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Between 1999 and 2016, 20 former first ladies ran 26 times for the presidency, vice presidency, or Congress in Latin America. Despite the growing importance of this unique type of candidate, political analysts routinely describe them as mere delegates of ex-presidents. We argue that this view has overlooked the political trajectory of former first ladies and claim that women with elected political experience should be regarded as politicians that use the ceremonial role of first lady as a platform to enhance their careers. Therefore, we hypothesize that first ladies with elected political experience are more likely to become candidates and run for office as soon as they leave the executive branch. We test our argument by analyzing the 90 former first ladies who were eligible to become candidates in 18 Latin American countries from 1999-2016. The results support our argument, opening up a new research agenda in the study of women's representation.
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When Do First Ladies Run for Office? Lessons from Latin America
Forthcoming in Latin American Politics and Society.
Ignacio Arana Araya. Assistant Teaching Professor. Institute for Politics and Strategy,
Carnegie Mellon University. Email:
Carolina Guerrero Valencia. Research Associate at the GIGA Institute for Latin American
Studies. Email:
Between 1999 and 2016, 20 former first ladies ran 26 times for the presidency, vice
presidency, or Congress in Latin America. Despite the growing importance of this unique
type of candidate, political analysts routinely describe them as mere delegates of ex-
presidents. We argue that this view has overlooked the political trajectory of former first
ladies and claim that women with elected political experience should be regarded as
politicians that use the ceremonial role of first lady as a platform to enhance their careers.
Therefore, we hypothesize that first ladies with elected political experience are more likely
to become candidates and run for office as soon as they leave the executive branch. We test
our argument by analyzing the 90 former first ladies who were eligible to become
candidates in 18 Latin American countries from 1999-2016. The results support our
argument, opening up a new research agenda in the study of women’s representation.
Keywords: First Ladies, Gender, Elections, Latin America, Political Experience
The candidacies of former first ladies for national office are becoming commonplace in
Latin America. Between 1999 and 2016, 20 of them ran for office 26 times, being elected
on 19 occasions. These candidates became presidents (two times), vice presidents (three
times), and legislators (14 times). Some unsuccessful candidacies were controversial:
three former first ladies (Panamanian Marta Linares and Guatemalans Sandra Torres and
Raquel Blandón) challenged the constitutions of their countries when running for the
presidency, and a fourth (Honduran Xiomara Castro) did not accept losing the
presidential election. However, despite the increasing number of these candidacies, their
electoral success, and the controversies that have surrounded some of them, the scholarly
literature has failed to explain when former first ladies run for national office. Instead,
analysts and academics have often dismissed these candidates as delegates of an outgoing
or former president, implying that former first ladies lack political independence and
represent and indirect form of continuismo (Serrafero 2015; Zovatto 2014; Grondona
2007; Leuco 2015; O’Grady 2014; Pérez Salazar 2013). However, this conventional view
obviates that some first ladies are politicians on their own merit, obscuring our
understanding of their candidacies and their implications on women’s representation.
We argue that first ladies who have previously been elected to office are more
likely to become candidates because they are politicians who have already shown their
political ambition. Furthermore, we expect that these politicians are more likely to run in
the first election after leaving the executive to capitalize on the public support amassed as
first ladiesirrespective of the approval of the president they accompanied in office.
The absence of studies analyzing the candidacies of former first ladies is
surprising because nontraditional presidential and legislative candidates have been
studied in the region. Research has examined the electoral rise of newcomers (Carreras
2017; Corrales 2008), ex-presidents (Corrales 2008; Corrales, Hernández, and Penfold
2014), and women (Htun 2000; Htun and Piscopo 2014).
The candidacies of first ladies have also been overlooked despite their growing
electoral participation and politicization of their roles in the US (e.g., Burns 2004;
Watson 1997) and Latin America (Sefchovich 2003; Balcácer 2010). This politicization
has also reached subnational politics. In federal countries such as the US, Argentina,
Brazil, and Mexico, the wives of governors are also called first ladies and often support
the campaign of governors, develop networks with civil society organizations, and
participate in public events. Sometimes they even run for office (Martin 2018).
Furthermore, former first ladies are running for office across world regions.
Shortly after the Uruguayan María Julia Pou became the first to run for Congress in the
region in 1999, Hillary Clinton became the first former American first lady who ran for
the Senate in 2001, a presidential primary in 2008, and the presidency in 2016. In Africa,
Janet Museveni of Uganda was the first to run for a seat in parliament in 2006, Nana
Konadu Agyeman-Rawlings was the first woman to run for Ghana’s top office in 2016,
and Dlamini-Zuma ran for the South African presidency in 2017.
Although there are no legal restrictions to appoint any woman as first lady, the
conventional wisdom has centered on the associates of male presidents. Therefore, we
focus on the wives, sisters, and daughters that male presidents have appointed to the role.
Former first ladies are a unique type of candidate. First, they enjoy significant
public recognition and media coverage despite not holding a political position (Borrelli,
2011; Burns, 2004; Winfield, 1997). This visibility allows them to influence the public
agenda, promote their policy positions, and expose their political skills.
