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Three women

01/31/06 12:00AM By Madeleine M. Kunin
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(HOST) Commentator Madeleine Kunin is encouraged by the recent election of three women as heads of state in some rather unexpected parts of the world.

(KUNIN) In the German Republic, where women were traditionally relegated to the three k's - kirche, kinder and kuche - church, children, and kitchen - Angela Merkel, a physicist from East Germany no less, was elected.

Liberia, that civil war torn nation, elected Ellen Johnson Sirleaf, the first woman President to be elected in Africa.

And Chile, a macho, conservative, deeply religious country, elected a single mother, an agnostic, and a pediatrician to be its leader - Michele Bechelet.

What's going on?

Has the year of the woman finally arrived?

It would be dangerous to generalize, because any photo of global Heads of State remains a choreography of black suits, with only one or two black skirts.

Yet - something new has happened in each of these triumphs for women's leadership.

Gender was not the barrier it used to be. On the contrary, being a woman may have been an advantage.

All three women have lived under male dictatorships - Merkel, under communism, an experience that makes her a passionate proponent of Democracy.

Both Liberia's and Chile's new Presidents have suffered during their countries' past regimes.

President Sirleaf was imprisoned twice and threatened with rape and execution.

President Elect Bechelet saw political terrorism first-hand. Her father, a General, was tortured and killed by Pinochet, and she and her mother were imprisoned and tortured.

None of these women has a traditional story.

Each of them has a compelling personal story which resonated with the voters.

While American women politicians often agonize whether they should follow the male model of leadership, or reveal gender differences, both Liberia's and Chile's new leaders succeeded by making their femininity an advantage.

They define themselves as healers, peacemakers, mother figures who can bring their respective countries out of years of strife and suffering into a new period of reconciliation and change.

All three women exhibit remarkable courage and optimism.

Ms. Bechelet confessed on the News Hour recently that she had experienced rage at the Pinochet regime, which had killed her father, but she said she'd tried to channel pain into a constructive realm.

It is as if the voters had said, we're tired of the old style macho politics. We've suffered enough under those regimes.

We are ready to take the chance and try someone new-instead of the traditional father strong man leader; we want to be healed, nurtured and lead by our mother.

Put more simply, the voters wanted change.

All of these new leaders have high expectations to meet - perhaps impossibly high.

But for now - the fact that voters have entrusted themselves to new women leaders proves that questions about the ability of women to lead become inconsequential, when the candidates are compelling and the voters are ready to abandon old style politics, and take a chance on the new.

This is Madeleine May Kunin.

Madeleine May Kunin is a former governor of Vermont.
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