Get to Know a Brazilian – Bertha Lutz

This ongoing series has recently looked at the political activism of women who mobilized against the military dictatorship and fought for democracy. However, it did not take military repression for women to mobilize, and women’s struggles significantly predated the dictatorship. This week, we look at a feminist and key figure in the history of Brazil, a woman who played a vital role in fighting for women’s equality for nearly fifty years: Bertha Lutz.

Bertha Lutz (1894-1976), a key figure in Brazilian feminism and the fight for equality in the 20th century.

Bertha Lutz (1894-1976), a key figure in Brazilian feminism and the fight for equality in the 20th century.

Bertha Lutz was born in 1894 in São Paulo in 1894 to Amy Fowler, a nurse from England, and Adolpho Lutz, a Swiss-Brazilian who specialized in tropical medicines. Given her parents’ international backgrounds and professions, Bertha had opportunities both in travel and in education that only wealthier Brazilians could enjoy. Indeed, she first attended college at the Sorbonne in Paris, finishing with a degree in biology in 1918. She returned to Brazil, and in the 1930s, she enrolled in the National Law School in Rio de Janeiro (today a part of the Federal University of Rio de Janeiro), earning her law degree.

In both of these professions, Lutz was an anomaly. In the first decades of the twentieth century, Brazilian politics and the professions connected to politics were overwhelmingly male-dominated. When Mirthes de Campos served as a defense lawyer in 1899, she became the first woman ever to work in a courtroom in Brazil. Though it was an important symbolic movement, it did not exactly destroy the barriers of women in white-collar professions, and there were only fourteen women lawyers total in Rio de Janeiro (9 women) and São Paulo (5 women) combined. Such gender-inequalities spread to other white-collar professions, like medicine and accounting.

It was in this context that Lutz began to push for feminist causes. While studying in Europe, she had been exposed to  feminist movements and writings from European women, especially from the suffrage movement in England. She brought these concerns back to Brazil with her, writing feminist tracts in Portuguese by 1918. She had a vision of feminism that maintained that women should have equal access to educational opportunities and to professions beyond the home. Indeed, she insisted that women had important contributions they could make to society, and that they should not be bound to the home, “taking advantage of animal instincts of man.”* In 1919, Bertha became the head of the National Museum in Rio de Janeiro, the first woman appointed to that position. That same year, she also formed the Liga para a Emancipação Intelectual da Mulher (League for the Intellectual Emancipation of Woman). Her position at the National Museum allowed Bertha to have contacts with a variety of politicians and elites, to whom she could express her ideas on women’s equality. In 1922, Bertha officially formed the Federação Brasileira pelo Progresso Femenino (Brazilian Federation for Feminine Progress), which affiliated with the International Women’s Suffrage Alliance, a clear marker on the impact of Bertha’s experiences and time in Europe. As for her own organization, the name change alone signified how Bertha and the Liga’s members were broadening their struggles beyond mere “intellectual” pursuits to the broader pursuit of “progress.”

The Federação met with some successes early on. Pressure and lobbying led the government to allow women to enroll in the Colégio Pedro II. The federally-run public school was one of the best institutions of primary and secondary education in Brazil, and had often trained those who would attend the few public or private universities in Rio de Janeiro (then the national capital) or elsewhere in the country. Previously male-dominated, the Colégio had played no small role in perpetuating the domination of men in politics and white-collar professions; in that regard, the opening of the school to women marked a subtle but important shift.

Lutz continued to work both nationally and internationally in women’s movements. She attended a number of international conferences and meetings regarding women’s suffrage and feminism, representing Brazil in organizations such as the League of Women Voters in the US and the International Conference of Women in Berlin in 1929, and even being elected Vice President in the Pan-American Society of the League.

However, as was often the case with the “first-wave” feminism that was erupting in much of the Western world at this time, Lutz’s vision of feminism was not inclusive of all women, nor did it demand full equality everywhere. Lutz’s views on women’s labor were still gendered; she believed women were best-suited to work in fields like social welfare, which was an appropriate arena for their feminine morality and their natural caring abilities. Additionally, the appeal her demands and her tactics were limited to middle- and upper-middle class women living in urban centers. There was little applicability or attention to women in rural areas, or to women from lower social classes in the cities. With its emphasis on issues like access to higher education and white-collar professions, Lutz’s Federação and the issues it adopted often had little relevance to the majority of working women who were usually illiterate (after all, when the Federação formed, slavery had only been abolished 34 years earlier). Even Lutz’s ideas on “appropriate” contributions and jobs for women and their status as moral beacons drew on middle-class ideals that had few parallels with the lives of the poor in the cities and the countryside alike. Though fighting for women’s equality, Lutz’s vision was still an inherently class-based feminism that drew from and built upon her own upper-middle class background.

That is not to take away from Lutz’s accomplishments and her sheer force of personality in pushing for women’s rights. Indeed, the 1930s saw rapid transformations taking place. Shortly after the Constitutionalist Revolt in São Paulo that challenged the presidency of Getúlio Vargas, Brazil’s government began work on a new constitution. Though Lutz was not elected to the assembly, she drew on her years of activism and her connections that she’d made with Brazilian politicians to push the issue of suffrage. Her efforts won out, and the 1934 constitution granted women the right to vote, making Brazil only the third Latin American country to grant women’s suffrage.

With these new rights, Lutz herself ran for office, but was unable to win election. However, in 1936, she became one of several women to serve in Congress. Though this was an important step, politics nonetheless continued to be a male-dominated world. Indeed, as a congresswoman, she was elected president of the congressional Special Commission on the Status of Women, but she was the only woman on the committee, reflecting the ongoing inequalities and struggles women faced. Adding to the challenges, in 1937, Vargas closed Congress, indefinitely banned elections, and ushered in the Estado Novo; now, Brazilian women had the right to vote, but no significant national elections in which they could exercise the franchise.

Although shut out of electoral politics in 1937, Lutz continued to work both in women’s rights and in the sciences. She became the head of the Botanical Sector of the National Museum, and continued to make a name for herself as an accomplished botanist and herpetologist in the academic community. She also remained politically engaged, resigning her post at the National Museum in 1964, just as the military came into power. Although she continued to fight for women’s rights, she was also often isolated from her constituents, due both to her professional life and to her own personality and background. Nonetheless, Lutz remained an important figure, both politically and symbolically, coming to be seen as one of the “founders” of Brazilian feminism. Indeed, when the United Nations declared 1975 to be the “International Year of the Woman,” Brazil’s government invited Lutz to be the Brazilian representative to the International Conference on Women in Mexico City. It ended up being her last major public act in her nearly fifty-year struggle for feminism; in 1976, she passed away at the age of 84.

Though Lutz’s feminist visions had limits for women in other classes, her central role in Brazil’s feminist movement cannot be denied. Certainly, she was far from the only feminist, and hundreds and thousands of other women were involved in fighting for equality for women in Brazil throughout the twentieth century. Still, Lutz’s importance absolutely cannot be overstated, and her status as one of the “founders” of Brazilian feminism and the equal rights movement is well-deserved.

Bertha Lutz

Bertha Lutz in her later years.

 *Quote found in Susan K. Besse’s Restructuring Patriarchy: The Modernization of Gender Inequality in Brazil, 1914-1940, p. 166. 

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About Colin M. Snider

I have a Ph.D. in history, specializing in Latin American History and Comparative Indigenous History. My dissertation focused on Brazil. Beyond Latin America generally, I'm particularly interested in class identities, military politics, human rights, labor, education, music, and nation. I can be found on Twitter at @ColinMSnider.
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