First ladies are frequently regarded as role models for women, mothers, activists,
and even the fashion industry (Winfield 1997). To be sure, they can receive harsh
criticism: Cristina Fernández of Argentina faced criticism that focused on her femininity
rather than her involvement in public policies and her marriage rather than her political
career (Piscopo, 2010). However, the press, interest groups, and politicians rarely
antagonize first ladies because they are seldom engaged in controversies, do not have
formal decision-making powers, and are not politically accountable.
Even when first ladies engage in public policies, they tend to do it in non-
controversial, gendered roles centered on women issues, childcare, and family values
(Borrelli, 2011; Van Wyk, 2017, 170). For example, Chilean Leonor Oyarzún created in
1991 the Integra foundation, which provides childcare to low-income families. In Brazil,
Ruth Cardoso promoted Comunidade Solidária (“Solidarity Community”), a program that
fought extreme poverty. In the Dominican Republic, Margarita Cedeño implemented four
major public policies to promote health, cultural training, and fight extreme poverty
(more examples in Guerrero Valencia and Arana Araya, 2019).
Second, these women enjoy privileges due to their access to the apex of the
executive branch, allowing them to increase their political capital. Their personal
connections to governing elites allows them to build a specialized political knowledge
and an influential network. First ladies also enjoy material resources: they have
institutionalized offices in eleven countries. These offices provide them with staff,
budget, organizational subunits, and tasks.
Third, the public persona of first ladies is inevitably connected to the most
powerful politician in the country. Precisely this has fed the prejudice that the only
distinctive characteristic of this group of candidates is that they represent a former
president in the public sphere, independent of their own merits. The name connection
they have with heads of state can influence their electoral prospects, for better or worse.
We contend that the growing electoral participation and success of former first
ladies, the politicization of their role, and their uniqueness as candidates makes
understanding when they run for office a pressing query.
The electoral emergence of former first ladies has deep implications. If, as
conventional wisdom suggests, these candidates are political delegates, then their careers
may simply reproduce the patriarchal view that a woman’s success is tied to their male
companions. Furthermore, if former first ladies serve as delegates, they contribute to
personalizing politics in a region where several countries already suffer institutional
weaknesses (McAllister 2007). Moreover, they would make powerful political families
even more influential, dampening political competition (Baturo and Gray 2018; Jalalzai
2013; Folke, Rickne, and Smith 2017; Arana Araya 2016).
However, if some former first ladies who run for office are politicians in their
own right, they may foster the engagement of women in politics and contribute to more
gender-balanced public policies. Research has shown that female politicians encourage
other women to run for office and increase the social acceptability of women in positions
of authority (Thames and Williams 2013; Escobar-Lemmon and Taylor-Robinson 2005).
Furthermore, congresswomen tend to prioritize legislation related to women, children,
and families (Schwindt-Bayer 2006; Jones 1997; Taylor-Robinson and Heath 2003).
First Ladies as Candidates
Thus far, scholars, pundits, and the media have treated most former first ladies
who run for office as little more than the “covert reelection” of their husbands or fathers.
Serrafero (2015, 99) described the candidacies of former first ladies as a resource used by
ambitious presidents that cannot be reelected. Zovatto (2014) argued that Latin America
is increasingly moving toward “conjugal re-electionism.”
When we examine individual cases, we invariably find that former first ladies
who run for office are depicted as delegates of former presidents despite some of them
being seasoned politicians. For instance, Cristina Fernández served four terms as a
legislator (deputy and senator) before becoming first lady, but analysts often described
her presidential candidacy as an attempt of covert reelection (Grondona 2007; Leuco
2015). Fernández’s election was also mocked as the “Kirchner dynasty” (Gallo 2008),
“marital succession” (Serrafero 2015), and “diarchy” (Grondona 2007). Other politically
experienced first ladies, such as the Argentinian Hilda González and the Paraguayan
Emilia Alfaro received a comparable treatment when they ran for office.
Similar descriptions abounded for the candidatures of politically inexperienced
first ladies. A scholar described the candidacy of Marta Linares as a strategy of former
Panamanian President Ricardo Martinelli to “essentially re-elect himself through his
wife” (Schipani 2014). Xiomara Castro was labeled as Manuel Zelaya’s “puppet” (Pérez
Salazar 2013), while Margarita Cedeño was described as the mere “shadow” of her
husband, Dominican President Leonel Fernández (Arroyo 2012).
In sum, these candidacies have been associated to a type of “continuismo.” This
concept introduced by Fitzgibbon (1940) alludes to the practice of presidents to extend
their power beyond their terms by the removal, extension, or avoidance of term limits.
Former presidents would use their first ladies to continue governing (or remain influential
in Congress), a type of continuismo via proxy that, according to Baturo (2019, 81),
occurred nine times in the world from 1945-2017.
Based on the conventional view, it could also be argued that politicized former
first ladies may extend political dynasties, which dampen democratic representation by
concentrating power in a few families (Dal Bó, Dal Bó, & Snyder, 2009, p. 115). This
subject has been studied in Asia. For example, Lee (2017, p. 387) suggested that former
first lady of South Korea Park Geun-Hye capitalized on her kinship to her father
(president from 1963-1979) to become president in 2013.
