Feminism in Argentina
[This information was contributed by Barbara Sutton.]
Ud. puede obtener información del Instituto Social y Politico de la Mujer aquí.
Ud. puede obtener información de Mujeres en Igualdad aquí.
For a detailed discussion of important feminists in the history of Argentina, click here.
Feminism in Argentina
[Copyright 1998 Marilyn Mercer.]
The feminist movement in Argentina was, and still is, truly a "grass.roots" movement, an on-going series of efforts made by individuals and (usually small) groups of women to improve the lives of Argentine women in some way. Although the individual efforts may have seemed small, unrelated, and often ultimately fruitless, when one studies these events and pulls them all together, there is indeed a realization that much has been accomplished by women in Argentina.1
Traditionally, the legal position of women in Argentine was based on Spanish Law, which in turn was based on Roman law, in which women were considered property of the men in the family, single women under the authority of their fathers and married women of their husbands. The Moorish tradition of secluding women which was strong, especially in southern Spain, from centuries of Moorish rule, was not always attainable in colonial Argentina, but was perceived by many as an ideal; and women were not allowed to hold any political or administrative positions in the colony. Families attempted to get their daughters married at between fifteen and eighteen years of age, often to a man fifteen to thirty years her senior. Women could not inherit land grants under the colonial system, nor could widows become heads of their estates. In order to avoid property confiscation, women were under pressure to remarry. Even after independence from Spain, when inheritance laws became more equitable, families found ways to circumvent them in order to give the bulk of the estates to male heirs, in order to assure that the wealth stayed within the patrimony.2
These attitudes began to change in the late eighteenth and early nineteenth centuries due to the influences of foreign cultures, especially French. The foreign ideas were seen as progressive and modern, and Spanish customs began to look backward and old.fashioned. Upper.class Argentine women began to organize cultural gatherings where men and women would be able to interact through informal intellectual discussions and the performance and enjoyment of music and poetry, just as was taking place in French salons of the day.3
Most of the Argentine upper.class did not consider public education or literacy necessary for other segments of the female population, but they did want upper.class girls "not only to be literate, but to be educated to behave in a proper, virtuous and rational way." They also thought the Church should offer vocational training to the lower.classes, because "it was believed that ignorance and lack of skills led women to a life of prostitution."
In 1801, the colonial government founded the first daily newspaper in Buenos Aires, Telegrafo Mercanble. It consistently contained articles in support of secular education for women and criticizing the religious nature of the education women received from the Church, which some men believed was responsible for keeping women ignorant, superstitious and irrational. "Secular education," they maintained, "had to be the way to make women emotionally stable so that they could be better mothers and fit companions for intellectual men."
There were a few writers, such as the political leader Manuel Belgrano (1770. 1820), who stressed the need for women to acquire skills that would give them increased economic independence and make them responsible citizens, granting them more privileges and responsibilities within society.
During Argentina's fight for independence from Spain many women managed their family's businesses and estates so that the men could help in the struggle. Some women provided food and nursing care to the militia, and a few were even involved in combat, although by accident. Other women raised money for support of the military efforts. Everyone saw this assistance as temporary, and "societal pressure obviously required that they slip back into normal female roles." 7
Bernardino Rivadavia, who was government minister (and became the President of Argentina in 1826), "deplored women's exclusion from civic life and believed that the vanity and superficiality for which upper class women were criticized was the fault of society which required of them o~ that they be domestically decorative. He wanted to include women in the building of the nation so that they could promote public morality." In 1823, he founded the Argentine Beneficent Society, a philanthropic organization to be run by women. It was supported by government funds as well as by private donations, and administered charities previously under the Church's control such as "hospitals, asylums, orphanages and homes for wayward and indigent girls and women." The Beneficent Society "took over the administration of the state hospital for women, the largest hospital in the country...it became the administrator of Argentina's entire welfare system, and...was responsible also for providing medical care during natural disasters and civil disorder...." It administered "all the primary and secondary schools for girls in Buenos Aires" and "was charged with the establishment of a national primary school system for girls."
