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The rise of Africa's women politicians

Liberians may elect the continent's first female head of state.

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In the US, the notion of a woman president is, for now, only a fiction played out on network TV. But here, as election workers continue to count the ballots cast in Tursday's landmark elections, Liberians could soon find that they have chosen Africa's first-ever woman president.

Ellen Johnson-Sirleaf, a former World Bank official and grandmother of six, is a front-runner in the race to head this small West African nation. Yet she's hardly alone on the continent. Across Africa, voters are increasingly putting their hope in women as capable and upstanding saviors - partly in a "throw the male bums out" reaction to continued corruption.

• Rwanda has the world's highest ratio of women in parliament - 49 percent. Also, of the 50 legislatures with the most female members, 11 are in Africa.

• South Africa's recently installed deputy president is a woman - as are the vice presidents of Mozambique and Zimbabwe.

• Five members of Sudan's new postwar cabinet are women - a significant increase from the last one.

In fact, Africa has long been "extremely progressive when it comes to women in politics," says Gisela Geisler, author of a book on the subject. And now there's a further "jelling" of women in power, she says, partly because 10 years after a major wave of democracy swept across Africa, voters see that "not much has changed in terms of corruption." These days, Dr. Geisler says, "people have greater hope in women."

That's certainly true in Liberia.

Polls put Mrs. Johnson-Sirleaf neck and neck with her main rival, former soccer star George Weah. At a rally the other day, roughly 100,000 people in a country of 3.4 million showed up to cheer for her. Campaign buttons proclaimed, "Ellen, she's our man." Supporters said her name stands for, "Every Liberian Loves Ellen Naturally."

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