A book detailing the history of feminist activism in Argentina from the 19th and 20th century.
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About the Author
Marifran Carlson holds a doctorate in Latin American History from the University of Chicago, and has taught at Northwestern and Roosevelt Universities. A self-employed businesswoman who has travelled extensively in Latin America, Dr. Carlson currently lives in Chicago.
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The Woman's Movement in Argentina from Its Beginnings to Eva Peron
By Marifran Carlson
Chicago Review Press IncorporatedCopyright © 1988 Marifran Carlson
All rights reserved.
The Background: Colonialism and Independence
When Spain established her American colonies in the late fifteenth and early sixteenth centuries, she was an important European power not yet consolidated into a nation. Spain was, in fact, a loose confederation of warring kingdoms before the marriage, in 1469, of Isabella of Castile and Ferdinand of Aragon, who strengthened the central authority of the Crown by controlling the rebellious aristocracy and negotiating agreements with the Church. In 1492 the kingdoms of Castile and Aragon united to evict the Moors from Granada; these wars against the Moorish infidels brought the masses and the nobles together in religious patriotism. Isabella became the patroness of the Holy Inquisition, zealously working to convert or expel Jews and Moslems from Spain and to convert the infidel outside Spain. Only a few months after the reconquest of Granada, the Pope, Alexander VI, who was himself Spanish, gave approval to the Spanish monarchs to explore the unknown reaches of the world, both to bring Christ to whatever peoples dwelt there and to use the spices and precious metals, which were doubtless also to be found there, to replenish the Spanish treasury from the depredations of eight centuries of holy wars.
A series of papal bulls and treaties divided the New World between Spain and Portugal. In 1494, for example, the Treaty of Tordesillas gave Spain power over the New World, with the exception of the territory that is now Brazil, which was ceded to Portugal. Conquest of these lands, completed by the conquistadores within fifty years of the New World's discovery by Columbus, was followed by a protracted period of colonization and consolidation. The Spanish colonies were divided, initially, into two viceroyalties and a number of audiencias or colonial high courts subordinate to them. The viceroyalty of Mexico or New Spain was created in 1535 with Mexico City as its capital, and the viceroyalty of Peru or New Castile, created in 1542, had its capital at Lima. Over the five centuries during which Spanish colonial government evolved, new viceroyalties and audiencias were created, and changes occurred in jurisdiction, status and location.
There were three major forces in the early days of the Spanish colonies, which often conflicted with one another. There was first the secular state, run by an expanding bureaucracy which claimed control over all persons in the colonies; secondly there was the Catholic Church which was anxious to convert the Indians, prevent their exploitation and create a Christian society; and thirdly there was the encomendero, or upper class, consisting of former conquistadores, and other Spaniards. Although they were not the only seekers for land and wealth, it was among this third group that the most adventurous entrepreneurs could be found. Irving Leonard has written vividly about them:
The New World offered an outlet for the tireless energy of leaders long habituated to war, and for the restless ambition of disinherited second sons ... who were prone to resist the absolutist tendencies of the crown ... [Thus] many military expeditions, subsidized for the most part by their commanders, poured out of Spain and, from ... Santo Domingo and Cuba ... overran with their few thousands the vast reaches of two continents in almost as few decades ... [seeking] large dividends and quick returns. Gold they wanted ... [and] landed estates ... with peasant serfs ... Such holdings the feudal lords might enjoy ... and then pass ... on to their heirs ... This lordly grandeur was ... most prized, and feudal fiefs in the New World had the advantage of remoteness from the restraints of an increasingly absolute monarchy ...
