The Forgotten History of Feminismo Americano

The intense intellectual work that courses through feminismo americano reveals . . . women’s profound action, completely in tune with the social reality. The movement . . . is energetic and decisive.

—Rosa Borja de Icaza, Hacia la vida, 1936

In 1931, a conflict between two prominent women’s rights leaders changed the course of feminism in the Americas. From the United States, Doris Stevens wrote to her Cuban colleague Ofelia Domínguez Navarro with instructions to fight for women’s suffrage.

Cuba was on the brink of a revolution, and forty-two-year-old Stevens, a veteran of the U.S. suffrage movement, believed that it spelled feminist opportunity. Over the past two years, the worldwide economic crisis had caused political and social tumult throughout the Americas, from the Rio Grande to Tierra del Fuego. In Cuba, it fostered the newly repressive dictatorship of President Gerardo Machado, who promised constitutional reforms as window dressing to his undemocratic regime. Stevens viewed it as the perfect time to promote women’s political rights and did not hesitate to suggest as much to Domínguez. Failing to do so, Stevens indicated, would set back progress for Cuban women. [1]

Thirty-six-year-old Domínguez bristled at her colleague’s unsolicited advice. She too believed this moment heralded women’s politicization, but not through the vote, which would be “stale at the source” under a dictatorship. In earlier communication with Stevens, Domínguez had explained Cuba’s current “regime of terror,” propped up by the U.S. government. [2] Machado had abolished habeas corpus, replaced elected officials with secret police, closed universities, curtailed free speech and free assembly, and jailed political dissidents. Feminists were leading direct action against the dictatorship, alongside students and workers, and were often the targets of violence. Domínguez had just endured two prison sentences. Stevens, however, offered no words of solace or solidarity, only instructions to push for suffrage.

Dominguez fired back with her own letter, telling Stevens there was much she did not understand. In Cuba, Domínguez explained, feminismo signified something broader than support for women’s political rights. It meant radical transformation—not only women’s political and civil equality but also social and economic justice for working women and the political and civil rights of all people—men and women who were suffering under a dictatorship and under U.S. imperialism. Domínguez had recently founded a new feminist group in Cuba that espoused all of these goals. [3]

But now Domínguez was done pleading with Stevens. Her letter was a goodbye.

Stevens’s missive was the last straw in the two women’s strained relationship. Several years earlier, they had collaborated at the Sixth Pan-American Conference in Havana to found the Inter-American Commission of Women (IACW), a body formed to unite a hemispheric feminist movement and promote international women’s rights. Since that time, Stevens chaired the organization unilaterally and focused its efforts solely on women’s political and civil rights. She consistently ignored Latin American appeals to expand the commission’s agenda.

Dominguez’s letter, which brought an end to her collaboration with Stevens, became a call to arms. She reproduced their correspondence on a one-page broadside, front and back, adding only the header “To the Political Conscience of the Latin American Woman,” and circulated it widely to Spanish-speaking feminists throughout the Americas. [4]

The way Domínguez framed feminismo spoke powerfully to her many readers. Feminismo was becoming a hemispheric movement—what Domínguez’s countrywoman Catalina Pozo y Gato described as a “tightly-knit continental network” in which the “Hispanic-American woman” sought the “conquest of her politico-social and proletarian rights.” [5] While many of these feministas applauded Stevens’s dogged push for women’s legal equality, they promoted more expansive goals. They also resented Stevens’s unilateral leadership over inter-American feminism, which, as they saw it, was an extension of U.S. imperialism.

Several years later, Domínguez’s group called the dissemination of this flyer one of its greatest anti-imperialist acts. [6] It inspired and helped unite feministas across the Americas. Over the following years, they organized as a bloc and asserted their leadership over American feminism. Their legacy of feminismo americano endures today in the global movements for feminism and international human rights.

