Christine de Pizan

Christine de Pizan
The Writer Christine de Pizan at Her Desk

Friday, January 16, 2015

Ellen Johnson Sirleaf, an African President

Ellen Johnson Sirleaf, president of Liberia (inaugurated 16 January 2006)

Born in Monrovia, Liberia in 1938, Ellen Johnson Sirleaf became the first elected female head of state in Africa and is, notably, the first black woman elected to the office of president anywhere in the world.

In 2011, Johnson Sirleaf was one of three women awarded the Nobel Peace prize: "the Nobel Peace Prize for 2011 is to be divided in three equal parts between Ellen Johnson Sirleaf, Leymah Gbowee [a Liberian peace activist,] and Tawakkul Karman [a Yemeni journalist and politician] for their non-violent struggle for the safety of women and for women’s rights to full participation in peace-building work. We cannot achieve democracy and lasting peace in the world unless women obtain the same opportunities as men to influence developments at all levels of society."

Ellen Johnson Sirleaf with her Nobel diploma,
December 2011
About the nomination of Johnson Sirleaf, the Nobel committee wrote: "Ellen Johnson Sirleaf is Africa’s first democratically elected female president. Since her inauguration in 2006, she has contributed to securing peace in Liberia, to promoting economic and social development, and to strengthening the position of women."

There is a wealth of information about Ellen Johnson Sirleaf at the Nobel website, including a detailed biography, a video of her Nobel lecture, as well as a complete transcript of the text, an interview, and a photo gallery. You can access this material by clicking here.

During her years as president, Ellen Johnson Sirleaf has struggled with a series of enormous difficulties, including ongoing economic issues, the need for reconciliation within a country racked by decades of civil conflict, government corruption, and the contested issue of gay rights within Liberia. Most recently, the country she heads has been faced with the disaster of the Ebola epidemic. (For an interesting historical perspective on the relationship between the U.S. and Liberia, access the article in Slate by clicking here.)

Ellen Johnson Sirleaf's memoir, This Child Will Be Great, was published in 2010.

For a thoughtful op-ed about the "backlash against women" in a continent where so many women, like Ellen Johnson Sirleaf, are achieving political power, educational success, and economic advancement, you can read Sisonke Msimang's recent New York Times op-ed, "The Backlash against African Women," by clicking here.