Sunday, 22 September 2013

"Lesbian Vertigo: Living the Women's Liberation Movement on the Edge of Europe"

As far as I know, I'm the only feminist nerd in my family. So when I went to Manchester it felt like I was opening my eyes for the first time. It was such a big thing for me. I started questioning the church, and the power of those who spoke inside it. I started remembering things. Like being asked to get up and get a fork for my brother at dinner, or being told to clean his room when we went to university, or being unable to acknowledge that I was a sexual being. And yes, I did go through my personal 1970s fit of glory, by taking my life and re-writing the story and changing the ending. When I found myself working with Hilary Owen I realised that, without having even planned it, this is where I wanted to be. I was happy, but of course I didn't feel happy. It was all very difficult and most of the time during my MA I felt miserable. The world as I had known it had disappeared, and I had to come to grips with this other world where I had a potential voice to use, if only courage didn't fail me. The truth is I couldn't disagree loud enough. I was often ashamed of writing articles and getting published on issues that I was unable to tackle with my closest family. I fell into the usual traps of transforming books about other women's experiences into mirrors for my own life. I also discovered another difficulty, which came attached to the situation of being supervised by a brilliant academic: being massively influenced by your mentor's ideas. As a PhD student, I didn't give this much thought, as I was young and naive, and I knew very little to the point of actually believing I was breaking totally new ground (Ha!) 

I'm now at a point where I think I know nothing. So the issue of influence was very much on my mind this summer, as I was writing a piece on Novas Cartas Portuguesas and Borderlands: La Frontera. These books had a huge impact on me as an MA student at Manchester in 2005. So what do you do when you feel massively influenced by your own mentor's readings? You just keep on writing, hoping that someday you'll eventually find your way. My article, "Lesbian Vertigo: Living the Women's Liberation Movement on the Edge of Europe" is a tribute to Hilary Owen, who introduced me to these two books 8 years ago. It's about the impact of feminist ideals on the different stories of canonisation of these books and it will come out in a book edited by Kristina Schulz.

Saturday, 21 September 2013

The Marias of the Portuguese Communist Party

Despite its progressive political agenda, the Portuguese First Republic was an unstable period that brought political instability and social unrest, paving the way for the longest right-wing dictatorship in Europe, which lasted for 48 years (1933-1974). The rise to power of António de Oliveira Salazar, a right-wing economist and a Coimbra University professor turned dictator, made it more difficult to invoke the feminine independently of state propaganda. Salazar ruled Portugal between 1933 and 1968, following the 1926 coup which led to the creation of the New State. After reportedly falling from a chair and suffering a stroke, he was replaced by Marcelo Caetano in 1968, who stayed in power until the Portuguese “Carnation Revolution” of April 1974, which ended the dictatorship and the Colonial Wars in Africa. In this repressive context, the 1930s and 1940s witnessed the first great wave of female authored fiction in Portugal, a phenomenon which Ana Paula Ferreira compares to that which would take place after the Portuguese 1974 Revolution (Ferreira 2002: 15). Writing under the label “literatura feminina”, these women strategically appropriated the “feminine” cause of Salazar to explore crucial social and ethical issues related to the role of women within the family and the nation. 

In Manuela Porto's 1945 short-story “Maria”, the main character values maternity as the only way in which she can fulfill herself in the context of the New State regime. What this praise of motherhood reveals is not, however, a passive conformity to prescribed social roles but a desire to hold a mirror to the established order which privileges a model of passive motherhood. Porto excels in her depiction of a rather ambivalent relationship with motherhood which leads her to commit suicide once she realizes she cannot become a mother. Porto's short-story “Maria” denounces the suicidal despair experienced by Portuguese women who find themselves locked in their roles as wives and mothers of the nation.

The history of Portuguese anti-fascist struggle throughout the 1960s and 1970s would throw back the echoes of Porto's 1945 frustrated Maria. The waves of unrest fueled by student uprises felt throughout the USA and western Europe in the late 1960s, and the ensuing fight for equality between the sexes, were not immediately felt in Portugal. In this isolated corner of Europe, efforts were initially directed at fighting back fascism and colonialism, not gender or class inequality. This is attested by the growing politicization of universities in Portugal throughout the 1960s, which led to the radicalization of opposition to the regime, but not to an open debate around questions raised by women's position within the socialist opposition, as was happening beyond the Portuguese borders. As noted by Graça Abranches, “We find no women's collectives within the students' movement – as was to be expected, when no such thing as a women's movement existed in Portugal at the time” (Abranches 1998: 5). The censors of the regime regularly examined books and articles published internationally, and suppressed parts that were considered obscene before allowing their publication in Portugal. These suppressions included references to discussions on abortion abroad, and the work of influential women such Simone de Beauvoir, Betty Friedan and Kate Millet. The New State ideology forbid the distribution of the contraceptive pill in the Portuguese territory, emphasizing instead the reproductive function of female sexuality.

