“Parity in Everything”: What Mexico Can Teach Us About Women’s Representation

Updated Tuesday, June 8, at 11:05 a.m. PT.

Mexico is the first country in the world to implement gender parity so thoroughly and effectively. The journey has not been easy—and is far from over.

"Parity in Everything": What Mexico Can Teach Us About Women's Representation
Protesters at a femicide protest in Zocalo, Mexico City, the day after International Day for the Elimination of Violence Against Women in 2019. The sign says “No nací mujer para morir por serlo”: “I was not born a woman to die for being it.” (Wikimedia Commons)

On June 6, 2021, Mexico implemented its constitutional mandate for “gender parity in everything” for the first time. All eyes were on the 15 governors’ seats up for grabs, with Mexico becoming the first country in the world to require that parties nominate women for governors’ races.

Women ultimately won five states: Baja California, Chihuahua, Colima, Guerrero and Tlaxcala. Votes are still being counted in Campeche, but the woman candidate has the edge, and her victory would mean Mexico elected six women governors—over one-third of the races in contention and more than ever elected at once in the United States.

True, women’s victories are concentrated in the states outside Mexico’s power centers, because that’s where parties mostly sent women candidates. Nonetheless, women will play leading roles in Mexico’s future.

The women victors of Campeche, Colima and Tlaxcala will lead small states, but their membership in Morena—the party of current President Andrés Manuel López Obrador—gives them a high profile. Two women will govern along the U.S.-Mexico border: Morena party member Marina del Pilar Ávila Olmeda in Baja California, which contains the border cities of Tijuana and Mexicali; and National Action Party member Layda Elena Sansores in Chihuahua, which contains the border city of Ciudad Juárez, across from El Paso. All five women are experienced politicians, with previous posts in the legislative or executive branch.

And a woman will lead Guerrero, home to Acapulco and known to thousands of U.S. tourists. Here, the victory of the Morena candidate Evelyn Cecia Salgado Pineda is more controversial. The original candidate was her father, Félix Salgado Macedonio, who refused to resign despite accusations of rape. Finally forced from the race when election officials uncovered campaign finance irregularities, the party nominated his daughter—a woman with no political experience. Yet politics in Mexico is often a family affair, so like plenty of relatives elected before her—including plenty of men—Salgado Pineda may yet prove herself.

With these historic results, Mexico again demonstrates that constitutional commitments to gender equality can change outcomes and help women shatter political glass ceilings.

In 2018, women won half the seats in Mexico’s Congress. They then championed a groundbreaking constitutional reform: gender parity for all candidates for elected office, and for top posts in the executive and judicial branches. Called “parity in everything,” the reform sailed to victory in May 2019. Not a single member of Congress voted against it.

This easy success seems astounding, but parity in everything capped a decades-long process of increasing Mexican women’s access to political power. By 2019, political parties already respected 50–50 rules when nominating candidates for the federal Congress, the state legislatures, and the municipal governments, including mayors. The last holdout among elected positions were coveted governor positions. Only seven of Mexico’s 32 states have ever elected a woman governor: That’s seven women compared to 344 men since Mexican women gained the right to vote in 1953.

Feminists hope that number changes on June 6, 2021, when Mexico holds midterm elections and gender parity applies to gubernatorial nominees for the first time. Other newly-implemented rules further tilt the electoral playing field in women’s favor, and not just in the governor races. Those convicted of violence against women cannot stand for elected office. And of the campaign resources that parties distribute to candidates, 40 percent of the money and 40 percent of the advertising time must go to women.

While U.S. feminists were focused on breaking the 25 percent barrier for women in the House of Representatives, Mexico became the world’s leader on gender parity. Mexican women spent decades chipping away at men’s political dominance, turning incremental gains into deeper changes. Working across ideological divides, women in Mexico’s political parties forged partnerships with activists and election authorities, and together they held party leaders accountable for fulfilling democracy’s promise of political equality.

While U.S. feminists were focused on breaking the 25 percent barrier for women in the House of Representatives, Mexico became the world’s leader on gender parity.

Forcing Parties to Change

The idea of gender quotas for women candidates goes back nearly 50 years, to the United Nations’ First World Conference on Women, coincidentally held in Mexico City in 1975. At the time, the U.N. recommendations merely emphasized the importance of women’s political inclusion, but women activists and elected officials knew party leaders would need requirements, not pretty words. So in Latin America and elsewhere, women began pushing party leaders to set targets for nominating women.

In 1991, Argentina became the first country in Latin America and the world to adopt a 30 percent gender quota law for women candidates. Mexico followed, with a 1996 law recommending that parties nominate 30 percent women for the federal Congress, and a 2002 law requiring them to do so. Key to this shift was Mexico’s democratization.

