Preferred Citation: Seminar on Feminism & Culture in Latin America. Women, Culture, and Politics in Latin America. Berkeley:  University of California Press,  c1990 1990.

Three— Women, State, and Family in Latin American Literature of the 1920s

The Politics of Womanhood

The status of women in the early twentieth century may be analyzed in the context of political programs for national reform and modernization. Rapid economic growth was matched by a vast migration to the capital cities; at the same time, the unionization of labor created suspicion and fear among Latin America's ruling classes.[1]

Through this period of massive social upheaval, when anarchism threatened the state and democratic impulses shook the foundations of the oligarchy, women became at once subjects and pawns of the emerging texts of resistance. Indeed, in cities such as Buenos Aires, whose population was radically transformed by these events, working women—and foreigners especially—were suspected of destroying the basis of modern society. In particular, these working women of the early twentieth century were singled out for their affiliations with anarchist movements and were accused of subversive activity. Not only did women in Buenos Aires establish their own anarchist newspapers but they also spoke freely against the repressive struc-


tures of the family and the authoritarian-paternalist model of government.[2] In addition, they freely questioned the juridic rights of women in civil society and investigated the strictures of marriage as a barrier to women's progress. Women's sexuality and free control over their bodies were of deep concern to these anarchists as they sought to protect females from public and domestic abuse.[3] Accordingly, in much of the literature and propaganda pamphlets, even the prostitute is depicted as a martyr of the new age.[4]

Aside from the declarations found in pamphlets of the time, women were quite active in organized strikes and acts of sabotage. One historian notes that women in lower-class neighborhoods of Buenos Aires organized the largest strike in Argentina before the decade of the 1920s.[5] This strike, perpetrated by women tenants who demanded rent stabilization in poor neighborhoods, represented one of the most successful grass-roots urban movements of modern times.

Meanwhile, in a less strident tone and usually at variance with anarchist platforms, socialist parties argued for equal rights for women, universal suffrage, reform of the civic codes, and better education for all.[6] Feminist unions, journals, and international symposia devoted to improving the legal status of women were common in the first two decades of the twentieth century.[7] Women in Cuba demanded legalized divorce; Pan-Americanists sought union among the women of the Americas; Argentine socialist feminists demanded a reformed civic code granting rights of emancipation to women.[8] Clearly, a significant number of Latin American women had much to gain by identifying with these feminist movements.

Because of feminist activities in turn-of-the-century Latin America, women were often perceived as straying from the family unit. In a society where the family was equated with the national good, women who left the private sphere and moved into the public domain were often considered saboteurs of the unified household, promoting activities that undermined larger state interests.[9] In addition, they often came to be equated with the tendencies of anarchism itself. As such, their presence in the modern nation-state posed some contradiction. After all, women were necessary for the pronatalist policies of the state; their work outside the home was often necessary for the economic survival of the working-class family; and their public engagements as teachers or supervisors of beneficent groups generally received official support.[10] In spite of these positive factors, the feminine was often regarded with suspicion by intellectuals in Latin America.

In the early years of the twentieth century, there was considerable popular and scientific concern for the monitoring of women's bodies. This concern is evident in the contents of the penny dreadfuls and the women's weekly magazines, in the hygiene manuals designed for women, and in the almost xenophobic emphasis on keeping immigrant women from the nationalist domain. The hygiene movement, for example, which was generated by a con-


cern among men for their safety from venereal diseases, encouraged women to look after their bodies to safeguard their reproductive functions and maintain a code of cleanliness.[11] The many hygiene manuals by Latin America's most prominent publishers read more like pornography than like any form of advice for women.[12] Similarly, the women's magazines issued warnings to women to maintain their bodies clean from disease and to ensconce themselves in the safety of the family.[13] These texts suggest, interestingly enough, a series of double discourses in competition for the attention of women: insofar as they advise a female audience, they are also designed to keep those readers in their place. The woman's body became embarrassingly public, less through her own volition than through the schemes of those in authority.