Despite this repressive environment, Portuguese women played a central role in clandestine activities organized by the Portuguese Communist party (PCP) before 1974, and were, as a result, regularly imprisoned and tortured by the infamous Portuguese secret police (PIDE). As noted by Tavares, the clandestine activities of the PCP were often conducted from so-called “casas do partido” [party's houses], regular homes turned into political hubs of subversion. Although women's role in these houses was pivotal for the success of the Communist opposition to the regime, their efforts were hardly ever acknowledged by men, and they faced constant discrimination in the name of an “utopia política que poderia um dia mais tarde resolver todos os problemas” [political utopia that might one day solve all problems] (Teresa Almeida quoted in Tavares 2009: 153). Because their true identity had to be hidden, these women were often referred to simply as “Maria”: 

“Eram tratadas simplesmente por 'Maria' por muitos dos seus camaradas e as suas funções mais valorizadas eram as tarefas caseiras” [They were treated simply as “Maria” by many of their comrades and the tasks performed by women that were most valued were domestic] (Tavares 2009: 152). 

The image of these silent 'Marias', looking over the shoulders of their comrades as they cooked their meal and fed their children is very significant, since it exemplifies the marxist female ideal underpinning the “original position” of the Communist community, which demanded women to be as tough as men, while accepting all the traditional burdens of womanhood. This exemplifies how Portuguese women's self-perception as feminists was, once more, reinforced by a masculinist liberation movement's inability to accommodate women's issues, this time in the context of the fight against the right-wing dictatorship and the Colonial War in Africa.

In this context, the writing process of Novas Cartas, which started in May 1971, may be best described as a collective cry of three Marias not only against fascist national isolation and repression, but also against a general silence on gender issues imposed by the marxist male opposition to the regime. As co-writers, they refuse the ideal of femininity offered by their comrades. The (very different) feminisms of the three writers were affected by the Portuguese marxist community as an oppositional protest movement that fought for the liberation from oppression without accommodating a feminist agenda. The fact that the women would later be internationally known as the “three Marias” is an ironic detail that, far than simply confirming the feminist co-opting of the book as a simplified political symbol of sisterhood, instead emphasizes the book's deliberate violation of the tacit conventions of the anti-fascist contract of “fraternidade”, responsible for the use of the “Maria” epithet in the first place.

Friday, 13 September 2013

Carolina Beatriz Ângelo: a Portuguese feminist icon

Like other Portuguese feminist women in the early twentieth century, Carolina Beatriz Ângelo participated actively and symbolically in the implementation of the Portuguese Republic. She wrote against monarchs while helping to sew and embroider the national flags that were raised in Lisbon in 1910. She formed the Portuguese Group of Feminist Studies, and the Association of Feminist Propaganda with Ana de Castro Osório, another outstanding feminist personality and founder of the first feminist association, The Portuguese Group of Feminist Studies, in 1907. Ângelo, who obtained her degree in Medicine when she was 24 years old, became a pioneer of women's suffrage in 1911 when she used the electoral law to ask for permission to register for the vote. The law offered the vote to all Portuguese citizens without mentioning gender. It required that, in order to vote, one had to be head of household and literate in Portuguese. As a widow with a child to support, Ângelo fit in all the requirements, and she succeeded in becoming voter no. 2513, as head of her family. Two years later, however, the Republican party decided to change the electoral law by stating clearly that the vote was available to male heads of household only. Portuguese women were thus denied a place and a say in the public sphere by their male Republican partners, on the basis of the supposed 'religious fanaticism of the women, which would constitute a hindrance to Republican values' (Esteves 1998: 74 in Pereira 2006: 190).

