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One— Introduction: Seminar on Women and Culture in Latin America
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Seminar on Women and Culture in Latin America

The history of women's participation in literary culture and political life in Latin America is a history still in the making. The partial and often biased record of women's thought and activity in that cultural region has limited our historical perspectives and our understanding of feminist contributions. For example, Sor Juana Inés de la Cruz has been seen as a unique phenomenon, an iconographic feminist presence, rather than as one of many women involved in a long tradition of engagement in Latin American culture. As recent investigations in women's history show, the activities and achievements of women have not been restricted to the celebrated appearance of rare genius, such as Sor Juana. By the latter half of the nineteenth century, numerous women in lettered culture had advanced the issues of women's rights, especially with respect to civil status, family, and participation in literary life. The typical forum for these ideas was not the public podium, but the political journal, where the arguments for women's equality were cast in terms of progressivism and the hope of a better life in the New World. Latin American intellectuals, male and female, were well aware of the women's movement in Europe and the United States; the international exchange of ideas was particularly important for the earliest proponents of women's rights in Latin America. However, the acknowledgment of the influence of international intellectual currents should not be allowed to obscure the fact that a feminist critique of society arose out of the distinctive experience of the Latin American women themselves.

Of necessity, our book examines the work of Sor Juana, who questioned her own self-presentation and the representation of herself and other women by the patriarchal culture. We then turn to the decades between 1910 and 1950 as the focus of our study on feminism and culture in Latin America. It is in this era that the first generation of urban, literate women appeared in


Buenos Aires, São Paulo, Rio de Janeiro, Santiago de Chile, Montevideo, Mexico City, and Havana. The emergence of women novelists, poets, journalists, and political activists and the development of a shared feminist consciousness in the early twentieth century in certain nations of Latin America are directly linked to the trends of modernization. Major social upheavals took place in Mexico and Cuba, but women intellectuals first found their strongest voice, and audience, in Argentina, Uruguay, Chile, and Brazil. Our studies concentrate to a great extent, then, on this second regional grouping.

Gender in modern societies is a fundamental social category that shapes every dimension of human existence. Its interaction with class is dynamic and highly varied. On one hand, class hierarchies and relations of exploitation are reproduced within the gender system—for example, in relations between upper-class women and their female domestic employees. On the other hand, gender creates inevitable and significant instabilities in class hierarchies. It creates difference within class boundaries (upper-class women do not participate in society or culture in the same ways as upper-class men do), while it creates sameness across class boundaries (the experiences of upper-class and lower-class women have points in common). Official high culture has tended to suppress both these dimensions. The essays in this collection mainly explore the first dimension—that is, the struggle of women to participate in public culture, and the particularities of their participation, especially in print culture.

Motivated by their sense of social injustice or by the way in which they understand their social and cultural privileges, the women studied in this volume ally themselves with wide-ranging political issues that transcend their class and gender. The case of Alfonsina Storni is exemplary of this class transformation. Coming from humble beginnings in a working-class family, Storni took advantage of democratic reforms in the educational codes in Argentina to pursue a career as a poet, teacher, journalist, and dramatist. Thus, the figure of the maestra is of interest not only as a transmitter of class culture but also as an actor across class boundaries and a frequent transgressor of her own class culture. Gabriela Mistral, the celebrated poet who emerged from desperate rural poverty in Chile, was later recognized, like Storni, for her pedagogical commitments, while she engaged in national debates about the destiny of her country. Victoria Ocampo was born into the Argentine oligarchy, yet she also challenged tradition by setting an independent course for herself as editor, publisher, and memorialist. The common thread that binds these writers is their perception of the inadequacies of the traditional spaces from which they were allowed to speak and act and their search for strategies that would relieve them of the burden of patriarchal tradition and fulfill the need for reform. It is from this perspective, with its specific historical context, that we perceive these writers as cultural innovators.