This book tells the story of the movement that Doris Stevens claimed to lead and that Ofelia Domínguez Navarro and other feministas remade. Over the first half of the twentieth century, feminismo americano galvanized leaders and groups throughout the hemisphere who helped inaugurate what we think of today as global feminism—a fight for women’s rights and human rights on a global scale. Working in coordinated campaigns that began after World War I and coincided with a new Pan-Americanism touting the cultural superiority of the Americas, activists moved women’s rights beyond the domestic realm. Collaborating and clashing, they ushered in the first intergovernmental organization for women’s rights in the world (the IACW); the first international treaty for women’s rights; and, in 1945, the inclusion of women’s rights in the United Nations Charter and its category of international human rights. In countries throughout the Americas, these innovations sped numerous changes for women—suffrage, equal nationality rights, rights to hold public office, equal pay for equal work, and maternity legislation.

Although U.S. feminists sought credit for this movement, Latin American leaders drove and dramatically expanded it. They assertively promoted a meaning of “feminism” that was broader than the term’s definition in the United States at the time. Coined in France in 1880 by suffragist Hubertine Auclert, feminisme traveled throughout Europe and the Americas, connoting a modern movement that demanded female emancipation—economic and social justice, women’s control over their bodies, and full equality with men in every sphere of life. [7] In the United States, feminism reached a breakthrough in the 1910s, uniting a wide group of reformers and suffragists. However, the mainstream meaning of the term narrowed precipitously in the United States soon after the 1920 passage of the Nineteenth Amendment granting women’s suffrage, becoming synonymous with the Equal Rights Amendment. Introduced into Congress in 1923 by the National Woman’s Party, the ERA promised to bring women individual rights under the law: rights to independent nationality and to serve on juries, engage in business, serve as witnesses to public documents, and administer property. While supporting many of these rights in theory, wide swaths of progressive reformers in the United States opposed the ERA’s sweeping guarantee of “equal rights under the law” for fear it would eliminate hard-fought protective labor legislation necessary to safeguard working women. The Woman’s Party’s narrowness of vision and explicit resistance to addressing race- or class-based injustices made the group and the ERA anathema to many other movements, as well. [8]

It was, in part, this contraction of the meaning of “feminism” and lack of support for the ERA in the United States that made National Woman’s Party leaders like Doris Stevens eager to engage in the inter-American realm in the late 1920s. The single-issue focus on legal equality that they deemed so successful in the U.S. suffrage movement defined their approach to inter-American feminism. Their Equal Rights Treaty, an internationalization of the ERA, provoked concerted resistance from the network of U.S. women’s groups opposed to the ERA. From the 1920s to the 1940s, the inter-American realm became a significant new battleground for U.S. women to play out their domestic ERA debate. Each side, however, believed that it represented the rightful leadership over the Americas, where, aside from the United States and Canada, women still did not have national suffrage rights.

In these years, however, more flexible meanings of feminismo flourished in Latin America, where the ERA debate did not exist and where activists of multiple commitments took up the term with far greater ease than their North American counterparts. While Latin American feminisms were heterogeneous, large groups of feministas in the Americas cohered around some common goals for feminismo americano.

First, feminismo americano demanded not only women’s individual rights under the law—for the vote and for civil rights—but also economic and social rights. These rights included equal pay for equal work, extension of labor legislation to rural and domestic workers, and rights of children born out of wedlock and of the mothers of those children. Activists also called for paid maternity leave, day-care facilities, and in some cases health care as “social rights.”

Second, feminismo americano assertively promoted Latin American leadership and opposition to U.S. imperialism. Many Latin Americans feminists identified U.S. counterparts’ presumptions of superiority as imperialist, especially since the United States had long used its perceived preeminence in women’s rights as justification for its political and economic ambitions in the region. [9] In inter-American feminism, the questions of who had the authority to speak and to assert common “American” principles became paramount. Feministas actively pushed back against a U.S. imperial feminism that often sought to squelch their goals. Their clashes with U.S. leaders helped produce a robust feminismo americano that pushed for liberation from multiple and overlapping forms of oppression—against patriarchy, U.S. imperialism, fascism, and often racism.

Debates over U.S. empire fueled the movement’s hemispheric goals. The terms “American,” “Pan-American,” and “inter-American” were important identifiers for these women. But “Latin American” and “Pan-Hispanic,” terms that emerged after the U.S. government annexed more than a third of Mexico’s territory in 1848, were often more important. [10] Pan-Hispanism was a regional identity based on a common raza, language, and shared history of oppression under U.S. economic, cultural, and military imperialism. Profoundly influenced by Pan-Hispanism, early-twentieth-century feministas urged each other to take inspiration from their own history and ideas, rather than from Europe and the U.S. Over the first four decades of the twentieth century, Pan-Hispanism also helped shape new forms of multilateral inter-American law that emphasized both international interdependence and national sovereignty. [11] This mélange of thought, activism, and dynamism in inter-American jurisprudence facilitated one of feminismo americano’s signal innovations and key contributions to international human rights: its push of “women’s rights” beyond the purely domestic realm and into international law.

