Women in Latin America


Material Information

Women in Latin America legal rights and restrictions
Women lawyers journal
Physical Description:
8 p. : map ; 24 cm.
Cannon, Mary M ( Mary Minerva )
United States -- Women's Bureau
National Association of Women Lawyers -- Meeting, 1947
U.S. G.P.O. :
For sale by the Supt. of Docs.
Place of Publication:
Washington, D.C
Publication Date:


Subjects / Keywords:
Women -- Legal status, laws, etc -- Latin America   ( lcsh )
Women -- Latin America   ( lcsh )
federal government publication   ( marcgt )
non-fiction   ( marcgt )


Statement of Responsibility:
Women's Bureau, U.S. Department of Labor.
General Note:
Cover title.
General Note:
"Principal parts of an address given by Miss Mary Cannon before the Forty-eighth Annual Meeting of the National Association of Women Lawyers in Cleveland, September 19, 1947"--P. 1.
General Note:
"Reprinted from Women lawyers journal, Winter, 1948, with revisions"--T.p. verso.
General Note:
"792276⁰--48"--P. 1.

Record Information

Source Institution:
University of Florida
Rights Management:
All applicable rights reserved by the source institution and holding location.
Resource Identifier:
aleph - 004968321
oclc - 10663723
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Reprinted from
with revisions


I Women in Latin America



In order to make available a brief nontechnical discussion of the
subject, the Women's Bureau has reprinted the principal parts of an
address given by Miss Mary Cannon before the Forty-eighth Annual
Meeting of the National Association of Women Lawyers in Cleveland,
September 19, 1947. The full text appeared in the Winter 1948 number
of the Women Lawyers Journal. The legal information was obtained
from the Inter-American Commission of Women.
Legal rights and restrictions affecting women of the Latin American
countries are presented here, not by a lawyer considering the statutes
technically, but by a person who has lived in South America and who has
had an active interest in women's organizations. The facts are presented
from the point of view of one who knows and understands the realities
that underlie the laws.
Miss Cannon was appointed the United States Delegate to the Inter-
American Commission of Women in 1944. The headquarters of the
Commission is in the Pan American Union in Washington, D. C. Miss
Cannon is also Chief of the International Division of the Women's
! Bureau, United States Departrhent of Labor.

The Early Years
Before talking about the present
legal position of women in Latin
I nerican, I want to sketch briefly
something about the first women of
.:. the other American Republics, be-
i cruse those early years form an im-
'" iortant background to understand-
h. lg later social developments.
"You will remember that, for the
iiist part, the first men who came t.o
." other Americas were the "con-
li:: tadores," who were seeking gold

and other riches for the Spanish
and Portuguese crowns, and who
brought with them priests seeking
new souls for the Catholic Church.
These "oonquistadores" did not
come to stay, and the men who ar-
rived later came without wives or
families. They brought the tradi-
tions and social conventions of Por-
tugal to Brazil and of Spain to the
other countries-traditions and so-
cial conventions that later pre-
scribed the home and the church as

the limits of women's interests and
activities. They brought also a
feudal system to the only industry
of those years, agriculture-a sys-
tem which has meant large land
holdings and in some instances vir-
tual slavery for the indigenous
people, men and women who were
living on the land. When women
from Europe finally came to these
new lands of America, they were
responsible for managing the homes
and servants, and often they as-
sisted in the administration of the
large farms. Like pioneer women
in all countries, their responsibil-
ities were not insignificant nor was
their work easy. Later the women
who were the wives and daughters
of the landlords, surrounded by ser-
vants and comfort, lived in sharp
contrast to the wives and children
of those who worked on the land.
Heroic Women
There are many stories of the
heroic roles women played in the
early histories of their countries.
In Mexico in the town of Patzcuaro
there is a statue of Gertrudes Boca-
negra, a young "mestizo" woman
who was tortured and killed by the
Spaniards in the war of independ-
ence because she was carrying infor-
mation to the rebels. Women of
other countries made sacrifices dur-
ing the years of the struggle for
independence from Spain. Women
of the wealthy families of Mendoza,
a city at the foot of the Andes in
Argentina, gave their jewels to help
finance the campaign of General
San Martin when he with his army
crossed the Andes to take the war of
independence to Chile. In Para-

