10 Pioneering Female Politicians

African American educator and U.S. Congresswoman Shirley Chisholm speaks at a podium at the Democratic National Convention in July 1972.
Former U.S. Congresswoman Shirley Chisholm was a true political pioneer. Pictorial Parade/Getty

By the numbers, men and women are on fairly even footing -- from a global population standpoint, at least. According to 2012 worldwide estimates from the CIA, for every female baby born on the planet, 1.07 male babies are born, meaning that boys slightly outnumber girls early in life [source: CIA World Factbook]. However, that his-to-hers ratio evens out over the years, since men tend to die sooner than women [source: Kirkwood].

But for all of that statistical equality, it's a well-known fact that the places men and women live are often governed almost exclusively by the menfolk. The United States has yet to elect a female president, and as of 2012, women held 90 congressional seats, which might sound like a lot but actually is just 16.8 percent of the total [source: Center for Women and Politics]. Female senators are a similarly select group, making up only 17 of the 100 positions. That kind of gender gap also extends far beyond American borders, since women comprise less than 10 percent of government leaders and fewer than one in five parliament members internationally [source: UN Women].


As governments and organizations strive to close that sprawling disparity and get more women involved in political decision-making, it's worthwhile to recognize those who've already done their parts to achieve that goal. Around the world, the following 10 female political pioneers have trail-blazed their way to power and demonstrated just how much women rule.

10: Sirimavo Bandaranaike

Sirimavo Bandaranaike, the “weeping widow,” making a campaign speech in 1960.
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On July 20, 1960, Sirimavo Bandaranaike became prime minister of Sri Lanka, making her the first woman in the country -- and the world -- to be elected to that high-ranking seat. She'd taken over as president of the Sri Lankan Freedom Party after her prime minister husband was assassinated by a Buddhist monk in 1959. Nicknamed the "weeping widow," Bandaranaike earned a reputation -- and votes, eventually -- for tearful speeches on the campaign trail [source: BBC].

The first female prime minister served for 12 non-consecutive years and was reappointed in 1994 by her daughter Chandrika Kumaratunga, who had become Sri Lanka's president. By 1994, the prime minister position that Bandaranaike herself held was mostly ceremonial, but all told, the Bandaranaike political dynasty governed the South Asian country for 26 years. She died in 2000 [source: Dugger].


9: Margaret Thatcher

In May 1979, Margaret Thatcher became Britain’s first female prime minister.
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The daughter of a grocer, Britain's Margaret Thatcher studied chemistry at Oxford University, where her political interests were stoked by her participation in the student-led Conservative Association [source: Margaret Thatcher Foundation]. In 1950, the 25-year-old Thatcher became the youngest woman in England's history to run for parliamentary office. The future "Iron Lady" lost the election, but her campaigning helped cement her role in the Conservative Party, and she won a seat in Parliament in 1959. From there, Thatcher's political star began to rise, and she became Britain's first female prime minister when the Conservative Party beat out the competing Labor Party in the May 1979 general election.

Over her three terms as prime minister, the diplomatic Cold War with the former Soviet Union would be the most significant battle that Thatcher's government would face, but the country also became militarily engaged in the 1982 Falkland's War. The Falklands Islands off the coast of Argentina are a British territory, and Thatcher declared war on Argentina following an invasion attempting to overthrow the foreign rule. After only three months, Thatcher and the British government declared victory.


In 1990, following public protests against a new tax she sought to levy, Thatcher resigned from office in order to prevent her Conservative Party from losing votes in the upcoming election [source: Biography.com]. She was given a life peerage in 1992 and known as Baroness Thatcher. After a series of strokes, she died in 2013.

8: Ellen Johnson Sirleaf

Ellen Johnson Sirleaf was awarded the Nobel Peace Prize in 2011 for her efforts to stabilize Liberia after decades of civil war and government corruption.
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When the Harvard-educated Ellen Johnson Sirleaf delivered her presidential inauguration address in 2005, she told the crowd of Liberian supporters and international dignitaries that her six-year term would mark a "fundamental break" with the past [source: Associated Press]. And she wasn't just referring to the fact that she had just become not only Liberia's first female president but also the first female head of state in all of Africa. Following decades of military coups, civil war and violence -- largely led by former Liberian dictator Charles Taylor -- Sirleaf vowed to put an end to deep-seated government corruption that had left Africa's oldest republic in disarray for so long.

The very fact that Sirleaf survived to participate in that monumental election in 2005 was miraculous, as well. In 1980, while serving as the nation's finance minister, a military coup forced her into exile, but she was saved from the mass execution of the government's other pre-coup executive cabinet members [source: Associated Press]. In recognition of her efforts to repair the war-torn nation, Sirleaf received a Nobel Peace Prize in 2011 [source: Ford].


