“I demanded more rights for women because I know what women had to put up with”-Eva Perón
Despite over sixty years having passed since her death, Eva Perón remains an icon in Argentina. Her social policies and her help towards the poor made her even more famous than her husband, the President of Argentina, Juan Perón. She was an important figure in the political life of Argentina and an active advocate for women’s rights to vote which she managed to achieve. Her legacy lies deep inside the civil society of Argentina, and her actions have become an inspiration for the feminist movement around the world.
María Eva Duarte de Perón was born on May 7, 1911. She was the wife of the Argentinian President Juan Perón and the First Lady of Argentina from 1946 until 1952. She grew up in the city of Junin in the province of Buenos Aires under poor conditions. When she was a year old, her father abandoned her mother to return to his legitimate family. Her father died when she was six years old, leaving her only with a document that declared his decision to recognize his children, allowing them to use the surname Duarte. By the age of 15, she had moved to Buenos Aires to pursue her career in acting, appearing in numerous radio and film acts.
In 1944, a deadly earthquake occurred in the city of San Juan, in Argentina. It was that year that Eva Perón met her future husband, Juan Perón, in a gala that was held in Buenos Aires to raise money for the victims of the earthquake. Her political contributions appeared shortly after. She became the president of the broadcast performers union. From there, she had a daily program where she praised her husband’s policies and accomplishments, often broadcasting speeches of Juan Perón to increase his popularity to the voters.
In the 1946 presidential elections in Argentina, Eva played a critical role in her husband’s win. She had a strong influence on the lower economic classes of Argentina and many people have described her as a powerful, yet unofficial political leader of Argentina. Her radio program was her instrument of influence towards the Argentinian voters, who were exposed weekly to her powerful speeches, promoting her husband’s populist rhetoric that became the base for the so-called Peronist movement.
The persona of the First Lady
Apart from being recognized as the First Lady of Argentina, Eva Perón was widely recognized as a saint by the poor people of Argentina because of her charitable actions. She was the founder and chairwoman of the Eva Perón Foundation, an organization that aimed to help the poor and the homeless of Argentina. Before her foundation, there was the Society of Beneficence, a charity group that was responsible for most charity activities in Buenos Aires. Traditionally, the First Lady of Argentina is elected to be president of the charity group. Unfortunately for Eva, she found out that her poor background and acting career was looked down on by the members of the group.
However, this did not bring her down. It was that moment that Eva enriched her image as a strong woman that did not allow her past social class to affect setting an example for thousands of women in Argentina. Thus she created the Eva Perón Foundation. According to writers Fraser & Navarro, she did not expect at first that her initiative would be a success:“She could not have foreseen her sudden transformation, from Latin American politician and religious national cult figure to late-twentieth-century popular culture folk heroine” (Fraser & Navarro, 1996, p.193). After that, Eva managed to gain the support of the government, drastically adding more and more money for her charity work, approaching a level of comparison to a modern female saint.
As the First Lady of Argentina, Eva Perón took advantage of her political position to promote her ideas. However, although her ideas about women’s rights to vote inspired the feminist movement, Eva did not consider herself a feminist. In her autobiography, she states the reasons why she was not a feminist. In her view, the feminist movement of that time was aspiring to become exactly like the men and renounce their womanhood by imitating them. In her own words:
“I confess I was a little afraid the day I found myself facing the possibility of starting on the feminist path. What could I, a humble woman of the people, do where other women, more prepared than I, had categorically failed? Be ridiculous? Join the nucleus of women with a grudge against women and men, as has happened to innumerable feminist leaders? I was not an old maid, nor even ugly enough for such a post which, from the time of the English suffragettes down to today, generally belongs, almost exclusively, to women of this type. Women whose first impulse undoubtedly had been to be like men and if what the world requires is a woman’s political and social movement, how little will the world gain if the women want to save it by imitating men” (Perón, 1953, p. 185-186).
With that being said, even though Eva did not consider herself a feminist, her ideas improved the lives of the women in Argentina, not only through her charitable work but also from her political pursues. In 1947, she was a strong advocate for promoting the right to vote for Argentinian women. She made many radio addresses in support of women’s suffrage and influenced the male members of the government and the Peronist movement to help her out in her quest. On September 23rd, the law passed. In Buenos Aires, thousands of men and women went out on the streets to celebrate the new law. It was a major victory for the Peronist movement. In the years that followed, she managed to achieve more victories for women, by managing to court female voters and create opportunities for them to participate in the broad-based political coalition.
