An installation in Mexico City during a campaign against violence against women in advance of International Women's Day. March 6, 2018
An installation in Mexico City during a campaign against violence against women in advance of International Women's Day. March 6, 2018 Reuters/Henry Romero

Claudia Sheinbaum Pardo’s election last month was, in part, the result of a decades-long movement in Mexico by feminists and women in politics.

When Claudia Sheinbaum Pardo takes office in December, it will be the culmination of an historic moment: Last month, she became the first woman elected mayor of Mexico City, winning 47 percent of the vote in a crowded field.

Sheinbaum’s election was a moment a long time in the making according to Ximena Andion, the executive director of the Simone de Beauvoir Leadership Institute in Mexico City, which runs programs on reproductive rights, women’s economic autonomy and political participation.

“What happened in Mexico City is the result of a movement during the last 20 years, led by feminists and women in politics,” said Andion. Her institute operates a program to build women’s political participation, which includes workshops for political parties and government entities.

Beginning in 1996 Mexico mandated gender quotas for the federal legislative branch. Women’s representation has gradually increased, and they make up 48 percent of the incoming Congress. (By contrast, in the United States, women surpassed 20 percent of the Congress for the first time this April.) The 1996 law required at least 30 percent of candidates to be women; in 2006 the quota went up to 40 percent and then in 2014, to gender parity. Political pressure from women’s rights groups precipitated each change.

When Mexico City drafted its first Constitution in 2016 and 2017, feminist organizations saw it as an opportunity to take quotas one step further. The city solicited feedback from a 100-member assembly and invited residents to propose ideas via Change.org. The constitution includes important changes to give more autonomy to the city, which as a “federal district,” had limited decision-making power.

“Mexico City’s constitution goes even further, because it extends parity to the executive branch and the judicial branch,” says Andion. “That was unprecedented in Mexico.”

The constitution will go into effect this September and includes the right to abortion and same-sex marriage. It also mandates that half of the positions in Mexico City’s 22-person cabinet go to women. Andion says that instead of tokenizing women, Sheinbaum has named them to roles typically given to men. The incoming Finance Secretary, for example, is Luz Elena González Escobar, an economist with expertise in public administration.

Claudia Sheinbaum Pardo prepares for an interview in Mexico City, August 1, 2018.  (Carlos Jasso/Reuters)

Sheinbaum’s election comes as women’s traditional roles in Mexican politics are being questioned. She ran on the ticket of the National Regeneration Movement’s coalition (Morena), which also won the presidency and a strong majority in the federal and city legislatures. The wife of president-elect Andrés Manuel López Obrador, Beatriz Gutiérrez Müller, says she will not run the Integral Family Development Office (DIF), akin to a federal welfare office, which is the role the First Lady traditionally holds. Gutiérrez Müller, who holds a PhD in literary theory, has also rejected the title of First Lady, calling it “classist.”

From a Jewish family of academics (Sheinbaum will also be the city’s first Jewish mayor—her grandparents emigrated from Lithuania and Bulgaria), Sheinbaum trained as an engineer, obtaining both her master’s degree and doctorate in energy engineering at Mexico’s National Autonomous University (UNAM), where she now teaches. As a doctoral student, she received a grant to carry out research at the Lawrence Berkeley National Laboratory in California.

Sheinbaum’s first turn in public service was from 2000 to 2006, when she served as Environmental Secretary in the city government led by Andrés Manuel López Obrador, now president-elect of Mexico. In that role, she led the construction of the Metrobus, Mexico’s first Rapid Transit Bus line.

The mayor-elect has more challenges ahead. While Mexico City is an international destination for design, gastronomy and art, the capital faces complex social and environmental challenges.

Mexico City holds the dubious distinction of the most congested city in the world, according to Tom Tom’s Traffic Index. Strict emissions regulations have driven down air pollution levels since the 1990s, but contamination began to climb up again during the previous mayor Miguel Ángel Mancera’s administration. Sheinbaum has named a mobility secretary, Andrés Lajous, a former journalist with a degree in public planning from Massachusetts Institute of Techonology. He says they have ambitious plans to expand the Metrobus BRT system, build Mexico City’s first cable cars for mass transit, and improve cycling infrastructure

Water is another perennial problem, as aging infrastructure leads to spotty service in many peripheral neighborhoods. The September 19, 2017, earthquake killed hundreds in Mexico City and exposed ongoing deficiencies in earthquake-preparedness. Sheinbaum was serving as district mayor of the Tlalpan neighborhood in Mexico City at the time. Her district was one of the hardest hit, and more than 20 children and adults died in a school collapse that some attributed to shoddy construction. Sheinbaum’s critics see this as a lapse in building oversight and a major failing of her tenure.

As mayor, Sheinbaum is expected to take a pragmatic, technical approach to many of these issues. Instead of career bureaucrats, many of the incoming cabinet secretaries she has selected have decades of experience in academia or the non-profit sector. And Sheinbaum sent a clear message that gender issues will be at the heart of her administration when she announced she would upgrade the Women’s Institute to be a Secretariat. She named Gabriela Rodríguez, a feminist and reproductive rights activist, to lead it.

“Becoming a Secretariat helps us integrate gender into all the institutions of government,” says Rodríguez. “We will be at the same table with all the other secretaries.”

With crime on the rise in Mexico City and nationally, women often feel the brunt of the violence. In 2017, 1,085 homicides were reported in the capital, the highest total since 2007. In the June 2018 National Urban Security Survey, more than 90 percent of Mexico City residents said they felt unsafe in their city. Street harassment of women is ubiquitous. Many viewed Mancera’s strategies to combat harassment, including distributing whistles, as lip service.

Rodríguez’s vision for the Secretariat focuses on reducing violence towards women. She says that rhetoric and legislation in favor of women needs to be put into practice. Impunity is a nation-wide problem and in Mexico City about 60 percent of reported crimes go unsolved.

“In Mexico, we make very pretty laws,” she says. “But we don’t apply them.”

“My goal of lowering gendered violence depends a lot on who is in the Prosecutor's Office,” she says. “There have always been misogynist prosecutors...Traditionally cases of gendered violence are discredited, and the culprits are released.”

Despite the challenges ahead, Rodríguez, 65, is energized to hold public office for the first time. “It would have been more relaxing to stay home and look after my granddaughters,” she says. “But I was invited to join the cabinet, and I couldn't say no. Contributing in this moment is an honor.”

If the incoming administration’s plans sound ambitious, at least they have the country’s new president on their side. For the first time, a left party has been elected to power both in Mexico City and at the federal level. Since working together in the city government, López Obrador and Sheinbaum are close associates. In 2014, Sheinbaum was one of the first to join López Obrador’s new party, Morena, after he split from the traditional left-wing party, PRD. While not everyone sees this closeness as a good thing—some say they are too cozy—Rodríguez sees it as progress.

“Going back 20 years since the left took power in Mexico City, we have always had an adversarial relationship with the federal government,” says Rodríguez, who cut her teeth in the women’s movement. “It's the first time that there's a synergy to work together.”

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