The simplistic explanations of the electoral emergence of first ladies do not reflect
the increasing involvement of this group of women in political affairs. Scholars have
shown the relevance of American first ladies in domestic politics by focusing on their
roles (Burns 2004), impact on presidential campaigns (Burrell, Elder, and Frederick
2011), types of representation (Borrelli 2011), absence of accountability (Eksterowicz
and Roberts 2004), histories (Watson 1997), press framing (Burns 2004; Winfield 1997),
and general political influence (Borrelli 2002; Watson 1997). The political involvement
of Latin American first ladies can be found in biographies (e.g., Gordinho 2009; Ruiz
2012; Wornat 2005), historical reviews of specific countries (e.g., Balcácer 2010;
Sefchovich 2003), and case studies (Fernández 2011; Piscopo 2010). Also, the literature
about women in politics has increasingly included illustrative cases of first ladies (Reyes-
Housholder 2018; Krook and O’Brien 2012).
To understand the electoral behavior of former first ladies, we examine associated
literatures with the caveat that not all the logics, assumptions, and findings can be
transferable among bodies of scholarship. Since a defining characteristic of first ladies is
their gender and some become candidates only after leaving office, we review literature
on women in politics and on the emergence of new candidates. We draw from research
centered on the United States and Latin America because they are presidential systems in
which first ladies have become more politically engaged.
Historically, women have been underrepresented in the highest offices due to
great visible and invisible (glass ceiling) obstacles to entering politics (Htun 2015; Norris
and Inglehart 2001). However, in the last two decades, the number of women elected to
office in Latin America has steadily grown. Researchers have proposed two main
explanations for this trend: the adoption of gender quota laws (Escobar-Lemmon and
Taylor-Robinson 2005; Htun 2015) and more opportunities for women due to economic,
social, and cultural development (Htun and Piscopo 2014; Norris and Inglehart 2001).
Gender quotas demand a percentage of women candidates or legislators, forcing
parties to incorporate more women as politicians and therefore reducing the costs that
women incur when running for office. Gender quotas have proved to increase women’s
legislative representation. Folke, Rickne, and Smith (2017) analyzed all national-level
legislatures elected from 1945-2016 in twelve democracies and found that a gender quota
leads to a large inflow of women in office. Research on Latin America estimated that, on
average, gender quotas boosted women’s representation by ten percent (Htun 2015, 118).
The effect of quotas on the candidacies of first ladies is unclear. Potentially,
quotas could benefit first ladies because quotas open up space for more women in politics
and party gatekeepers may choose women with family links as candidates (Jalalzai 2013,
19). However, some studies have found that women candidates do not benefit more than
men from personal connections when there are gender quotas in place (Schwindt-Bayer et
al 2020; Beer and Roderic 2016). Similarly, Baturo and Gray (2018) showed that the
value of family connections diminishes when societies accept women political
participation as normal. Furthermore, first ladies may not need quotas to attract parties
due to their already sizeable political capital.
Research has argued that women in public office enhance the identification of
other women with the political system and their ability to influence it (Burrell 1996).
Women legislators have been associated to more women running for office and to a
broader social acceptance of women politicians (Thames and Williams 2013; Escobar-
Lemmon and Taylor-Robinson 2005). There is also evidence that some women
politicians actively pursue women’s votes, such as presidential candidates in Chile and
Brazil (Reyes-Housholder 2018). Furthermore, according to Krook and O’Brien (2012),
most of women’s appointments as ministers respond to the increasing number of women
in the political elite. When deciding whether to compete in elections or not, first ladies
may take into account the women’s record in both the legislative and executive powers.
Two other factors are related to women’s political involvement. One is sexism, a
phenomenon expressed in mistrust of women as leaders (Fox and Lawless 2004). Recent
efforts to promote women’s access to democratic institutions in Latin America have
revealed patriarchal, sexist, and gender violent practices (Freidenberg 2017). Escobar-
Lemmon and Taylor-Robinson (2016) found that women need to become “surrogate
males” to increase their chances of being appointed to cabinets in Argentina, Chile,
Colombia, Costa Rica, and the US. The level of sexism, nonetheless, varies across the
region. Morgan and Buice (2013) examined survey data and showed that in 12 of 19
countries at least two thirds of the participants disagreed that men are better political
leaders than womenbut at least a third of Paraguayans, Panamanians, Colombians,
Haitians, Jamaicans, and Dominicans did agree. In sum, women are unlikely to become
competitive candidates and to run for office if sexism is widespread.
Second, research suggests that increasing the women’s share in pipeline
professions decreases gender disparities in elective office (Fox and Lawless 2004, 265).
The expectation is that improving the educational and professional status of women raises
the chances of observing more women in power (Norris and Inglehart 2001, 130).