These popular lessons for women were accompanied by pseudoscientific discourses; even the weekly magazines published clinical diagnoses of love or positivistic analyses of erotic relationships. Caras y Caretas, Plus Ultra , and the Almanaque Hispanoamericano in this period provided many such explorations of eros. At the same time, certain intellectuals of the Centennial period in Latin American history attempted to organize a theory of the feminine in order to preserve the integrity of the nation. In 1910, for example, José Ingenieros delivered a series of lectures on the topic of love (later assembled in a volume titled Tratado del amor ), a psychologizing attempt to distinguish passion from marital obligations and commitment. He denounced the restraints that marriage imposes upon individual freedom and sensuality; indeed, he asserted, insofar as it generates a concern for legal order, propriety, and convenience, marriage appears to threaten the very possibility of romantic love.[14] Ironically, Ingenieros went on to argue, it is love that spurs marriage in the first place; therefore, he urged men to be wary of entering in legal contracts with women. Love and marriage were to be regarded as separate matters; the first was a question of instinct, the second a matter of household management and ultimately of the continued efficiency of the state apparatus. Restraint in love was thereby advised for those preoccupied with matters of organization and progress; in the interest of moral affirmation and domestic peace, love and marriage were to be kept apart.

A concern for the efficiency of the family also informed the pedagogical programs of the Argentine school system. Thus, in the introduction to his multivolumed La literatura argentina , Ricardo Rojas denounced the impoverished values of the modern nuclear family and its failure to meet the needs of children.[15] He insisted, therefore, on the usefulness of public institutional education, which clearly would wrench children from the hands of their ill-trained parents and compensate for the ignorance evident in the home. The real paterfamilias was to be found in the academy. Rojas had in mind a retraining of Argentine children born to immigrant families, but his message pointed to the shortcomings of mothers in general. Unable to adapt to a symbolic mode of thinking, women, Rojas argued, should at least be given a


minimum of training in order to equip them for responsibilities in the home.[16]

These efforts were part of a state program to enforce homogeneity on the various social projects upon which modern women had embarked. At a time of ebullient multiplicity in mass cultural practices, the state tried to impose and retain hierarchical order over its subjects; in a period when the feminine was equated with the unmanageable, women became the specific target of such disciplinary action.

This programmatic endeavor to exercise control over women is seen in creative literary endeavors as well, where it was largely held that the advancement of nationalist interests constituted a moral mission. Manuel Gálvez, for example, in an essay of 1912, described Argentine nationalism as coextensive with a moral mandate. Referring in particular to the impact of this ideology on creative production of the period, he explained:

Yo veo, que la producción literaria argentina va a entrar en una nueva era. He hablado del nacionalismo. Esta tendencia va a dominarlo todo. Ella será el motor que nos mantenga en perpetua acción, la impulsadora y transformadora de nuestra poesía, la creadora de nuestros ideales. Pronto los escritores argentinos han de ser leídos en todas las naciones de habla española; tal sucederá cuando nuestro predominio se establezca y consolide en la América española y cuando sobre toda ella se extienda gigantescamente nuestro gobierno moral.[17]

[I see that Argentine literary production is about to enter a new age. I'm speaking about nationalism. This tendency will dominate everything. It will be the motor that keeps us in perpetual action, the generator and transformer of our poetry, the creator of our ideals. Soon Argentine writers will be read in all Spanish-speaking nations; this will happen when our predominance is recognized and consolidated in Spanish America and when our moral governance looms gigantically over the continent.]

Gálvez was correct in anticipating a rise in nationalist sentiment, which was destined to be carried over into the social programs and literary texts of the time. In addition, this discourse on nationalism was clearly marked by considerations of gender, prompting some curious disquisitions by men of both left- and right-wing persuasions.