7: Michelle Bachelet

In 2006, Michelle Bachelet became Chile’s first female president.
Brendan Smialowski/Getty Images

Like Liberia's Ellen Johnson Sirleaf, who was exiled from her home country by a military dictatorship, Michelle Bachelet was forced to leave Chile in 1975 after first being imprisoned and tortured by Augustine Pinochet's military regime [source: Encyclopædia Britannica]. After returning to Chile four years later, Bachelet got involved with the Socialist Party and in 2002 was appointed the country's first female minister of defense. During the 2006 election, the Socialist Party tapped Bachelet to run as its presidential candidate, and the divorced mother of three narrowly won and became the first female president in Chilean history. Deftly steering the nation through the international financial recession in 2008, Bachelet also earned kudos for her government's investment in improving early childhood education and assistance to low-income families [source: UN Women].

When her term wrapped up in 2010, Bachelet transitioned from national to global politics as executive director of the newly formed UN Women, which seeks to spread gender equity and empowerment for women around the world. Bachelet's longstanding desire to enfranchise others through her work was reflected in her presidential victory speech, in which she said, "Because I was the victim of hatred, I have dedicated my life to reverse that hatred and turn it into understanding, tolerance and -- why not say it -- into love" [source: Gallardo]. She was re-elected president of Chile in 2013.


6: Geraldine Ferraro

Although Geraldine Ferraro didn’t become vice president, her nomination by the Democratic Party in 1984 was an historical event.
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In a 1988 letter published in The New York Times, Geraldine Ferraro wrote, "I am the first to admit that were I not a woman, I would not have been the vice-presidential nominee" [source: Martin]. Four years prior, the Democratic Party had selected the former assistant district attorney from Queens as running mate for Walter Mondale in the 1984 U.S. presidential election. It was the first time a woman representing a major political party had ever landed on the ticket. Her selection was interpreted by many as a way to court women at the polls, but her liberal stances on abortion and support of the Equal Rights Amendment also turned off more conservative voters, male and female alike [source: Martin].

Fighting an uphill battle against popular incumbent President Ronald Reagan and George H.W. Bush, the Mondale-Ferraro team received intensive media buzz, but the novelty of a potential female vice president wasn't enough to carry the Democrats to election victory. The Republican Party easily won the election, snagging every state except Minnesota in a statistical landslide that rivaled only President Franklin D. Roosevelt's runaway reelection win in 1936 [source: Associated Press]. Nevertheless, Ferraro was hailed as a trailblazer even in defeat, symbolizing women's potential to lead in American politics. She died in 2011.


5: Victoria Woodhull

Victoria Woodhull attempted to run for president almost 50 years before American women were even allowed to vote.
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The first woman in the United States to declare her candidacy for president couldn't even legally vote, because Congress had yet to pass the 19th Amendment granting women's suffrage. Nevertheless, in 1871 -- 49 years before that amendment to the U.S. Constitution was ratified -- Victoria Woodhull announced her plans to run for office in the 1872 election. The daughter of a con man from Ohio, Woodhull started out as a spiritual medium, then made a name for herself professionally by starting Wall Street's first female-run brokerage and earned enough money to start a weekly magazine and travel around delivering speeches on women's rights [source: Brookhiser].

Although Woodhull's outspokenness and determination to challenge Victorian era prudery won her praise among some progressive circles, she was ultimately too brash to succeed politically. The clairvoyant-cum-candidate's writings about "free love" in her weekly magazine, "Woodhull & Claflin's Weekly," landed Woodhull in jail periodically, and she was put on trial and acquitted on charges of distributing pornography [source: NPR].


When the 1872 election rolled around, Woodhull was still embroiled in legal troubles, and her name didn't appear on any ballots. But the nicknamed "Prostitute Who Ran for President" could still claim victory for being the first woman to publicly try for a shot at becoming commander-in-chief. She died in 1927.

4: Susanna Madora Salter

Susanna Madora Salter’s participation in her local chapter of the Women’s Christian Temperance Union landed her on the mayoral ballot as a joke.
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The first woman to win a mayoral race in the United States didn't even know that she was the on the local ballot until the day before the election [source: Kaufman]. In 1887, Kansas granted women the right to vote in municipal races, and as a joke, a group of men in the Quaker town of Argonia decided to nominate Susanna Madora Salter for mayor, representing the Prohibition Party [source: Kansas Historical Society]. The 27-year-old mother wasn't particularly political, but her involvement in the Women's Christian Temperance Union spurred the group of men to select her name as the target of the joke.

