By Manuel Ramírez Chicharro (Comparative Studies of Caribbean and Atlantic World (GECCMA) / Former Visiting Fellow at the Institute of Latin American Studies – University of London)
The following contribution is based on a talk given by Dr. Manuel Ramírez Chicharro at the Institute of Latin American Studies, University of London on 20 November 2017 which considered how Cuban women engaged with and committed themselves to the development of a post-suffrage democratic system. Once universal suffrage was passed by Parliament in 1934 and ratified by the Constitution of 1940, feminists moved to other spheres of activity to improve living conditions, political status and labour opportunities, for themselves and for other marginalized groups.
Since the 1960s, Cuban historiography has tended to emphasise racial and gender equality as the goals of the Revolutionary Government. In general, these studies have overlooked the role, demands, and goals of Cuban women during the period of the Republic. Although several pieces of research have looked at Cuban women and feminism prior to the granting of universal suffrage in 1934, at present no book has studied how women’s associations maintained their political activism beyond their fight for women’s enfranchisement. Broadly speaking, historiography of the issue can be divided into two approaches: on the one hand, investigations examining the suffragist movement, such as the pieces by Stoner (2003) and Pages (2003)[i] on the other, books that advance understandings of the role of women in the revolutionary movement, such as those published by Chase (2015) and the very recently launched text by Bayard de Volo (2018).[ii]
The socio-political and labour status of women evolved rapidly during the Republic. Illiteracy rates among women dropped from 60% to 30% between 1907 and 1953; thus, literacy became higher amongst Cuban women than men. A deeper analysis of the national census reveals that these rates were slightly higher among those classified as “white women” than as “black or mulatto”.[iii] Unsurprisingly, both of these demographics show higher average literacy rates while living in cities rather than towns i.e. in the West rather than the East of the island. The percentage of rural workers is another useful indicator of economic development and the evolution of a country’s markets. It is well-established that Cuba’s economy was highly dependent on rural production, in particular sugar exportation in the mid-twentieth century. However, according to the International Labor Review (vol. 66-1952, and vol. 73-1956)[iv] while in Colombia and Peru women accounted for 47% and 31% of peasants, Cuban women represented just 6.4%. Perhaps because of this, in an increasingly urban society, almost 80% of Cuban women remained in domestic service during the first half of the 20th century.
The new framework set up by the Constitution of 1940 helped to consolidate the participation of women in Parliament, the Senate and political parties, and also made it easier for women to play an active role in civil society. Women who had previously been involved in suffragist organizations joined political parties as well as feminist groups and more general women’s associations. The most radical women activists considered that the reforms approved by Fulgencio Batista or the Authentic Party governments (1940-1952) were either inappropriate or had not gone far enough. Needless to say, the presence of women in representative political institutions was very limited in local and national elections between 1936 and 1948. Women affiliated to the PSP, the communist party, achieved a peak representation of 20%, while within the Liberal Party only 17,5% of elected candidates in the elections of 1944 were female.[v] Nevertheless, given that women had become potential voters after the approval of universal suffrage, political parties began to create sections, clubs, and brigades exclusively for women. Their aim was not only to encourage women’s participation but also to retain their support and extend the parties’ ideological influence over them.
Besides state institutions, feminist community-based associations also functioned as spaces for personal transgression and emancipation. Hence, whether in separate and self-sufficient women’s organizations or as a part of other organizations, Cuban women tried to demonstrate the enduring contradictions and wide disparities between the legislative framework and their lived reality, an enterprise that helped to enhance women’s rights as well as those of other Cuban citizens. For instance, the Lyceum & Lawn Tennis Club, one of the most prominent women’s associations of the time, developed “Social Assistance Patronage” which rapidly became a Social Assistance School. Later on, it brought the topic of social assistance into the III Women’s National Congress and as early as 1947 they persuaded the Ministry of Education to incorporate the School into the Faculty of Education of the University of Havana.
In 1935, the number of countries globally with welfare programmes numbered 23, rising to 45 by 1955. Germany was the first to build this kind of national state aid in 1883, while Cuba began to develop similar structures in 1937. Cuban women’s labour conditions changed significantly during this period. In 1934, the first Safe Motherhood Programme gave some women the right to healthcare and unemployment allowance. In 1937, the Secretary of Labour ratified the International Labour Organization (ILO) convention that set a maximum 48-hour working-week for women in commerce. In 1939, the Cuban Workers Conference (CTC) brought together female, feminist, Afro-Cuban women and socio-political associations to discuss the labour and legal conditions of women domestic workers. By 1950 Cuba was one of only five Latin American Countries (together with Argentina, the Dominican Republic, Honduras, and Mexico) that had signed the 100th Convention of the International Labour Organization encouraging parity between men’s and women’s salaries. However, very little of this was actually put into practice. To find a solution to this unfair situation, several voluntary societies and what could be termed “syndicating associations” developed in sectors that lacked the necessary supporting facilities for women workers. For instance, there was a Women Worker’s Feminist Club of Havana, which gathered “employees from industry, commerce, cooks, seamstresses and laundresses, among others”, as well as hairdressers and dressmakers to provide themselves with security insurance and legal support. Also of note was the emergence of the “Housewives’ Civic Association” (1950-1956) and the “Domestic Service National Association” (1958-1960) which planned to set up an education system service and a pension fund for illiterate women working in this sector. The “National Association of Women Employed in Bars, Coffee Shops and Canteens” was also formed and protested against the harassment of female bar workers by male clients and campaigned for better protection. As these examples prove, there were plenty of committed, self-sufficient associations trying to give support to women workers who lacked support from state institutions and the main trade unions.
