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Two— Latin American Feminism and the Transnational Arena
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Establishing a Presence: 1898–1928

Venezuelan novelist Teresa de la Parra, speaking before a conference of Latin American women novelists and authors in Bogotá in 1930, described "la influencia de las mujeres en la formación del alma americana."[1] Teresa de la Parra posited a spiritual empathy among women of "Catholic and Spanish America"; she recalled Isabella I of Castile and Sor Juana Inés de la Cruz as spiritual precursors of the assembled women poets and writers. De la


Parra would not have described herself as a feminist; however, in her assumption that Spanish-American women had made a different contribution to the alma americana than their male counterparts, she implicitly subscribed to the thesis that the historical experience of women is not perfectly analogous to that of the men with whom their lives are linked.[2]

For de la Parra, women were not only different but also, in matters of the spirit, superior. In consonance with her belief in the uplifting moral influence of women on the American soul, de la Parra insisted that "History and Politics are a banquet for men alone." To her, the realm of politics was a corrupt masculine realm from which women should abstain, and history a record that excluded "the young, the people [opovo, el pueblo ], and women."[3]

Consider, however, the inherent conflict between what de la Parra was doing and what she was saying: while advising women to abstain from politics, she herself was giving a public speech that was explicitly critical of political practice in states governed solely by men, a fairly universal condemnation but specifically aimed at the nation-states of the Western Hemisphere; surely this was a political act in itself. The conflict between her action and her message vividly demonstrates the ambiguity felt by many of de la Parra's colleagues in, on one hand, their alienation from politics as practiced in their own national governments and, on the other, their desire to effect social, political and economic reform—reform that would bring "the young, the people, and women" into social and political equity and, in so doing, transform the essential patriarchal character of the state.

By 1930 the discussion of whether women should enter the political fray was a moot one: women, and issues of special concern to women, were fully in the arena of public debate. However, the history of Latin American women's participation in and contributions to international feminist discourse in the early twentieth century has been shrouded in historiographic assumptions about the nature and extent of feminist thought in Latin America, assumptions that imply that feminist thought in Latin America is derivative and not sui generis. More concretely, it has been assumed that the creation of the Inter-American Commission of Women at the Sixth International Conference of American States in Havana in 1928 was not a collaborative effort by North and South American women but a response to the pressure tactics of the National Woman's Party of the United States and thus another example of North American hegemony, female-style.

The historical record belies these assumptions. Latin American women's participation in and contributions to international feminist discourse are well illustrated in the proceedings of inter-American conferences held between 1880 and 1948. The examination of the inter-American conferences is of particular significance in the study of Latin American women's contributions, because the precedent for using the international congresses of American states as a forum for the debate of feminist issues was established at the Latin


American Scientific Congresses, first sponsored by the Sociedad Científica Argentina, which met in Buenos Aires in 1898, Montevideo in 1901, Rio de Janeiro in 1905, and Santiago in 1908. Their purpose was to discuss "scientific, economic, social and political issues," and, as a later chronicler wrote, "women of the Latin American countries have been identified with these congresses since the first."

The majority of women participants came from Argentina, Chile, Uruguay, and Brazil, and the topics they addressed came under the rubric of "social problems": hygiene, child care, nutrition, maternal welfare. All these topics meshed comfortably with traditional feminine interests within their societies and were matters of concern to scientists and educators of both sexes.

For the Santiago meeting in 1908, the Latin American Scientific Congress was expanded to become the First Pan American Scientific Congress. Over two thousand members gathered from throughout the hemisphere; it was observed by W. R. Shepherd of Columbia University that "women school teachers constituted a large part of the audience, and it must be said that they express their opinions, as well as their difference in opinion, from those held by the other sex, with a freedom and frankness which is quite surprising."[4] It was on the issue of access to education for women that these Latin American female intellectuals found themselves divided from their male counterparts. However, discussion of the education issue was appropriate to the forum and does not represent the breadth of feminist social critique in the Southern Cone republics at the turn of the century.[5]

On May 10, 1910, over two hundred women from Peru, Chile, Uruguay, Paraguay, and Argentina convened in Buenos Aires for the first Congreso Femenino Internacional. The sponsoring groups included the Asociación Nacional Argentina Contra la Trata de Blancas, Asociación Nacional del Profesorado, Centro Socialista Femenino, Escuela Normal de Maestras de Tucumán, Grupo Femenino Unión y Labor, Liga Nacional de Mujeres Librepensadoras, and many more.[6] Dr. Cecilia Grierson presided; the topics discussed ranged from international law to health care to the problems of the married working woman, and reflected the participants' conversance with the international reformist and feminist dialogue of the day.[7] Among the resolutions was one commending the government of Uruguay for passage of a bill of divorce and of one demanding equal pay for equal work: "trabajar porque en la igualdad de circunstancias el trabajo de la mujer no sea menos retribuido de que lo del hombre."[8]

