On the 25th May this year, Argentina will celebrate 200 years since the revolution that opened the way to independence from Spain. It is hard to escape the celebrations and parties that are planned or have already got underway, but one exhibition in particular catches the eye. Displayed prominently in the Casa Rosada, the seat of the Argentine government, is a selection of photographs and paintings of people who either played an important part in achieving or establishing independence or, in the past 200 years, have contributed in making Argentina the country it is today.
What is surprising is that they are all women. The exhibition was developed under the direction of Argentina’s first elected female president, Cristina Fernández de Kirchner and is a fascinating collection of notable women from Argentine history. Some are well known figures such as Eva Peron and others history has forgotten, but all deserve to be recognised during the bicentenary celebrations for their contributions to Argentine independence.
The paintings and photographs are displayed in the newly established ‘Argentine Bicentenary Hall of Women’ in Casa Rosada. The venue was opened by President Kirchner on 6th March 2010, poignantly also International Women’s Day. President Kirchner commented that she wanted to create a space in a place emblematic of Argentina’s political power (Casa Rosada) that is, “a permanent place for women, a place that we have earned but that is still reluctantly recognised”. The president also said that, “women have featured ever since the birth of the country…even those that may seem to come from more distant grassroots movements, in the end all they wanted was to make a better country”. Twelve women are displayed in the exhibition, including one of the most famous names in Argentine history.
The First Woman of Argentina
Ask any tourist to name a famous Argentine and I would suspect María Eva Duarte de Perón or ‘Evita’ would be one of the first to be mentioned. The second wife of President Juan Perón, she campaigned for labour rights and in particular the suffrage of women in Argentina. In her lifetime she was enormously popular with the working classes, but came up against opposition from the nation’s elite and military. Shortly before her death from cancer in 1952, at the age of 33 she was given the official title of ‘spiritual leader of the nation’ by the Argentine congress and, although she was not an elected head of state, was given a full state funeral. She has now become an international icon, immortalised by the musical and film ‘Evita’, but to many in Argentina today, particularly women, she remains a potent source of political inspiration; not bad for a woman born out of wedlock who lived her early years in relative poverty in rural Argentina.
Not surprisingly Eva Perón has been given an important place in the bicentenary celebrations. On International Women’s Day this year she was declared, by decree, ‘The Woman of South America’. It was announced that in this bicentenary and on a day recognising women around the world it was appropriate to, “honour a historical figure who, in Argentina, represents the image of women in the struggle for their rights.” The Argentine historian Mario O’Donnell commented that she “ran an intensive campaign for every woman in Argentina…to obtain their legitimate political rights”.
The Other Woman
The life and works of a woman on the other end of the social scale is celebrated alongside her in Casa Rosada. Victoria Ocampo was an intellectual and writer who Jorge Luis Borges described as “the most Argentine woman”. Ocampo was born into a wealthy family in Buenos Aires and educated at home by a French governess. At the age of 17, when Evita had already left home and was working as a struggling actress, Victoria was in Paris with her family attending lectures at the Sorbonne. Victoria was to go on to become the founder and publisher of ‘Sur’, one of the most important literary magazines of its time in Latin America.
The Collective Impact
Evita and Ocampo are two of the most well known women in Argentine history and will rightfully take their place in the bicentenary celebrations, but as Barbara Sutton Argentine Assistant Professor in the Department of Women’s at the University of Albany notes, there are many more women who have devoted their lives to ensure the liberation and of Argentine men and women.
Sutton tells me: “People tend to be more aware of individual personalities such as Evita or Victoria Ocampo, than of the collective impact that the women’s movement, and the feminist movement in particular, has had on the lives of contemporary women in Argentina.”
The Casa Rosada Bicentenary Women
Cecilia Grierson was the first Argentine woman to become a doctor of medicine. She was sent to school in Buenos Aires and qualified as a teacher, but after a few years of teaching she made the unusual choice of training to become a doctor. This was a challenging decision for a woman in the late nineteenth century in Argentina. She was not the first woman to enter medical school, but was the first woman to be successfully awarded a degree in medicine.
Grierson was highly intelligent and innovative. Whilst studying medicine she introduced the idea of ambulances using an alarm bell (until then this system had only been implemented by the fire brigade), and was one of the first to recognise the need to develop a professional nursing service in Argentine hospitals. She founded the first Argentine nursing school, eventually named the Municipal Nursing School ‘Dr Cecilia Grierson’. Her other achievements include writing a book on massage, in which she pioneered the practice of kinesiology (the science of human movement); created the Argentine First Aid Society and published a book on treatment of accident victims; wrote and taught about the education of children with special needs; founded the National Obstetrics Association and created a journal for midwives. And the list goes on! What is so extraordinary is that on graduating she discovered that it was in fact illegal for her to practice medicine, but this did not stop her.
