into leadership positions. Both Johnson Sirleaf and Clinton have led amazing lives in public service. As more organizations like The White House Project provide leadership training for women in the US, it excites me to think about the range of candidates we may see in the future.

Suzanne also blogs at Campaign for Unshaved Snatch (CUSS) & Other Rants


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