A woman's work

November 23, 2005

By any measure, Ellen Johnson-Sirleaf's qualifications for election as president of Liberia are impressive.

The Harvard-educated mother of four had already reached the post of finance minister by 1980, when Liberia's government was overthrown in a military coup. Spared from execution, but threatened and jailed several times over the years, Ms. Johnson-Sirleaf challenged the African nation's ruling warlord, Charles Taylor, in a 1997 election bid that earned her the nickname "Iron Lady" as a tribute to her courage.

Yet when her supporters were shaping the campaign strategy that would result in Ms. Johnson-Sirleaf's victory this month over a poorly educated celebrity athlete half her age, what was the key issue? Her wardrobe, of course. More precisely, whether or not the most prominent photos in her campaign literature should show her in traditional African headdress. They did not.

"She had to be a modern African woman, but in a way that wasn't offensive," said Larry S. Gibson, a University of Maryland law professor and Baltimore political strategist who helped run Ms. Johnson-Sirleaf's campaign. Such quandaries never came up, he said, in his days as campaign guru to former Mayor Kurt L. Schmoke. "Women candidates have to deal with all these delicate issues."

Her gender is of note because when Ms. Johnson-Sirleaf, 67, is formally sworn into office in January she will become the first female head of state ever in Africa, which rivals the Middle East for patriarchal, male-dominated societies.

But far more important is the potentially pivotal role she has a chance to play in the stabilization and rebirth of her country.

Liberia is still reeling from 14 years of civil war that ended in an uneasy truce after Mr. Taylor was driven from power in 2003. Order is now enforced by 15,000 U.N. troops. Running water, central sewage, an electricity grid - all have become luxuries denied even to the capital city of Monrovia. Joblessness and mistrust are rampant. George Weah, Ms. Johnson-Sirleaf's leading election opponent, tried to blame his loss on fraud.

"The biggest challenge I have is that there will be all these disaffected political leaders, warlords and whatnot who are disgruntled, who would not like to see the success of the government," Ms. Johnson-Sirleaf told the Associated Press. She has promised no retribution, no witch hunts. She plans to invite her political rivals to join her "government of inclusion."

Still, she acknowledged that she is stuck to some degree with the same old rules. "If you're competing with men as a professional, you have to be better than they are ... and make sure you get their respect as an equal."

Here's hoping the next generation of African women for whom Ms. Johnson-Sirleaf has blazed the trail won't feel the need to copy her campaign button: "Ellen - She's Our Man. "

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