Until relatively recently, female world leaders have been few and far between.  But, as VOA's Stephanie Ho reports, their ranks are growing, with a number of prominent women in several countries stepping up to the world stage.

The small club of female world leaders is about to get a new member: Cristina Fernandez de Kirchner, the president-elect of Argentina.

Fernandez called on her compatriots to get used to the idea of having a "presidenta," a woman, leading the country.

And she is not alone in Latin America.  Last year, Michelle Bachelet was the first woman to be elected president in neighboring Chile.

Some experts think one reason there are more women in high office around the world is because women have been actively increasing their political involvement over the past several decades.  Sarah Brewer is at American University's Women and Politics Institute.  She says, "Since the development of the modern women's rights movement, the global women's movement, and changes in gender relations since the mid 1960s, 1970s, we're seeing more women having careers in public life."

Women also are emerging in Africa, including President Ellen Johnson Sirleaf in Liberia. "I stand before you today as the first woman elected to lead an African nation," said Sirleaf upon her election.

President Bush recently presented Ms. Sirleaf with the presidential Medal of Freedom, America's highest civilian award.

In Asia, Gloria Arroyo in the Philippines and Pratibha Patil in India hold the presidency. And former Prime Minister Benazir Bhutto has returned to the political mainstream in Pakistan.

In August, Forbes business magazine put German Chancellor Angela Merkel at the top of its list of the world's 100 most powerful women.  Forbes senior editor Elizabeth McDonald says, "She is the first female chancellor of Germany since Germany became a nation state in 1871, and she's increasingly wielding her clout around the globe."

Female politicians sometimes have the reputation for toughness -- notably Golda Meir in Israel and Margaret Thatcher in Britain.

Andrew Pierce is a political commentator with Britain's Telegraph newspaper. "In public, she [Thatcher] was always the ?iron lady.?  She was tough. They have to be tough.  They have to be strong and be tough as the men, probably tougher," says Pierce.

U.S. Senator Hillary Clinton is demonstrating that toughness in her campaign for the American presidency.

But is the United States ready for its first female president?  American University's Sarah Brewer thinks it is. "But one of the things that's challenging, I think, for women, is this assumption around needing to do it better, needing to sort of raise the bar," says Brewer.

She also says that women who seek high office should be judged for their talents and merits, and not feel they somehow have to be better, or stronger, than men.