Works on political newcomers may shed light on why politically inexperienced
first ladies become candidates. Researchers have identified two main factors that explain
why citizens seek to be elected: political ambition and structure of opportunity (Fox and
Lawless 2005; Borchert 2011). Although the motivations to pursue a political career are
often a combination of factors (Borchert 2011), the latent variable of political ambition is
exhibited when individuals enter their first political contest (Fox and Lawless 2005;
Maestas et al. 2006). This literature suggests that politically ambitious first ladies may
tend to seek an elected position before entering the executive branch. Once in the
executive, they may be more inclined to gain experience in politics by engaging in public
policies, as Winfield (1997, 167) has documented for American first ladies. Arguably,
such experience is instrumental to preparing a future political career.
As for the structure of opportunity, favorable circumstances influence the decision
to run for office (Fox and Lawless 2005, 644). Fox and Lawless (2004, 2010) indicate
that the support and encouragement from politicians affects the decision of women to run
for office. O’Brien and Reyes-Housholder (2020) claim that candidate supply and
political opportunities explain better than cultural variables and mass-level indicators of
gender equality the increase of women in the executive branch. These works suggest that
former first ladies may run for office when they perceive high chances of winning.
Most first ladies are political newcomers, a category that has been associated with
new democracies and democracy level. Carreras (2017, 9) proposes and finds supportive
evidence that newcomers are more frequent in new democracies because political
institutions have not taken root yet and voters are still inexperienced. With respect to
democracy level, Corrales (2008) argues that voters demand new politicians when
political liberties decline and finds that newcomers succeed when authoritarianism
increases. However, it is unclear if authoritarianism also paves the way for more women
candidates because higher levels of democracy favors women’s access to power. For
example, Morgan and Buice (2013) found a connection between democratic values and
gender egalitarianism after examining survey data from 19 Latin American countries.
Finally, newcomers have been linked to macroeconomic conditions. Corrales
(2008) claims that economic crises and accelerated growth increase the electoral demand
for less conventional candidates because both junctures generate economic anxiety. In
support of his argument, he found that economic growth and high inflation rates favors
newcomers in Latin America. In contrast, Carreras (2017) found that newcomers are less
likely to be elected when the economy is growing. His interpretation is that voters turn to
newcomers primarily in adverse economic scenarios. Although it is unclear what
economic conditions may favor first ladies, they may consider the macroeconomic
situation when deciding whether or not to run for office.
Theory: Political Experience and First Chance
We argue that accounts that portray former first ladies who run for national office
as delegates of ex-presidents conflate women who did not have electoral experience
before becoming first lady, and those who did. Contrasting cases can be illustrative. Since
President Leonel Fernández was not allowed to run for another reelection, Dominicans
living abroad drove the candidature of his wife to the vice-presidency in 2011, despite
Margarita Cedeño’s political inexperience. Her supporters used the slogan “with her we
continue with him” (con ella seguimos con él) as a symbol of continuity of her husband’s
policies (Cruz Tejada 2010). Fernández’s Dominican Liberation Party nominated Cedeño
for the vice-presidency, and she became the running mate of Danilo Medina. They were
elected (2012-2016) and reelected (2016-2020). Similarly, Xiomara Castro’s only
political involvement before running for the Honduran presidency in 2013 was her
participation in the 2005 presidential campaign of her husband, Manuel Zelaya, and
organizing demonstrations after the coup against him in 2009.
The paths of Cedeño and Castro contrast those of Hilda “Chiche” Duhalde,
Cristina Fernández, and Emilia Alfaro, who were elected politicians before becoming
first ladies and experienced a political upgrade after serving in the executive. Duhalde
was deputy before her husband Eduardo Duhalde (2002-2003) became president of
Argentina. After his term, she was elected deputy and senator. Similarly, Alfaro was
deputy before her husband Federico Franco (2012-2013) reached the Paraguayan
presidency, and she became senator after serving as first lady. Fernández had vast
political experience as deputy and senator before becoming first lady (2003-2007). In
2007 she became the first woman Argentinean president (Table 4 on Appendix shows the
career path of all former first ladies who have ran for office).
We argue that first ladies with elected political experience are more likely to run
for office. First ladies who have been elected have already shown their political ambition
to compete for office, one of the main reasons why individuals become political
candidates (Borchert 2011; Fox and Lawless 2004, 2005, 2010). Socialization and
practical experience in politics also influence how politicians think about their skills to
hold elected positions, and therefore affect their motivations to pursue a candidacy (Fox
and Lawless 2005, 653). Arguably, these first ladies have gained confidence in their
abilities to have a political career and they can convey that they know how to perform
well in elected offices. In line with this, research has shown that the strongest candidates
for office, other than incumbents, are experienced politicians (Berkmann 1994, 1028).
Our argument aligns with the observation that politically experienced first ladies
seem to act strategically in the executive power. As first ladies, they tend to pursue
activities that portray them as competent decision-makers and attractive personalities.
They often give interviews, get involved in public policies, participate in charities, and
engage in political meetings. For example, the press and some analysts informally called
Nicaragua’s first lady Rosario Murillo “co-president” due to her involvement on
domestic and international affairs (Brandoli, 2016). In 2016, Murillo formalized her
influence by running as vice-president alongside her husband. They were elected in
November of that year. To sum up, first ladies with electoral experience are politicians
who, after leaving the executive, are in a favorable position to lead another campaign.