Men of fiercely nationalistic convictions and even those who argued for a democratic alternative used the image of the feminine to defend their respective programs of action. In the 1920s, two prominent literary journals in Spanish America offered noteworthy cases of left- and right-wing discourses that exploited the image of women. Promoting a specifically nationalist discourse, Inicial (1923–1926), an Argentine periodical supported by intellectuals of literary culture, defended a return to traditional values and an unambiguous defense of the state. In the prefatory statement of this review, the editors of Inicial declared war on subversives, advocating serious reprisals


against those who threatened the state with modern liberal ideals. As part of this denunciation, Inicial specifically protested

contra las aspiraciones, sentimentales y romantizantes, con que los fuertes engañan a los débiles y los débiles se consuelan de su impotencia; . . . contra los apologistas del sufragio universal, del parlamentarismo y la democracia de nuestros días . . . contra los afeminados de espíritu que ponen en verso el gemido de las damiselas y hacen ensueños sobre la ciudad futura; en fin, contra todo lo que hay, en arte, en politica, de engaño, de impotencia y de feminidad.[18]

[against the aspirations, both sentimental and romantic, with which the strong deceive the weak and the weak console themselves with their impotence; . . . against the apologists for universal suffrage, for parliamentarianism, and democracy in our time . . . against the effeminate of spirit who put in verse the cry of ladies and build dreams about the city of the future; in short, against all [traces] in art, [and] in politics, of deception, impotence, and femininity.]

Here, the editors draw unabashed comparisons between acts of national perfidy and feminine behavior; the traitors of the nation are clearly aligned with women. Thus, in this highly gendered text, a masculinist discourse upholds virtue and patriotism while the vile elements of society are singularly debased to the sphere of the feminine. It follows then that the feminine is a threat to the stability of the state; universal suffrage, modernization, and revolutionary ideals form part of a program of subversion.

The identification of the feminine with an oppositional consciousness in Latin America is broadly suggested in the decade of the 1920s and is evident even in the texts of progressive advocates. For example, the Revista de Avance (1927–1930), a Cuban literary magazine whose editors included some members of the newly founded Cuban Communist Party, represents the most radical avant-garde achievement in Latin America in the period and offers a paradigmatic evaluation of feminist practice within a nationalist context. Praising the work of the Alianza Nacional Feminista, a suffragist group active in Cuba in the 1920s, the Revista de Avance links feminism with democratic process, as the following citation reveals:

Un grupo de nuestras mujeres, oficialmente constituido bajo el rótulo de "Alianza Nacional Feminista," se dispone a la conquista del voto en los precisos momentos en que nuestros hombres comienzan a prescindir de él como de una molestia ciudadana sin objeto. Esta falange de mujeres puede significar una oportuna reserva de fuerzas para nuestra diezmada democracia. Cuando los hombres, usurpadores de un exclusivismo democrático esencialmente anti-democrático, más aún, antihumano, nos sentimos ganados por la desilusión y lloramos un poco boabdilescamente [sic] los principios que no supimos defender, las mujeres, menos escépticas, menos maliciadas en las manos de la politiquería al uso, más henchidas de fe en los destinos del pueblo, acuden a cubrir la vanguardia y afirman enfaticamente su fe en los ideales de la democracia.[19]


[A group of our women, officially constituted under the rubric of "National Feminist Alliance," is getting ready to win the vote at the very moment in which our men begin to set it aside as a purposeless citizen's nuisance. This phalanx of women can represent an opportune reserve of strength for our weakened democracy. When as men, usurpers of a democratic exclusionary practice that is essentially antidemocratic, and even more, antihuman, we feel beaten by disillusion and we cry somewhat foolishly over principles that we did not know how to defend, women—less skeptical, less apprehensive in the face of common politics, more filled with faith in the destiny of their people—run to the vanguard position and emphatically affirm their faith in democratic ideals.]

Following a course of resistance to state authoritarianism, the Revista de Avance relied upon the image of the feminine to organize a program of opposition. Here feminine practice is perceived as a behavior available to all progressive individuals to compensate for the abusive political projects traditionally embraced by Cuban men. Less cynical and less corrupt, women, in the eyes of the editors of Revista de Avance , have the potential to introduce a genuinely democratic reform in society.