What is of significance of the examination of the inter-American congresses is that the women who spoke at the Congreso Femenino Internacional in Buenos Aires formed the nucleus of the South American women who attended the scientific congresses. The scope of their interests, their feminist perspective, and their critical stance vis-à-vis the status quo in their respec-


tive societies are well illustrated in the record of the Buenos Aires meeting. Furthermore, in their talks, many of the speakers foreshadowed the rhetoric that came to characterize the arguments put before the International Conferences of American States in the 1920s, as María Samame did in her speech "Democracy and the Political Personality of the Woman." After citing a number of examples from antiquity, she pointed out that Isabella I of Spain deserved the greatest credit for the discovery of the New World, the birthplace of democracy, and concluded, "In the old monarchies perhaps it would have been unnatural to recognize the right of woman suffrage; but in the democratic republics of America it is an inexcusable anachronism not to do so."[9]

The Second Pan American Scientific Congress was held in Washington, D.C., in 1915–1916. The Washington congress took on far more significance within the context of inter-American relations than the previous scientific congresses had done. In 1915, Europe was at war, and in North America, Mexico was in the throes of revolution. The United States Department of State, aware that the audience of the scientific congress would include the diplomatic representatives of the states of the Western Hemisphere resident in Washington, took the opportunity to put forth its interpretation of hemispheric security and the need to build up defensive power. Thus, the character of the meeting was altered from a collegial exchange of professionals to a facsimile of a full-dress inter-American diplomatic conference. One of the consequences was that, unlike the Congresses that had been held in South America, the Washington congress did not include women among the "savants, scientists, and publicists" invited. The women were relegated to the balconies.

Thus began the second phase of women's efforts to focus attention on issues of their special concern. In response to their debarment from the official Washington meetings, a number of Latin American women, among them educators and other professionals, diplomats' wives and daughters, foregathered with their North American counterparts to form an auxiliary meeting—a meeting that attracted so many participants that the women overflowed the small room they had originally been allotted and were moved to the ballroom of the Mayflower Hotel (this fact was carefully noted in the minutes).[10]

In these early phases of women's involvement at the international level, the women participants were of the same social and economic background as their male counterparts. However, the women had a different agenda. On issues of social welfare, their program often intersected with that of reform-minded males; the split came when the women sought to have equality of rights for their own sex, such as equal access to education and to the ballot box and equality within marriage. It is also significant that the women acting at the international level at this time were not, as the men were, professional


diplomats, paid commercial agents, or subsidized scholars. The women were involved because they had issues about which they could agree, despite great diversity in background and personal political orientation.

The agenda drawn up at the Mayflower Hotel in 1916 stated that the purpose of the meeting was not only to "exchange views of the subjects of special interest to women," which included "the education of women, training of children, and social welfare," but also to discuss subjects of Pan-Americanism. In the words of the keynote speaker, "We the women of North and South America, which possess similar conceptions of individual rights and constitutional government, possess a common duty to mankind which we must not ignore."[11]

In the 1920s the early efforts of the women bore fruit in a series of well-attended Pan-American women's conferences. One in Baltimore in 1922 began with the intention of emphasizing the importance of suffrage, but concluded with a platform calling for international peace through arbitration; abolition of the white slave trade; access to education at all levels; the right of married women to control their own property and earnings and to secure equal guardianship; the encouragement of organizations, discussion, and public speaking among women and freedom of opportunity for women to cultivate and use their talents and to secure their political rights; and, finally, the promotion of friendliness and understanding among all Pan-American countries, with the aim of maintaining perpetual peace in the hemisphere.[12] Bertha Lutz, founder of the Federação Brasileria pele Progresso Femenino and one of the Brazilian delegates to the Baltimore conference, contrasted the atmosphere there with her experience in trying to bring the women's programs before the League of Nations:

We were received in the United States, not as if we were representatives of unimportant countries as happens at the international congresses of the Old World, but with a frank cordiality and with the same consideration that has marked the relations of women of the Americas since the days of our pioneering foremothers.[13]

By 1922, the essential components for an effective, formal international exchange among women of the Americas were in place. A continuing organizational structure with an accumulated history of international activity was established; funding sources had been identified; a communications network was in place. Leaders were emerging. Of the Latin American women, some, like Amanda Labarca of Chile and Flora de Oliveira Lima of Brazil, were veterans of the scientific congresses; others, like Bertha Lutz, Clara González of Panama, and Elena Torres of Mexico, represented a new generation. A political platform had been enunciated and agreed upon; it was a distillation of the issues which had been raised over the past two decades. To the prewar


concern for social problems and the belief in the need for education had been added the appeal for peace and for equal rights and, as a means to these ends, the desire for inclusion at the diplomatic council tables.

