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HERSTORY LESSON

You probably won’t guess how many women have led countries since the last century

Sirimavo Bandaranaike gives a speech
AP Photo
Sirimavo Bandaranaike was elected prime minister on Jul. 21, 1960.
  • Annalisa Merelli
By Annalisa Merelli

Senior reporter based in New York City

Published Last updated This article is more than 2 years old.

With Hillary Clinton still the favorite to win the 2016 elections, the possibility that a woman will become president of the US seems closer than ever. But over the last month, the historic importance of having a woman hold the most powerful office in the world has been overshadowed by Donald Trump’s sexism. The conversation moved from empowerment and feminism to having to explain why it is not OK to objectify and assault women. Even so, Hillary Clinton remains, as she likes to say, the biggest crack in the glass ceiling, no matter the outcome of the race.

Clinton’s achievement would be a first—for America, that is. While the world is certainly nowhere near gender equality—in political representation, or otherwise—women have been elected to run countries for years, all over the world. With the exclusion of monarchs, over 170 women have been elected, appointed, or acted as heads of state or government in the modern era, beginning with Yevgenia Bosch who, in 1917, briefly functioned as acting leader of the Soviet government of Ukraine. She was followed in 1940 by Khertek Amyrbitovna Anchimaa-Toka of Tuva, a partially recognized state in territories that were once part of imperial Russia. Anchimaa-Toka was the first female head of state in the modern era who had not inherited her title.

Several of these women were appointed, rather than elected or, like Bosch, only acted temporarily as prime minister, or president. Yet, the count of women who have been effectively leading countries—as heads of state, heads of government or, as it would be in Clinton’s case, both—is larger than some may think.

Overall in modern history, 77 women have been outright elected to serve as prime ministers, presidents, and, as in the case of Janet Jagan of Guyana, both. American-born, Jagan became prime minister after the death of her husband, the country’s president, in 1997; in the same year, she ran for president, winning the election. Today, 12 countries have a woman as chief executive of the government, commander-in-chief, or both.

The trend also appears encouraging for female leadership. In the 1960s, only three women led countries. The first, Sirimavo Bandaranaike in Sri Lanka (then Ceylon) was elected in 1960, followed by India’s Indira Gandhi in 1966 and Israel’s Golda Meir in 1969. By the 1990s, that number was up to 22—and in the 2010s so far it’s already 30.

