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Argentine Women and Mass Political Participation in the Late-Nineteenth and Early-Twentieth Centuries

Written by Hanna Derouin. Women's increasing engagement in Argentine politics paradoxically emerged through traditional gender roles. From schooling to the figure of Eva Peron, Argentinian women used their positions as mothers and caregivers to establish themselves politically.

“The World’s feminists will say that to start a woman’s movement in this way is hardly feministic … to start by recognising to a certain extent the superiority of a man!” This quote comes from Eva Peron, one of the most influential figures during the populist Peron era in Argentina. Peronist Feminism, the culmination of nearly a century of progress in female political participation, contrasts greatly to other women’s movements around the world, through its embrace of traditional gender roles. Rather than making gender roles and tradition an obstacle to political activity they were spun into an asset. This paper argues that women in Latin America, during the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries, were able to progress their participation in mass politics by utilising their traditional gender roles as mothers, wives, and caretakers. This paper will follow the progression of participation in Argentina through three distinct stages: women’s increasing access to education, women’s acceptance into right-wing organisations, and finally the emergence of Peronist Feminism, through which women not only spoke at populist rallies, but would ultimately win voting rights. Through each stage, women were able to progress not only within their traditional roles but because of these roles. Women consistently used their duties as caretakers to substantiate their arguments and create dialogue.

            As Argentina moved to secularise in the name of modernity, new educational and professional opportunities became available to women. In the first half of the nineteenth century, female education was only available for the upper class through private Catholic institutions. However, later in the century, as immigrants came from Europe, the economy grew an emergent middle class pushing for educational reform. Education reform affected both men and women. Though men still received a superior intellectual education, women now had better access to education through normal schools, preparing them to enter the professional world as teachers. Seen as “natural teachers”, these women were not perceived  as stepping out of their traditional domestic duties because teaching and taking care of children was already within the feminine domain. Women kept in touch through the training institutions and made networks that later helped form groups facilitating political discussion and social service projects. It was these groups that, for the first time, voiced what historian Francesca Miller defined as “a feminist critique of society” in Argentina.

The work of President Domingo Sarmiento of Argentina, who carried out the most famous normal school program in Latin America, highlights the success of normal schools and education reforms. Domingo Sarmiento opened his first normal school (an institution for training high school graduates in curriculum and teaching) in 1870, and by 1914, Argentina’s literacy rates doubled from one third of the population to over two thirds. Newly literate women broke into a new medium of political participation by expressing their thoughts and experiences in periodicals and journals. Periodicals were the foremost medium for publicising social criticisms, and with increasing literacy, women became active in writing and publishing. Francesca Miller uses the example of Dona Francisca Senhorinha De Motta Diniz, a Brazilian woman who published a journal for women by women. De Motta Diniz was also the headmistress of two schools for girls while writing, showing how spheres of education and critical social writing intersected. While Miller’s example focused on Brazil, she mentioned that throughout Latin America – Argentina included – De Motta Diniz had numerous counterparts.

 Just as women advanced into professional life as teachers by maintaining their traditional gender role of caretakers, one sees in female writing a common theme of using language associated with domesticity in reform arguments. An example of using one’s position as a wife and mother to demand change is in an article written for a Mexican women’s magazine in 1889 by Violetas del Anahuac titled “Against Drunkenness.” In the article, she explicitly asked that the public not find her writing “pretentious,” saying that she was being “guided by the desire to see women suffer less.” The article argues that drunkenness inhibits a man’s ability to fulfil his role as a husband and provider for the family. As such, the woman suffers as she cannot fulfill her role of running the household and is punished by her husband for the things that he himself is bringing upon them. The tone of the article is political. These pieces were distributed to the public and therefore should be considered as a form of political participation. Furthermore, within this political participation, one sees the manipulation of traditional female gender roles in order to achieve women’s political goals.

The next stage, acceptance in right-wing organisations, emerged in the early twentieth century. During the First World War, Argentina experienced a severe economic depression that was even worse than what was to come in the 1930s. In Buenos Aires, workers saw their salaries fall sixteen percent while the cost of living rose by sixty percent. The main question was no longer whether women should work, but rather how Argentina could accept women being active in the workforce within the boundaries established by their strong patriarchal society. A right-wing political and public safety organisation called the Liga Patriotica Argentina seemed to have the answer.