The sympathetic atmosphere and reformist zeal of the Pan-American women's conference described by Lutz were hardly characteristic of the pre-war International Conferences of American States. The early Pan-American meetings, convened between 1881 and 1910, had been primarily devoted to establishing conventions that would enhance inter-American commercial opportunities and exhibited little of the fiery idealism expressed by Simón Bolívar, who had dreamed that "the assembling of a Congress of Panama composed of diplomatic representatives from independent American nations [would] form a new epoch of human affairs," or the hopes of Henry Clay, who in 1828 called Bolívar's proposal the opportunity to establish "a human-freedom league in America."[14]

The invocation of the ideals of Pan-Americanism by the feminists working at the international level added a new dimension to the inter-American conferences of the 1920s. The Fifth International Conference of American States, held in Santiago in 1923, which was the first convened since the onset of World War I, took place in an atmosphere of controversy. The desire of the women to insert feminist issues and matters of broad social reform into the program of the conference paralleled the desire of many in both North and South America, male and female, to use the conferences to challenge United States imperialist activities in Central America and the Caribbean—a political position that was, in turn, fully supported by feminist leaders throughout the hemisphere.[15] A sizable number of "unofficial" female delegates attended the Santiago meeting, which passed a resolution recommending that women be appointed as official delegates to future inter-American conferences.

The next International Conference of American States met in Havana in 1928. There were no official women delegates; nevertheless, women from throughout the hemisphere had traveled to Havana for the conference. And they were not there as interested individuals or spouses. They spoke for the Consejo Feminista Mexicana, the Women's International League for Peace and Freedom, the Federação Brasileira pelo Progresso Feminino, the National Woman's Party of the United States, the Ligue Feminine Haitienne, the Club de Madres of Buenos Aires, and many, many more. They were hosted by the Alianza Femenina Cubana and the Club Femenino de Cuba.

By the end of the conference, these "unofficial" delegates had secured an audience before a plenary session, presented an Equal Rights Treaty for the consideration of the governments of the hemisphere, and successfully lobbied for the creation of an officially designated body, the Inter-American Commission of Women, which was charged with the investigation of the status of


women in the twenty-one member states. The IACW was "the first governmental organization in the world to be founded for the express purpose of working for the rights of women."[16]

The Equal Rights Treaty,[17] which was strongly opposed by the United States diplomatic delegation, was eventually ratified by only four member countries and was relegated to obscurity. Nevertheless, the choice of the Pan-American meetings as a forum for the discussion of women's and feminist issues proved politically astute: women had indeed succeeded in bringing "women's issues" to the center of political debate within the hemisphere. The leadership of the Latin American women is clearly illustrated not only in providing the precedent of using inter-American congresses as a forum for the debate of feminist issues but also in the insistence on the inclusion of issues of social justice in the first Pan-American women's platforms, which directly reflected the dominant concerns of Latin American feminists.[18]

In addition to their domestic agenda, through which they hoped to influence their respective national governments to enact laws that would bring women into civil and legal equity with men, the feminists active at the inter-American congresses took strong stands on international issues, supporting the principles of nonintervention, the resolution of conflict through arbitration, and the rights of small nations. In Havana in 1928, the women demonstrated against the United States' occupation of Nicaragua and protested the dismissal of the Haitian representatives.[19]

Many of the Latin American women who attended the Fifth International Conference of American States in Santiago in 1923 and the North and South American women who met at the Sixth IAC in Havana in 1928 were members of the Women's International League for Peace and Freedom. The positions the WILPF took in matters of hemispheric politics are discussed in the report of the Comité de las Américas de la Liga Internacional de Mujeres de la Paz y Libertad:

