MONROVIA, Liberia -- She has swept floors and waited tables and earned a degree from Harvard. She has been jailed at home and exiled abroad. Now she's on the verge of making history.
Ellen Johnson-Sirleaf, 67, is likely to become not just Liberia's first elected female president -- but the first in Africa, and one of only a handful in the world.
''I hope young girls will now see me as a role model that will inspire them," Johnson-Sirleaf said in an interview at her Monrovia villa late Monday. ''I certainly hope more and more of them will be better off, women in Liberia, women in Africa, I hope even women in the world."
With more than 99 percent of ballots counted from a Nov. 8 runoff, Johnson-Sirleaf holds an apparently insurmountable lead with 60 percent of the vote, compared to 40 percent for her soccer star opponent, George Weah. He is contesting the vote, though observers say it was fair.
A winner is unlikely to be declared for several more days, while Weah's complaints are investigated.
Johnson-Sirleaf wants women to make up at least 30 percent of her Cabinet.
''If you look around the continent, there are many women in Africa that are holding high positions, in parliament, in the ministries," she said.
The widowed mother of four, who also has eight grandchildren, said it was not easy to climb the career ladder in a world dominated by men.
She has served as her country's finance minister and taken on top jobs at Citibank and the United Nations.
''If you're competing with men as a professional, you have to be better than they are . . . and make sure you get their respect as an equal," Johnson-Sirleaf said. ''It's been hard. Even when you gain their acceptance, it's in a male-dominated way. They say, 'Oh, now she's one of the boys.' "
Buttons from her presidential campaign say it all: ''Ellen -- She's Our Man."
Johnson-Sirleaf said she swept floors and waited tables at a drugstore restaurant in Madison, Wis., while attending a business college there. Later, she earned a master's degree in public administration from Harvard University.
She was finance minister when an illiterate master sergeant, Samuel K. Doe, launched a 1980 coup in which a dozen other ministers were executed.
Though spared, she was jailed twice -- once for seven months. Her aides say her captors threatened to kill her several times, carrying out mock executions.
Johnson-Sirleaf took on the country's most feared and powerful leader, Charles Taylor, in 1997 elections. Though she lost by a landslide, she rose to national prominence, and earned the nickname ''Iron Lady."
Taylor plunged Liberia into civil war in 1989, leading a rebel invasion that pitted him against several other factions. Several years after he became president, rebels took up arms against Taylor, forcing him from power in 2003. He lives in exile in Nigeria but is wanted by a UN-backed war crimes court in Sierra Leone for his role in fueling that country's own conflict.
Nigeria has been under intense international pressure to hand Taylor over to the court, and the United Nations says it will arrest him if he returns to Liberia.
Johnson-Sirleaf declined to say whether she would like to see a trial for Taylor, who has a following in Liberia despite his track record. She said only that she would first consult with West African leaders, and ''let the law take its course."
Reaching out to her opponents will be key not only to Johnson-Sirleaf's success, but to peace and stability in Liberia, a country founded by freed American slaves in 1847 that has been torn by bloody coups and war since 1980. Around 200,000 people have died in the fighting, and millions have been displaced.
Johnson-Sirleaf said she would offer Weah a Cabinet post, and wants to bring in other rivals to form a ''government of inclusion."
''The biggest challenge I have is that there will be all these disaffected political leaders, warlords, and whatnot who are disgruntled, who would not like to see the success of the government," she said. ''Much of their disenchantment is based on fear, fear that they will be brought to book for corruption or human rights abuses, and I've assured them there will be no witch-hunting, there will be no looking for skeletons in the closet."