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Radical Woman of the Day: Michelle Bachelet

On this day in 2006 Verónica Michelle Bachelet Jeria took office as the first female President of Chile. Forced to flee the country when a military coup overthrew the democratic government in 1973, Bachelet had to continue her studies as a medical student in Germany, although she returned to Chile in 1979 and graduated with her M.D. in 1983. Working in non-governmental medical organizations for the remainder of the 80s, she took a position in the Ministry of Health after democracy was restored in 1990.

In the mid–90s Bachelet began to study military strategy, eventually earning a Master’s degree in the subject from the Chilean Army’s War Academy in 1998. In 2000, then-President Ricardo Lagos appointed her Minister of Health. During her tenure in that position she was able to reduce waiting lists at public hospitals by 90% and gave away the morning-after pill to victims of sexual abuse. In 2002 Lagos appointed her Defense Minister, making her the first female minister of defense in a Latin American country. She was subsequently nominated by the Concert of Parties for Democracy to run for president in the 2006 elections. She won in a runoff election with 53.5% of the vote, having taken 46% in the general election.

During Bachelet’s term as President she focused on several social issues, reforming Chile’s pension system, introducing legislation mandating gender pay equality, distributing books to 400,000 poor families with 1st–4th-grade children, and passing a law allowing emergency contraception to be distributed to children under 14 without parental consent. She also passed an education reform bill and created the National Institute for Human Rights.

Following her single term as President—the Chilean Constitution prohibits consecutive presidential terms—Bachelet was appointed head of the newly-created UN Women, taking office in September 2010. A May 2012 poll indicates that 51% of Chileans would like her to return to the presidency.