Cristina Fernández de Kirchner
Argentina
President
10-Dec-07
8 years
Julia Gillard
Australia
Prime Minister
24-Jun-10
3 years, 3 days
Khaleda Zia
Bangladesh
Prime Minister
27-Feb-91
5 years, 32 days
Sheikh Hasina
Bangladesh
Prime Minister
12-Jun-96
5 years, 33 days
Khaleda Zia
Bangladesh
Prime Minister
1-Oct-01
5 years, 28 days
Sheikh Hasina
Bangladesh
Prime Minister
6-Jan-09
7 years, 301 days
Jennifer M. Smith
Bermuda
Premier
9-Dec-98
4 years, 227 days
Dilma Rousseff
Brazil
President
1-Jan-11
5 years, 243 days
Sylvie Kinigi
Burundi
Prime Minister
10-Jul-93
109 days
Kim Campbell
Canada
Prime Minister
25-Jun-93
132 days
Elisabeth Domitien
Central African Republic
Prime Minister
2-Jan-75
1 year, 96 days
Michelle Bachelet
Chile
President
11-Mar-06
4 years
Michelle Bachelet
Chile
President
11-Mar-14
2 years, 236 days
Laura Chinchilla
Costa Rica
President
8-May-10
4 years, 0 days
Kolinda Grabar-Kitarović
Croatia
President
19-Feb-15
1 year, 257 days
Jadranka Kosor
Croatia
Prime Minister
6-Jul-09
2 years, 170 days
Helle Thorning-Schmidt
Denmark
Prime Minister
3-Oct-11
3 years, 268 days
Dame Eugenia Charles
Dominica
Prime Minister
21-Jul-80
14 years, 328 days
Tarja Halonen
Finland
President
1-Mar-00
12 years
Anneli Jäätteenmäki
Finland
Prime Minister
17-Apr-03
68 days
Mari Kiviniemi
Finland
Prime Minister
22-Jun-10
1 year
Édith Cresson
France
Prime Minister
15-May-91
323 days
Angela Merkel
Germany
Chancellor
22-Nov-05
10 years, 346 days
Janet Jagan
Guyana
Prime Minister
6-Dec-97
1 year, 327 days
Janet Jagan
Guyana
President
19-Dec-97
1 year, 235 days
Claudette Werleigh
Haiti
Prime Minister
7-Nov-95
112 days
Michèle Pierre-Louis
Haiti
Prime Minister
5-Sep-08
1 year, 67 days
Vigdís Finnbogadóttir
Iceland
President
1-Aug-80
16 years
Jóhanna Sigurðardóttir
Iceland
Prime Minister
1-Feb-09
4 years, 111 days
Indira Gandhi
India
Prime Minister
24-Jan-66
11 years, 90 days
Indira Gandhi
India
Prime Minister
15-Jan-80
4 years, 290 days
Mary Robinson
Ireland
President
3-Dec-90
6 years, 283 days
Mary McAleese
Ireland
President
11-Nov-97
13 years, 364 days
Golda Meir
Israel
Prime Minister
17-Mar-69
5 years, 78 days
Portia Simpson-Miller
Jamaica
Prime Minister
30-Mar-06
1 year, 165 days
Portia Simpson-Miller
Jamaica
Prime Minister
5-Jan-12
4 years, 58 days
Vaira Vīķe-Freiberga
Latvia
President
8-Jul-99
8 years
Laimdota Straujuma
Latvia
Prime Minister
22-Jan-14
2 years, 20 days
Ellen Johnson Sirleaf
Liberia
President
16-Jan-06
10 years, 291 days
Dalia Grybauskaitė
Lithuania
President
12-Jul-09
7 years, 113 days
Kazimira Prunskienė
Lithuania
Prime Minister
17-Mar-90
299 days
Cissé Mariam Kaïdama Sidibé
Mali
Prime Minister
3-Apr-11
354 days
Hilda Heine
Marshall Islands
President
28-Jan-16
279 days
Zinaida Greceanîi
Moldova
Prime Minister
31-Mar-08
1 year, 167 days
Luísa Diogo
Mozambique
Prime Minister
17-Feb-04
5 years, 333 days
Aung San Suu Kyi
Myanmar
State Counsellor
6-Apr-16
210 days
Saara Kuugongelwa
Namibia
Prime Minister
21-Mar-15
1 year, 226 days
Jenny Shipley
New Zealand
Prime Minister
5-Dec-97
2 years
Helen Clark
New Zealand
Prime Minister
5-Dec-99
8 years, 350 days
Violeta Chamorro
Nicaragua
President
25-Apr-90
6 years, 260 days
Sibel Siber
Northern Cyprus
Prime Minister
13-Jun-13
81 days
Gro Harlem Brundtland
Norway
Prime Minister
4-Feb-81
252 days
Gro Harlem Brundtland
Norway
Prime Minister
9-May-86
3 years, 160 days
Gro Harlem Brundtland
Norway
Prime Minister
3-Nov-90
5 years, 357 days
Erna Solberg
Norway
Prime Minister
16-Oct-13
3 years, 17 days
Benazir Bhutto
Pakistan
Prime Minister
2-Dec-88
1 year, 216 days
Benazir Bhutto
Pakistan
Prime Minister
19-Oct-93
3 years, 17 days
Mireya Moscoso
Panama
President
1-Sep-99
5 years
Beatriz Merino
Peru
President of the Council of Ministers
28-Jun-03
170 days
Rosario Fernández
Peru
President of the Council of Ministers
19-Mar-11
131 days
Ana Jara
Peru
President of the Council of Ministers
22-Jul-14
254 days
Corazon Aquino
Philippines
President
25-Feb-86
6 years, 126 days
Gloria Macapagal Arroyo
Philippines
President
20-Jan-01
9 years, 161 days
Hanna Suchocka
Poland
Prime Minister
11-Jul-92
1 year, 106 days
Ewa Kopacz
Poland
Prime Minister
22-Sep-14
1 year, 55 days
Beata Szydło
Poland
Prime Minister
16-Nov-15
352 days
Maria de Lourdes Pintasilgo
Portugal
Prime Minister
1-Jul-79
186 days
Agathe Uwilingiyimana
Rwanda
Prime Minister
18-Jul-93
263 days
Maria das Neves
São Tomé and Príncipe
Prime Minister
3-Oct-02
1 year, 351 days
Maria do Carmo Silveira
São Tomé and Príncipe
Prime Minister
8-Jun-05
317 days
Mame Madior Boye
Senegal
Prime Minister
3-Mar-01
1 year, 246 days
Aminata Touré
Senegal
Prime Minister
1-Sep-13
310 days
Iveta Radičová
Slovakia
Prime Minister
8-Jul-10
1 year, 271 days
Alenka Bratušek
Slovenia
Prime Minister
20-Mar-13
1 year, 182 days
Park Geun-hye
South Korea
President
25-Feb-13
3 years, 251 days
Han Myeong-sook
South Korea
Prime Minister
19-Apr-06
322 days
Sirimavo Bandaranaike
Sri Lanka (Ceylon)
Prime Minister
21-Jul-60
4 years, 249 days
Sirimavo Bandaranaike
Sri Lanka (Ceylon)
Prime Minister
29-May-70
7 years, 55 days
Chandrika Kumaratunga
Sri Lanka
President
12-Nov-94
11 years, 7 days
Tsai Ing-wen
Taiwan
President
20-May-16
166 days
Yingluck Shinawatra
Thailand
Prime Minister
3-Jul-11
2 years, 308 days
Tatiana Turanskaya
Transnistria
Prime Minister
10-Jun-13
2 years, 125 days
Tatiana Turanskaya
Transnistria
Prime Minister
30-Nov-15
2 days
Kamla Persad-Bissessar
Trinidad and Tobago
Prime Minister
26-May-10
5 years, 106 days
Tansu Çiller
Turkey
Prime Minister
13-Jun-93
2 years, 267 days
Yulia Tymoshenko
Ukraine
Prime Minister
24-Jan-05
225 days
Yulia Tymoshenko
Ukraine
Prime Minister
18-Dec-07
2 years, 75 days
Margaret Thatcher
United Kingdom
Prime Minister
4-May-79
11 years, 208 days
Theresa May
United Kingdom
Prime Minister
13-Jul-16
112 days
Milka Planinc
Yugoslavia
Prime Minister
16-May-82
3 years, 364 days

(Data via: Council of Women World Leaders, Wikipedia, Worldwide guide to women in leadership)

Update: The table has been updated to include Jennifer M. Smith, premier of Bermuda. The map was updated to include Indonesia.

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