It is interesting, at the same time, to contemplate the uses of women in Cuban projects of modernization. In this period, women lobbied actively for divorce legislation and claimed a voice in congressional proceedings to demand suffrage and equal compensation.[20] But their demands were not necessarily perceived as unsound or without basis in reason; rather, the feminist activity of these years provided an example of civic engagement from which society as a whole might benefit. Thus, if in the parlance of the right women were situated among the adversaries who threatened the stability of official institutions, in the rhetoric of the left the feminine was equated with democracy and the possibility of reform. Undoubtedly, women played an important symbolic and active role in civil society of the 1910s and 1920s.

Like the texts of political movements, with their heated polemic about the merits of nationalist programs, positioning the feminine within a discourse of opposition, literary texts of the 1920s aligned women in counterpoint to the state; concomitantly, the family was perceived as a unit in hopeless disarray. This is consonant with a long history in Latin American letters, where traditionally the role of women and the family had been cast in debate with nationalist interests.

Elizabeth Kuznesof and Robert Oppenheimer have noted that alliances between family and state power were characteristic of nineteenth-century nationalism in Latin America.[21] Indeed, theorists of family and state relations have often drawn an equivalence between the two.[22] Max Horkheimer, for example, has observed that the clear imperative of the bourgeois family was to enforce a sense of duty among all of its members to the father; by extension, the blind obedience to the patriarch would be continued in the individual's unquestioned submission to the state.[23]

Latin American literary texts of the nineteenth century give a different


interpretation of the family, picturing it as headed toward irreversible destruction when managed by an irrational father, a metaphor for state authority. In this condition, the woman saves her family by taking charge of the household; in the process, she becomes a figure of opposition to the state. One can observe, beginning in the post-Independence period, a clear interest in the feminine figure in this kind of adversarial role; this occurred especially at moments when the dissolution of the family in literature was read as a challenge to political regimes.

Argentine literary history is especially rich in examples of this image of the feminine, particularly in the nineteenth century, when liberal men of letters voiced their opposition to the tyrant Juan Manuel de Rosas and used his daughter, Manuela, to show the fragmentation of the family qua state (see Mary Louise Pratt's essay, this volume).[24] Manuela thus became the protagonist of a variety of liberal literary texts, from ballads and short stories to seminal novels in the Latin American tradition, in which often she was made a figure of resistance, showing moral indignation in response to the actions of the Argentine strongman. This example takes us beyond Christopher Lasch's definition of the family as a "haven in a heartless world," for in nineteenth-century representations we see that the repressive family, as a microcosm for the state, often exhausts itself due to the efforts of women.[25] Thus, in much Argentine literature of the post-Independence period, woman offers the possibility of an oppositional consciousness while men are forced into silence; yet she also suggests the decay of the patriarchal family whose control she manages to elude.

The creative literature of the 1920s and 1920s confirms this perception of women as adversaries of nationalist interests. In this period, however, female characters lack the heroic fortitude to challenge the injustice of tyranny; clearly, they are not recommended for public service, nor do they serve the interests of democratic reform. Rather, they are revealed as sinister agents of subversion. Their behavior is informed by irrationality and misguided eros, so that the only solution for them is found in a controlled domesticity. Thus, in the conservative texts of the early twentieth century, women are cautioned against excess and eliminated from the public realm; they are then returned to the domestic sphere, where they are supervised by a benevolent spouse.

The naturalist novel, which survived in Latin America well into the decade of the 1920s, reinforced these paradigms of domesticity. In this kind of fiction, women were representative of the forces of disruption, or often were identified with the uncivilized land insofar as both are objects of masculine conquest and domination. In Gálvez's first novel, La maestra normal (1914), inspired by the Centennial celebration of 1910 and by the influential presence of the normal-school movement in Argentine life, he represented woman as a victim of evil ideologies.[26] Here, in a broad critique of the educational policies of the normal-school teachers, Gálvez attacked the lay school


system for its challenge to religion, tradition, and the unified family, and he demonstrated the system's failure particularly in reference to provincial women. The fall of Raselda, the protagonist of La maestra normal , is attributed, by Gálvez's logic, to the ideologies of liberalism in which she was formed. Had she been under the tutelage of her parents with appropriate discipline and guidance, she would not have fallen prey to corruption or lost her sense of virtue.

