Latin American Feminism and Women’s Suffrage

Latin American Feminism and Women’s Suffrage
Latin American Feminism and Women’s Suffrage

Feminism and women's suffrage in Latin America blazed a different trail than their European or U.S. counterparts, although these movements provided inspiration. Latin American feminism is marked by diversity, as the region itself spans many ethnic and cultural zones, and class differences among Latin American women are pronounced.

However, common threads do exist. Many Latin American feminists held to the idea that women are as good as men but not the same as men. Rather than demanding complete equality, these women advocated strengthening their power and prestige through traditional paradigms of gender, notably motherhood.

They used conventional gender norms that constructed women as morally superior to men to demand special rights and a voice in the public realm. Suffrage came over a period of 30 years, with Ecuador first in 1929, followed by Brazil in 1932, Cuba in 1934, Argentina in 1947, Mexico in 1953, and Paraguay in 1961.

The construction of women's gender roles throughout Latin America is central to understanding the Latin American women's movement. The legacy of Spanish colonialism served as the basis for men and women's roles in society and thus influenced Latin American feminism.

Traditional gender roles stemming from the colonial period dictated women's place in the home and men's place in the public realm. The Virgin Mary served as the model for ideal womanhood, encouraging self-denial, piety, humility, purity, and obedience in women.

Family, honor, and the home were the central tenets of the patriarchal family structure and dictated that women would remain in the home as wives and mothers. Honor was paramount to the family and impacted social standing and business ties, and women's sexual purity in particular served as a marker of that honor.

This focus on women as indicators of family honor created a double standard, as men's sexual prowess served as a marker of masculinity and did not impact family reputation. Women had no legal rights in the public realm of law and government, including rights to divorce, children, or property.

After Latin America's independence from the European colonial powers in the early 19th century, the newly created liberal states mostly adhered to the Spanish legacy of gender inequality. These new states used the patriarchal structure of the family as a basis for their power.

However, the prevailing political ideology of liberalism, based on liberty, equality, and popular sovereignty, did create some new prospects for elevating the status of women in society. Motherhood in particular and its importance to rearing the next generation of liberal citizens created opportunities for women. This emphasis on women's roles as mothers did buttress the patriarchal system but simultaneously allowed women access to power.

The nationalist and state-building period, from the early to mid-20th century, promised change in Latin America, including new gender roles adapted to fit nationalist aims of industrialization and progress.

Industrialization translated into a need for workers, including women, which required their entrance into the masculine public realm. The pursuit of progress and modernity to compete on a global scale required women's work, justified by both economic necessity and social utility.

Increased opportunities in the public realm through work and education allowed women some gains but overall constrained their aspirations within normative frameworks of gender. The number of middle-class women in the workforce did facilitate women's organizing around suffrage, and Brazilian women in particular boasted the largest and best-organized movement in Latin America.

Brazilian feminists worked to modernize women's gender identities without drastically altering the status quo of gender roles and relations. The Federação Brasileira pelo Progresso Feminino (FBPF), founded by Bertha Lutz, advocated for a modernization of women's roles that would not be considered radical by modern standards.

The FBPF did not seek to eradicate women's traditional place in the home nor the qualities they believed were inherent to the female sex. They used these things as strengths toward women's greater participation in the public realm, and women in Brazil gained the right to vote in 1932 as a result of the work of these middle-class feminists.

The Cuban Revolution in 1959 introduced the Marxist definition of womanhood into Latin America, promising change for women in terms of gender equality and their status in society. The National Federation of Cuban Women (FCW) advocated full and equal incorporation of women into all aspects of society. Vilma Espín, a woman who fought with guerrilla forces during the revolution, headed the organization.

The FCW improved education for women and boosted female numbers in the workforce. It became a model that other Latin American countries would emulate. Despite such gains, some Latin American feminists argue that Cuban women still do not enjoy complete equality and are often relegated to auxiliary roles and activities.

Latin American women in the recent past have continued to fight for women's status in society and expanded rights in the public sphere, often from their traditional base of power as mothers. By the 1980s women's concerns and feminism began to become part of the mainstream media, drawing greater attention to women's issues.

Although Latin American feminism continues to be divided along class lines, with different groups of women seeking different agendas, it continues to thrive, as evidenced by the many meetings Latin American women hold every year across the region to better their lives and those of their countrywomen.