Feminismo americano’s demands for international women’s rights; its emphasis on social and economic as well as political and civil inequalities; and its calls for a Latin American–led anti-imperialist feminism gained a groundswell of support during the global crises of the 1930s. The economic and political shifts of the Great Depression intensified many feministas’ attention to social and economic rights. The Chaco War between Bolivia and Paraguay (1932–35) focused new efforts by women on pacifism. Fascism’s rise in Europe and Asia, along with the growth of related forms of right-wing authoritarianism in the Americas and the Spanish Civil War (1936–39), helped generate vibrant transnational, anti-fascist feminist organizing.The global Popular Front movement that declared a “united front” of collaboration between communism and social democracy against fascism had profound national and inter-American throughout the Americas. [12] As feministas realized fascism’s unique threats to women’s rights, and as Popular Front leaders recognized the vital role that women could play in antifascism, the Popular Front gained a dynamic feminist counterpart, as well.

These new developments culminated in what I call Popular Front Pan-American feminism, during which feminismo americano peaked.This was a people’s movement. It incorporated feminist labor concerns with equal rights demands and knit crucial connections between feminism, socialism, anti-fascism and anti-imperialism. A dramatic number of new anti-fascist feminist groups emerged in the Americas in these years that for the first time included meaningful numbers of working women. Popular Front Pan-American feminism also mobilized new campaigns for women’s suffrage throughout the region. When in 1939 the famous Spanish Civil War leader Dolores Ibárruri, “la Pasionaria,” applauded the vitality of women’s movements in numerous Latin American countries, she was referring to Popular Front Pan-American feminism. [13]

Feminismo americano played a pivotal role in the development of international human rights. It produced a legal innovation in its Equal Rights Treaty that sought to surpass national law and grant international women’s rights. Groups throughout the Americas rallied around it as they pushed their own countries to comply with it. But even more meaningfully, in the late 1930s through the Second World War, feministas joined religious, labor, antiracist, anticolonial, and anti-fascist groups to demand an interconnected set of “human rights” for all people, defined as rights regardless of race, class, sex, or religion. During the Second World War, feministas americanas also looked to Franklin Delano Roosevelt’s Atlantic Charter and “Four Freedoms”as promises of new “human rights”—international commitments to social justice—that included women’s rights.They called for both as derechos humanos.

In 1945, at the San Francisco conference that created the United Nations, inter-American feminists pushed women’s rights into the UN Charter, over the express objection of U.S. and British women. Drawing on arguments and experience they had honed over two decades, they internationalized women’s rights. Immediately after the conference, feministas demanded a broad meaning for the UN Charter’s women’s and human rights promises term and urged acknowledgment that inter-American thought and activism shaped their formulation. The idea that “women’s rights are human rights” emerged not from the United States or Western Europe but from Latin American feminists enmeshed in regional conflicts over imperialism, fascism, and Pan-Americanism.

Katherine M. Marino is an assistant professor of History at the University of California, Los Angeles. She earned her PhD in 2013 from Stanford University, and her work has appeared in the Journal of Women’s History, Gender & History, and Frontiers: A Journal of Women’s Studies, among other publications.

This essay is an excerpt from Professor Marino’s new book, Feminism for the Americas: The Making of an International Human Rights Movement (University of North Carolina Press, 2019). © 2019 Katherine M. Marino. Used by permission.

References

1. Doris Stevens to Margarita de Aragón, September 18, 1931, and Stevens to Ofelia Domínguez Navarro, undated, box 65, folder 6, Doris Stevens Papers, Schlesinger Library, Radcliffe Institute, Harvard University, Cambridge, Mass. (DSP).