In this scheme of things, women bear no responsibility for the larger questions of ideology and institutions, nor should they be allowed access to untested ideas. Accordingly, women like Raselda had no business in the education of youth. Furthermore, in this novel, with its abundant erotic passages and explicitly detailed abortion, all images converge on a single objective: the monitoring of women in civil society. The body of woman is to be controlled at any cost in a period of social decadence, for unattended she succumbs to the barbarous extremes of undisciplined sensuality. In the literatures of nationalist and avant-garde tendencies, women are often presented as subverting family harmony. Since domestic peace is a goal lust and desire must be contained. But Gálvez's novel is also about the dangerous intersection of public and private spheres, for when women escape the domestic realm and enter the public workplace they show a marked incapacity for making rational decisions. Raselda, the heroine, suffers in love and work because she cannot properly separate these antagonistic realms, and she lacks sufficient clarity to separate work and passion. Finally, she is expelled from civil society and condemned to solitude. Far from consolidating a nationalist project, the woman was used in Centennial texts to show disruption and chaos, while she indicated the cause for the failure of any program of social reform.

In short, in an age when women were considered antagonistic to national interests, it was common to exercise control over them, suppressing their passions unsparingly. Control was then reasserted in literature by the representation of a unified household. Within this context, men were to fulfill the role of paterfamilias, imparting wisdom and rule to their flock, while women were destined to serve as housekeepers, devoted to domestic labor and motherhood; but this plan always met with resistance. In the organization of family roles in fiction of the realist, mundonovista mode, the feminine was thus identified as the center of contradiction. Accordingly, in the great sagas of the South American frontier, the theme of civilization versus barbarism—the dichotomy that sums up the thinking of writers and statesmen who tried to understand Latin America from the time of the mid-nineteenth century—women were equated with barbarism, which had to be curbed by men of reason. It is also important to observe the absence of any great matriarch or woman of intuitive magic in these novels: there is no Ursula Buendía, in the manner of Gabriel Garcia Márquez's fiction, no character equivalent of La


Maga in Julio Cortázar's Rayuela . Instead, the women in the novels written by men of the 1920s were depicted as uncontrollable and often evil, inclined to wanton aggression or irrational, perilous endeavors. The women in these novels had two courses available to them: either they accepted the domestic calling and resigned themselves to a life of subservience or they found themselves eliminated from the scene of narration. Such is the case in adventure novels like Ricardo Güiraldes's Don Segundo Sombra (1926), where the bonding among men constitutes the only civilizing influence on the community at large, and in Rómulo Gallegos's Doña Bárbara (1929) where the protagonist is banished from the novel and only her innocent daughter survives, through alliance with the civilized master.

Finally, the avant-garde literatures, as an independent activity of the 1920s, also broached the debate on women with overt hostility. In general, practitioners of the avant-garde insisted on a culture of masculinity; forceful, isolating, arrogant, the search for power that informed this movement was abusive of women. This is true of the Argentine Oliverio Girondo, who describes women's bodies as fragmented limbs or objects to be contemplated by the tourist-poet, and of the Chilean Vicente Huidobro, whose ironic prose poems express an extravagant violence against women.[27] Not unlike modernists such as Wyndham Lewis, Filippo Tommaso Marinetti, and Ezra Pound, these Latin American writers engaged in a brutal yet gratuitous subjugation of women, so that the exertion of power over subalterns almost seemed synonymous with the institutionalization of modernism itself.[28] This attitude was also shown consistently in the abundant little magazines of the period, in the many jokes and limericks that served as gestures of male camaraderie, and in the anonymous doggerel that celebrated a bonding among men to the exclusion of women.[29] The few women writers present in these circles were recognized in their roles as literary doyennes, companions of the major author, or occasionally eccentric artists and poets whose works were sometimes included in minor spaces of the little reviews. Clearly, in this lively confraternity of men of the 1920s there was little space for women.

Three— Women, State, and Family in Latin American Literature of the 1920s

Preferred Citation: Seminar on Feminism & Culture in Latin America. Women, Culture, and Politics in Latin America. Berkeley:  University of California Press,  c1990 1990.