The struggles that she faced led Grierson to take part in the first feminist groups in Argentina and along with Alicia Moreau de Justo (see below), spoke out about women’s inferior position in society and their exclusion from educational, economic, political and social activities. She founded the Argentine Women’s Council in 1900 and chaired the First International Female Congress in 1910 as part of the events to celebrate the centenary of Argentine independence. She continued to be an active member of Argentine feminist movements until her death in 1934 aged 75.
Alfonsina Storni was born in Switzerland in 1892 to an Argentine father, but was to become one of the most important Latin American poets of the modernist period. She trained as a primary school teacher, but at the same time wrote for local magazines and in 1911 she moved to Buenos Aires where she had an illegitimate child. Whilst working in a shop she continued to write and started mixing with other writers. She won many awards for her poetry and taught at the Escuela Normal de Lenguas Vivas.
Ill health forced her to leave her job as a teacher, but she continued to write, adopting stronger feminist themes. She once referred to men as ‘the enemy’ and most of her work focused on what she considered to be the repression of women by men. Troubled by a solitary life and suffering from breast cancer, Storni sent her last poem ‘voy a dormir’ to La Nacion newspaper in October 1938 and on 25 October she was found drowned on La Perla beach in Mar del Plata. Her death inspired Ariel Ramírez and Félix Luna to compose the song Alfonsina y el Mar (‘Alfonsina and the sea’), which has been performed by many famous Argentine artists and was immortalised by the Latin American artist Aqunio in many of his paintings.
Alicia Moreau de Justo, born in 1885, was a physician, politician, pacifist and human rights activist. She was born to French parents in the United Kingdom, but moved to Argentina when she was young. She initially studied to be a school teacher, but then changed course to become the fourth woman to graduate from an Argentine University as a physicist. She first became active in politics through her connections with the socialist party, but went on to help organise the First International Female Congress in 1910 and founded the National Feminine Union in 1918. In 1945 she published the book, ‘Women in Democracy’, in which she discussed the struggle of Argentine women to obtain the right to vote. In the 1950s she became general secretary of the Socialist Party of Argentina. Throughout her life she was a great supporter of human rights campaigns, in particular the mission of the Madres de Plaza de Mayo. In 1980 she was part of the committee that welcomed the Inter-American Commission on Human Rights of the Organisation of American States to investigate the human rights crimes of the military government. She died in 1986 aged 99.
Aimé Paine was a Mapuche Argentine dedicated to the preservation and dissemination of folk music. She was sent to study in Mar del Plata where she dreamed of becoming a singer. When she was 29-years-old she joined the National Polyphonic Choir and there discovered that music was her true vocation. It was during international gatherings where other countries performed music of their native people, that Paine began to feel frustrated with the lack of interest Argentines had with their musical roots. She dedicated her life to ensuring the music and culture of the Mapuche was known around the world.
The Mothers of Plaza de Mayo are perhaps, alongside Eva Perón, some of the most internationally well known figures from Argentina. They are an association of women whose children disappeared during the Argentine military dictatorship of 1976-83. For over three decades now they have been campaigning, initially to find their children, and later to discover the truth and get justice for what happened to them. They have become one of the most influential human rights organisations in Argentina. During the dictatorship large gatherings were forbidden by the military, but the mothers got around this law by meeting every Thursday in Plaza de Mayo and walking in pairs around the plaza.
Although three of the founding members also disappeared, the Mothers of Plaza de Mayo avoided persecution as they represented one of the most powerful symbols of Argentine culture: motherhood. During the dictatorship they were one of the only groups of resistance against the military and caught the attention of international media. In 1986, the Mothers association split into two factions. The Mothers of the Plaza de Mayo – Founding Line, which focuses on legislation to help recover remains and bringing ex-officials to justice and Mothers of the Plaza de Mayo Association, which is led by Hebe de Bonafini who take a more political and controversial approach.
The activism of the Mothers of Plaza de Mayo inadvertently led them to represent a different element to Argentine feminism; a feminist movement that embraced the values of motherhood. At the same time the implications of their work were embraced by social and human rights movements across the world.