To create more opportunities for women in politics, Eva founded in 1949 the Peronist Feminine Party, an organization linked to the Peronist Movement where only women could be members. In the presidential election of 1951, Eva managed to gather 69.3% of the women’s vote for her husband, Juan Perón who eventually won the elections. Furthermore, the people of Argentina voted for 29 women candidates: 6 senators and 23 deputies, while in the provinces, at least 58 Peronist women were elected deputies and 19 women were elected senators.
Even by today’s standards, this is a very unusually high number, but such was the influence and power of Eva Perón. At the height of her power, she was called by her supporters Evita and was portrayed as a saint for the people. By 1950 she was the founder of her own foundation for the poor of Argentina, she was the First Lady of Argentina, the founder of the Peronist Feminine Party and the only woman member of the Superior Council of the Peronist Party and a bridge of love between her husband and the millions of Argentinians that supported them. She managed to do all this while at the same time, she fought her own battles against sexism and constant criticism because of her poor background and her acting career. Deservedly, she was given the official title of the Spiritual Leader of the Nation by the Argentine Congress in 1952.
Unfortunately, at that time, Eva was diagnosed with advanced cervical cancer. She had plans to earn a place at the ballots in 1951 and run as a vice-president candidate but her declining health prevented her from doing so. On July 26, 1952, Eva Perón passed away. The announcement of her death brought tears to millions of Argentinians. The government suspended all activities in the country for two days and millions attended her funeral to leave a flower. The popularity of Eva Perón was beyond imagination. She had become the saint of Argentina.
The defender of feminine virtues
Eva was popular and charismatic and she was loved by millions, however, she did have her share of critics. Most of the criticism that he received was from left-wing parties and left-wing feminism movements. She has been accused of using her gender as a political tool to attract voters for the Peronist Movement. Indeed, Eva was not a feminist, but her ideas belonged to the feminist movement. However, she had a different viewpoint of what feminism should represent. The main thrust of Eva’s ideology was focused either on maternity or on women that could be organizers of domestic consumption and promoting the idea that women should work alongside men, with men.
At that time, in Argentina and Latin America, the concept of what it meant to be female and the concept of motherhood were used very often and they were idealized through an idea that the virtues of a woman derived from the role of the Virgin Mary in the Catholic tradition. Motherhood fitted perfectly with nationalistic tendencies that were emphasizing the contribution of women to the forging of nationality through childbearing and, as a result, there was an increasing political activity by women and men to defend motherhood. As a result, through this idealization of motherhood, Eva managed through the Peronist movement to transform motherhood into a political function that would be protected by the state. She became a symbol of those feminine virtues that came in contradiction with the new wave of feminism that expanded in Latin America that challenged this idea about motherhood and how women have a natural role as protectors of the nuclear family that was the central axis of the family.
The limits of gender politics in Latin America
The criticism that Eva Perón has received from the left-wing feminist sector cannot be considered justified, simply because left-wing politics in Latin America have revealed their limits when it comes to the concept of feminism. Those limits include the traditional concept of family in Latin America, the tradition of the Catholic religion, and the sanctification of women with the Virgin Mary.
The left-of-center governments and leftist movements in Latin America have not generally achieved challenging prevailing gender relations. Besides that, they have struggled to overcome the conservative and Catholic backlash on policy proposals on issues that are promoted by left-wing feminism like, abortion which still is considered a taboo in Latin America. In that sense, Eva managed to challenge her critics by showing to the people of Argentina that she was one of them, she understood them and, she genuinely was trying to change the society in Argentina. At the same time, she was dedicated to her political ideas, and the fact that she refused to consider herself a feminist but at the same time, advocate for feminist ideas like the women’s right to vote, shows that she did not need to portray herself as part of a movement but as a part of a country ready for changes in its society without abandoning the traditional mindset of womanhood and feminine. She saw herself and the women of Argentina standing alongside the men and not being exactly like them, and that created this drawing of criticism towards her from left-wing feminism that was seeking to drastically change the socio-political status quo of Argentina.
In conclusion, we can all learn some important lessons from the life of Eva Perón. First of all, she managed to show women in Argentina and around the world that the social class of an individual does not determine his or her worth. She came from a low-class background but she still managed to rise to the top of the political life in Argentina while battling gender and sexist stereotypes. Finally, she proved that you do not have to be part of a movement to change the lives of people around you. Eva was not a feminist, yet she did more for the women in Argentina at her time than any other proclaimed feminist. She understood that you can have feminist goals without the need to identify yourself as one. The world now more than ever needs these kinds of spiritual leaders.