guay the wives of soldiers accom-
panied the troops to take care of the
wounded and to cook the meals. In
all countries women have helped the
making of the secret plans for inde
pendence. In later years they have
helped map out changes in govern-
ments, many times keeping watch at
the front door of their homes while
the men were working in more re-
mote rooms.
In Guatemala the wife of an early
governor assumed the responsibili-
ties of the office when her husband
was killed. In Brazil the daughter
of Don Pedro the Second, who in
her father's absence was head of the
government, signed the decree free-
ing the slaves in 1888. So in the
Americas, from earliest years, there
have been women who have played
important roles in the development
of their countries, in spite of tradi-
tions and social conventions that
still hold for the majority of
Early Law Prevails
There are still republics of the
continent whose statutes follow
rigidly the legislation existing in
the times of Ferdinand II. For
example, one country, modern and
progressive in many respects, has
conserved to the present a penal
code which provides that the condi-
tion of being a minor, a deaf-mute,
or a woman is considered an extenu-
ating circumstance in cases of crim-
inal liability, and it further stipu-
lates "as a general rule, for purposes
of determining the penalty to be
imposed: deaf-mutes shall be given
the same consideration as minors
over 15 and under 18 years of age;

and the same consideration shall
apply to women and to the insane
who .commit an offense during a
lucid interval."
1 There are five countries of Amer-
ica in which the husband is exempt
From criminal responsibility if he
liillshis wife on surprising her in
the act of adultery; one in which
the father is not punished by law, or
is subject only to a minimum pen-
alty, if in similar circumstances he
kills a young daughter less than 21
years of age who lives in the pater-
nal household. Again, there are
five countries in which the elemental
right of inviolability of correspond-
ence does not hold true for married
women. The punishments of im-
prisonment and fine do not apply
to: the husband in regard to papers
or letters of the wife, and under
certain circumstances he is often au-
thorized to open communications
which she addresses to other per-
Status of Married Women
There are brighter spots in this
picture too. In nine countries-
Costa Rica, Colombia, Cuba, El
Salvador, Honduras, Mexico, Nica-
ragua, Panama, and Uruguay-
married women are independent un-
der the law in the ownership and
management of separate property;
they have the right to appear in
court and to execute and sign docu-
ments; they are legal persons; they
have the right to make contracts
of personal services and to collect
their earnings. When I was in Par-
aguay 3 years ago, I was told that
Paraguayan women own property,
buy and sell as they please, without

paying any attention to the techni-
calities of the laws.
On the other hand, I have an in-
teresting example of the laws gov-
erning property rights of married
women tripping up a business deal.
Two Chilean friends of mine re-
cently started a tourist agency in
Santiago. Both are very well
known. In order to have enough
capital for their new undertaking,
they needed to borrow money. One
of them, who has a good position in
government, went to the bank and
talked to an old friend who had
known her and her family for years.
He said of course she could have the
money, 35,000 pesos. She signed
the note, went back and told her
partner everything was fixed. As
treasurer of the partnership, she
very soon was writing checks.
Shortly, a call came from the bank
saying that the tourist agency ac-
count was overdrawn. She was
dumfounded. "How could'that be,
for only a few days ago 35,000 pesos
of the bank's own money had been
credited to the account?" The bank
was very apologetic. The friend
who had talked with her had for-
gotten that a law of Chile does not
permit married women to borrow
money on their own signature. It
was necessary for her husband to
sign the note also. Although my
friend is devoted to her husband,
she was exasperated by the whole
episode, and when she recounted it
ended by saying: "Imagine, my hus-
band had to sign the note, and at
that moment he did not have a job."
Since the Eighth International
Conference of American States,
held in Lima, Peru, in 1938, a few