It was female schoolteachers drawn from different classes who formed the nucleus of the first women's group to articulate what may be considered a feminist critique of society. That is, they were the first to protest against the pervasive inequality of the sexes in legal status, access to education, and political and economic power. Two factors are of great importance. First, the teachers represented a new group in Latin American society—the educated middle sector—which included skilled workers, clerks, and government employees as well as educators, who were well aware of their precarious social economic and legal status. Second, these women were in touch with one another through their institutions of learning and through professional associations, forums in which they could share their common experience. Many who lived in the most cosmopolitan centers of Latin America were aware of local issues and ideas, as well as national and international politics. Furthermore, as the essays included here explore, it is this moment of self-conscious reassessment of roles that is crucial to our understanding of a new function of women writers in Latin America.

The first decades of the twentieth century were of great significance for changes in women's status and political and cultural participation. The political and intellectual environment of the Western world in the first decades was volatile. The Mexican Revolution, which broke out in 1910, was the first great social revolution of the twentieth century, preceding both the Chinese Revolution (1911) and the Russian Revolution (1917). Moreover, cosmopolitan Latin Americans, especially South Americans, were closely attuned to European events, a factor that was intensified by the thousands of emigrating Italians, Spanish, Germans, and Greeks who settled in Argentina, Brazil, Chile, and Uruguay during the period. In the 1930s, the earlier immigrants were joined by thousands of Jews seeking refuge from the rising influence of National Socialism in Germany, Italy, Austria, Poland, and Romania. In that same decade, Mexico took in over thirty thousand refugees from the Spanish Civil War. The political movements that shook Europe were not far removed for readers of La Prensa in Buenos Aires, El Nacional in Mexico City, or La Lucha in Havana; those movements were present in the political spectrum of the major states of the hemisphere: Brown Shirts in Brazil, followers of Leon Trotsky in Mexico, anarcho-syndicalists in Montevideo.

Within the American community of nations, the hegemony of the United States in the Caribbean and Central America posed a new diplomatic configuration. Criticism of United States policy was increasingly vociferous, and by the 1930s the interventionism of the early years of the century gave way to a diplomacy of inter-American reconciliation. While the Western Hemisphere was spared the devastation of the world war, numerous armed conflicts marked the era. In Mexico, the smoldering struggle between church and state erupted in the Cristero Rebellion (1926–1929). In Nicaragua, Augusto Sandino's troops fought Anastasio Somoza, the National Guard, and United States Marines, in a conflict that ended in the treacherous assassination of


Sandino (1934). In South America, the dispute between Bolivia and Paraguay over control of the vast Chaco territory, a dispute that opened with a few armed skirmishes in the late 1920s, flared into a bitter and bloody war in which nearly 100,000 lives were lost and both countries nearly bankrupted before a truce was reached in 1935.

The Great Depression had a profound effect on the export-oriented economies of Latin America and exacerbated political divisions. One of the most significant political forces to emerge was the indigenista movement, especially in the Andean region. At the same time, the pressure to transform traditional structures to respond better to the needs of the rapidly changing society resulted in the passage of protective labor legislation, the revision of the civil codes that regulated spousal and parental rights (in Mexico, Cuba, and Argentina), and the promulgation of new constitutions that incorporated labor laws and female suffrage (in Brazil and Uruguay, 1934). However, the legislative reforms found weak adherence, owing to financial constraints and governmental indifference. Women, whatever their economic and social milieu, continued to be at a disadvantage in securing and holding jobs for pay, in their familial relationships, and in the political arena.

Women intellectuals worked and fought side by side with men for independence in Cuba, for revolutionary change in Mexico, and for profound social reform in Argentina, Uruguay, and Brazil. But by the 1920s the women activists shared a collective realization that issues of primary concern to them—economic, social, and legal equality—were considered secondary to the general movements for social and political change: the Sáenz-Peña Law of 1912, which granted universal suffrage in Argentina, excluded women; the Mexican Constitution of 1917, hailed as the most radical social and political document of its time, did not include women in the definition of citizen, nor did the Cuban Family Code. The tension between women's struggle to be included as equals and their alienation from the essential patriarchal structure of the nation-state had its analogue in the revised consideration of gender and women's literary production in the era.

