War-ravaged Liberia was able to make it happen 10 years earlier, when the country elected Ellen Johnson Sirleaf — a 70-something grandmother — to lead their nation.
Market women made up the key demographic that helped catapult Sirleaf to the presidency. That is, the small business owners who sell street food and trinkets on Liberia’s roadsides.
Those women didn’t mind stooping to a few tricks on voting day in 2006, says Helene Cooper, author of the new biography, “Madame President; The Extraordinary Journey of Ellen Johnson Sirleaf.”
“Some of the mothers stole their sons’ voter ID cards. Some women were hanging out at the bar at the side of the road, and they were offering these guys money for their voter ID cards,” Cooper says. “In the polling lines, I talked to two women who were passing the same baby around to the different women saying, ‘You can pretend you’re a nursing mother, and they’ll let you jump to the front of the line so you don’t have to wait in line for eight, 10, 12 hours like everybody else is doing.’”
Sirleaf’s opponent in 2006 was celebrity soccer star, striker George Weah. Liberian men idolized Weah, although he had no experience in government or administration.
“The women rose up en masse to back Sirleaf,” Cooper says. “They were willing to take all sorts of shortcuts and play dirty with the men because they were so convinced that after years of civil war only a woman could lead Liberia. They thought she had nothing to do with the civil war, and they were afraid that the men would take them back to war.”
Sirleaf campaigned on a promise to serve for only one term. But she ran a second time and won, although her opponent withdrew from the election, raising allegations of voting irregularities. Today, she’s still in charge, although Liberians are slated to go to the polls and choose a new leader in October.
“For the first time in Liberian history, you’re going to have a ‘post-president,’ somebody who steps down at the end of their term and leaves,” Cooper says. “She’s going to be that rare African president who steps down and leaves democratically — not waiting until they’re shot or killed or run out of town.”
And when it comes to her successor, Sirleaf says she isn’t weighing in.
“The biggest part of her legacy has been the absence of war for 12 years and the fact that women in Liberia now believe that they can be a political force,” Cooper says.
(This story is a Public Radio International (PRI) radio interview)