interesting changes have been made
in the legal status of women. In
Uruguay women have acquired full
property rights. In Haiti and the
Dominican Republic women have
obtained the right to keep and ad-
minister the earnings of their own
work. In Chile women benefited
from the establishment of the right
of husband and wife to declare and
to obtain by court action a separa-
tion of their properties which had
been held together during their
Guardianship of children is an-
other point at which there has been
and still is discrimination against
married women. I understand that
guardianship, "patria potestad," as
it is termed in the Latin American
countries, implies guardianship not
only of the persons of minors, but
over any property they may own.
In two countries, Mexico and Uru-
guay, fathers and mothers have
equal rights of guardianship. In
other countries where it is stated in
the law that fathers and mothers
shall have equal guardianship,
clauses are added stating: "but the
father as head of the family ."
etc., etc. The tradition of the
Latin American home tends to give
guardianship to the father rather
than to the mother. In all but four
countries widows have the right of
guardianship of their children. In
six countries they lose this right if
they remarry, and in three the
judges must decide whether or not
they lose the guardianship of their
children if they remarry.

Women in the Professions
Women have access to all national
universities. Colombia in 1938 was
the last country to open the doors of
the universities to women. In three
American Republics women do not
yet enjoy the same privileges as men
in practising some professions; in
one of these Republics they are not
able to participate in the very im-
portant field of law. In the eight
countries I have visited there are
women lawyers, and in Brazil par-
ticularly there was a surprising
number. This may be due partly to
the fact that until fairly recently
Brazil did not have a college of lib-
eral arts in the university, so that
young women who went to the uni-
versity had to study for a profes-
sion, and a number chose law. Some
women lawyers have their own of-
fices; others are working for private
concerns or for their government.
The way has not been easy. Wom-
en have told me how badly they were
treated when they first went to the
universities. Men students were
disdainful, professors made it diffi-
cult to pursue the studies, and when
the women came to their final
examinations, the boards of exam-
iners, all men, did everything they
could to keep them out. Nor has it
been easy for women to practice the
professions. But the first women,
who had the courage and determi-
nation to try and to persevere, broke
down the worst barriers and a great
deal of progress has been made.
Political Rights of Women
Women now enjoy national suf-
frage on the same terms as men in

10 of the other American Repub-
,Jics,-Ecuador, Brazil, Uruguay,
Cuba, El Salvador, Dominican Re-
public, Guatemala, Panama, Vene-
zuela, and Argentina. They have
:suffrage in some of the states of
.Mexico and municipal suffrage in
Mexico, Chile, Peru, and Bolivia.
Argentina is the latest country to
give women national suffrage. In
Venezuela women voted in the elec-
.tions held last year for a Constitu-
tional Assembly and 12 were elected
to that Assembly. This year, 1947,
the new constitution gave Vene-
zuelan women the right to vote.
SAfter the United States, the
women of Ecuador in 1929 were the
*first to have the right to vote in na-
tional elections. Women told me
when I was there that their early
constitution had not stated that
women could not vote, and as early
as 1906 a woman went to the polls as
a,test. There was great discussion,
'*and finally she was allowed to cast
Usher vote. National suffrage for
women was written into the Consbi-
tution in 1929.
Women's political rights in some
of the American Republics have
Been caught between the political
,forces of the conservatives and the
liberals. Each side says it is afraid
Sto let women vote for fear they will
Throw the majority to the other side.
however, there is a strong move-
Sment for national suffrage for worm-
n in some of the other countries.
In Bolivia a committee of women
established to cooperate with the
Inter-American Commission of
iWomen has sent a proposed bill to
; Congress. In Chile where women


have been working for a long time
for national suffrage, the bill giving
women the right to vote in national
elections has been approved by the
Senate and by the House committee
on legislation and justice. The wife
of the President of Chile, who
worked with women's organizations
before she became the First Lady of
the Land, continues her interest and
her support of women's efforts to
obtain national suffrage. The Min-
ister of Government in Colombia
has introduced such a bill, and in
Costa Rica a constitutional amend-
ment giving women the right to vote
has been presented by the Govern-
ment. There is a movement for
woman suffrage under way in Peru
No doubt this surge of interest is
due in part to the resolution,
adopted at the Chapultepec Confer-
ence of American States, calling on
the American Republics to give wo-
men their civil and political rights,
and also to the Charter of the
United Nations which includes in its
preamble: ". faith in funda-
mental human rights, in the dig-
nity and worth of the human per-
son, in the equal rights of men and
women and of nations, large and
small, ."
Women in countries like Argen-
tina, Brazil, and Chile say that the
first notable change in their status
came after the first world war, for
the forces that then shook tradition
and customs in other countries af-
fected them also. It seems to me
that wars affect all social patterns,
very much as powerful earthquakes
affect the earth and surface struc-


tures. Foundations are shaken,
shifts occur, walls crack, tremors
are felt in areas remote from the ac-
tive center, and countries far dis-
tant discover that something
strange has happened to them. Cer-
tainly the whole world has been
shaken by the second world war as
by a mighty earthquake. Old pat-
terns have changed not only for wo-
men but for entire peoples.