The first half of the century had special significance in Latin America both for the openings witnessed in the political arena and for the expansion of modern culture. It marked the consolidation of liberal reformist movements and the rise of an urban middle class. At the same time, with the introduction of United States capital in Latin American cities, a new consciousness of the neighbor to the north permeated cultural life and found expression, on one hand, in the form of a growing Pan-Americanist movement and, on the other, in heated objections to the policies of Yankee expansionism. Within the growing urban sectors of Latin America, where the work force was redefined, men and women for the first time worked together in the metropolitan city. In this period the gender system showed signs of flux and contradiction; the categories of masculine and feminine began to be redefined within the


space of the city. In particular, the presence of women in the work force and in the cultural salons brought a heightened sense of urgency to the process of social reform. Women thus struck alliances with the men of anarchosyndicalist, socialist, and even right-wing movements; they participated in political activities to alter the status of divorce laws; they organized suffragist movements and encouraged juridical recognition of women within the state. Simultaneously, women also formed part of a new reading public, which was expanded in the course of urbanization and increased literacy for the masses. This new readership, stratified by ideological and class differences, consumed a variety of publications ranging from sentimental romance and mystery stories to socialist-realist pamphlets. Gender, we would add, is the other fundamental factor that accounts for differences in reading and literary taste.

Together these factors contributed to a peculiar form of the modernist adventure, separate from cultural activities in Europe and distinctly marked along gender lines. Against the monolithic facade of its European counterpart, the modernism of the 1920s in Latin America (not to be confused with the movement of modernismo led by Rubén Darío) signaled an opening of cultural possibilities. It is not new to explain modernism in Europe as a break from traditional realism, a severing of linear discourse in art, and a fragmentation of the whole. Cultivating new technologies in science and philosophy, the modernist project was supported by the epistemology of rationalism, a questioning of the symbol, and a prolonged search for meaning. In Latin America, however, modernism also witnessed the consolidation of a new class of professional writers, who defended the autonomy of their craft while drawing a portrait of themselves in quest of legitimacy and power. By exercising control over his or her text and the institution of letters, the artist presumed to control history as well. Against this background, women writers engaged in a struggle to create a different voice.

We have isolated the feminine response to the modernist project outlined above as a discourse that does not necessarily follow the paradigms identified with the literature of this period. Participating in the cultural events of the day with a consciousness of their individual condition, women writers voiced a simultaneous concern for national questions and for aesthetic innovation and change. At the same time they reconsidered their own situation within the estate of letters. While often pursuing different aesthetic and political strategies, they found resounding unity in their efforts to construct alternative frameworks and outlets for literary production. It behooves us, then, to follow their path and determine how the modern canon was opened wide as women in Latin America embarked upon a distinctive course to find their own voice.

Revising the canon involves two interconnected and reciprocal activities: looking at the traditionally consecrated texts from new angles and giving


serious attention to little-known texts in a way that changes the contours of the body of consecrated texts. The change in direction of our gaze toward these previously marginalized texts changes our perspective on the texts traditionally considered central and the questions we ask of them. This change in perspective reveals accepted distortions of human reality along familiar binary oppositions such as active/passive and public/private. In some texts, these divisions and the systems of social oppression that they support are exposed by the text's resistance and subversion. Our research has examined the objectification and distortion of women and women's lives resulting from the operation of these categories in literary representation and in the political and social roles of women.

Francesca Miller's research into the historical roles of women from the 1880s to the 1940s has revealed a world of activism across national boundaries, in a Pan-American context in which women could confront global problems despite their disenfranchisement at home. Feminist research in the history of women's movements in Latin America is essential to a transformation of our view of women in this period. If it is accepted that women's space is only interior and private, the reality of women's work outside the home is obscured, and the role of women schoolteachers, an important element in the formation of generations of citizens in Latin America, is ignored. If we go further to examine what is meant by "interior" and "private," we find that these terms do not necessarily imply women's exclusion from cultural and political processes, regardless of their exclusion from voting booths or elected office. Nor has women's activity been tied specifically to interior spaces: women operate in the open space of the marketplace, in some influential spheres in the public space of churches, and in the practice of journalistic writing, an emphatically public arena instrumental to women's international organizing efforts. Likewise, much male-dominated political decision-making is done in enclosed, exclusive spaces. The assumptions attached to traditional images are challenged by the historical evidence.

