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Two— Latin American Feminism and the Transnational Arena
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Equal Rights and Peace: 1928–1938

From the early twentieth century, Latin American feminists, like their North American colleagues, were deeply commited to the idea of peace. At the Pan American Women's Auxiliary meeting in Washington in 1916, the Pan American Association for the Advancement of Women's conference in Baltimore in 1922, the International Conference of American States in Santiago in 1923 and in Havana in 1928, the women reiterated their commitment to "maintaining perpetual peace in the hemisphere."[26]

In the decade between 1928 and 1938, the Inter-American Commission of Women operated as an autonomous body within the inter-American organization. The themes of equal rights and peace, both of which were believed


to be within the special province of women, mark their efforts. In the words of Nelly Merino Carvallo, who edited the international woman's journal Mujeres de América in Buenos Aires from 1930 to 1935: "From its inception, Mujeres de América has been dedicated to peace. Yes: it is through the woman that peace will be secured in the world."[27] The idea that women have a special role as peacemakers is persistent, despite evidence that men have in fact been the diplomats who have arbitrated peace agreements and sought international concord. Certainly the male representatives to the International Conferences of American States saw themselves as working toward peace in the hemisphere. But there are a number of factors that differentiate the attitudes and expressions of men and women in the transnational discourse of the period. First, the male diplomatic community recognized force as a legitimate diplomatic tool; they were not pacifists. Second, the male diplomats and representatives to the inter-American conference tables were speaking for their governments, not of their personal convictions. Only a handful of women were members of national delegations. From the beginning, the constituency of the IACW was drawn from women's organizations. The original members of the commission were, in effect, self-appointed. During the 1930s, the IACW solicited, and received, confirmation by individual governments of the women who already were on the IACW.

There is evidence that another factor was crucial, particularly for the Latin American women. In this era, the women active at the international level had little tradition of identifying with the nation-state. To the contrary, they had historically articulated their position as other within the home, the society, and the nation, and looked to the transnational arena as the space where they could find mutual support from one another and publicize their agenda. We are not speaking of all women—some were patriotic, and most were indifferent. We are not speaking of the women of the Liga Patriótica, or of the women who embraced their disfranchisement and inequality as badges of femininity, but of feminists who articulated their position of dissent from the prevailing order and sought change.

The 1930s were a period of powerful nationalist movements in Argentina, Mexico, and Brazil. The iconography of those movements was overwhelmingly masculine, the ideal national figure being a male head of state, who, if not himself a general, a hero of the revolution, or a gaucho, was certainly surrounded by military power. Although women worked for reform and change at home, they had few effective channels for garnering support, and their programs were often dismissed as irrelevant by both government and opposition leaders. Alienation from the political process within the national community should not be construed as obviating love of homeland, of place, of one's historical family; rather, it should be understood as part of the meaning that the transnational arena held for Latin American feminists in this era.

The Seventh International Conference of American States, held in Monte-


video in 1933, marked the first inter-American conference at which women had an official presence, both within the Inter-American Commission of Women and as members of national delegations.[28] At that meeting, the Convention on the Nationality of Women was presented to the conference by the Inter-American Commission of Women. The convention stated, "There shall be no distinction based on sex as regards nationality." It was signed by twenty American countries, becoming the first convention on the rights of women to be adopted at an international conference. It served as the model for the Convention on the Nationality of Women that was subsequently adopted by the League of Nations.[29]

The women's work for gender equity did not diminish their commitment to the cause of international peace. Of central concern in the Southern Cone in this period was the conflagration in the Gran Chaco. The dispute between Bolivia and Paraguay over the vast territory of the Chaco, which stretches from the eastern slopes of the Andes to the Paraguay River, began with isolated armed skirmishes in the late 1920s. The conflict flared into a bloody war that ultimately took nearly 100,000 lives and bankrupted the treasuries of the participants before a truce was reached in 1935.