Cuban women’s political activism also had several international links by this time. The approval of the 1940 Constitution and the alignment of the Cuban government with the United States against the Axis Powers during the Second World War gave rise to the need to defend the democratic values, rights and duties, supposedly guaranteed by the new legal framework, against the threat of a maritime attack by German submarines. In this regard, the Cuban government did not just promote the enrolment of women into the army but also organized a civil defence structure that partly comprised female battalions and brigades. Together with these state initiatives, an increasing number of women joined the Red Cross, Blood Banks and the aforementioned Social Assistant School to provide support to the community-based associations and brigades. According to the Committee of Women’s International Organizations concerning women’s role in World War Two: “Women have proved they will take on responsibilities; society should just give them their rights”. In this regard, the Women’s Brigade of the Autentico Party was in a strong position to negotiate and demand reforms to improve women’s political status once the war had ended. Indeed, in 1947, they asked Ramón Grau San Martín, Cuba’s then president, to create the Ministry of Women and to appoint Loló Soldevilla, the leader of the Autentico Party Women’s Brigade during the Second World War, as head of the Institution. However, Grau did not keep his promise in this regard.[vi]
At the beginning of the Cold War, the preservation of peace in Cuba was linked to the consolidation of the democratic system. The Constitution, its rights, duties, and values were supposed to safeguard the country from the spread of communism throughout the world. In such convulsive times, the historical pairing between feminism and pacifism was very visible. As in other countries, a range of Cuban women’s pro-peace leagues developed and spoke out against the arms race, arguing that military build-up was a threat to their children’s and their own lives. Not surprisingly, most of those groups were made up of women from left-wing or critical parties, such as the Communist, Autentico and Ortoxo Party, that had previously taken part in the feminist movement. Some of their activities were demonstrations of their rejection of the Franco, Perón and Trujillo’s dictatorships, but also of the USA’s neo-imperialism policies toward Latin America and especially the Caribbean region. In this regard, Cuban women, together with other American women, organized signature collections and led demonstrations. These performances reinforced some women’s feelings of participation in a wider global process.
To conclude, whereas the fight for suffrage marked the feminist agenda until 1934, assistance and socio-political activism led their actions during the 1940s. Memories of earlier struggles against authoritarian governments resurfaced in 1940, when Colonel Fulgencio Batista led a military uprising against the very democratic system that he himself, in a sense, had previously helped to set up. Thus, the social response to the Coup d’Etat should not be understood exclusively in relation to historical fights for independence from Spain nor for liberation from the Machado authoritarian government. Rather, the military uprising led by Batista also brought broader global threats into Cuba against which Cuban society, and especially Cuban women, had been fighting and protesting intensely over the previous twenty years. As they had done during World War Two, between 1952 and 1959 many women mobilized to defend and restore peace and democracy, as well as to shield themselves from the Batista’s dictatorship by integrating into, or creating for themselves, opposition organizations inside and outside Cuba.
[i] Stoner, K. (1991). From the house to the streets: the Cuban woman’s movement for legal reform, 1898-1940. Durham: Duke University Press, and Julio César González Pagés, J. C. (2003). En busca de un espacio. La Habana, Colibrí
[ii] Chase, M. Revolution within the revolution. Women and Gender Politics in Cuba, 1952-1962, Chapell Hill, UNC Press, 2015, and Bayard de Volo, L. (2018). Women and the Cuban Insurrection: How Gender shaped the Castro’s Victory. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press
[iii] Ramírez Chicharro, M. (2014). Doblemente sometidas: Las «mujeres de color» en la república de Cuba (1902-1959). Revista De Indias, 74(262), 783-828
[iv] “Vocacional Guidance and training for women”. International Labor Review, 66(1952), 56-76, and “Women‟s employment in Latin America”, International Labor Review, 73(1956), 177-193.
[v] Riera Hernández, M. (1955). Cuba política, 1899-1955. La Habana, Impresora Modelo
[vi] Ramírez Chicharro, M. (2017). “Beyond Suffrage. The Role of Cuban Women in the State-building Years of a Failed Democracy (1940-1952)”. Women‟s History Review, in http://www.tandfonline.com/doi/full/10.1080/ 09612025.2017.1359875
Photography courtesy of the University of Miami – Cuban Heritage Collection (“Group of women raising broomsticks in support of Eduardo Chibás”; Photographer: Enrique Llanos; Date: 1951; Collection No. CHC0329)
The views expressed in this article are the author’s own and do not necessarily represent the position of ILAS or the School of Advanced Study, University of London