Similarly, the related commonplace that women speak from indoors, from womblike spaces, does not hold as an absolute: in relation to the land and landscape, women's writing differs from the masculinist tradition by abandoning the terms of conquest and domination, which seek to label and classify according to the known and thereby to control the mystery of the unknown. Our collective work led us to examine how women poets write nationalist epics. If feminists were concerned more with Pan-Americanism than with loyalties to individual countries, and women's relationship to the land was circumstantially different from men's because of inheritance and ownership laws, then we could expect a different kind of "epic," which, in turn, would change the way we read traditional nationalist epic poetry. Mary Louise Pratt's study of travel literature illuminated her reading of Gabriela Mistral's Poema de Chile : the poetic voice is not the unified, dominat-


ing voice that names, lays claim to landmarks, and legitimizes authority. It is a rootless wandering and a dialogue in which a mother attempts to answer a child's questions; it does not narrate consecrated historical events or "explain" the national geography. Not only is Mistral's familiar canonical image as frustrated mother challenged but the position of nationalist epic is also necessarily shifted from the center to another position on a sphere.

If Mistral's "epic" changes not only the way we read Mistral but also the way we read epic and position it in a literary hierarchy, then rereading other women authors and other genres has similarly wide-ranging effects. Alfonsina Storni's political writings have been neglected in traditional analyses, which see her poetry as desperate, frustrated, and focused on the male lover. Gwen Kirkpatrick's rediscovery of Storni's journalistic writings permits her to be seen as a working woman, acting autonomously for change in the social status of women. She no longer represents the woman seeking her reflection in the mirror of male desire. Her poetry is a different kind of statement, not simply speaking to the male lover but also speaking to her readers about the way in which male-female relationships are articulated in poetic imagery. Marta Morello-Frosch's reading of the profound irony in "Tú me quieres blanca" illustrates this challenge to the traditions of love poetry. The poem involves not only the apostrophe to the ostensible "tú" but also an indirect, strong address to a listener who overhears a criticism of the one-sided and previously acceptable demand for female purity and innocence.

Francine Masiello's reevaluation of the novel of family relationships in the 1920s and 1930s casts new light on the representation of family structures in the novel: how this representation conforms to or deviates from current political exigencies. Expanding the range of novels to include popular fiction exposes attitudes toward the changing social structure and the changing role of women during this period. An awareness of the vitality of women's movements in Latin America reveals the view of women as potentially disruptive to be a reaction to women's growing sense of autonomy. If women were in fact working and active in some public spheres, and some women writers were working and traveling on an international scale and living independently of stable homes dominated by husbands and fathers, the traditional family had to become a literary convention instead of a social reality based on natural laws. The rereading of the canon is a reexamination of the relationship of those texts to historical contexts, as instruments of social control challenged by some devalued texts and exposed by the exaggerated reproduction of these conventions in some popular novels.

Kathleen Newman exposes another aspect of the public role of woman in her study of the media images of women between 1916 and 1926, as they reflect political anxieties of a changing society. She examines the modernization of femininity in relation to the historical context of social unrest and the entrance of women into the work force. The possibility of a public, but not


political, image of femininity in the film star once again complicates these traditional categories.

