By Ashley Begley
Who could forget Reese Witherspoon’s spunky character in the 1999 film Election? As Tracy Flick, she is perhaps a tad overzealous in her bid for class prez, but her brilliant determination is inspiring to say the least—and LOL funny.
It’s doubtful that 19th-century woman suffragist Victoria Woodhull ran for school election back in the day, but she did become the first woman to run for U.S. president. That was in 1872, and nearly a century and a half later, we still have not had a female president. But of course, there’s a ton of buzz around former first lady Hillary Rodham Clinton’s bid in the 2016 presidential race—her second stab at becoming the first-ever female president of the United States.
In 2008, Hillary Clinton reached second place in the Democratic Party primaries, winning more primaries than any other woman in history. The race between Clinton and Barack Obama was among the closest in history. —Wikipedia.org
Let’s make it clear that we’re not endorsing any particular candidate, but we are most certainly advocates of women who choose to seek influential positions. You might not be aware—since only the most well-known candidates get a ton of press coverage—that lots of women have run for president over the years. You also might not have heard that seven other women are currently on the 2016 slate. And it’s likely you don’t know that female leaders presently are at the head of government in 22 countries.
One of those women in leadership is Ellen Johnson Sirleaf, the first woman to become president of Liberia. She won the 2005 election and was re-elected for a second six-year term in 2011. President Sirleaf comes from humble origins—both her parents came from impoverished rural regions and worked hard so their children could receive a good education. Sirleaf was born in Monrovia, the capital of Liberia and, at the age of 17, came to the United States with then-husband James Sirleaf. She graduated with a master’s degree in public administration from Harvard University’s John F. Kennedy School of Government.
Sirleaf returned to Liberia in 1971 and, following in her father’s footsteps—he was the first indigenous Liberian to sit in the national legislature—became assistant minister of finance and gained accolades for standing up to corrupt corporations. However, Sirleaf was forced to flee Liberia in 1980 after denouncing the new regime that had toppled the previous government. She traveled to the United States and to Nairobi, the capital of Kenya, working in various jobs before deciding to return to Liberian politics in 1995.
During her campaign for the 1995 vice presidency, she again denounced the regime and was sentenced to a 10-year prison sentence. When the international community called for her release, she ran for senator but, citing fraudulent elections, later declined to accept the seat. In 1997, she ran for president and, although she didn’t win and subsequently went into exile, she did not stop there. After the Second Liberian Civil War, she again ran in the 2005 elections and, this time, she was elected president! And, ignoring the haters, she won the 2011 election, too.
During her presidency, Sirleaf has made numerous unprecedented moves such as the following:
- She declared education is compulsory for all children and should be tuition-free.
- She put into place a Freedom of Information Act, the first of its kind in Africa.
- She refused to further criminalize homosexuality in Liberia.
President Sirleaf is a powerful leader within the international community, speaking out against violence and sitting on the Council of Women World Leaders. In 2011, Sirleaf was awarded the Nobel Peace Prize for her dedication to peaceful advocacy concerning women’s safety and women’s rights. She stands as an inspiration for young women all over the world, speaking out in support of what she believes and not letting anything, even the threat of imprisonment, silence her.
She supports her beloved Liberia by leading with integrity and putting the needs of her people first—for example, when the presidential mansion was damaged in a fire she declared that the rebuilding of the mansion was not on her priority list because her people had more pressing matters that needed her attention. President Sirleaf is one of many female presidents worldwide to grace us with leadership. …Will you be next?
Photo credit: “Ellen Johnson-Sirleaf, April 2010” by Antonio Cruz