As we join communities around the world today to commemorate International Women’s Day—a global day celebrating the economic, political, and social achievements of women past, present, and future—we welcome a guest post from Carrie Hamilton, author of Sexual Revolutions in Cuba: Passion, Politics, and Memory. In the book, Hamilton presents a comprehensive history of sexuality on the island from the triumph of the Revolution in 1959 into the twenty-first century, exploring how the wider changes initiated by the Revolution have affected the sexual lives of Cuban citizens. In this post, she reveals examples of an increase in women’s sexual freedom in Cuba.
International Women’s Day has long been an opportunity for Cuba’s leadership to celebrate the roles of women in the Revolution and to reaffirm its commitment to gender equality. It’s also a day when some of the contradictions of revolutionary policy on women are on display, often with humorous results.
In March 2005, a year and a half before his retirement, Fidel Castro surprised Cuban women with the promise of subsidized cookers for their kitchens. Speaking to a meeting of the Federation of Cuban Women (FMC), Castro promised to “do away with the rustic kitchen.” Over the next few years, Fidel’s gift became a bit of a running joke on the island.
While conducting interviews for the Cuban Voices Oral History Project, our Cuban and British research team heard many tales of Fidel’s rice cookers. Interviewees laughed with respect for the quirky benevolence of the aging Cuban leader, while recognizing the irony that almost five decades after the revolutionary victory of 1959, Cuban women were still honored first and foremost for their roles at home.
It wasn’t the first time. At the FMC’s second congress in 1974, Castro referred to women as “nature’s workshop where life is formed.” A year later, the Cuban Family Code recognized that although fifteen years of socialist revolution had brought thousands of Cuban women out of the house and into the streets as workers and militants, equality at home was another matter. While Cuban women performed the “triple duty” of housework, activism, and paid labor, few men were pulling their weight on the domestic front. The Code established the heterosexual nuclear family as the basic unit of Cuban society, promising to revolutionize it from within.
Thirty years later, some of our interviews showed just how tough the job of reforming male behavior could be. Josefa, an Afro-Cuban woman born in 1953, recounted a romantic early courtship with her boyfriend that ended in tears soon after they got married, she got pregnant, and he “started to have his life on the street with other women. . . . You know what men are like,” she said to the two middle-aged female Cuban interviewers.
During a kitchen conversation, four women from different backgrounds (three middle-aged white women and a young Afro-Cuban) agreed on one point: “There are exceptions, but Cuban men are machista.”
At first glance, the stories of Cuban women in heterosexual relationships seem to confirm clichés about the island’s machismo. But interviews with other men and women tell a subtler story. They show that the Revolution has changed gender relations, even if some patterns are hard to break.
Bebo, a white man well into married adult life in 1959, is a committed revolutionary who proudly shares domestic work with his equally militant wife as part of their joint commitment to the Revolution.
Josefa, disillusioned with her own experiences of marriage and motherhood, is determined to set a different example for her own son: “He attends to [his son]. It’s not like with his father and me.”
Maria, born in 1968, had her daughter alone, but her “husband, who isn’t the one who made her but he’s practically raised her, has supported her quite a bit as a father.”
These tales are a countercurrent to deterministic stories of women’s never-ending suffering and men who never change. They suggest that the Revolution, which took some time in addressing “private” issues, did make changes to Cubans’ intimate lives and has allowed women greater sexual freedom.
This is nowhere clearer than in the case of women in same-sex relationships. Long considered “invisible,” Cuban “women who love women” (only some use the term lesbian) now feature regularly in soap operas, theatre productions, novels, and Havana’s thriving hip-hop scene. They’re also organizing alongside homosexual men and transgender people for the recognition of sexual diversity.
Some of the women-loving women I interviewed were determined not to have children, challenging the still strong association between femininity and maternity in Cuba. Others were giving new meanings to parenthood by raising children in same-sex communities.
Roxana, an AIDS support worker in Santiago de Cuba, married briefly in order to have a child, and later continued her relationships with women. Her teenage son “gives [her] great joy because he also has that inclination to help others and works promoting health among adolescents.”
In Havana I met a group of middle-aged Cubans of different ages who gather together in the home of a friend lucky enough to have her own apartment (a real luxury in the midst of Cuba’s acute housing crisis). This “queer home,” created out of necessity but also friendship and solidarity, in which Habaneros of different racial, gender, sexual, and generational groups share their lives, represents a special kind of revolutionary social space.
As Cuba celebrates another International Women’s Day, the Revolution still has some way to go to overcome its largely white, heterosexual, masculine roots. But the actions and attitudes of many ordinary Cubans show that today it’s producing “new women” as well as “new men,” and that many are passing to their children very different ideas about gender and sexuality.
Carrie Hamilton is reader in history at the University of Roehampton, London and author of Sexual Revolutions in Cuba: Passion, Politics, and Memory.