The Liga started as a group focused on quelling the physical disorder and chaos that followed the Semana Tragica of January 1919 – a general strike that had gotten out of hand. After the immediate violence diminished, the Liga decided their work was not finished. Their true mission was to restore Argentine values. One core Argentine value was the Christian family structure, and women played a central role in that narrative, as the family unit was considered to be intertwined with nationalism. A mother, perceived as the “queen bee-teacher of  Argentinidad,” had to be included in the Liga’s quest to restore the former social stability. The Liga created female brigade groups that multiplied throughout urban areas. Women’s issues were at their center. Female mobilisation at this level had not happened in any establishment party before. Women wrote manifestos, became major fundraising agents for the organisation, and were active in political projects in public view. An example of the influential female role in the Liga is that women lead a May 24th independence parade alongside the organisation’s leader. In the words of the Cordoba, women’s brigade founder, “the moment had arrived for the Argentine woman to incorporate herself into the movement of defence against the designs of demolition.” The reason women were able to gain valuable political experience in voting, administrating, and holding meetings was that they did so within and in defence of their traditional gender roles. Manuel Carles, the first president of the Liga, defined feminism as “the fight against men to masculinise women and feminise men.” Liga women could partake in their work against the suffering of women because the organisation and society did not see it as feministic.

In the 1940s, under Juan and Eva Peron, the third stage emerged. As the first lady, Eva Peron, organised the Peronist Feminist party and secured women the right to vote. Eva herself was an influential political figure making speeches alongside her husband and holding government positions in her own right, but she claimed to do so within traditional Argentine gender roles. When speaking of her political accomplishments, Eva denied having planned to start any political women’s movements. Furthermore, Eva insisted that her political activities were a way for her to serve her husband, as is shown when she wrote, “if I girded myself for a struggle it was not for myself but for him . . . for Peron!” and later, “I realise, above all, that I began my work in a womans’ movement because Peron’s cause demanded it.” Sandra McGee, who wrote about the Liga Patriotica, ties the evolution of Peronism to the Liga, claiming that it revived the Liga’s style of nationalism. Peronism also carried out much of the Liga’s program. Another connection to the Liga is seen in the similarity of Eva’s language in describing Peronist Feminism compared to Manuel Carles’ definition of feminism. Eva, when writing about her belief that women should be active in politics, states, “If a woman lives for herself, I think she is not a woman, or else she cannot be said to live. That is why I am afraid of the masculinisation of women.” This masculinisation of women was what Carles and his counterparts feared. Eva, showcasing how one can keep her womanhood and femininity and use her feminine traits as tools to make effective policies in politics, was able to pave the way for other women to participate in mass politics by winning them the right to vote.

While this essay ends the political progression of women with Peronist Feminism, it is important to contextualise it within the successes and struggles that followed it for women in Latin America. Women’s involvement in mass politics in Argentina and Latin America more broadly drew upon traditional gender roles as mothers, wives, and caretakers. The progression through women’s education, the Liga Patriotica, and Peronist Feminism meant that women did not have to shed or denounce traditional gender roles to fight for women’s rights. In agreeing with men in power, women were invited into spheres otherwise unavailable to them. They formulated coherent arguments using their position and duties in the Christian family structure to justify their entrance into mass politics.

Written by Hanna Derouin

Hanna Derouin is a historian at the University of Toronto, Canada.

Bibliography 

Del Anahuac, Violetas. “Against Drunkenness”.” In Problems in Modern Latin American History: Sources and Interpretations Fourth Edition, edited by James A. Wood, 138-139. Rowman & Littlefield, 2014.

McGee, Sandra F. “The Visible and Invisible Liga Patriotica Argentina, 1919-1928: Gender Roles and the Right Wing,” The Hispanic American Historical Review 64, No. 2 (1984): 233-258.

Miller, Francesca. “Women and Education”.” In Problems in Modern Latin American History: Sources and Interpretations Fourth Edition, edited by James A. Wood, 131-136. Rowman & Littlefield, 2014.

Peron, Eva. “Women and My Mission.” In Problems in Modern Latin American History: Sources and Interpretations Fourth Edition, edited by James A. Wood, 145-146. Rowman & Littlefield, 2014.

Peron, Eva. “Women and Action.” In Problems in Modern Latin American History: Sources and Interpretations Fourth Edition, edited by James A. Wood, 146-147. Rowman & Littlefield, 2014.

Image: Getty Images

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