The "selfless woman" was the nineteenth.century ideal in the Beneficent Society, in Latin America and in the European and North American cultures so 10 admired by the Argentine upper.class. Upper.class women "had been brought up to believe that they were obliged to help their social inferiors." Philanthropic work seemed a natural outlet for women to help them attain this ideal and also to provide them with a "useful occupation." It provided what "seemed to be a natural outlet for women's energies."
Domingo Sarmiento (1811.1888) played a pivotal role in the advancement of education for women in Argentina. Sarmiento thought that girls should be educated, not just to be better mothers, but to be able to contribute to society by being involved in local politics, which he felt was a natural extension of the home. He believed that eventually, after being educated and gaining experience in local politics, women should also become active in national politics.
In 1856, when he became National Minister of Education, Sarmiento appointed a woman to the position of Board of Education supervisor for the province of Buenos Aires. This was an unprecedented move: "In Argentina, middle.class women did not work, let alone take positions of authority over men."
Nineteenth.century civil law was based on the Code Napoleon, which classified women in the same group as children, the retarded and the insane. Women were under their husbands' legal supervision, they had no legal identity separate from their husbands. Divorce was not allowed, and in order to get a legal separation a woman had to prove that her husband was insane. Even in these cases, children over five years of age remained with the husband as long as he could prove he was capable. Women had no real recourse against financial neglect; society expected that they would somehow manage.
The 1853 Constitution did not improve women's status. It did offer "democratic principles with religious liberty and citizenship for all people born in the territories," but it was interpreted in ways that adversely affected women. For instance, article 21 says that all citizens are required to take up arms when necessary. Since women were not allowed to pin the armed forces, the court ruled that Argentine women were not entitled to the privileges of citizenship, including suffrage.
It was due to "the lack of an educated middle class, the influence of the Church and the almost constant political and civil turmoil which existed in the country during the nineteenth century" that the emergence of "an organized campaign for the granting of civil rights to women" was later in Argentina than in North America or Europe. However, Argentina was the leader in Latin America in working for women's rights: The Argentine woman's movement began toward the end of the nineteenth century, following the lead of similar movements in the United States and Europe in which women began for the first time to organize themselves to work for the improvement of the lives of women and children and, ultimately, for the betterment of society. This woman's movement is not the same as the feminist movement, which can be loosely defined as the movement for female social and political equality... philanthropists and temperance workers did not necessarily join the feminists in their political demands. Many influential clubwomen in both Argentina and the United States were strongly opposed to feminism.
Beginning in the 1860s the Argentine government aggressively encouraged immigration. At that time, forty.five percent of Buenos Aires' population were immigrants; by 1890, ninety percent were immigrants. This massive influx of immigrants included many skilled, educated and professional people, some of whom were liberal or Socialist political exiles, whose more progressive ideas provided support for secular education and helped dismantle the rigid class system, as well as provide a social and intellectual climate conducive to women's rights and feminist issues. "In Argentina feminism was largely an immigrant movement, and one closely allied to the Socialist party, although...there were some non.Socialist feminists." In Argentina, even these early feminists generally put socialist issues above feminist ones. This seems to be characteristic of Argentine women, who generally place political issues affecting the country's welfare above issues that affect women only. This has been perhaps a natural result of the many repressive military regimes and the brutality which has forced women "to become political, even if it was to defend their roles as wives and mothers rather than to rally for the feminist cause."
The opening of university preparatory secondary schools for girls, beginning in 1905, and the opportunity for women to attend the University, according to Carlson, "marked the real beginning of the feminist movement in Argentina." All twenty.five women who completed coursework at the University between 1905 and 1910 practiced professions, and all strongly supported social and economic advancement for women. By 1910 Argentina's educational system was considered the best in Latin America, and was perceived as being "morally and financially committed to the education of women."
As indicated above and also in the information sheets accompanying this paper, many of the early (turn.of.the.century) Argentine feminists were strong advocates of equal educational and career opportunities for women. Many were also concerned with working conditions and job training of lower class women. There was a deep philosophical division between those women dedicated to philanthropic causes, who were more traditional and conservative in their views, and more closely aligned with the traditionally assigned female roles, and the more highly educated women who were . interested in gaining political and economic rights for women. And all of these women were upper.class, and did not really ever reach out to any other class of women in any major way to join them as equal partners in their struggles for equality.
