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Radical Woman of the Day: Ellen Johnson Sirleaf

On this day in 2006, Ellen Johnson Sirleaf was sworn in as the first female (and current) president of Liberia, making her also the first female elected head of state in the continent of Africa.

Born in Monrovia in 1938, Sirleaf studied economics and accounting at the College of West Africa (a Methodist high school in Monrovia), then earned her accounting degree from Madison Business College in Madison, WI. In 1971 she earned a Master’s degree in Public Administration from Harvard’s John F. Kennedy School of Government.

Sirleaf returned to Liberia after completing her education, serving in the administration of then-President William Tolbert, first as assistant minister (1972–1973), and later as Minister of Finance (1979–1980). When Tolbert’s government was overthrown in a military coup in April 1980, she at first accepted a position in the new government as President of the Liberian Bank for Development and Investment but was forced to abandon the post and flee the country after making outspoken comments in criticism of the new government.

During her exile from Liberia, Sirleaf held a number of influential positions in both banking and public works, including (but not limited to) Vice President of the African Regional Office of Citibank, Director of the United Nations Development Programme’s Regional Bureau for Africa, and Chairperson of the Open Society Initiative for West Africa (OSIWA). She returned briefly to Liberia in 1985 and successfully ran for a Senate seat but refused to accept it in protest of the widespread corruption that undermined the legitimacy of the election results.

After being jailed for almost 10 months because of this civil disobedience, Sirleaf left Liberia again until 1989, when she returned to back Charles Taylor’s rebellion against the government in the First Liberian Civil War. She later opposed Taylor’s tactics in the war and left the country again, returning after the cessation of hostilities to run unsuccessfully for President as the Unity Party’s candidate against Taylor in the 1997 general election. When the Second Liberian Civil War resulted in Taylor’s resignation and exile and the establishment of a transitional government in 2003, Sirleaf headed the Governance Reform Commission.

In the 2005 general election, Sirleaf again ran for President as the Unity Party candidate and won with 59% of the vote. She won re-election in 2011.

Via the Radical Women’s History Project.