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Alexandre Meneghini, Associated Press
Former congresswoman Josefina Vasquez Mota, front, speaks to journalists and supporters prior to know about her party's primary elections final results in Mexico City, Sunday, Feb. 5, 2012. The National Action Party, Mexico's ruling party, on Sunday chose Vazquez Mota to run for president, the first time a major party has nominated a woman to compete for the nation's top office.

MEXICO CITY — The nation's ruling party has chosen a woman as its candidate for president, a test for a society where women could not vote until 1953 and where a culture of machismo still runs strong.

Josefina Vazquez Mota, a 51-year-old economist, became the first female presidential candidate from any of the country's major parties when she convincingly won a primary election on Sunday for the conservative National Action Party.

Her victory marks a milestone in the progress that Mexican women, like those in countries across the hemisphere, have made in politics over the past three decades. The first female governor did not take office until 1989. Only a handful have been elected since.

Born in Mexico City on Jan. 20, 1961, Vazquez Mota was educated at some of the country's more costly private universities and graduate schools, then worked as a financial consultant and business journalist for several years.

She won national attention after publishing a 1999 book titled "God, Please Make Me A Widow," which is described as a call to women stop being afraid of developing their potential.

Vasquez Mota formally jumped into politics when she was elected to Congress in 2000, part of a wave of political change that rolled across Mexico as Vicente Fox of her National Action Party captured the presidency and ended the 71-year hold on power of the Institutional Revolutionary Party, or PRI.

After only three months as a legislator, Vazquez Mota was pulled into Fox's Cabinet to head the Social Development Department, the first woman to hold the post.

She continued to build her political skills and reputation within her party by managing Felipe Calderon's successful 2006 presidential race, then serving as his education secretary and in Congress.

But the affable candidate with a permanent smile faces an uphill battle against former Mexico State Gov. Enrique Pena Nieto, the PRI candidate who leads in all recent polls.

Many voters have grown disillusioned with National Action after 12 years in power, and due to growing frustration with a drug war in which more than 47,000 people have died over the past five years.

"She is offering to combat corruption, but Fox first offered that and after 12 years nothing has happened," said political analyst Jose Antonio Crespo. "Why would people believe her now?"

Besides ending corruption and improving education, she has said little about what direction she would take the country.

She won the nomination even though most analysts considered rival Ernesto Cordero, the former finance secretary, as the top choice of Calderon and the party establishment. That may help, said Andrew Selee, director of the Washington-based Mexico Institute.

"One thing that benefits her is that she has a certain amount of distance from President Calderon," Selee said. "I think she will try to project a sense of openness to new ideas and that will benefit her but that may not be enough to overcome people's desire to entirely change direction."

Vazquez Mota, who was elected to the lower house of Congress for a second time in 2009 and became speaker of the house, has said she won't use gender as an issue during her campaign.

But the married mother of three, has used her family life on the campaign trail to garner the support of Mexican mothers and young voters.

PAN delegates are betting that a woman candidate could boost party appeal. Recently women have been elected to head governments throughout Latin America, including in Brazil, Argentina, Costa Rica and Chile.

"The fact that she is a woman certainly injects a new story line into the election campaign," Selee sad. "Certainly people will find that attractive."