This is why, when Eva Peron came along, she appealed so effectively to the working.class women; she herself came from a lower class background, and the masses felt like she understood and cared about their situations. The earlier feminists seemed to care mainly for their own interests, and the lower classes of women could not identify with their efforts. Eva was snubbed by the women of the oligarchy (especially the Beneficent Society) because she was not upper class; this class.consciousness was one of the biggest problems with the furtherance of support for women's causes and probably the worst weakness in the effectiveness of these upper class women, and their "failure to appeal to the broad mass of women." ~ But, according to Fraser and Navarro: Evita's effect on the condition of women in Argentina and on their political life was decisive...A mass of women who care little about women's rights and were indifferent to the concerns of middle.class feminists had entered politics because of Evita.
The repressive regimes which have terrorized and intimidated Argentine society, such as that between 1975 and 1985, which caused the economy to collapse and used propaganda to reinforce the traditional role of women, create an atmosphere in which demanding women's rights seems subversive and becomes irrelevant in the face of larger, more immediate problems. According to one author, "the 1976 coup crushed the feminist movement in Argentina." Again, as Witte points out, "Argentine women have historically repeatedly stood up for their rights...be it a struggle for women's rights or a struggle of resistance against dictatorship." This "politically unstable course" is given as a reason for Argentine women's greater political awareness.
In 1977, fourteen women gathered and marched into the Plaza de Mayo in Buenos Aires, in spite of a ban on public gatherings ordered by the military junta in power, to demand information concerning their missing children, who had disappeared as part of a systematic effort by the government to rid Argentina of "subversive elements." The government at first did not take "Las Madres" seriously, calling them "local" women unwilling to accept that their children had voluntarily left the country on their own, the official response of the government: Quite simply, the military was not cognizant of the political nature of the Madres' protests, and thus, did not suppress the group. This reaction was critical because it provided time for the organization to develop into a social movement....By refusing to quash the group immediately, the regime enabled a seemingly non.political group to gain undeniable political force. Once the junta realized the severity of their miscalculation, the resolve of the women was strong enough that repression could not destroy the movement. In fact, the cost of repression might have been greater than the cost of allowing the women to continue protesting, particularly in light of the movement's renown within the international community. Las Madres de Plaza de Mayo were actually the only group who challenged the political boundaries imposed by a government that banned all political activities and political parties. According to Mattu, Las Madres played a crucial role in "the resurrection of civil society in Argentina[which]was essential for political democracy to reemerge." According to Witte, since the reemergence of democracy in Argentina, women are becoming disillusioned with the prospects of women's increased access to political participation, claiming there is a "negligible presence of women in all spheres of government....There is an increasing awareness of the necessity of integrating women into social, economic, and political life, and that the status of Argentine women continues to be underprivileged in respect to men.
Nineteenth and early.twentieth century women (including feminists) in Argentina were influenced by the same commonly.held beliefs about woman's nature and role in society that men claimed to be true. Woman was defined in relation to man: "education...would solve women's problems, give them self.respect and make them fit companions for educated men...women must not lose their feminine modesty; they must avoid giving an impression of intellectualism which could be equated with loose morality." They believed men "could exist without love, while women could not." The "romantic conception of womanly martyrdom was a dominant theme in mid. nineteenth century Argentine women's literature. Women's patriotic poetry often extolled female virtues at the expense of men's selfishness. Self-sacrifice was the norm."
Even as women were struggling for economic, intellectual and social independence, the prevailing attitudes and beliefs about women kept them in restraints, some of which the women themselves accepted as "God.given" or "natural." There were many societal definitions of woman and her role that went unquestioned, and still go unquestioned by many women, especially those influenced by religion. Although Argentina is today for the most part only nominally Catholic, historically religion has had a strong influence in the society. The influx of foreign ideas through immigration was a positive influence on the attitudes and values of Argentine society, realized over several decades. Woman's role as wife and mother is still of primary importance in Argentina, which is one reason why Las Madres was able to exert a measurable amount of influence within the society. The early generation of educated feminists made a real contribution in creating a measure of educational independence for women, and for establishing Argentina's place among the international community of feminists. The philanthropists made many real contributions to the physical well.being of women; although they too readily accepted this as their only acceptable realm of influence in society, leaving politics and university education to the men.
