Madame President: The Extraordinary Journey of Ellen Johnson Sirleaf
It’d be easy to mythologize Ellen Johnson Sirleaf, said Mila Koumpilova in the Minneapolis Star Tribune. The Nobel Prize–winning two-term president of Liberia was raised in a culture that offers women little opportunity and doesn’t punish sexual violence committed against them, yet she freed herself from an abusive marriage to complete her education, establish herself as a voice of dissent, and then, in 2005, earn the title of the first democratically elected female president in all of Africa. In Helene Cooper’s “nuanced, intimate” portrait, Sirleaf at times comes across as “more of a calculating bureaucrat than an inspirational firebrand.” But Cooper, a New York Times reporter who’s a native of Liberia, adds illuminating context to Sirleaf’s rise, and frames it—fairly—as a triumph of feminist energy over a cruel patriarchy.
More than just one woman’s life story, the book “sweeps across continents and time,” said Krissah Thompson in The Washington Post. Cooper zooms back to Liberia’s 1820 origins, when ships from the U.S. arrived carrying freeborn blacks and freed slaves. Sirleaf was born in 1938 in the republic that sprang from that venture, and though her parents were well educated, she was married by 17 and by 22 had four children. But she soon journeyed to America to secure an accounting degree, returning to a treasury job in Liberia that began her long climb to a Harvard degree and a stint, in 1979-80, as Liberia’s finance minister. Later imprisoned for criticizing the ruling junta, she lived mostly in exile during the brutal 14-year civil war that left three in every four women victims of rape. When Sirleaf returned, she returned as their champion.
Ordinary women do appear in this book, “but mostly as atmosphere rather than actors,” said Jina Moore in The New York Times. Perhaps because Sirleaf’s story needs dramatic juicing, Cooper makes her protagonist’s willpower the strongest force in a complex political drama, even when that requires quickly brushing past Sirleaf’s most questionable actions. In this book, “politics is all protagonist.” Though the result is a propulsive story, “it’s also a myth.”