'You really have to stand up for yourself': Estonia's first woman president on gender and politics

“People have to learn that the presidents may look different, prime ministers also, maybe women over 40...” Kersti Kljulaid said. “You cannot look at the person and decide who they are. This is extremely important.”
Estonian President Kersti Kljulaid interviewed on MSNBC's "Morning Joe."
Estonian President Kersti Kljulaid interviewed on MSNBC's "Morning Joe."Know Your Value

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By Erin Delmore

As Estonia’s first woman president and youngest-ever head of state, Kersti Kljulaid has shattered the glass ceiling in the Baltic nation. But that doesn’t mean her rise in politics has been without challenges.

“There are challenges, not only for me but all my female colleagues,” Kljulaid told Mika Brzezinski. “Quite often, I mean, you get pushed aside and you really have to stand up for yourself.”

Kljulaid, 50, is one of very few women to serve in the highest office in her country’s government. At the start of 2020, there were only 15 women leaders out of the 193 countries belonging to the United Nations, according to Statista. While just over 70 women have led their countries as heads of state since 1960, more than a third served in a temporary capacity or took over for an elected leader without winning an election themselves.

“People have to learn that the presidents may look different, prime ministers also, maybe women over 40, and they're exactly like everybody else,” Kljulaid said. “You cannot look at the person and decide who they are. This is extremely important.”

Kljulaid was elected by Estonia’s parliament in October 2016 and is only the fourth person to lead since the nation declared its independence from the Soviet Union in 1991. As a private sector leader and a former member of the European Court of Auditors, Kljulaid has spoken out about the gender-based discrimination she’s faced. She told BuzzFeed News’ Facebook Watch show in 2018 about a time that she, a diplomat, had been mistaken for a translator.

“It’s not serious. I mean, not harassment. Nothing like this, but this happens every day, of course,” she told Profile, BuzzFeed News’ Facebook Watch show in 2018. “It’s not glass ceilings — it’s broken glass lying everywhere you can’t step on... these simple, kind of everyday situations.”

More recently, Kljulaid made news when her country’s interior minister called her “an emotionally upset woman” after she walked out during a swearing-in ceremony of a Cabinet minister who had been accused of domestic violence. In her absence, the Cabinet minister — who denied wrongdoing and resigned a day later — was left to salute an empty chair.

While on a recent official visit to the U.S., Kaljulaid met with Trump administration officials including Ivanka Trump, Jared Kushner, National Security Adviser Robert O’Brien, as well as Treasury Secretary Steven Mnuchin and head of the International Monetary Fund (IMF) Kristalina Georgieva. She also spoke about digital and cyber security during a gathering of the American-Israel Public Relations Committee (AIPAC) in Washington, D.C.

She and Brzezinski also talked about their shared passion for running.

During a 2018 working tour of the U.S., Kaljulaid dovetailed her official duties with a personal goal: She finished the TCS New York City Marathon in just over four hours, putting her in the top fifth of runners by gender and age group.

“I'm an average runner,” Kaljulaid said modestly. She ran the NYC Marathon flanked by two U.S. Secret Service agents. (The agency is charged with protecting visiting heads of state during their time in America.) Kaljulaid told Brzezinski that she “[tries] to still keep up with” her running routine, and usually runs half-marathons “because it takes less time to run.”

Though it took longer to finish, Kaljulaid seemed pleased with her NYC Marathon experience. "Rather astonishing to be at the finish line with so many happy people," she tweeted after the race.