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A trailblazing feminist says Mexico’s ‘triumph’ of a first female president is no surprise

Elena Poniatowska poses for a portrait in her home in Mexico City on May 28, 2024.
Israel Fuguemann
/
NPR
Elena Poniatowska poses for a portrait in her home in Mexico City on May 28, 2024.

Updated June 01, 2024 at 10:20 AM ET

MEXICO CITY — At 92, Elena Poniatowska, one of Mexico's most distinguished writers, has chronicled decades of women’s history in the country.

“I’ve always believed in women,” Poniatowska told NPR, just days before a historic election in which one of two women is likely to become the most powerful political figure in Mexico.

“I think it's not a dream. I think it's a battle that has been won,” Poniatowska said on Morning Edition.

She acknowledges that the enthusiasm falls short of the fervor surrounding Hilary Clinton’s 2016 campaign in the U.S., believing it’s because voters in Mexico take it for granted and find it “completely natural.”

Even to her, she says, “It's not a miracle. It's not a great surprise.”

The two leading candidates in this race are women: Claudia Sheinbaum, the ruling party's candidate, and opposition candidate Xóchitl Gálvez. And come Sunday, Sheinbaum, a candidate Poniatowska supports, may well become the most powerful woman in Mexico.

Known as a trailblazing feminist, Poniatowska has documented the triumphs of writers, painters, and other notable women who have struggled against systemic inequity and misogyny. Decades ago, she even met the woman who currently holds a double-digit polling lead in jail, when Poniatowska was interviewing political prisoners and Sheinbaum was accompanying her mother, who was also visiting inmates. Did Poniatowska find Sheinbaum extraordinary?

“I thought at the time that she was very beautiful, that she was very intelligent, and that I was happy to be next to a woman who was in the university.”

As to a woman rising to Mexico’s National Palace, she credits hard work and feminist intention.

After achieving parity in Mexico’s Congress in 2018, women banded together to press for a constitutional amendment that mandates parity in every aspect of public life — from the president's cabinet, to party candidates, to the legislature, and the courts.

“This is how I imagined (it). I worked for it. And I not only hoped it would happen. Women now have invaded territories that before they didn’t know,” Poniatowska says. “The only woman they used to speak about was the artist Frida Kahlo… And so now there are other women scientists, astronomers, women in hospitals, and women everywhere."

She once wrote of a country in which, in the 1920s, women were despised, discarded, consumed, stigmatized, and “hanged from the tree of patriarchy.” But she insists she never doubted that a woman would “take charge of a whole enormous country.”

Seated in her home against a backdrop of bright orchids and walls of bookshelves and photographs, Poniatowska recalls being inspired by her mother’s bravery in driving an ambulance in France during World War II. And she tells a story in which, under cover of darkness to escape detection by the Nazis, her mother coaxed a stray donkey into her van to transport it to a safer place.

“If you can rescue a donkey," she said, implying it meant a woman could do anything.

She says these elections—this “women’s triumph"— are personally gratifying. “It’s something that makes me happy — that makes me cry sometimes.”

Copyright 2024 NPR

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Eyder Peralta is NPR's East Africa correspondent based in Nairobi, Kenya.