At the polls, Salter took advantage of the new women's voting right and cast her ballot in every local race except the one for mayor. However, the other Argonia women rallied behind Salter, despite her nomination being tongue-in-cheek, and she won without so much as a proper campaign. Salter served her term dutifully, but never sought political office after her stint as America's first female mayor [source: Kansas Historical Society]. She died in 1961, two weeks after her 101st birthday.


3: Shirley Chisholm

Congresswoman Shirley Chisholm announced her candidacy for president in 1972.
Don Hogan Charles/Getty Images

Shirley Chisholm was the first black woman elected to the U.S. Congress in 1968, but the outspoken educator from the New York City neighborhood of Bedford-Stuyvesant told the press that she didn't want to be remembered for that accolade [source: Barron]. Instead, "Fighting Shirley" preferred to go down in history for her unrelenting stance against the political machine of Washington.

Previously working for New York City's department of child welfare, Chisholm became involved with community organizing and won a seat in the state legislature in 1964. Four years later, under the campaign slogan "unbought and unbossed," Chisholm ran for U.S. Congress in a newly apportioned congressional district in Brooklyn. Her white Republican opponent James Farmer saw eye to eye with Chisholm on racial equality issues, but openly opposed the notion of a woman being sent to Washington, derisively referring to the former early childhood education consultant and daycare center director as a "little schoolteacher" [source: U.S. House of Representatives].


But once in Washington, that "little schoolteacher" didn't sit idly by. Instead, she publicly agitated against her initial assignment to the Agriculture Committee, which she viewed as a toothless position for someone from the cement jungle of New York, and then announced her candidacy for president in 1972. Chisholm didn't win the Democratic Party nomination, but continued serving in the U.S. House of Representatives for seven terms and became a founding member of the Congressional Black Caucus and the Congressional Women's Caucus in 1971 and 1977, respectively [source: U.S. House of Representatives]. She died in 2005.

2: Ileana Ros-Lehtinen

Born in Cuba, Florida’s Ileana Ros-Lehtinen became the first Latina woman elected to U.S. Congress in 1989.
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Born in Havana, Cuba, Ileana Ros-Lehtinen moved to Miami during her childhood and followed her American dream into teaching, which later inspired her to pursue politics in order to influence the public education system [source: U.S. House of Representatives]. In 1982, Ros-Lehtinen became the first Latina woman elected to the Florida state legislature, and she continued to climb the ranks and was elected to the state senate in 1986.

Three years later, the teacher-turned-politician won a Republican Party seat in the U.S. House of Representatives, representing yet another first for Latina woman [source: Library of Congress]. In Congress, Ros-Lehtinen was appointed to the Foreign Affairs Committee and eventually went on to chair the influential congressional group. Then, in 2011, Ros-Lehtinen achieved another first as the initial Republican representative to co-sponsor a bill to repeal the Defense of Marriage Act, which legally restricted marriage to unions between men and women, a stance that earned her praise from liberal groups more commonly associated with the Democratic Party [source: Terkel].


As of 2017, Ros-Lehtinen remains a member of Congress, representing the Florida district that includes Miami and its surrounding communities.

1: Jeannette Rankin

Montana Representative Jeanette Rankin was the only member of Congress to vote against the United States’ involvement in World War II.
New York Times Co./Getty Images

After being elected to the U.S. House of Representatives in 1916, Jeannette Rankin told "The Suffragist" magazine, "I may be the first woman member of Congress, but I won't be the last" [source: Women in Congress]. Certainly, the groundbreaking representative from Montana was right that other women would join the government ranks, and, in fact, it wasn't her gender but rather her pacifism that led to her departure from politics. Elected during World War I, Rankin was one of 49 members of Congress to vote against America becoming involved in the international crisis, which cost her a bid for the U.S. Senate in 1918 [source: Encyclopædia Britannica].

Afterward, Rankin dedicated herself to social reform work, but was wooed back to the ballot in 1940 and elected yet again to represent Montana in Congress. Soon after she re-entered the political sphere, Japan bombed Pearl Harbor, which triggered American involvement in World War II. The staunchly anti-war Rankin voted, for the second time around, for the United States to abstain from entering the military conflict. However, she was alone in her decision, attracting intense criticism from her fellow politicians and her constituents. When Rankin's congressional term expired, she declined to seek re-election. She died in 1973.

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Author's Note: 10 Pioneering Female Politicians

Often in the United States, media stories about women in government focus on negatives: too few women in office or too few women interested in politics. Granted, there are many notable American women who have made their names in the political arena, although none have succeeded in snagging a seat in the Oval Office. Fortunately, taking a global view of women in politics offers many examples of how female prime ministers and presidents have steered their respective nations with aplomb. There's still a long way to go to close the global gender gap in government, but this list of the 10 Female Political Pioneers hopefully demonstrates that it's not an impossible goal.

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