Of the many war stories that Dilma Vana Rousseff tells of her rise from revolutionary to career bureaucrat to president of Brazil, one in particular stands out. It was early in the race to succeed Luiz Inácio Lula da Silva, and most Brazilians were waking up to the idea of life without their hyperpopular leader, the “father of the poor.” One day in a crowded airport a woman and her young daughter tentatively approached Rousseff to get a closer look at the upstart female frontrunner. “Can a woman be president?” the girl—whose name, fittingly, was Vitória—wanted to know. “She can,” Rousseff answered. With that Vitória thanked Rousseff, raised her chin, and walked off a few inches taller.
Rousseff smiled as she recalled the episode in an interview with Newsweek at Brasília’s presidential palace. It was close to 6 p.m. and the fierce sun over the Brazilian central plateau was already dimming, but Rousseff’s day was far from done. Flash floods in the south had left thousands homeless. Construction work for the soccer World Cup, which Brazil will host in 2014, was lagging. The press was still feasting on the carcass of corruption scandals and a cabinet flap that had cost her five ministers in less than nine months. And yet Rousseff, in a fuchsia jacket, black slacks, and oversize pearl drop earrings, looked unflustered as she spoke about Brazil, the world economy, poverty, and corruption. Her hair was thick and lustrous, her cheeks flush, with no trace of the grinding sessions of chemotherapy she underwent to treat a lymphoma she discovered in 2009. For nearly an hour she held forth, firing off data points and toggling easily from job creation (“We’ve generated 1,593,527 in the first six months”) to T. S. Eliot (“Ash Wednesday” is a favorite) to how women can rewrite the rules of political engagement. “When I was little I wanted to be a ballerina or a firefighter, full stop,” she said. “I don’t know if it’s a new world, but the world is changing. For a girl even to ask about being president is a sign of progress.”