During the war, nationalist passions were high. In this unsympathetic atmosphere, Mujeres de América ran a petition initiated by the Círculo Argentino "Pro Paz"[30] and addressed to the delegates at the Montevideo conference. The petition called for arbitration and denounced the participants in the war as tools of international capitalist interests; but most telling of the sentiments of the publication and its audience was the dedication of the July–August 1933 issue to the women of Boliva and Peru, "reviving the spirit of the glorious days of Independence" when the two nations were one.

En la dolorosa tragedia que conmueve las soledades del Chaco, un corazón de americana y defensora de la paz a toda costa, llora de dolor y de inquietud fraternales. Y, ante la impotencia de detener esta cruenta tragedia, aspiro por lo menos que Mujeres de América vaya formando un nuevo concepto de "patria" que es progreso; "patria" que es paz; "patria" que es unión.

Sí, mujeres bolivianas, amigas mias, unámosnos todas. Trabajemos con fé, con amor, para queen no lejanos días tengamos la patria grande, la patria sin fronteras; la patria fundada en el mejoramiento espiritual.[31]

[In the unhappy tragedy that breaks the solitude of the Chaco, a heart of America and defender of peace at all costs, weeps full of pain and broken brotherhood. And, confronted with the impossiblity of halting this cruel tragedy, I hope that at least Mujeres de América may help to form a new concept of "patria" that is progress; "patria" that is peace; "patria" that is unity.

Yes, women of Bolivia, my friends, we are one. We are working with faith, with love, for the time where we will be one great country, a "patria" without frontiers; a country founded on spiritual betterment.]


The idea of a "patria" without boundaries is a specifically nonnational vision.[32] The ways in which feminists in Latin America talked and wrote about peace, as but one aspect of their transnational activities, illuminates the ways in which they viewed the nation-state. The idea of sisterhood, of an imagined community of interests based on gender, of the women's insistence on the commonality of the human experience, undermines the idea of nation. This is well illustrated in the subsequent history of the women's platform.

The Eighth International Conference of American States met in Lima in 1938; the main business of the conference was the effort, led by the United States, to unite the hemisphere in the event of war. In the Declaration of Lima, the American republics reaffirmed their continental solidarity and "determination to defend themselves against all foreign intervention."[33] The Inter-American Commission of Women succeeded in putting forth its resolution that "women have the right to the enjoyment of equal civil status,"[34] but the Lima conference was also the scene of an attempt to disestablish the Inter-American Commission of Women as an autonomous entity. The Inter-American Commission of Women had never enjoyed the support of the United States diplomatic corps, and under the Roosevelt regime, it became a particular target of Eleanor Roosevelt.[35] Its feminist stance had made it a target for attack throughout its existence, and in the atmosphere of the late 1930s the women's platform was seen as secondary to the efforts to unite the hemisphere. The feminist leaders were advised to turn their efforts to the defense of democracy, not to raise divisive issues. Over the protests of the members of the commission itself, the opposition, which came principally from the United States delegation, succeeded in recasting the Inter-American Commission of Women from an independent women's commission to a subsidiary unit of the inter-American apparatus.[36]

Despite its diminished status, the IACW continued its work, and its legacy is readily apparent in the next decade. At the Chapultepec Conference on the Problems of War and Peace in Mexico on March 8, 1945, the wording of the Lima resolution was directly incorporated into the plans for the United Nations; in October, 1945, in San Francisco, Inter-American Commission of Women representatives Bertha Lutz of Brazil, Minerva Bernadino of the Dominican Republic, and Amalia Caballero de Castillo Ledon of Mexico used the precedent inter-American resolutions on the status of women to insist that the opening paragraph of the Charter of the United Nations include the phrase "the equal rights of men and women." It reads, "We the peoples of the United Nations, determined . . . to reaffirm faith in fundamental human rights, in the dignity and worth of the human person, in the equal rights of men and women and of nations large and small."[37] In Bogotá in 1948, again with the leadership of Amalia Caballero de Castillo Ledon, the Comisión Interamericana de Mujeres was established as part of the Organization of American States.


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