To be sure, our argument does not imply that citizens differentiate between
politically inexperienced and experienced first ladies when casting a vote. Additionally,
the argument does not imply that the previous political experience (or lack thereof) of a
former first lady reveals meaningful information about their personal relation with an ex-
president, or the ideological distance that they have between them.
Furthermore, we do not claim that prior elected experience and delegate status are
necessarily mutually exclusive categories. In theory, a politically experienced first lady
could agree to act as a delegate of a former president while an inexperienced woman may
act with independence. However, our argument does claim that the behavior of politically
experienced first ladies will tend to be distinct from inexperienced ones because they
have already demonstrated political ambition. This ambition, added to the practical
knowledge of leading a successful campaign, makes them more likely to run for office. In
contrast, the conventional view does not differentiate among former first ladies who run
for office: they are all assumed to simply represent a male politician. In sum, we propose:
H1: Former first ladies are more likely to run for national office when they have
experience as elected politicians.
An implication of the conventional wisdom is that former first ladies will try to
capitalize on the popularity that their associates enjoyed as presidents. If such a view is
correct, then former first ladies should run the first chance they have after leaving the
executive led by a popular politician. However, our expectation is different. Since we
regard politically experienced first ladies as independent politicians, we expect them to
run in the first opportunity they have after leaving the executive. Running early offers
first ladies an “incumbency advantage” due to their access to public resources, media
coverage, voters’ attention, and influential networks. These advantages decrease or are
lost if first ladies wait until later elections to run for office. This expectation is aligned
with the scholarly literature that suggests that women politicians often need to take
opportunities as soon as they can due to limited future opportunities (Arana Araya,
Hughes and Pérez-Liñán 2020).
It could be argued that experienced first ladies would wait for more favorable
timing before running for office if they were associated with an unpopular leader.
However, we argue that in most cases the advantages of becoming a candidate early
offsets the costs of being linked to an unpopular president. Experienced first ladies have
their own political capital, which can shield them from negative associations. That
explains why Patricia Alfaro of Guatemala successfully ran for the Senate in 2013 despite
her husband Federico Franco having a popularity rate of 27% in his last year in power. In
addition, first ladies who distance themselves from an ex-president may also run a
campaign critical of them, as Susana Higuchi of Peru did in 2000. Therefore:
H2: Politically experienced former first ladies are more likely to run for national
office as soon as they leave the executive branch.
Empirical Analysis
The sample covers from 1999-2016 because 1999 was the first year in which a
former first lady ran for office in Latin America: María Julia Pou won a seat in the
Uruguayan Senate. We will also reexamine the theory since 1990, the year women
became more competitive as candidates with the election of Violeta Chamorro as the first
woman president in the region. Interestingly, the same first ladies are included in both
samples because those who left power since 1990 were still alive in at least one of the
elections that took place in 1999 or afterward.
We study legislative and presidential elections because former first ladies have
actively run for both branches (12 times for the executive, 14 for Congress) and we
cannot a priori identify for which branch former first ladies will run. Some, such as
Cristina Fernández and Keiko Fujimori of Perú, have run for both branches. However,
since presidential and congressional elections follow different electoral rules and have
their distinct logics, we will conduct a robustness check just focusing on the most
common type of candidacy (i.e., congressional). Subnational elections are not included
because they have failed to attract former first ladies: only Marta Larraechea of Chile and
Marisabel Rodríguez of Venezuela ran for mayor and lost.
The data for the 90 first ladies who were available to run for office in the 94
elections that took place from 1999 to 2016 come from a dataset built using multiple
sources. These include the presidents’ and first ladies’ websites; first ladies’ public
speeches; biographies; published interviews; and media outlets (sources and information
about first ladies included are in the online appendix).
Since our hypotheses refer to individual predictors, the unit of analysis is first
lady-election year. We exclude from the sample the first lady-election years in which
there was only a presidential election and the first lady was constitutionally forbidden to
run. This applies to Raquel Blandón (Guatemala, 1991), Elizabeth Aguirre de Calderón
(El Salvador, 1999), Lourdes Rodríguez de Flores (El Salvador, 2004), Vanda Pignato (El
Salvador, 2014), and María Gabriela Chávez (Venezuela, 2013). We also do not include
the six women who could not run for office because they held a foreign nationality:
Virginia Gillum (Bolivia), Josefina Villalobos (Ecuador), Bessy Watson (Honduras),
Mary Flake (Honduras), Aguas Ocañas (Honduras), and Eliane Karp (Peru). Finally, due
to our focus on the behavior of former first ladies, we do not include the two candidacies
of first ladies that occurred in midterm elections (Cristina Fernández in 2005 and Cilia
Flores of Venezuela in 2016).
Our dataset allowed us to identify relevant characteristics of the 90 former first
ladies’ trajectory. For example, 68 of them had hands-on experience in public policy,
seven had experience as popularly elected politicians before reaching the executive, and
six had experience as appointed politicians. The candidates available per country from
1999-2016 varied between two (Dominican Republic) and eight (Guatemala).