La Sección . . . ha trabajado por muchos años contra el imperialismo norteamericano, y ha cooperado con resultados favorables por los siguientes fines: Declaración del Gobierno de los Estados Unidos que nunca volverá a intervenir en países extranjeros para protegar la propriedad norteamericana; . . . retiro de los marinos de Haiti, Nicaragua, y la República Dominicana; derogación de la Emienda Platt en la Constitución de Cuba. Desde 1926 ha contribuído a mejorar las relaciones entre los Estados Unidos y Mexico. . . . Ha tratado de descubrir y aminorar la explotación de trabajadores en Cuba, Bolivia, Chile y otros países.[20]

[The Section . . . has worked for many years against North American imperialism, and has cooperated with good results to the following ends: The Declaration by the Government of the United States that it would never again intervene in foreign countries in order to protect North American property; . . . the


retirement of the Marines from Haiti, Nicaragua, and the Dominican Republic, and the removal of the Platt Amendment from the Constitution of Cuba. Since 1926 [the Section] has contributed to the improvement of relations between the United States and Mexico . . . and has worked to reveal and ameliorate the exploitation of workers in Cuba, Bolivia, Chile and other countries.]

The members of the first IACW were Flora de Oliveira Lima (Brazil); Aida Parada (Chile), Lydia Fernández (Costa Rica), Gloria Moya de Jiménez (Dominican Republic), Clara Gonzáles (Panama), Elena Mederos de González (Cuba), Irene de Peyre (Guatemala), Margarita Robles de Mendoza (Mexico), Juanita Molina de Fromen (Nicaragua), and Teresa Obrogoso de Prevost (Peru). Doris Stevens (USA) was chair. The IACW took up the task of collecting material on the legal status of women from every country in the hemisphere:

The commission, created in the Sixth Pan American Conference for the purpose of dealing with the Conflict of Laws and Uniformity of Legislation . . . took into consideration the resolution adopted in the plenary session of February 18, 1928, for the constitution of an IACW charged with the duty of preparing information, which it might consider useful, of a legal and other nature, to the end that the Seventh International Conference should take up the study of the civil and political equality in the continent.[21]

The first meeting of the IACW was held in Havana, February 17–24, 1930. In addition to the commissioners listed above, Colombia was represented by Alicia Ricode de Herrera, Haiti by Mme Fernand Dennis, El Salvador by proxy, and Venezuela by Cecilia Herrera de Olavarría. The commission drafted a resolution to establish equality in nationality for presentation to the World Conference for the Codification of International Law, to be held at The Hague in March, 1930. The resolution stated, "The contracting parties agree that from the going into effect of this treaty there shall be no distinction based on sex in their law and practice relating to nationality."[22] Other resolutions requested the American governments to appoint the IACW commissioners as plenipotentiaries to The Hague conference, asked financial support for their work, and thanked the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace for its initial grant of five thousand dollars.

The women did their own secretarial work; they had secured a small office space in the Pan American Union building in Washington only after dealing with numerous harassment tactics—when they arrived at their office in the first few months of their existence, they often found that their two desks had been "borrowed" or that all the chairs were missing. Nevertheless, they succeeded in gathering a substantial amount of legal information from throughout the hemisphere, all of which was carefully collated, hand-labeled, and


placed in black leather three-ring notebooks.[23] The intention was to be able to have access to the information pertinent to particular issues as they arose. The first of these was the issue of the nationality of married women.

The earliest opportunity to present the Resolution on the Nationality of Women to an international body came at the meeting of the council of the League of Nations at The Hague in 1931. As the women had no official status within the league, the resolution was put forth by male diplomatic representatives from the Americas: Matos of Guatemala, Barreto of Peru, and César Zumeta of Venezuela. The IACW draft urged the American states

to consider the question of whether it would not be possible 1) to introduce into their law the principle of the equality of the sexes in matters of nationality, taking particularly into consideration the interests of children, and especially 2) to decide that in principle the nationality of the wife should henceforth not be affected without her consent either by the mere fact of marriage or by any change in the nationality of the husband. It is to be noted that there is a clear movement of opinion throughout the world in favor of a suitable settlement of this question.[24]

No action resulted; the resolution was taken under study. James Brown Scott, editor of the published collection of resolutions, added this comment to the document: "In the interest of historical accuracy, it is necessary to record that the initiative of the Council's action came from the IACW. The League's Commission of Women, when created, will concern itself with, and report to, the 1931 Assembly upon a single point: nationality and the status of women."[25] Scott's comment underscores the achievements of the IACW. Not only had the American women been successful in creating an officially recognized commission that became a model for the creation of the Commission of Women at the League of Nations but the IACW was endowed from the beginning with a far broader mandate for action than was the League Council.

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