Literary scholarship influences the ways in which a work may be read: the scholarship we and other feminists have been doing is meant to expand the possibilities. Feminist analysis of the literary-historical situation of Sor Juana Inés de la Cruz (1648–1695) exposes the internal contradictions of the poetic canon and the effect on women's writing of the patriarchal definitions of public and private spheres. The three mythic female figures of Mexican Colonial history—the Virgin of Guadalupe, La Malinche, and Sor Juana—represent modes of inscription of the feminine in the theological and political discourse of colonization; the process of inscription recasts each one in the cultural coinage of successive regimes. The most popular image of Sor Juana sets the stage for the role of the woman writer as passionate, self-destructive heroine. Until very recently, book-length studies of Sor Juana centered on scrutiny of the personal life of the nun and speculated on her sexuality, rather than on Sor Juana's highly praised poetry and prose. Like Storni and Mistral, whose public work in journalism and political activism was obscured in the process of anthologizing and canonizing their work to conform to cultural norms, Sor Juana is a writer whose place in her context is important to our understanding of women's writing in her own time and after.

Recent feminist scholarship has opened the possibilities for rereading the personal to reveal its political implications. Sor Juana and Storni, for example, represent the female body and the consequences of the male gaze in women's lives and women's creation of woman-centered art. Storni, in "Hombre pequenito[*] " or "Tú me quieres blanca," is confronting the way in which the male gaze is enshrined in poetry. This is the same gaze that Sor Juana cleverly mocks as she instructs the observer in the proper viewing of her portrait. Our research has not been directed toward establishing Sor Juana or other poets more solidly as precursors, as cultural "mothers," or as models for Latin American women poets. Rather, we have sought to recover what has been left out of the processes of canonization: works, writers, genres that do not fit a male model of women's lives.

Our research, by restoring the aspects left out of some conventional images, shows why these works, writers, and genres are omitted: with all their aspects included, the lives and works of women writers take full form in areas that disregard the artificial boundaries of public and private. Sor Juana's intellectual speculation in her Sueño and her appreciation of the beauty of a female friend and patron are inextricable from her precarious political situation. As social representation, what can be more public than a nun's renunciation of her previous individual identity in the interest of serving the Church? Likewise, in subsequent centuries, when single mothers, schoolteachers, and orphaned children as well as traditional families are represented in fiction as metaphors for the state and its perceived enemies, the


domestic is no longer the domain of the private, but its use in sexual politics is indicative of social insecurities.

Sor Juana chose the apparent impersonality of the philosophical poem, a marginal literary genre. Janet Greenberg's reading of Victoria Ocampo's autobiography has exposed neglected aspects of the writings of an important figure in Argentine literary history. Autobiography has been described as another marginalized genre, and precisely for that reason it has been a genre available to women from the early mystics to the present. Ocampo's journalistic writing and activity had an important impact on twentieth-century literary movements in Latin America, but a distorted view of her has been perpetuated by critics. To reevaluate her writing is ultimately to replace the trivializing gossip surrounding her name with the reality of an influential woman and a complex writer in the context she was instrumental in creating.

Our research in women's journalism has been essential to our awareness of the social and historical context of women's roles and women's writing. Each of us in her area of interest has been led to pursue research in periodical literature produced by, for, and about women. Literate women have not been isolated from one another, but the scope of their dialogue has often been hidden. Feminist historians have shown the importance of magazines published as early as the eighteenth century as resources for studying the history of women. This material clarifies the evolution of feminist theory and its relationship to action throughout modern history; it also provides a strong base from which to build contemporary feminism. In the presentation of Greenberg's working bibliography of women's periodicals we make a contribution toward the reconstruction of women's dialogue about and relationship to public debate and private life. The examination of this multifaceted debate opens another route to information about the ideas, strategies, goals, and accomplishments of women's movements.

To read what was previously unread or to read familiar texts in a new way always offers the possibility of discovery. We have examined not only the relationships between literature and social realities but also the impact of neglected or critically misrepresented works upon their literary and social contexts. This perspective rearranges the canonical view of art as an unbroken tradition representing dominant views of class, race, and sex with negligible voices of dissonance on the margins. Instead, we find a varied and conflictive field of activity in which the judgments of critics do not represent the response of readers or the dialogue among writers. For the members of our group, this work has been a process of discovery and reevaluation that has widespread effects on the way we read and think about history and culture.


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One— Introduction: Seminar on Women and Culture in Latin America
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