The heritage of Latin American women’s political empowerment

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The heritage of Latin American women’s political empowerment

by Katherine Marino on Thursday, August 2, 2012 - 9:33am

Today the Latin American-Caribbean region boasts more female heads of government than any other area globally. The list includes Dilma Rousseff in Brazil, Laura Chinchilla in Costa Rica, Cristina Fernández de Kirchner in Argentina, Kamla Persad-Bissessar in Trinidad and Tobago, and Portia Simpson-Miller in Jamaica.

The 2012 Women in Politics survey of the U.N. Women and Inter-Parliamentary Union reveals that women of the Americas rank second only to those in Nordic Europe for their nearly 23 percent female representation in parliament. A recent New York Times article contrasts this new stage of Latin American women “[q]uietly and against the odds…stepping up the political ladder” with an earlier period when the region was “a caldron of machismo and gender inequality.”

Commitment to gender equality is not new in Latin America.  Social democracy and women’s rights movements have long flourished in this region. And women’s rights groups and activists from Latin America have a history of collaborating together, across their nation-states, for shared goals. A vibrant movement of Pan-American feminism which extended from the early 1900s to the 1940s represents an important, though often overlooked, precursor to the current political advancement of Latin American women. In honoring their history, we can see their impact, not only on Latin American leaders today, but also to global women's rights.

The fight for women’s rights across the Americas

Between the two world wars, Pan-American feminism was a vibrant continental movement led by women’s rights activists from the U.S. and Latin America.  These leaders worked in coordinated campaigns to promote women’s equality, social democracy, and a more multi-lateral world. This inter-American, liberal feminist collaboration was largely built upon pre-existing connections formulated by women such as Paulina Luisi from Uruguay and Bertha Lutz of Brazil, who became some of the movement’s most energetic leaders. 

In the 1920s, following the national suffrage amendment, U.S. feminism became fractured around the contentious Equal Rights Amendment. Many social reformers feared that this sweeping guarantee of equal rights under the law regardless of sex, would, if implemented, eliminate hard-fought protective legislation for women workers. On the other hand, Latin American feminists, as historian Ellen DuBois writes, “eventually displaced the Europeans and Americans as leaders in global suffragism.” Between 1932 and 1945, often as the result of organized suffrage movements, women gained the vote in Brazil, Uruguay, Cuba, El Salvador, the Dominican Republic, Panama, Guatemala, and Costa Rica.

Fractures emerge

While this transnational feminism often revealed much agreement about “women’s rights” across  nation-states, conflicts inevitably emerged. Latin American feminists often butted heads with their U.S. counterparts, many of whom presumed superiority and assumed leadership. In the context of a fraught history of U.S. intervention in Latin America, many Latin American feminists formed bonds with each other based on a shared sense of identity and struggle against U.S. imperialism. Many of these women distinguished themselves from their U.S. counterparts by self-identifying as “Pan-Hispanic” or “Latin American feminists,” despite the term’s obscuring of regional, race, class, and political diversity. 

Such a rift occurred when U.S. suffrage veteran Carrie Chapman Catt infamously denounced “South American women” in 1929 for what she perceived to be their lack of education and lack of helpful engagement in building peaceful relations among the Americas. Puerto Rican feminist Clotilde Betances Jaeger was one of many who responded that Latin American women saw things differently. She insisted that women not just from South America but also from Central America and the Caribbean had a central conception of peace. Their peace, though, was different: it promoted the freedom of all the Americas and critiqued U.S. imperialism.

Desire for a broad-based movement

Thus, the primary fault line between U.S. and Latin American feminists often lay not in disagreement over women’s equal political and civil rights – many Latin American feminists had long struggled for the passage of such laws. In contrast to their U.S. counterparts, many Latin American feminists typically believed in a broader-based movement incorporating goals of multi-lateral cooperation and anti-imperalism.  Many also integrated demands for social democracy and welfare in their vision of equal rights. This position sometimes conflicted with that of their U.S. collaborators (like those in the U.S. National Woman’s Party) who conceived of “equal rights” as more narrowly constituting equal civil and political laws.

Big win for multi-lateral women’s rights

The Pan-American feminist movement peaked in 1945, when a number of Latin American women introduced a broad agenda for international multi-lateralism, peace, social democracy, and women’s equal rights to the conference in San Francisco that gave birth to the United Nations.  Minerva Bernardino from the Dominican Republic, Amalia Castillo de Ledon from Mexico, Isabel P. Vidal from Uruguay, and Bertha Lutz from Brazil, each one instrumental in the Pan-American feminist movement of the 1920s and 30s, helped secure recognition of women as a category under international “human rights.”  Owing to a proposal by Bertha Lutz, the UN created what would become its Commission on the Status of Women.

Lutz pronounced these accomplishments “a Latin American contribution to the constitution of the world.”  She also noted to her friend Carrie Chapman Catt that women from the United States and England, who were at that time distracted by internecine conflicts over the Equal Rights Amendment and by the looming Cold War, had failed to aid the Latin American women in their efforts. “The mantle is falling off the shoulders of the Anglo-Saxons,” she wrote, “and…we [Latin American women] shall have to do the next stage of battle for women.”

In the decade following the 1945 conference, democratic reforms swept through Latin America, and ten more countries in the Western Hemisphere granted women suffrage.

While gender equality cannot be gauged merely through laws establishing formal equity or through the numbers of female-elected representatives, these measures importantly help shape the meaning of gender.  The strong and influential heritage of Latin American feminism sheds light on the origins of the concept that “women’s rights are human rights.”  Understanding the history of this ideal may help us ensure its future.


Katherine MarinoKatherine Marino is a doctoral candidate in the History Department at Stanford University. Her dissertation explores Pan-American feminism from the 1920s to the 1940s.  She is a 2011-12 Graduate Dissertation Fellow at Stanford's Clayman Institute for Gender Research.

*** Gender News Update 4/17/2014: Since the publication of this article, Marino has completed her Ph.D. and become assistant professor at the Ohio State University. Marino's dissertation, on which this article was based, received the 2014 Lerner-Scott Prize for the best doctoral dissertation in U.S. women's historyfrom the Organization of American Historians. Congratulations, Professor Marino!***