The new lands were colonized through the encomienda, the granting by the Crown of the use of Indian land and labor. The recipients of the encomienda, called encomenderos, were given the right to extract tribute from the Indians. Although the Crown recognized the value of these privileges in attracting settlers to the new colonies, it was at the same time hesitant to allow the development of a powerful aristocracy which could create conditions like those in Spain before the accession of Ferdinand and Isabella. Consequently, a struggle ensued between the encomenderos and the government that was to continue throughout the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries. The Crown wished to facilitate the mining of precious metals which could be sent back to Spain; but in their turn the colonists demanded the right not only to collect tribute from the Indians, but to keep a percentage of the ore's value. The Crown refused to grant theencomenderos inheritance in perpetuity, but inevitably over the course of time the most valuable land slid into the hands of wealthy Spanish and creóle families, some of whom were the descendants of conquistadores.
The Church recognized the need of the colonists to employ Indian labor in mines and farms, but they condemned any efforts, often violent, to enslave Indians. The Crown also frowned upon violence. In 1542 Indian slavery was officially abolished, although Indians continued to work under conditions which were not far removed from slavery. In Mexico and Peru, which had highly developed civilizations at the time of the initial conquest by Spain, millions of Indians perished from the effects of forced labor and from European diseases — smallpox, typhus, measles, influenza and others — to which they had no immunity. Partly because of the resultant drop in Indian population, African slave labor was introduced into colonial plantations in the tropical coastal areas. The Crown and the Church voiced no objections to slavery of Africans; the Church itself used African slave labor, which, by the end of the sixteenth century, was widespread in Latin America.
Shortly after the conquest, offspring of mixed Spanish and Indian parentage (mestizos) began to appear in the colonies, as a result of both rape and willing cohabitation. It was customary for caciques or local chiefs to bestow women as gifts upon the conquerors as evidence of good will. Indian women were available to the Spanish, as domestics and as laborers on the estates and in the mines. In the upper classes of Aztec and Inca society, mestizos were accepted freely, although these societies were as rigidly stratified as Spanish society. Mestizos became leaders in the Indian communities, serving as intermediaries with the conquerors. Certainly for Indian women marriage to Spaniards often meant better lives than their own people could offer them. Within fifty years of the conquest, both Crown and Church were becoming concerned about the number of mestizos in the colonies, which had been envisioned as a replica of Spain in America. Although sexual relations outside marriage were of course strongly discouraged, the Spanish were not rigidly opposed to intermarriage between Indians and whites as they were to any sort of fraternization between whites and Africans. Nevertheless, sporadic attempts were made to discourage Spanish-Indian marriage: land policies, for instance, were instituted to confine Indians and Spaniards to separate communities. But the authorities had to recognize that, apart from the fact that the two groups were economically dependent upon each other, there were simply not enough Spanish women in the colonies to provide marriage partners for the colonists.
Since early population records are unreliable, it is impossible to determine the number of colonial Spanish women, but it has been established that only a few women accompanied the conquistadores. Colonial records do show that in Mexico and Peru, the centers of Spanish colonial civilization in the sixteenth century, Spanish women began to arrive within ten years after the cessation of the violence and insecurity of the initial exploration and conquests. By 1550 women appear to have constituted about ten percent of the Spanish population. Until the seventeenth century, in areas settled later, like the Río de la Plata in southern South America, women probably constituted no more than five to twenty percent of the Spanish population. The few Spanish women who came to the small settlement of Buenos Aires during the sixteenth century either died along with their men of starvation, disease or at the hands of hostile Indians, or gave up and went home in discouragement. It was not uncommon, until the seventeenth century, for Spanish men in Buenos Aires to request and receive permission to marry their Indian concubines although on occasion colonial officials would demand that an encomendero who was living with an Indian woman send to Spain for his wife.
Government policy encouraged men to send for their wives and other female relatives; land grants, at one point, were restricted to men with Spanish wives. Strong pressure was not needed; everyone recognized that Spanish women were needed as a stabilizing and civilizing force, and that the loose sexual environment of the early colonial period had to end. Most settlers were seeking status; some, who belonged to the hidalgo class, Spain's secondary nobility, had come to America because Spain was overrun with aristocrats and its resources were running out. For people who wanted to climb socially, noble titles were available for sale in the new world, as they were in old Spain. Adventurers could rise to the aristocracy through advantageous marriages with women of the nobility; then they could accumulate land and establish themselves as respectable landed aristocrats. Spanish wives were necessities if these dreams of status were to come true.