Overall, as I indicated at the beginning, Argentine women have struggled, have persevered and won small baffles along the way, and I think collectively it has created an impressive history and a worthwhile effort.
1. M. Carlson. Feminismo, TheWoman's Movement in Argentina From Its Beginnings to Eva Peron. 1988, pp. 7.8.
2. Ibid. pp. 4-9.
3. Ibid. pp. 36-7. . 4. Ibid. pp. 31.2, 36.7.
5. Ibid. p. 35
6. Ibid. pp. 34.5.
7. Ibid. pp. 38.9.
8. Ibid. p. 49.
9. Ibid. p. 53.
10. Ibid. p. 55.
11. Ibid. p. 37.
12. Ibid. p. 63.
13. Ibid. p. 66.
14. Ibid. p. 68.
15. Ibid. p. 40.
16. Ibid. pp. 40.1.
17. Ibid. p. 39.
18. Ibid. p. 41.
19. Ibid. pp. 41.2.
20. Ibid. p. 41.
21. Ibid. p. 42.
23. A. Witte, Guiding the Plot: Politics and Feminism in the Work of Women Playwrights from Spain and Argentina, 1960.1990,1996.
24. Ibid. p. 68.
26. M. Carlson, p. 83.
27. Ibid. p. 95.
29. Ibid. p. 191.
30. Ibid. p. 192 and A. Witte, p. 66.
31. N. Fraser and M. Navarro, Eva Peron, 1980, p. 109.
32. A. Witte, p. 67.
34. Ibid. p. 68.
35. R. Mattu, Las Madres de Plaza de Mayo: Civil Society in Argentina.
37. A. Witte, p. 70.
38. M. Carlson, p. 60
39. Ibid. p. 61.
40. Ibid. p. 61.2.
Dates of Importance for Women in Argentina
1755 Founding of a "Colegio" in Buenos Aires: a primary, secondary and vocational residential girls' school run by the Brotherhood of Charity until the Beneficent Society later took over its administration. By the 1760's, translations of the writings of the Philosophes were popular, provoking discussions of the value of women's education to society and to women themselves
1816 Independence from Spain
1823 Argentine Beneficent Society founded; these women became Argentina's first social workers During the 1830's and 40's, freedom of movement and thought was repressed under the dictatorship of Juan Mauel de Rosas, who opposed government funding of social programs, including public education and the Beneficent Society. He was overthrown in February of 1852.
1852-61 Civil wars in Argentina
1853 Argentine Constitution adopted. After 1850 the civil courts were so overloaded and poorly funded that cases involving male abuses of family power (especially disputes over money) were put aside; it was assumed that women would somehow manage.
1856 General Urquiza became President of Argentina and appointed Domingo Sarmiento to be the Minister of Education; the Argentine government established a national department of education
1859-1932 Between these years over five million immigrants came to Argentina, mostly from Spain and Italy.
1869 Congress created a national normal school system; between 1869 and 1886 sixty. five North American teachers (sixty.one were women) came to Argentina to help start more than thirty normal schools across the country
1886 The first professional nursing school in Argentina opened in Buenos Aires
1890 Economic depression was followed by uprisings in the provinces
1892 Radical Party (Union Civica Radical) formed
1894 Socialist Party founded by Juan B. Justo (1865.1928), a medical doctor. It was the first party the support woman suffrage; women were admitted to full membership
1896 Isabel King, a retired normal school administrator living in Buenos Aires, requested (as was customary) the government's assistance in forming an Argentine branch of the International Council of Women, and was refused
1898 Women's Exposition held in Buenos Aires, sponsored by twenty women's philanthropic organizations, in order to display women's accomplishments in fine and decorative ads, crafts and charitable services
1900 The first meeting of the National Council of Women took place in Argentina after Cecilia Grierson recruited Alvina Van Praet de Sala, the President of the Beneficent Society, to become involved. Women from thirty.three charitable and cultural organizations attended, and decided that NCW would function as an umbrella organization for women's clubs and philanthropic groups in Argentina. (NCW was a branch of ICW, mentioned above.)