2. Domínguez and de Aragón to Stevens, October 3, 1931, box 65, folder 6, DSP.

3. Domínguez to Stevens, November 23, 1931, box 65, folder 6, DSP.

4. “Union Laborista de Mujeres, A la Conciencia Política de la Mujer Latino Americana, Carta de la Srta. Doris Stevens, Presidenta de la Inter American Commission of Woman a la Unión Laborista de Mujeres,” caja 675, no. 8, Archivo Ofelia Domínguez Navarro, Donativos y Remisiones, Archivo Nacional de Cuba, Havana (ODN-AN).

5. Catalina Pozo y Gato, “Reflexiones,” 1930, ODN-AN.

6. Domínguez to “Compañeras,” letter attached to “Informe,” September 8, 1933, caja 675, no. 11, ODN-AN.

7. Nancy F. Cott, Grounding of Modern Feminism (New Haven: Yale University Press, 1987), 14–16; Estelle B. Freedman, No Turning Back: The History of Feminism and the Future of Women (New York: Ballantine Books, 2002), 6–7.

8. This period is often called the “doldrums” of U.S. feminist history. See Leila Rupp and Verta Taylor, Survival in the Doldrums: The American Women’s Rights Movement, 1945 to the 1960s (New York: Oxford University Press, 1987). Many historians have explored the diverse array of activism for and by women that continued in these years, in spite of the limited usage of the term “feminism” itself. See for example Cott, Grounding of Modern Feminism; Susan Ware, Beyond Suffrage: Women in the New Deal (Cambridge, Mass.: Harvard University Press, 1981); Dorothy Sue Cobble, The Other Women’s Movement: Workplace Justice and Social Rights in Modern America (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 2005); Erik McDuffie, Sojourning for Freedom: Black Women, American Communism, and the Making of Black Left Feminism (Durham: Duke University Press, 2011); Dayo F. Gore, Radicalism at the Crossroads: African American Women Activists in the Cold War (New York: New York University Press, 2011); Keisha N. Blain, Set the World on Fire: Black Nationalist Women and the Global Struggle for Freedom (Philadelphia: University of Pennsylvania Press, 2018); Kate Weigand, Red Feminism: American Communism and the Making of Women’s Liberation (Baltimore: Johns Hopkins University Press, 2002); Landon Storrs, Civilizing Capitalism: The National Consumer’s League, Women’s Activism, and Labor Standards in the New Deal Era (Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 2000) and The Second Red Scare and the Unmaking of the New Deal Left (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 2012); Lisa Levenstein, A Movement without Marches: African American Women and the Politics of Poverty in Postwar Philadelphia (Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 2009); Xiaojin Zhao, Holding Up More Than Half the Sky: Chinese Women Garment Workers in New York Chinatown (Urbana: University of Illinois Press, 2001); Vicki Ruiz, Cannery Women, Cannery Lives: Mexican Women, Unionization, and the California Food Processing Industry, 1930-1950 (rev. ed., Albuquerque: University of New Mexico Press, 1992); Annelise Orleck, Rethinking American Women’s Activism (London: Routledge, 2016); and Dorothy Sue Cobble, Linda Gordon, and Astrid Henry, Feminism Unfinished: A Short, Surprising History of American Women’s Movements (New York: Liveright, 2015), among others.

9. The U.S. government had long defined the advancement of political culture around an adherence to women’s political and civil equality in its interventions in the region. Alan McPherson, The Invaded: How Latin Americans and Their Allies Fought and Ended U.S. Occupation (New York: Oxford University Press, 2014), 116–17.

10. Michael Gobat, “The Invention of Latin America: A Transnational History of Anti-Imperialism, Democracy, and Race,” American Historical Review 118, no. 5 (December 2013): 1345-75.

11. Greg Grandin, “The Liberal Traditions in the Americas: Rights, Sovereignty, and the Origins of Liberal Multilateralism,” American Historical Review 117, no. 1 (February 2012): 68-91.

12. Sandra McGee Deutsch, “New School Lecture ‘Any Army of Women:’ Communist-Linked Solidarity Movements, Maternalism, and Political Consciousness in 1930s and 1940s Argentina,” The Americas 75, no. 1 (January 2018): 95-125, and chapter 1 of her forthcoming book, Engendering Antifascism.

13. Dolores Ibárruri, The Women Want a People’s Peace (New York: Workers Library, 1941), 58.

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