What little is known about Spanish colonial women is more or less limited to those of the upper class, since the cultural and religious life of the colonies centered around them. Kinship has always played a dominant part in Latin American society; nepotism and the use of political office for personal advantage were already common in the colonial period and, as members of important families, women participated in the complex web of kinship systems that evolved over the years. Although the law appeared to exclude women from any influence at all, it has been noted recently that women were not powerless in the colonies. Since the family was the basis of business and community life, married women had more de facto power than the Spanish legal system seemed to allow them. It is recognized now that aristocratic women managed large agricultural haciendas, bought and freed slaves, established entails and founded convents and charitable institutions and, in fact, were important and influential in various aspects of colonial life and in the alliances that transmitted power and money from one family to another.
On the surface at least, the social and legal position of colonial women was determined by traditional Spanish institutions, according to which women were the property of the males of the family. Spanish law, from which colonial law derived, was based on Roman law, which codified the supremacy of the husband and father. In addition the Moorish occupation of Spain, from 711 to 1492, had imposed the Islamic custom of the seclusion of women which, although never as overpowering in Spain as in Moslem countries, was nevertheless a social factor. It did not in practice extend to women of the lower classes because of economic necessity and because lower class families lacked stability. In Spanish America the practical problems of a frontier society militated against the adoption of seclusion of upper-class women, although it remained an ideal and status symbol for some families, especially those who came from Southern Spain where centuries of Islamic domination had had a powerful impact.
The confusing and often contradictory inheritance laws of the kingdom of Castile were transferred to the colonies. Although primogeniture existed, it was not the general rule. The laws of inheritance dictated that all property acquired during a marriage belonged equally to both partners, and that at the death of either spouse the survivor was entitled to half the estate, the other half then being divided equally among all children of the marriage, male and female alike. The survivor's portion, in its turn, was treated in the same way. The exception was the mayorazgo or entailed estate. It is not known how often the mayorazgo excluded women. Inheritance laws were complicated further by the colonial system of land distribution. As a rule, women were excluded from ownership of encomiendas and other land grants. Asunción Lavrin has said that encomiendas were given to women only as a form of royal patronage for the wives and daughters of the early conquistadores and settlers and did not indicate sexual equality.
Under the Spanish civil code, women, along with children and the insane, were legally classed as imbeciles. Married women existed entirely under male authority; single women remained patria potestad or under the rule of their fathers until they were twenty-five years old, after which they gained some civil rights and could marry without their fathers' approval; at that time they lost their rights again, although they could, with their husbands' written permission, initiate legal action in connection with their own income or property which they had acquired before marriage. Some prominent families tried to protect their daughters by demanding that husbands agree to allow their wives some independence after marriage. Married women did customarily control the income from their dowries, the amount as a rule being a minor part of the couple's total income. Widows were prevented by law from acting as heads of estates; because of this and other pressures, widows sought to remarry as soon as they decently could in order to avoid confiscation of their property. In a few instances widows had sufficient power and prestige to supervise their property, although even these were under societal pressure to remarry. And they were closely watched by authorities for evidence of mismanagement of their estates. A male relative sometimes claimed that an estate was being mismanaged by a widow or by an unmarried woman over twenty-five years old; the courts would uphold his right of kinship to protect his family's patrimony, and appoint him guardian of the estate. Thus more or less throughout their lives, women remained subject to their families. One need hardly add that women were expressly forbidden to hold political or administrative positions in the colonies. The ideal woman, the saying went, left her home only three times: to be baptized, to be married and to be buried.