1902 Formation of the Argentine Association of University Women by thirty educated women who became discontented with the administration of the NCW
1905 National Girls' High School Number One opened, the first of several secondary schools with curriculums to prepare women for admittance to the University
1905 Feminist Center (Manuela Gorritti Center) founded to provide community services to women and a place for feminists to meet
1905 Argentine Association of Free Thought was founded by the International Association of Free Thought. Several feminist leaders emerged from the feminist forums created within this group, because women were allowed to address the group (public speaking by women was forbidden in Argentina.) AAFT demanded full citizenship and equality for women, and supported the Feminist Center and other new women's groups.
1906 School for Domestic and Technical Training opened by NCW(Dr. Grierson) to help women receive up.to.date training so they could more effectively compete in the job market
1912 Passage of Saenz Pena Law established universal male suffrage but specifically denied women the right to vote in national elections
1912 The government founded a co.educational commercial high school where men were trained for paralegal work and other similar jobs and women were taught basic clerical skills
1914 By this date, women constituted twenty.two percent of the workform
19 16 Women's Rights Association founded by Elvira Rawson de Dellepiane
1918 National Feminist Party founded by Julieta Lawson
1947 Argentine women were granted the right to vote (September 27)
1948 The Beneficent Society and other women's philanthropic institutions were integrated into the Department of National Social Assistance by President Peron, in order the end the Society's control over social services, to demonstrate his independence from the oligarchy and in response to the Society's snubbing of his wife. Peron also attempted to have the Society's contributions expunged from history textbooks.
1949 Woman's Branch (Rama Femenina) of Peronista Party was formed, run by Eva Peron
1976-1983 "The Dirty War"(an estimated 30,000 Argentines "disappeared" during the military government's effort to exterminate "subversive elements.")
1977 Fourteen women created "Las Madres de Plaza de Mayo", in an attempt to discover what had happened to their missing children
1983 A civilian, democratic government came to power
1986 Divorce became legalized in Argentina
1994 Constitution revised
[Note: This information was contributed by Marilyn Mercer.]
1. An extensive study of the Civil Codes by Dr. Grierson, completed in 1906, showed that married women still had the status of children in Argentina; only single women and widows had any civil rights. It was not until 1926 that: Adult married women were granted equal civil rights with adult men; unwed mothers were granted parental Rights over their children; married women were given the right to enter professions and dispose of their earnings without their husbands' consent and to enter into civil contracts. Widows were granted authority over their children and over the estates of minor children, whether these women remarried or not.(166)
2. The Argentine Beneficent Society was founded by President Rivadavia in 1823 as a philanthropic organization to be run by women and supported by the government, in an effort to enact the dives of Argentine women. The Society was given the responsibility of founding schools and administering all government charitable organizations, including Catholic ones, and women's' educational institutions. It remained conservative in orientation, and closely aligned to the traditional roles of women in society.
3. Dr. Alicia Moreau de Justo (1885.sometime after 1977), whose father was a respected Socialist leader, helped found the Socialist Feminist Center at the age of 15. She was respected as a social worker and writer prior to achieving a degree in medicine at the University of Buenos Aires. She was a strong supporter of education being necessary for women in order to attain civil and political equality, and was one of the founders of the feminist movement in Argentina.
4. Domingo Faustino Sarmiento (1811.1888) was instrumental in the establishment of Argentina's educational system (one that included women), making it a leader among Latin American nations in education. He was a strong advocate for women's education: Education would provide them with an alternative to loveless arranged marriages....Sarmiento believed that girls should be educated not only for motherhood, but with the ultimate goal of participation in public life and politics... (66)
5. Carolina Muzzili (1880.?) was a working.class immigrant who reported on conditions for women working in factories, which were used in the 1906.7 efforts to gain protective legislation regarding women's working hours and conditions. Although the legislation did pass, it was not enforced. She also studied working conditions in the cigar and textile industries and wrote a report detailing the long hours, dangerous and unhealthy working conditions, inadequate machinery and the physical and sexual abuse of women workers.
