SANTIAGO, Chile—Feminist sociologist Teresa Valdés was among a crowd of 200,000 men and women who turned Santiago’s main avenue, the Alameda, into a party when Michelle Bachelet was elected Chile’s first female president on January 15, 2006. “The Alameda was full—full of people, full of women and little girls wearing presidential sashes,” she recalls. “It was glorious, like a party.” And Bachelet’s speech was inspirational—particularly when she asked the crowd, “Who would have thought… 20, 10, or five years ago, that Chile would elect a woman as president?”

Although critics suggested Bachelet’s election would mean little for gender equality, many Chilean women were still hopeful. “But then you realize there are other political realities,” Valdés explained last year, sitting in a café in Santiago. When Bachelet became president, many doors closed for women because male politicians took the attitude of “you...

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