The Woman Behind the Man Behind the Woman

Having secured election as the first woman president in the history of Brazil, Dilma Rousseff said she wants “fathers and mothers to look their daughters in the eyes and say, ‘Yes, a woman can.'”

Irin Carmon is a bit dubious:

Perhaps it would be more accurate in this case to say, “She can, with the most powerful man in Brazil backing her,” in this case term-limited president Lula, for whom Rousseff served as chief of staff and energy minister. Just about every man/woman on the street interview yielded a mention that the voter hoped it would mean another term for the wildly popular Lula. (In the AP: “If Lula ran for president 10 times, I would vote for him 10 times…I’m voting for Dilma, of course, but the truth is it will still be Lula who will lead us.”) Rousseff has never run for office and just about every story about her refers to her lack of charisma, despite a dramatic past as a guerrilla fighting Brazil’s dictatorship.

I think this is a bit unfair to Rousseff and her very real achievement. Successions of this sort in which a popular term-limited leader tries to hand power off to a less-charismatic subordinate happen in politics all the time. Think of Ronald Reagan and George HW Bush or Bill Clinton and Al Gore. And the point in all cases is that attaining the status of “heir apparent to hugely successful politician” is itself a pretty impressive achievement. Here in the United States, after all, the appointment of a woman chief of staff would be something of a milestone all its own. Nobody gets ahead in politics without patrons, and Rousseff is no exception, but she had a very substantive role in Lula’s administration and there’s no reason not to point to her accomplishments in the general spirit of “yes, a woman can do it.”