Juana Azurduy de Padilla was born in Bolivia in 1780, but played a critical role in the Argentine fight for independence against the Spanish. She fought under the Argentine general, Martín de Pueyrredón, who elevated her to Lieutenant Coronel and also General Martín Miguel de Güemes. At one time it is believed she commanded an army of 6,000 men and it is said she fought whilst pregnant, returning to battle relatively soon after giving birth. She survived her husband and four sons, dying in relative obscurity and poverty, but is now remembered as an Argentine heroine. In 2009 she was ordained with the rank of general of the Argentine army, in remembrance of all she did for the country. In March this year Azurduy was honoured at a meeting of President Kirchner and President Evo Morales of Bolivia. At the meeting President Kirchner said that Azurduy “represents the thousands and thousands of anonymous men and women, without which the battles for freedom against colonial rule would have been impossible.”
Although not displayed in the Casa Rosada exhibition there are many examples of women who were very active during and after the revolution on 25th May 1810. Joining Juana Azurduy de Padilla were other women who picked up weapons and fought alongside their husbands, fathers and brother, and others who supported the resistance to Spanish or British occupation by other means. Manuela Pedraza Tucumana fought with her husband against the first British invasion of Buenos Aires. Rumour has it that after her husband was killed by a British soldier, she picked up his gun and killed the soldier. Martina Céspedes lived with her three daughters in San Telmo during the second British invasion in 1807. When some solders knocked as her door looking for food and water, she served them alcohol to lower their defences, locked them in a room and took them prisoner. She was later appointed a sergeant major and continued to participate in the wars of independence.
Many women offered their houses as meeting places for solders men who were resisting the Spanish rule. Maria de Todos los Santos Sánchez’s embraced the cause of independence and allowed men such as José de San Martín, Manuel Belgrano and Fray Cayetano Rodriguez to gather and plan their revolutionary activity in her house. Most importantly she wrote down her impressions of everything she saw and heard, providing for future generations, details of what occurred during those revolutionary years.
Another notable woman of the independence movement was Maria Remedios del Valle who like many poor women travelled with and supported her husband wherever he fought. In 1810, along with her husband and children, she joined the army who were fighting in the north under General Belgrano and attended to the wounded on the frontline: she was nicknamed ‘The Captain’. There is a story that years later an elderly women was begging around Plaza de Mayo who called herself ‘The Captain’. One day in 1927 General Jose Viamonte (a hero of independence) recognised her and said: “But this is the mother of the fatherland” (a way of describing the solders who had served on the battlefields).
In Salta a group of women from different backgrounds, formed a spy network and by seducing invading solders; travelling great distances; hiding information in the hems of their skirts or in places where women met, succeeded in getting information to the patriot army.
Women in Argentina Today
After reading about these women, it is hard not to focus on their lives in terms of their contribution to Argentine women’s and feminist movement. Marilyn Mercer in her essay, ‘Feminism in Argentina’ comments, “Although the individual efforts may have seemed small, unrelated, and often ultimately fruitless, when one studies these events and pulls them all together, there is indeed a realisation that much has been accomplished by women in Argentina.”
However, Barbara Sutton tells me: “Women’s movement organisations of different political persuasions, including those with an awareness of gender inequality, have contributed to shape public consciousness, have pressed for legislative changes to improve women’s lives, [and] have held governments accountable to international agreements”. It is also important to view the lives of these women in terms of the bigger picture. These women and many other women whose stories are not told, are an intrinsic part in creating Argentine society as we know it. The Abuelas de Plaza de Mayo (not part of the exhibition at Casa Rosada) may be a group of women brought together to search for their missing grandchildren, but they have also become one of the leading human rights organisations in Argentina.
While women may have not have led armies on the battlefield, they had (and continue to have) their own battles to fight and in the process helped gain rights and freedoms for many in Argentina. The bicentenary is a time to remember and celebrate the past and the present, but also to reflect on the challenges that many still face in Argentina.
Tours of Casa Rosada (Plaza de Mayo) and access to the exhibition are only on Sunday from midday until 6pm, free of charge, but bring some ID. (Opening hours may change so it is advisable to check before going).
There is also an exhibition, Las Mujeres 1810-2010 at Casa Nacional de Bicentenario, Riobamba 985, www.casadelbicentenario.gob.ar. You can visit Tuesday to Sunday (and public holidays) from 2-9pm. Admission is free.
The other women in the Casa Rosada exhibition are:
Mariquita Sánchez de Thompson is famously known for her writings about the failed invasion of the British in 1806 and 1807
Laura Ana Merello was a famous actress, tango dancer and singer, making over 45 films, spanning six decades of Argentine cinema.
Paloma Efron was a journalist, singer, director and theatre and television producer.
Lola Mora born in 1866, was an innovative and controversial sculptor.