Liberian President Ellen Johnson Sirleaf became Africa’s first female elected head of state and the world’s first elected black female president in 2005. She was also elected in 2016 to be Chair of the Economic Community of West African States. In 2011, she received the Nobel Peace Prize jointly with Leymah Gbowee of Liberia and Tawakkol Karman of Yemen for their work for women’s rights. This highly accomplished woman made Forbes’ 2016 list of the Top 100 Most Powerful Women in the World. She’s also received a handful of other high-profile honors like the U.S. Presidential Medal of Freedom. A truly remarkable leader, Sirleaf is known around the world as Africa’s “Iron Lady.”
Sirleaf grew up in the Liberian capital of Monrovia. After having four sons, she moved to the United States and got a degree in Accounting from Madison College as well as a Masters Degree in Public Administration from Harvard. Back in Liberia, she worked passionately towards social justice. Like many great leaders, she did this at a personal cost, spending over a year in jail and even having her life threatened by former President Charles Taylor. She was also forced into exile more than once for speaking out against the military regime.
As President, Sirleaf made some significant positive changes in her home nation, especially considering the huge problems the war-torn country faced at the beginning of her presidency. Most notably, she worked on everything from rebuilding crumbling infrastructure to negotiating settlements on debt, and from lifting sanctions to making strides for women’s rights. Sirleaf’s tenure took Liberia from war and devastation to peace and a revitalized democracy. After serving with distinction for 10 years, the 78-year-old is stepping down to let the next leader be chosen in the 2017 election. Her presidency wasn’t without its controversies, but there is no question that Sirleaf was a fierce leader for a country that needed one.
K. Riva Levinson, an international strategist based in DC, describes Sirleaf as someone with “a commitment to democracy and human rights without compromise.” She was, Levinson puts it, someone who showed what Africa could be. Globally-respected and a beacon of hope for Liberia as well as for girls throughout Africa, Sirleaf has undeniably changed Liberia and Africa—and the world—forever. As Sirleaf’s tenure in Liberia ends, people the world over are reading a comprehensive biography of her life—Madame President, by Helene Cooper. Cooper writes with admiration and tells the full story of Sirleaf’s life, from being a girl with audacious dreams, to a woman facing huge personal challenges, to taking on the challenges facing her country. Madame President also provides a richly detailed history of Liberia.