The dependent variable Attempt captures whether a former first lady ran for the
presidency, vice-presidency, or Congress (coded as one) or not (zero). Noticeably,
Attempt is indifferent as to whether first ladies were elected or not, and to who runs more
than once. Previously Elected captures the first hypothesis. It takes the value of one when
a candidate held a popularly elected position before becoming a first lady, and zero
otherwise. Vice-presidents, governors, senators, representatives, sub-national legislators,
members of constitutional assemblies, mayors and city counselors were coded as holding
an elected position. To test the second hypothesis, we will interact Previously Elected
with First Chance, a dichotomous variable that captures when a first lady becomes a
candidate in the first election faced after leaving the executive power.
We control for the appointed (i.e., non-popularly elected) previous political
experience of first ladies. Previously Appointed takes the value of one when a first lady
had experience as appointed politician, and zero otherwise. Ministers, vice-ministers,
ambassadors, consuls, and non-popularly elected party leaders are included. As a
robustness, we also control for Politician. This dichotomous variable identifies all first
ladies with elected or appointed previous political experience.
According to the conventional view, the popularity of a male president should
indicate how competitive his first lady can be as a candidate. Popularity is taken from the
Executive Approval Project (Carlin et al. 2016) and captures the average popular support
that former first ladies’ presidents had in their last year in office.
The literature proposes that women are more likely to be elected when there are
gender quotas implemented and the number of women politicians is higher. Quota
Adopted receives the value of one when a gender quota law has been implemented to
elect legislators, and zero otherwise. Given that some quotas may not work as planned, as
a robustness we will use Effective Quota. This variable is coded as one if the quota
reaches ten percent of de facto threshold (for either candidate or reserved seat quotas) and
noncompliance is punished, or there are clear rules about the rank order of candidates.
Women in Congress measures the percentage of women in the single or lower house for
any given year. The three variables are taken from Hughes et al. (2017).
We also control for factors that limit women’s political advancement. Sexism
measures the national level of sexism. It comes from the World Values Survey’s (WVS
2015) question “On the whole, men make better political leaders than women do.” This
variable ranges between zero (strongly disagree with the statement) and four (strongly
agree) and represents the average scores for each country on the year the survey was
conducted. Since the WVS does not include all countries, to fill out the missing values
we followed Arana Araya, Hughes and Pérez-Liñán (2020) and used a latent growth
curve model that estimated the predicted values of Sexism. Since Sexism is correlated
with the women’s level of education, we used as predictors of the variable the women’s
percentage of completed primary, secondary, and tertiary schooling (Barro-Lee 2013).
Sexism also correlates with year (-0.55). Therefore, we added as a predictor a time
counter with a random slope that captured the linear trend by country.
As a robustness for sexism, we use Political Discussion. This variable is taken
from the V-Dem’s Project (Coppedge et al., 2020) and captures if women can openly
discuss political issues in private homes and in public spaces.
Education captures the ability of women to reach positions of power using the
average number of years of schooling for women in each country. It is taken from the
Educational Attainment Dataset (Barro and Lee 2013), which has five-year interval data
for the sample (the post-2010 data is based on projections).
Research about political newcomers suggests that the age and level of democracy
may relate to the opportunities for women in politics. Therefore, Democracy Age takes
the number of years a country has been a democracy. The data is taken from Polity IV
(Marshall and Gurr 2016). Democracy Level differentiates between semi-democracies
and democracies. The data is taken from Mainwaring and Pérez-Liñán (2013). Scholars
in this literature also propose that economic changes offer opportunities for non-
traditional candidates. We capture this argument with annualized measures of GDP per
capita growth (GDP Growth) and inflation, taken from the World Bank Indicators (2018).
Due to the high variation in Inflation, we use its natural logarithm.
Finally, some women may have held the ambition to be elected for office but did
not have the chance to become candidates before becoming first ladies. These women,
nonetheless, had the opportunity to show their political commitment by getting involved
in public policy once in the executive. Therefore, Public Policy takes the value of one
when a former first lady had hands-on experience in public policy in the executive
branch, and zero otherwise. This experience is documented in the online appendix.
Given that the dependent variable reflects the attempts of first ladies to become
elected, we estimate discrete-time duration models. Using this technique, once a first lady
runs for office, she becomes censored and drops from the sample.
Table 1 presents six probit models. The baseline model (1.1) includes the
independent variables Previously Elected and First Chance, and controls that capture
conventional wisdom arguments. In 1.2, we interact the independent variables to test H2.
As a further test of the conventional wisdom, in 1.3 we examine whether former first
ladies are more likely to run for office at the first chance they have, conditional on the
outgoing president’s approval rates. In models 1.4 and 1.5, we retest the argument using
variations of the political experience of former first ladies. Model 1.4 uses Previously
Appointed while model 1.5 adds Politician. Finally, model 1.6 clusters standard errors by
country to account for unobserved country level idiosyncrasies and error correlation.