Nevertheless, the international impact of Ângelo's vote was very strong. Because of her achievement, Portugal was seen as a pioneer country in what regarded women's suffrage. The news was welcomed by feminists all over Europe, who sent telegrams and letters to the Association of Feminist Propaganda congratulating Ângelo.ii Portugal was seen as a symbol of hope for the women's first-wave community, and a country of feminist possibility. Graça Abranches (1998) has suggested that, although it would be tempting to draw a parallel between the organized and vocal feminist movement of the First Republic and the notoriety achieved by the case of New Portuguese Letters in 1972, the parallel cannot be drawn “because of the nature of the regime” (Abranches 1998: 6). While I agree that the political differences need to be taken into consideration, since Portugal's fascist dictatorship prevented women in the early 1970s from organizing a women's movement as had been done at the turn of the century, an important parallel remains to be drawn here, I believe, in terms of the consequences of the international impact of Portuguese feminist actions for the self-fashioning of Portuguese women as feminists. 

What is interesting about this episode, which signals a Portuguese relationship with the international world of feminist solidarity politics – a version of which would be re-enacted in the 1970s, with the publication of New Portuguese Letters – is that it was largely at odds with the kind of feminist thought that was actually being produced in this country. Portugal was (momentarily) transformed into an international political symbol of feminist unity, despite the fact that, as described by Margarida Pereira (2006), the writings of Portuguese early feminists transpired a strong sense of morality “denoting a conservatism that is very far removed, for example, from the political commitment of English suffragettes” (Pereira 2006: 187). Pereira posits, correctly, that Portugal's rigid Catholic morality hindered women's access to education, so that when feminism reached Portugal at the turn of the twentieth-century only a handful of women, mainly from the privileged classes, got involved in claiming the feminist label.iii Pereira goes on to argue that, while this may explain why early Portuguese feminists were particularly vocal about the right for women's education, it does not entirely account for the fact that the early Portuguese feminist fight was one for social, rather than political rights. To her mind, the fact that Portuguese feminism involved a celebration of women as mothers, wives and educators stands as an “ideological contradiction” (Pereira 2006: 187). However, this assessment reveals, in part, a perception of the Portuguese feminist movement as a mere version of someone else's (in this case, a version of English suffragettes') feminism. I suggest, instead, that the early Portuguese feminist emphasis on the link between female autonomy and the social role of women as nurturers and supporters of their families and communities may be read as an early articulation of the distinctive character of the Portuguese feminist experience, which involved an early refusal to choose between identity politics (being a Portuguese woman) and political praxis (being a feminist). 

When Portuguese feminist Virgínia de Castro e Almeida writes in 1913 that “the noblest missions of a woman are, undoubtedly, love, motherhood, and education” (in Pereira 2006: 187), she is articulating a perspective that takes into account the specificities of the Portuguese female experiences along economic, cultural, political and social lines. The feminist movement of the First Republic, with the story of Ângelo's vote at its core, inaugurates – despite the context of strong international pressure to transform Portugal into a symbol of international feminism – a Portuguese female tradition of reclaiming a specific historical position that differs from the notion of a universal feminist sisterhood. This situation may have contributed to shaping a Portuguese feminist consciousness whose contours can be observed in the decades following the Three Marias' notorious case. 

More research is needed on this front! How did Portuguese women (re)create themselves as feminists throughout the twentieth century and especially in the 1970s? How did they relate to pre-existing social groups, and to the feminist international community in particular? What kind of alliances with other feminists beyond the national borders did they forge, and what were the consequences of those alliances for their self-perception as feminists?

iAna de Castro Osório published As Mulheres Portuguesas in 1905, the first Portuguese feminist manifesto where she emphasises the need to educate women. She also defends that women should work outside the home and be independent. Osório also became involved in the National Council of Portuguese Women, an umbrella organization for women's groups, later closed down by the Salazar regime in 1947. See Wayne 2011: 371.

iiInterview with Manuela Tavares in Câmara Clara, 'Ser Feminista é querer ser pessoa', 9 October 2011 <> Accessed [15 April 2013].

iiiIlliteracy rates were high, and most Portuguese women were unskilled workers throughout the first half of the twentieth-century. In 1940, 56,1% Portuguese women and 41.2% Portuguese men were illiterate. In Maria Cândida Proença. História. O Estado Novo. Materiais para Professores. Lisboa: Instituto de Inovação Educacional, Ministério da Educação. 1997: 64, in Ferreira 2002: 26.