December 10, 2021. “President of Honduras is a former first lady. Expect to see more former first ladies running for office” The Washington Post (with Carolina Guerrero).

The original article was published at

Xiomara Castro was recently elected president of Honduras, with nearly 51 percent of the vote, ending 12 years of rule by the conservative National Party. The election of the leftist candidate of the Liberty and Refoundation (“Libre”) party garnered international attention, as Castro became the first woman elected to lead her country (and the seventh female president in Latin America).

Castro is also the former first lady of President Manuel Zelaya, and became politically active when she led the protests against the coup against her husband in 2009. Zelaya founded the Libre party in 2011, and Castro represented the party running for the presidency in 2013 and 2021, and the vice presidency in 2017.

Our research suggests Castro is part of a growing trend in presidential systems: former first ladies successfully competing for national office. As is often the case with these candidates, academics, analysts and the media have described Castro as a mere delegate of her husband. But how independent is Castro — and will she advance women’s issues in the country with the highest rate of femicides in Latin America? We’ve studied the political behavior of first ladies and the answers seem…tricky.


We looked at the careers of 90 former first ladies

 Our research shows first ladies can have great influence as members of the political elite. We studied the careers of the 90 Latin American former first ladies who were eligible to become candidates for congress, the presidency, or the vice presidency between 1999 and 2016. Twenty of them collectively ran 26 times for national office.

We found that analysts and the media, as well as rival politicians, commonly described these candidates as surrogates of an outgoing or former male president. Critics implied that these women lacked independence. Interestingly, former first ladies were enormously successful, winning election 73 percent of the time, while a minority had a notable political career before reaching the executive power.

In a forthcoming paper, we argue that women who had previously been elected to political office tended to use the role of first lady as a platform to enhance their careers. Therefore, they were more likely to run again for office, and to do so as soon as they left the executive branch. After analyzing the aforementioned 90 former first ladies, we found strong support for our argument: our data suggests that the predicted probability that first ladies with previous experience as elected politicians will run for office is 70 percent, and there is an 86 percent chance that they will compete for congress, the presidency or the vice presidency the first opportunity they have.

Castro had little previous political experience, however, so our research does not allow us to expect her to act with much political independence. She became a presidential candidate in 2013 when Zelaya was constitutionally forbidden from running for office. Zelaya actively participated in Castro’s campaign at the time, contributing to the image of her being a political surrogate.

In 2021, the indications are strong that presidency may herald a political dynasty of sorts. To downplay Zelaya’s protagonism, one of their children, Héctor, served as Castro’s campaign coordinator for the 2021 election. Meanwhile, Zelaya continued leading the party and is expected to become her main presidential advisor. In addition, Castro’s daughter Hortensia and Zelaya’s brother, Carlón, will support Castro as deputies. Some analysts see the family perhaps joining the tradition of ruling political families in the region, like the Ortegas, in power in Nicaragua since 2007.


Castro and women’s issues

To be sure, a former first lady who has not held elected office before may deploy an unexpected leadership, especially if we consider the intersectionality of her gender and ideology. For example, contrary to her husband’s presidency, Castro has a progressive agenda on women’s issues.

Catherine Reyes-Housholder has shown that a woman president won’t necessarily advance a pro-women agenda. However, Castro’s government program has a specific chapter dedicated to gender. She proposes to partially legalize abortion in a country where abortion is forbidden and wants to create shelters for women victims of domestic violence, develop projects to improve women’s economic status, and provide comprehensive care for migrant women.

These proposals are in line with Castro’s initiatives as first lady. For example, she founded the Coalition of First Ladies and Women Leaders of Latin America on Women and AIDS in 2006 to mobilize resources to care for women and people with HIV.


Expect to see more former first ladies on the ballot

 The election of former first ladies to national office is a growing trend in Latin America. The pool of potential candidates keeps expanding and there’s a clear trend: 15 of the 26 candidacies we studied occurred in the last six years of our sample.

Since 2016, five former first ladies have aimed for the presidency. And some have become vice presidents, including Cristina Fernández in Argentina in 2019, Margarita Cedeño — who lost reelection as vice president of the Dominican Republic in 2020 — and Rosario Murillo, reelected as vice president in Nicaragua’s nondemocratic 2021 general elections.

And it’s not just a Latin American trend. In the United States, Hillary Clinton became the first former first lady to run for the Senate (in 2001), a presidential primary (2008) and the presidency (2016). Former first lady Michelle Obama has faced pressure to run for office. In Asia, former first lady of South Korea Park Geun-Hye became president in 2013. In Africa, former first ladies have competed for the legislature in Uganda and the presidency in Ghana and South Africa.

Even if some of these candidates do not explicitly promote women’s issues, their political successes should help to balance the gender disparity in political power and, through their engagement in the public debate, encourage more women to run for office.

For now, Xiomara Castro is currently the only woman head of government in Latin America. And she has an agenda to improve women’s lives in one of the poorest countries in the world — and one with high levels of gender-based violence.