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Today we commemorate the 91st anniversary of women’s suffrage in the United States. With the passage of the 19th amendment, women were finally afforded the voting rights of full citizens. The movement for women’s suffrage is rightly seen as one of the central and definitive chapters of the American narrative. It’s in tribute to those who mobilized and agitated, persisted and prevailed, that we exercise not only our right to vote, but also our right to lead. 

There are currently 20 female heads of state in the world – more than ever before. And yet, we know there’s a great distance to go: the United Nations recognizes 193 member countries. 

Political commentators are predicting that one of these 20 leaders, Liberian president Ellen Johnson Sirleaf, is likely to be re-elected to a second term this October. In 2006, Vital Voices inaugurated the Global Trailblazer Award in honor of her historic election. The “Iron Lady” of Africa, the continent’s first female president, won 75 percent of her country’s vote in a time of post-conflict crisis, when the need for reconciliation was
overwhelming. President Sirleaf had been imprisoned for criticizing the former military regime, and exiled twice. She could not be deterred from her conviction that Liberia and its people could be revived, and would be revived.

Her ability to unify a divided society and energize a failing economy has drawn global attention. President Sirleaf was the first to show that it is possible for a woman to attain the highest level of political leadership in Africa. She has encouraged others to follow in her path ever since.

In the closing remarks of her inaugural address, President Sirleaf delivered a message for women in Liberia, and beyond: 

“And now, before I close, I would like to talk to the women – the women of Liberia, the women of Africa, and the women of the world. Until a few decades ago, Liberian women endured the injustice of being treated as second-class citizens. During the years of our civil war, they bore the brunt of inhumanity and terror. They were conscripted into war, gang raped at will, forced into domestic slavery. Yet, it is the women who laboured and advocated for peace throughout our region.  

It is therefore not surprising that during the period of our elections, Liberian women were galvanized – and demonstrated unmatched passion, enthusiasm, and support for my candidacy. They stood with me; they defended me; they worked with me; they prayed for me. The same can be said for the women throughout Africa. I want to here and now, gratefully acknowledge the powerful voice of women of all walks of life.” 

This fall, Leadership in Public Life Award honoree Kah Walla is the first woman candidate – another first – to run for the presidency in Cameroon. There’s no doubt that there remain many firsts before us, but the courage and leadership of women such as President Sirleaf and Kah Walla make it more possible, more likely, that more women will engage in public life and rise as political leaders.