Women in Office
In the countries in which women
do have suffrage, they not only vote
but are elected to national and state
legislatures, to city councils, and to
other offices. They are elected
mayors of cities, and a few have
been governors of states. There has
been a rumor that there will be a
woman candidate for President of
Cuba, but only a rumor.
For the second time in Uruguay
there are four women in the legis-
lature-two in the Senate and two
in the lower House. Two of these
are serving a second term. Cuba
has one woman senator and five rep-
resentatives. In Panama two wom-
en (and one substitute) were
elected to the Constitutional Con-
vention which became the regular
Congress of that Republic. In the
Dominican Republic a woman who
was a senator is now governor of
one of the States, and there is one
woman in Congress.
After his election President Ale-
man of Mexico appointed two wo-
men as mayors of municipalities. A
woman was at one time mayor of
Santiago, the capital of the Repub-
lic of Chile, and two other women
have been mayors of Providencia, a

nearby important suburb. In Peru
in 1945 forty women were named to
interim municipal councils.
Unfortunately, no women in Bra-
zil now are members of the national
legislature. However, they were in
both national and state legislatures
before ex-President Vargas dis-
banded all elective offices in 1937.
Brazilian women have also been
mayors of cities and have been
elected to other public offices. They
were active members of political
parties in the last Presidential elec-
The participation of women in
political parties is significant, for
even in countries where they do not
have national suffrage they are not
outside political currents. This is
especially true of Chile, where they
are active members of political par-
ties and vote in the elections of the
parties for their candidates.
I do not want to leave the impres-
sion, a wrong impression, that all
women of the American Republics
are interested in national and inter-
national politics or in having the
vote, for that is not true, even as it
is not true in the United States.
Those who are interested, the van-
guard, work often against definite
opposition and, worse still, against
indifference. Those leaders are im-
portant, and their influence is out of
all proportion to their numbers.
They are doing the kind of work
which will some day make it pos-
sible for other women to function
as full citizens of their countries.
Our neighbors of the other Amer-
ican Republics face us with tough
questions sometimes. They ask:
"Has women's suffrage made any


difference to the people of the
United States? Do they have bet-
ter schools, better health and recrea-
tion facilities, better housing, better
working conditions because women
vote? Has it made any difference in
State and national politics and
policies? Why aren't there more
women in national and State legis-
latures? in other elective offices,"
they want' to know. "Seven women
representatives in your national
Congress is a very small number.
You have had economic independ-
ence, educational opportunities for
a long time, and the right to vote
since 1920. What have you done
with your opportunities?"
The Inter-American Commis-
sion of Women is preparing a report.
on the civil, political, economic, and
social status of women in the Amer-
icas for the next International Con-
ference of American States, to be
held at Bogota, Colombia. Dis-
criminations against women, out-

moded statutes, will be pointed out
for correction. Two bulletins have
been published in English and
Spanish by the office of the Com-
mission in preparation for the Con-
ference; others will follow. As
your representative on the IACW, I
will see that copies are sent to all
who are interested.
At former conferences the Com-
mission has obtained the adoption
of recommendations which would
give women equal civil and political
status. At the Bogota Conference
the Commission proposes to ask for
a pact or treaty that will place an
inescapable obligation on those
countries which have not yet lived
up to their promises.
The Conunission wants and needs
the backing of women, of their or-
ganizations, of the United States,
and of all the American Republics.
I hope we can count on the con-
tinued support of the National As-
sociation of Women Lawyers.




Cuba ....
Dominican Republic
El Salvador


Costa Rica



For sale by the Superintendent of Documents, U. S. Government Printing Office
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