MEXICO CITY -- In a 15-minute ceremony, called to formally convene its spring session, the Mexican Congress made history.
For the first time women were elected to preside over both the Senate and the Chamber of Deputies. A woman also has been chosen to lead the majority party in the chamber.
"This is a tremendous boost because people see that women are not only qualified to participate, but that we are also qualified to lead," said Deputy Evangelina Corona Cadena. "It cuts through the machismo that has been so prevalent in our culture and has held women back for so long."
Presiding over the 64-member Senate will be Sylvia Hernandez, who represents the state of Queretaro. Laura Alicia Garza Galindo, from the state of Tamaulipas, will direct the 415 legislators in the Chamber of Deputies. Maria de los Angeles Moreno Uriegas, a deputy from Mexico City, will lead the majority party.
This particular three-month session is important because the Congress will consider political reforms meant to give the opposition parties more control over the electoral process and greater access to the media.
"I believe that some very important steps can be taken toward political reform if members of each party are able to put aside their historic distrust of one another and come to some agreements," says the soft-spoken Senator Hernandez, 44.
Part of the reason for the advances women have made over the last few years in both the private and public sectors is purely practical, says Deputy Garza, 45, who helped establish the environmental platform of Carlos Salinas de Gotari's presidential campaign.
"As the economy got worse and worse in the 1980s, men had to put away their ego and accept the fact that their wives had to work to help them support their families," she says. "As more and more women entered the work force, they began seeking greater and greater responsibilities."
Also, she adds, as Mexico struggles to quash its culture of corruption, women have been tapped to provide moral leadership.
"Women have a grand image of seriousness and incorruptibility," she explains. "I don't want to say that all men do not have that image, but for the most part when people in this country look to someone with strong morals and principles, they look to women."
Santiago Portilla, a historian and political observer, says that women's influence over Mexican politics is visible through recent administrations' efforts to improve the living conditions of Mexico's largely poor and uneducated citizenry.
"There have been laws passed that make penalties harsher for sexual assaults and that provide greater protection for children," he says.
During this session, says Deputy Garza, a bill may be introduced calling for appointing an attorney general to oversee the protection of women's rights.
However, laments Senator Hernandez, such initiatives occur all too infrequently. She says women legislators are not usually eager to take up such causes for fear of being dismissed as feminists by their male colleagues.
"There are issues that inevitably have greater importance to women because they affect our homes, our children and our own bodies," she says. "But we don't pursue those issues as aggressively as we should. Instead too many of us prefer to stick to issues like the economy so that when we win a victory, we do so in [the men's] arena."
"The problem is that men think women want to come here and take over," says Tamaulipas Deputy Ana Teresa Aranda Orozco, a member of the opposition National Action Party (PAN). "But most of us are not feminists. We don't want to walk ahead of men or behind them. We want to walk with them."
Senator Hernandez says she began her involvement in politics working on political campaigns while she was in high school. Deputy Garza has worked as an administrator in charge of various government agencies.
Both say that they have succeeded because they set realistic goals and they always demanded respect.
"I once headed the National Council for Youth Services and the men there said that they would not work for a woman," said Mrs. Hernandez. "I told them in that case they were free to go. Not one of them left."
"Men have always taken me seriously," says Ms. Garza. "Anyone will be taken seriously if that person carries herself seriously, if she is knowledgeable and understands the rules of politics."
Mrs. Hernandez says that the success of professional women has done little to improve the miserable conditions under which most women in Mexico live.
"But maybe we help boost their spirit," she says.