Table 1: Former First Ladies Who Run for Office
Clusters by
P. Elected
First Chance
Pop.*F. Chance
Quota Adopted
W. in Congress
Democracy Age
Democracy Level
GDP Growth
Inflation (log)
Public Policy
Leg. Elections
First Ladies
Entries are probit coefficients (standard errors). + p<0.1, * p<0.05, ** p<0.01
The results in Table 1 support H1 across all models: former first ladies who
previously held an elected position are more likely to run for office. The result does not
hold when Previously Elected is replaced by Previously Appointed (1.4) but does hold
when Politician replaces Previously Elected (in 1.5). Since Politician includes elected
and appointed previous political experience, the results suggest that the statistical
significance of this variable is explained by the elected experience. In support of H2,
model 1.2 shows that first ladies who had electoral political experience are also more
likely to become candidates the first chance they have after leaving the executive.
Popularity is not statistically significant across any model, and model 1.3 shows
that women associated to popular presidents are not more likely to run for office as soon
as they can. These results strongly suggest that the popularity of presidents is unrelated to
the candidacies of former first ladies, as the conventional wisdom proposes.
Revealingly, the variables that capture arguments from the literature about women
in politics and political newcomers are not statistically significant across most models,
reinforcing the notions that first ladies are a unique type of candidate and that the
scholarly literature has not addressed their motivations to run for office. The exceptions
are Quota Adopted in 1.3, Women in Congress in 1.4, and Sexism, Education, and
Inflation in 1.6. The somewhat divergent results in 1.6 suggest some differences across
Curiously, the only control variable that is statistically significant across all
models (except 1.6) is Public Policy. This gives insight about the first ladies’ engagement
in politics and reinforces the proposition that the trajectory of first ladies is central to
understanding their candidacies.
We estimated predicted probabilities to gain a better understanding of the
substantive impact of Previously Elected and the interaction Previously Elected*First
Chance. The left graph in Figure 1 shows that when first ladies do not have experience as
elected politicians, the predicted probability that they will run for office after leaving the
executive is only 0.2 percent, but rises to 70 percent when they have such experience.
The right graph shows that the probabilities that previously elected first ladies will run for
office the first chance they have is 86 percent, and 16 percent otherwise. This strongly
suggests that they are decided to become candidates as soon as they leave the executive.
In contrast, the chances that politically inexperienced former first ladies will run for
office is almost unaffected by whether they run in the first election after leaving the
executive power (4 percent of probabilities) or not (5 percent).
Figure 1: Political Experience and Running for Office
In Table 2, we retest the arguments using five alternative samples. In 2.1, we
exclude elections under semi-democratic governments because the motivations that first
ladies have to run for office may vary across regime types. It could be argued that former
first ladies are unlikely to become candidates if they are too old, have not shown interest
in running for office in multiple occasions, or could not use their position in the executive
to support a political career because they served for a short period. To account for these
limitations, 2.2 excludes women who became first ladies at seventy years old or older,
reached the age of seventy without running for office, did not run after seven elections as
former first ladies, or served in the executive for less than a year. As a consequence, 14
women drop from the sample.
Table 2: Alternative Samples
Only Wives
Since 1990
Only Leg.
Previously Elected
First Chance
Quota Adopted
W. in Congress
Democracy Age
Democracy Level
GDP Growth
Inflation (log)
Public Policy
Leg. Elections
First Ladies
+ p<0.1, * p<0.05, ** p<0.01. Entries are probit coefficients (standard errors).
Model 2.3 excludes the seven daughters and three sisters of presidents who served
as first ladies because they may not have had electoral ambitions since they did not
choose to be associated to a politician. In model 2.4 we use an extended sample and
include former first ladies since 1990. Finally, model 2.5 only includes legislative
elections because the reasons that lure first ladies to run for office may differ across
branches of government. The observations in which first ladies run for the executive
power are excluded from 2.5 because they could not run simultaneously for Congress.
The results in Table 2 are categorical: they hold across samples. Perhaps the most
notable change is the increased effect size of Previously Elected when the sample only
includes competitive (2.1) and congressional elections (2.5). Arguably, this occurs
because most candidacies occurred in democracies and were for Congress.
In Table 3 we conduct eight robustness checks using alternative specifications.
Model 3.1 includes a dichotomous variable that identifies countries that, at some point,
constitutionally forbade relatives of the acting president to run for the presidency:
Bolivia, Brazil, Costa Rica, Ecuador, El Salvador, Guatemala, Honduras, Nicaragua,
Panama, Paraguay, Perú, and Venezuela (we did not find any restriction to run for
Congress). In 3.2, we retest the argument that women politicians encourage other women
to enter politics adding Diffusion. This variable takes the value of one when a former first
lady has run for office in the same country, and zero otherwise. In 3.3, we add Populist, a
dichotomous variable that captures if a former first lady accompanied a populist leader in
office, as identified by Kyle and Gultchin (2018). In 3.4, we include Leftist, a variable
that takes the value of one when there is a leftist government in power and zero
otherwise. The aim is to test whether leftist leaders open up more opportunities for
women as Escobar-Lemmon and Taylor-Robinson (2005) suggest (although the study of
Funk, Hinojosa, and Piscopo [2017] find that left parties do not necessarily increase
women’s political representation). We take this variable from Arana (2017).