The Institutional Revolution Party (PRI)—a big-tent party with many internal factions—had dominated Mexican politics since the 1930s. For about 50 years, the PRI used its legislative majorities to write election laws that made it hard for new parties to form and compete. But starting in the 1980s, the PRI began losing federal and state races, flanked on the left by Democratic Revolution Party (PRD) and on the right by the National Action Party (PAN). The balance of power shifted, and PRD and PAN legislators used their growing numbers to rewrite the laws, making elections fairer and freer.

This virtuous cycle of electoral reform gave women legislators—who comprised about 15 percent of Congress throughout the 1990s—an opportunity. They could introduce gender quotas as amendments to election laws, tying targets for women candidates to parties’ broader efforts to kick out the old-timers and the dinosaurs. They connected women’s inclusion to improving democracy. As academic and political leader Rosa Icela Ojeda Rivera wrote at the time, representative models that excluded half the population lacked democratic legitimacy.

"Parity in Everything": What Mexico Can Teach Us About Women's Representation
Rosa Icela Ojeda Rivera in 2015. (Youtube)

On this point of fairness, women from the right made common cause with women from the left. Issues like abortion could divide them, but political equality would unite them. As one woman senator explained, “Each woman thinks, fundamentally, that if there is more space for women in politics, then there is more space for me.”

Women from the right-wing PAN, initially the most skeptical, became ardent supporters as they realized their party was just as sexist as the others. Patricia Espinosa, a top PAN leader, published a 2002 op-ed in Mexico’s leading newspapers with the headline, “Quotas are necessary to guarantee the participation of women in political parties.”

From Gender Quotas to Gender Parity

All legislation requires bargaining. Women won the mandatory gender quota in 2002 because they agreed to loopholes. Most famously, parties who chose their candidates using internal primaries—rather than direct selection by the party leadership—would not need to fill the 30 percent quota. 

Loopholes notwithstanding, the quota did elect more women to Congress. In the 2003 elections, women went from comprising 16.8 percent of the lower house to 24.9 percent. And they became even more determined to work for their inclusion.

In 2008, women legislators took advantage of yet another electoral reform, adding an amendment that raised the gender quota to 40 percent. Party leaders agreed, so long as they could keep their workarounds. They claimed to select candidates using primaries, and election authorities took them at their word. They nominated more women, but in districts they expected to lose.

But then, party leaders went too far. Women made few gains in the 2009 elections, increasing their presence in the lower house to just 27.6 percent. Even worse, 16 women winners—from parties of the left and the right—forfeited, allowing men to take their seats. Women legislators cried foul and fraud. Journalists called the sham candidacies “cheating” and “an undignified trick.” Prominent women leaders came together, forming a network of politicians, journalists, academics, activists and policymakers known as Mujeres en Plural (Women as Multiple). Together, they brought a class-action lawsuit before Mexico’s federal electoral court, which has final say over election law.

The court, led by then chief magistrate María del Carmen Alanis, appealed to the equal rights enshrined in Mexico’s constitution. Alanis explained the court’s reasoning: “Gender equality is a constitutional principle equal to other constitutional principles.” In other words, gender equality cannot play second fiddle to other constitutional principles, like political parties’ freedom to choose candidates. The court wrote that each party must nominate men and women in “equality of conditions” and that the quota needed to be filled “without exception.”

This landmark ruling tied the gender quota to fulfilling Mexico’s constitutional promise of gender equality. Parties lost their loopholes. Soon after, the 2014 constitution reform replaced the 40 percent gender quota with gender parity for the federal Congress and the state legislatures. The 2015 electoral reform added that parties could not send women candidates exclusively to losing districts.

And these changes triggered gains in the municipalities. As states updated their own constitutions and laws to require gender parity for state legislative races, some used imprecise language, implying that gender parity also applied to municipal elections. Mujeres en Plural had prepared for this possibility and reacted quickly, petitioning state election courts to resolve the ambiguity in women’s favor. By late 2015, the federal electoral court weighed in, announcing gender parity for municipal races across Mexico beginning in 2018.

Conquering the Governor Races

By the time parity in everything passed in 2019, only the governor races remained untouched. The 2019 constitutional reform corrected that gap, stating plainly that Mexican citizens “have the right to be voted for under conditions of parity for all offices chosen by popular elections.” Yet party leaders tried to wriggle their way out one last time.

Fifteen Mexican states will elect new governors in the 2021 elections. When Mexico’s National Election Institute issued their parity regulations for the 2021 races, they included the governor races: Parties must nominate at least seven women across the 15 contests the Senate—specifically, the PAN and the ruling left-wing party Morena—challenged the rules, but the federal electoral court again stood firm: parties must pick seven women. 

