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Apparent Double Standard Victimizing Leading Women Political Figures

October 16, 1991

RIO DE JANEIRO, Brazil (AP) _ After three prominent women politicians shed public tears over accusations of corruption, commentators complained that Brazil’s women leaders are being subjected to tougher scrutiny than men.

In recent weeks, former Economy Minister Zelia Cardoso de Mello, Sao Paulo Mayor Luiza Erundina and First Lady Rosane Collor have made front-page news by weeping in public over allegations of improprieties.

The independent daily Folha de Sao Paulo said the three had been caught in a ″sexist crossfire.″ Brazilian men cannot accept ″women in power ... taking command of our male certainties,″ the paper said.

Women have gained greater political prominence in recent years but remain greatly under-represented on the national scene. There are just 28 women in the 584-member congress, and all 26 state governors are men.

Women in high positions of power often confront blatant discrimination.

In 1989, leading businessman Mario Amato said then-Labor Minister and current Secretary of Economy Dorothea Werneck was intelligent and capable ″despite the fact that she’s a woman.″

Cardoso de Mello, who resigned in May, earned the nickname ″the Iron Maiden″ as Brazil’s most powerful Economy Minister under President Fernando Color de Mello. Recently, she was seen wiping away tears after political foes accused her of corruption during her 15 months in office.

Thirty-eight and single, she also continues to be ridiculed for an affair she had with 58-year-old Bernardo Cabral, a former Justice Minister and her Cabinet colleague. Cabral, who has been married for 35 years, emerged from the episode with an enhanced reputation as a ″Don Juan.″

″Only Cardoso de Mello’s image was denigrated,″ said Lena Lavinas, a sociologist at the Federal University of Rio de Janeiro. ″A man’s private life is never seen to reflect negatively on his public performance.″

Indeed, for a male politician extramarital activities can even be a propaganda coup.

In 1984, aides informed 74-year-old presidential contender Tancredo Neves that his opponent intended to spread a false rumor about Neves’ involvement with a young woman.

″Let them spread it,″ Neves replied. ″That’s a rumor that helps.″

Mayor Erundina of Sao Paulo, Brazil’s biggest and wealthiest city, had her administration’s spending accounts rejected by a local tax court. She narrowly escaped an impeachment vote by the state assembly as a result.

During the ordeal, the mayor broke down, declaring she could no longer ″stand the pressure″ imposed by her political opponents.

Many observers believed Erundina, a member of the socialist Workers Party, was being unfairly persecuted. A commission of six independent economists examined City Hall’s books and unanimously agreed the mayor had committed no irregularities.

Erundina complained that her conflict with the tax court was typical of sexism she has encountered since taking office in 1989.

″I have had to work much harder than any man to prove I can do the job,″ she said in an interview. ″Much more is expected of me.″

Meanwhile, conservatives have already made sex an issue in next year’s mayoral campaign.

Right-winger Paulo Maluf, a potential candidate to succeed the mayor, recently said that ″After Erundina, women candidates won’t have a chance for the next 10 elections.″

The most copious weeper has been Rosane Collor, who in early September stepped down as head of a federal charity after the press reported she had doled out $464,000 in disaster-relief funds to companies headed by three relatives.

Lavinas, while not defending the First Lady against the charges of corruption, said that the sexism behind the attack on Mrs. Collor was seen in frequent derogatory comments made about her intelligence, reading habits and backwoods upbringing.

But prominent feminist Rosemarie Muraro noted that Mrs. Collor had also benefited from Brazil’s notorious ″machismo″ because her tears generated an outpouring of sympathy. The Rio daily O Globo had to publish a front-page apology after readers complained about a cartoon the paper ran showing the First Lady in a smartly tailored prison uniform.

″She became just a frail woman and no longer a corrupt politician,″ Muraro said. ″If her husband had cried, he would have been called a wimp.″

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