Feminism for the Americas: A New Force in the History of the World

The following is an excerpt from Katherine M. Marino’s Feminism for the Americas: The Making of an International Human Rights Movement. This book chronicles the dawn of the global movement for women’s rights in the first decades of the twentieth century. The founding mothers of this movement were not based primarily in the United States, however, or in Europe. Instead, Katherine M. Marino introduces readers to a cast of remarkable Latin American and Caribbean women whose deep friendships and intense rivalries forged global feminism out of an era of imperialism, racism, and fascism. Six dynamic activists form the heart of this story: from Brazil, Bertha Lutz; from Cuba, Ofelia Domíngez Navarro; from Uruguay, Paulina Luisi; from Panama, Clara González; from Chile, Marta Vergara; and from the United States, Doris Stevens. This Pan-American network drove a transnational movement that advocated women’s suffrage, equal pay for equal work, maternity rights, and broader self-determination. Their painstaking efforts led to the enshrinement of women’s rights in the United Nations Charter and the development of a framework for international human rights. But their work also revealed deep divides, with Latin American activists overcoming U.S. presumptions to feminist superiority. As Marino shows, these early fractures continue to influence divisions among today’s activists along class, racial, and national lines.

Marino’s Feminism for the Americas was featured recently on our Universal Human Rights Month reading list.

While on the topic of feminism, we’d like to offer our condolences to the family of black feminist author Gloria Jean Watkins, also known as bell hooks, who passed yesterday; her writing will live on forever.

In May 1921, twenty-six-year-old Bertha Lutz wrote to forty-five-year-old Paulina Luisi about an issue “that concerns me more and more”—the “question of feminism.” The term feminisme had been introduced in France and made its way to the Americas in the late nineteenth century but was only now becoming part of the vocabulary of political leaders, socialists, and middle-class women and social reformers like Brazilian Lutz and Uruguayan Luisi. Lutz sought an introduction to some of the international groups with which Luisi, the most famous Latin American feminist, had connections. Apologizing for her “audacity” for writing to Luisi “without having had the honor of meeting you personally,” Lutz wrote, “it is well known that in Uruguay, you are at the vanguard.”

In Montevideo, Luisi was thrilled to read Lutz’s letter. She believed that the time was ripe for a new movement by and for women of the Americas, one free from the dominance of European women, to promote women’s suffrage, welfare, and peace in the Western Hemisphere. “Our international correspondence and collaboration … promise many good things for us,” Luisi responded. These two women would help launch what Lutz later called “a new force in the history of the world,” Pan-American feminism.

Both women believed that the First World War had shattered the ideal of European cultural superiority. It opened a space for the “new” democratic nations of the Americas, with a common history of European colonialism, to become beacons of progress, social reform, international multilateralism, and peace. The new Pan-Americanism advocated cultural advancement and political sovereignty, and women’s rights were central to both.

Luisi and Lutz would find, however, that they maintained distinct and clashing notions of Pan-American feminism. Paulina Luisi privileged a movement organized by Spanish-speaking women of la raza and celebrated a Pan-Hispanic identity over that of a U.S. and Anglo-American empire. Her Pan-Americanism did not always seek to dismantle U.S. hegemony as much as it sought to write the “better constituted” nations of Latin America, such as her own Uruguay, into it. Bertha Lutz, on the other hand, believed that the rightful leaders of Pan-American feminism were Brazil and the United States, embodied respectively by herself and U.S. suffrage veteran Carrie Chapman Catt. Luisi and Lutz each presumed her country represented continental leadership. Their differences would develop into consequential rifts.

Luisi and Lutz’s conflict represented a broader ideological fissure between those who believed Pan-Americanism should celebrate the political culture of the United States as a model for the continent and those who believed that it should explicitly reject such a premise. Discord driven by its participants’ divergent views of language, race, and empire proved critical to the origins of Pan-American feminism and would shape the movement for decades to come.

Paulina Luisi and the Origins of Pan-American Feminism

In 1916, five years before her glowing correspondence with Lutz, Paulina Luisi gave the keynote address at the First Pan-American Child Congress in Buenos Aires. In it, she asserted that women’s rights should be a Pan-American goal. The term “Pan-American,” rather than signifying U.S. economic hegemony or military intervention, was becoming a Latin American–led social movement. Its interrelated goals included democracy, international peace, social improvement, and specifically the growth of welfare states and protection of women and children. While the war in Europe was precluding social welfare advances, Luisi announced that the Americas, whose democratic revolutions had overthrown the shackles of “old Europe,” were uniting to do “the work of Life and progress that can only thrive in the shade of the tree of Peace!” Luisi introduced resolutions on sex education and public health, yet her speech emphasized a new demand: the vote for women, then under consideration by her own country as it debated universal suffrage. Women’s right to vote would perfect the two critical objectives of Pan-Americanism: political sovereignty and cultural advancement of the Western Hemisphere.

Never before had women’s rights been articulated as a Pan-American demand. Still a marginal goal in most Latin American countries in 1916, over the next years it became central to the Pan-American mission.

The 1916 congress marked a turning point for Luisi as well. Soon after her return to Montevideo she created the first national suffrage organization in Uruguay, the Consejo Nacional de Mujeres Uruguayas (CONAMU), an offshoot of the International Council of Women (ICW, 1888) in Europe that already had branches in Argentina and Chile. Luisi also formally connected CONAMU to a new Pan-American women’s group established to improve the welfare of women and children in the hemisphere—the U.S.-based Women’s Auxiliary to the Second Pan-American Congress. In 1917 in the pages of the CONAMU bulletin Acción Femenina, Luisi used the word “feminism” in print for the first time, describing her understanding of the term: “Feminism demonstrates that woman is something more than material created to serve and obey man like a slave; that she is more than a machine to produce children and care for the home; that women have feelings and intellect; that it is their mission to perpetuate the species and this must be done with more than the entrails and the breast; it must be done with a mind and a heart prepared to be a mother and an educator; that she must be man’s partner and counselor not his slave.”

Katherine M. Marino is associate professor of history at the University of California, Los Angeles.