Joy Langston, political science professor at Mexico’s Center for Research and Teaching in Economics (CIDE), offered context for parties’ resistance: “Governors have lots of opportunity to increase their political power and personal wealth. They receive national media attention and governors from large states can position themselves for a presidential bid.”

With prestige and influence at stake, party leaders seem determined to reserve the highest prizes for men. Take the races in Nuevo León and Michoacán, two large and relatively wealthy states. Nuevo León has been governed by PRI or PAN affiliated leaders since the 1940s, so only left parties—which are likely to lose—have nominated women to seek the governorship there. Michoacán has nearly 5 million residents and borders Mexico City, the country’s power center—and only one party has nominated a woman candidate for that race. By contrast, all the major parties are fielding women candidates in Colima and Tlaxcala, two of the smallest states, ranked last and second-last for economic output.

The majority-female races in Tlaxcala and Colima mean these states will likely elect a woman governor. So will Baja California, the one populous and wealthy state that most major parties marked for women candidates. The incumbent party, Morena, chose Marina del Pilar Ávila, a 35-year-old lawyer and former congresswoman. She’s the current mayor of Mexicali, the state capital and an important cultural and economic hub along the U.S.-Mexico border. The women seeking to oppose are diverse, including a former Miss Universe. 

Lorena Vázquez Correa, investigator for the Belisario Domínguez Institute—a research center housed in Mexico’s Senate—reflected on the novelty of majority-female races. “The participation of so many women in the governor races is no longer something exceptional that happens now and then, but is happening now and will happen regularly in the future.”

Tackling Political Violence Against Women

Gender parity alone cannot bring about political equality, of course. Women across the globe face unequal treatment and even violence on the campaign trail and in office, including abuse and harassment on social media and threats and assaults targeting themselves, their family members, and their staff. Attackers pursue women not because of their political views, but because they dare enter, participate and claim power within a man’s world.

Mexico proves no exception. The National Women’s Institute analyzed social media messages sent to women candidates during the 2018 elections, finding that 70 percent contained gendered language that was insulting, abusive or harassing. Morena Congresswoman Martha Tagle—and member of Mujeres en Plural—stated it plainly, “Today, the multiple forms of violence against women are the principal threat to the rights women have conquered.”

In Mexico, as of April 2020, femicides had increased 137 percent in the last five years, and 93 percent of these crimes against women were not reported or investigated. Pictured: A memorial in Juarez, Mexico. (Steev Hise)

But Mexican women are, once again, not enduring mistreatment in silence. With half the seats in Mexico’s lower house and senate, women exercise considerable influence over legislation. After passing parity in everything in June 2019, they passed a law to prevent and sanction political violence against women in April 2020.

This reform adds “political violence against women for reasons of gender” as an offense to Mexico’s law penalizing violence against women. Political violence against women includes abuse, harassment and assault in person and online, and more generally, placing obstacles in women’s campaigns such that “they cannot participate in conditions of equality.”

With preparation for the 2021 elections already underway, women lawmakers worked to translate this mandate into reality. Tagle and her colleagues asked election authorities to implement the “3 of 3 rule”: that any man or woman previously sentenced by courts for the failure to pay child support, for committing domestic violence, or for committing sexual violence would be ineligible to stand for office. The National Electoral Institute agreed, and the political parties conceded to not challenge this measure before the election court.

Tagle explained, “The intention is that all people who seek to hold public office are people with no history of violence, because decisions that affect the lives of women are in their hands.”

She referenced Morena’s gubernatorial candidate in Guerrero, Félix Salgado Macedonio, whom five women have denounced for sexual assault. Because Salgado has been accused but not convicted, the “3 of 3 rule” leaves his candidacy intact—for now. Tagle concluded, “But this has to end, and we can no longer have public servants willing to cover up violence against women, but those who commit to stopping it.”

Mexican Women Rule

Mexico is the first country in the world to implement gender parity so thoroughly and effectively. The journey has not been easy. From running sham candidates to keeping the most prestigious races the preserve of men, political parties have resisted women’s inclusion at every turn. But women fought back, making common cause across ideological divides and finding strength in their shared resolve. They went to war with the dinosaurs, and they won.

To hear more about what feminist foreign policy is and what it could look like here in the U.S., check out episode 25 of “On the Issues With Michele Goodwin”: International Women’s Day and a Feminist Foreign Policy (with Karen Greenberg, Gayle Lemmon, Pardis Mahdavi and Lyric Thompson).

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Or head to the episode landing page, which includes background reading, a full episode transcript and more:

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Jennifer M. Piscopo is professor of gender and politics at Royal Holloway University of London.