Women, Feminism, and Social Change in Argentina, Chile, and Uruguay, 1890-1940. – Review

Women, Feminism, and Social Change in Argentina, Chile, and Uruguay, 1890-1940. – Review – book review

Anna Macias

Women, Feminism, and Social Change in Argentina, Chile, and Uruguay, 1890-1940. By Asuncion Lavrin. (Lincoln: University of Nebraska Press, 1998. Pp. x, 480. $25.00.)

The appearance of this paperback edition of a work first published in 1995 as an expensive hardback attests to Asuncion Lavrin’s success in attracting an ever widening readership. Indeed, this painstakingly researched and well-written study of feminism in Argentina, Chile, and Uruguay from 1890 to 1940 should be and will probably become required reading in upper-level undergraduate and graduate courses on Latin American women and in courses on comparative women’s history.

Lavrin makes clear that feminism in the Southern Cone of Latin America, which made its appearance early in the twentieth century, was primarily an urban phenomenon, as was true everywhere else in the Western world. Women’s rights were espoused by a few men, usually of liberal or Socialist persuasion, and by a relatively small group of educated and professional women who, especially in Argentina and Uruguay, were of immigrant origin. By the 1880s, Argentina and Uruguay began attracting large numbers of European immigrants, many of whom were more likely than traditionalist criollo families to take advantage of the educational opportunities available to their sons and daughters. It is probably no coincidence that, at first, Chile, which received few European immigrants, lagged behind the other two countries in the development of a women’s movement.

Coming from very male-dominated and highly traditionalist societies, feminists in Argentina, Chile, and Uruguay, as Lavrin points out, put more emphasis on moralizing society and protecting maternity than on suffrage, as was true of feminists in Europe and the United States. High on the feminist agenda in the three countries were the protection of maternity and of working women and children; ending the sexual double standard; banning prostitution, alcohol, and tobacco; reforming the Civil Code; and equal pay for equal work. Full political rights for women were not emphasized until after 1920, for universal male suffrage in Argentina had not been achieved until 1912.

Of the three countries, Uruguay was the first to grant women the right to vote (in 1938), the first to reform the Civil Code (in 1946), and the first to elect women to Congress (in 1942). Lavrin makes dear why Uruguay led the way in achieving these key feminist goals: from early on in the twentieth century they had the full support of the liberal/progressive Colorado Party leadership. Jose Batlle y Ordonez, President of Uruguay from 1903-1907 and again in 1911-1915, was an early advocate of feminist causes, as was Baltasar Brum, President of Uruguay from 1919-1923, who placed special emphasis on the legal and political equality of women.

On the other hand, in Argentina, the civilian government of Radical Party leader Hipolito Yrigoyen, president in the teens and in the 1920s, showed no interest in women’s rights or women’s suffrage, while the military rulers from 1930 to 1943 and beyond were totally opposed to feminism. As Lavrin explains, “suffrage was too closely associated with socialism, pacifism, and the Pan-Americanism to appeal to the military mentality…” (285). As in Argentina, in Chile feminists had little support from either the civilian or military governments of the 1920s and 1930s.

Lavrin, a pioneer and founding mother of Latin American Women’s Studies, is to be congratulated on her exhaustive study of the many trials suffered and the few triumphs achieved by a courageous and tenacious group of feminists, female and male, to create a more just and equitable society in Argentina, Chile, and Uruguay between 1890 and 1940.

Ohio Wesleyan University Anna Macias

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