Under these circumstances, it is not surprising that many women welcomed convent life in the profoundly religious colonies. From 1540 to 1811 fifty-seven convents were founded in Latin America; by 1800 there were twenty-two in Mexico City alone. Much of the wealth which accrued to the Church from the reconquest of Spain and the conquest of the New World was invested in the building of convents — along with, of course, monasteries and churches. Colonial convents, often heavily endowed, offered women freedom from patriarchal constraint and an opportunity for educational development; they relieved society of the responsibility for unmarried respectable women and gave these women a rich community life. In an era when most women were illiterate, and only a few upper class women received even a rudimentary education at home, there were educated nuns.
One of these was the Mexican Sor Juana Inés de la Cruz (1651-1695), who was for several years the poet laureate of the Mexican viceregal court. She had been a child prodigy, writing lyric poetry when she was three and learning Latin at eight, after taking only twenty formal lessons. When she was twelve she asked her parents to allow her to attend university disguised as a boy; however, although she was much admired at the viceregal court, no one there would sponsor her for the university. With that door closed to her she decided when she was fifteen to seek her education as a nun, and entered the Convent of the Discalced (or Barefoot) Carmelites, a strict order that had a library of over twelve thousand volumes. However after two difficult years she left the Carmelites, where she found life too harsh, and entered the convent of San Jerónimo in the center of Mexico City. There, while she worked with the poor, she studied, in addition to Christian doctrine, such secular subjects as linguistics, pedagogy and science. For a few years her intellectual accomplishments won her praise, but in the late 1680s her criticism of colonial social inequities and her interest in scientific observation brought her into conflict with local representatives of the Inquisition which discouraged intellectual curiosity and frowned on any departure from Christian revelation as the means of knowledge. Sor Juana had criticized the insensitivity of the Church to the needs, spiritual as well as material, of the poor, and the hypocrisy and lax morality of the colonial upper class. The result was a threat of excommunication. After months of mounting pressure from the powerful Bishop of Puebla, Don Manuel Fernández de Santa Cruz, and from her own lifelong friend, the Portuguese Jesuit Antonio de Vieyra, the harrassed nun succumbed and abandoned her intellectual pursuits. After that she declined both mentally and physically, gave herself over to excessive acts of penance, including self-flagellation, and died at the age of forty-three, a martyr to the cause of intellectual freedom.
Today Sor Juana is something of a heroine to feminists. It is remembered that she wrote of her need for privacy in order to work, a need that was anathema to a society that demanded the total dedication of women to the needs of the family, Church and society. Her poetry has been preserved, including romantic poetry that demonstrates her sympathy with the plight of women, and her recognition and rejection of the double standard for sexual behavior. She criticized society's attitude toward prostitutes:
Ignorant men who accuse
Without seeing that you cause
The very thing that you condemn.
If with unequalled fervor
You solicit their disdain,
Why do you expect them to be virtuous
When you encourage them to sin?
You combat their resistance
And then, gravely,
You say it was their weakness
That accomplished your end.
Whose is the greater guilt
In a sinful passion,
She who falls to his lure
Or he who, fallen, lures her?
Or which is more rightly to be reproached,
Although both are guilty,
She who sins for pay,
Or he who pays to sin?
Excerpted from ¡Feminismo! by Marifran Carlson. Copyright © 1988 Marifran Carlson. Excerpted by permission of Chicago Review Press Incorporated.
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Table of Contents
ContentsIntroduction by George I. Blanksten,
1 The Background: Colonialism and Independence,
2 Women and Philanthropy in Nineteenth Century Argentina,
3 Education For Women in Nineteenth Century Argentina,
4 The National Council of Women in Argentina,
5 Feminism and the Free Thought Movement, 1900-1910,
6 Feminism and Socialism,
7 The International Feminist Congress of 1910,
8 War's Aftermath, 1918-1926,
9 Argentina Turns to the Right,
10 Feminism and the Peróns,