Table 3: Alternative Specifications
GDP per
P. Elected
First Chance
Quota Adopted
W. in Congress
D. Age
D. Level
GDP Growth
Inflation (log)
Public Policy
Leg. Elections
First Ladies
Entries are probit coefficients (standard errors). + p<0.1, * p<0.05, ** p<0.01
++ This variable represents the coefficients (standard errors) for “Restrictions,”
“Diffusion,” Populist,” “Leftist,” “GDP per Capita,” Political Discussion,” “Region,”
“Effective Quota,” in models 3.1, 3.2, 3.3, 3.4, 3.5, 3.6, and 3.7, respectively.
In 3.5, we include the level of GDP per capitataken from the World Bank
(2018)as an additional test of the argument that the economic context affects political
opportunities for women. In 3.6, we re-examine if gender inequality is associated with the
candidacies of former first ladies including Political Discussion. Region (model 3.7)
controls for a potential geographic concentration of the candidacies. It takes the value of
one when a former first lady is from South America and zero otherwise. Finally, 3.8
retests the argument that electoral quotas may be related to the first ladies’ candidacies
using Effective Quota. Revealingly, none of the new variables included became
statistically significant.
The conventional view implies that the trajectory of first ladies is irrelevant to
understanding their behavior. It also entails that women who served with popular
presidents should be more likely to run for office, especially as soon as they leave the
executive to capitalize on such popularity. However, we found no support for these
implications. In contrast, we found strong support for our argument that electorally
experienced first ladies who run for office should be regarded as politicians who use the
role to become competitive candidates. Our results show that there is a 70 percent chance
that a first lady with elected political experience will run for national office, while the
likelihood is less than one percent otherwise. Also as hypothesized, we found that first
ladies with electoral experience take advantage of their first chance to compete in
elections, irrespective of the presidents’ popularity. Furthermore, the findings show that
those who engage in public policy as first lady are more likely to run for office.
The results suggest that the conventional view is based on a prejudice that gives
no leverage to understanding when former first ladies will run for office. However,
differentiating between those who have elected experience and those who do not allows
for making accurate predictions of who and when former first ladies will run for office.
We believe that the candidacies of politically experienced former first ladies are
likely to promote women’s representation by helping to balance the gender disparity in
positions of political power. Furthermore, through their engagement in the public debate,
they are likely to promote the entrance of more women into the electoral arena. Although
they are a fraction of women legislators, some have successfully run for the presidency
and vice-presidency, allowing them to exercise considerable political influence.
The election of former first ladies to national office is likely to keep growing. The
pool of potential candidates keeps expanding and they are highly successful. The trend is
clear: 15 of the 26 candidacies that we studied occurred in the last six years of our
sample. Since then, five women have aimed for the presidency: Margarita Zavala of
Mexico in 2018 (she quit before the election), Sandra Torres in 2019, and Xiomara
Castro, Keiko Fujimori, and Cristiana Chamorro in 2021 (although Chamorro could not
finally run because the Nicaraguan government disqualified and arrested her). Former
first ladies have also been active in the vice presidency. Lucía Topolansky was appointed
vice president of Uruguay in 2017 but quit in 2020 to become senator. Cristina Fernández
became vice president in 2019, Margarita Cedeño failed in her attempt to be reelected as
vice president in 2020, and Rosario Murillo was reelected as vice president in the
controversial 2021 general elections. The trend may also add first ladies at the
subnational level, something that has already happened in Argentina (Martin, 2018).
This study creates avenues for research. Qualitative research can shed light on
how political couples who reach the presidency work to advance their careers as a team.
As noted by Joignant (2014, 29), researchers have failed to examine the potential transfer
of political capital within a married couple. Second, to open up the black box of what first
ladies do in the executive power, scholars could examine their involvement in public
policies and the consequences of such engagement. Finally, the effect that former first
ladies who win elections have on the circulation, competition, and integration of elites
deserves more attention (Arana Araya 2018). Having even larger political families in the
region may constrain political competition. However, if experienced first ladies act
independently and promote women’s representation, their contribution to diversify the
political elite could offset their effect on increasing the influence of political families.
We are grateful to Javier Corrales, Mariana Llanos, Manuel Alcántara, Kyle Robertson,
Aníbal Pérez-Liñán, and three anonymous reviewers for their thoughtful comments and
useful suggestions to improve different versions of this article.
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Table 4: Former First ladies and Latin American Elections, 1999-2016
(Post, Term)
First Lady
(office, year) 1
Hilda “Chiche”
Deputy, 1997-
Deputy, 2003
Senator, 2005
Deputy, 1989-
Deputy, 1997-
President, 2007
President, 2011
Costa Rica
Gloria Bejarano
Penón Góngora
Vice president,
Vice president,
Raquel Blandón
Vice president,
Patricia Escobar
President, 2011
Sandra Torres
President, 2015
Xiomara Castro
President, 2013
María Dolores
María Fernanda
Rosario Murillo
Vice president,
Marta Linares
Vice president,
Mirta Gusinky
Senator, 2013
Emilia Alfaro
Deputy, 2008-
Senator, 2013
Keiko Fujimori
President, 2011
President, 2016
María Julia
Senator, 1999
Deputy, 2000-
and 2010-
Senator, 2014
Source: Compiled by authors
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