6. Elvira Rawson de Dellepiane was one of the founding members of the Argentine Association of University Women, and in 1905 founded the Feminist Center, which focused on political and social reform. After three months she changed the name to the Manuela Gorriffl Center (after a nineteenth century Argentine writer), and her center was for thirteen years a place for feminists to meet and where other services could be provided to women. Dr. Rawson was also a physician, because the practice of law was not open to women.
7. Ernestina Lopez (1879.1965), the first woman to earn a doctorate in Arts and Letters from the University of Buenos Aires, was another founding member of the AAUW, and also was an organizer of the First International Feminist Congress of Argentina, held in 1910.
8. Cecilia Grierson (1850.1934), graduated from the University of Buenos Aires medical school in 1889. She had suffered ridicule and isolation as the only woman at the University, and then had to fight a lengthy battle in court before she could legally practice medicine. She founded a professional nursing school and the first association of obstetricians and obstetrical nurses. She taught obstetrics and physical therapy, and throughout her career worked to improve women's lives in Argentina. After attending the second International Congress of the International Council of Women in London, she worked to establish a branch of the ICW in Argentina.
9. Sara Justo (1870.1941), with a degree in dentistry, was another founder of the AAUW. She also founded the Socialist Feminist Center and the Socialist Women's Center. She taught courses in domestic service and was the director of two commercial schools for women. In 1909, she went to Europe to study the women's movements there. She believed that Argentine women needed a stronger sense of unity and a breakdown of class boundaries.
10. Eva Duarte (1919.1952) married Juan Peron in 1945, and after he became the Argentine President in 1946, worked for the rights of working.class women, including enfranchisement. The Perons "represented the aspirations of working.class people and appeared to women to be sincerely determined to improve their lives and working conditions and, most important, to have the real ability to make these improvements." (190)
11. Julieta Lanteri de Renshaw (1870-1932), immigrated to Argentina from Italy at the age of six with her parents. She earned a degree in pharmacology in 1898 from the National College of La Plata, and a medical degree in 1906 from the University of Buenos Aires, specializing in mental illness and diseases of women and children. She did not receive an appointment to Professor of Psychiatric Ailments at the Medical School of Buenos Aires...supposedly because she was not an Argentine citizen. (Women were not granted citizenship because it included the right to vote,) Dr. Lantera applied for citizenship but it was denied because she was a woman. The only way a foreign.born woman could receive citizenship was as a favor to her husband, if she married a sufficiently prominent man. In 1910, Dr. Lanteri did marry, and was granted citizenship the next year. But it did not include the right to vote. Dr. Lanteri belonged to the AAUW and the Feminist Center. Both her and Dr. Rawson believed that woman's social environment threatened her sanity, and that women were being excluded from full participation in public life on the basis of biological differences that were irrelevant. They also believed, as did many feminists, that women were morally superior to men.
From: M. Carlson. Feminismo, The Woman's Movement in Argentina From Its Beginnings to Eva Peron. Chicago: Academy Chicago Publishers, 1988.
Carlson, Marifran. Feminismo, The Woman's Movement in Argentina From Its Beginnings to Eva Peron. Chicago: Academy Chicago Publishers, 1988.
Fraser, Nicholas and Navarro, Marysa. Eva Peron. New York: W.W. Norton and Company, 1980.
Kantaris, Elia Geoffrey. The Subversive Psyche: Contemporary Women's Narrative from Argentina and Uruguay. Oxford, 1996.
Lavrin, Asunción. Women, Feminism and Social Change in Argentine, Chile, and Uruguay, 1890-1940. 1995. You can read a review of this book here.
Mattu, Rav. "Las Madres de Plaza de Mayo: Civil Society in Argentina." Latitudes Vol. 4. Y
VV.AA. Feminismo/Posmodernismo. Buenos Aires: Feminaria Editora, 1992.
Witte, Ann. Guiding the Plot: Politics and Feminism in the Work of Women Playwrights from Spain and Argentina, 1960-1990. 1996.
COPYRIGHT 1998 KRISTIN SWITALA. ALL RIGHTS RESERVED.