Argentina’s Women: Don’t Cry for Us

Magda Hinojosa. Women and Politics around the World: A Comparative History and Survey. Editor: Joyce Gelb and Marian Lief Palley. Volume 2: Country Profiles. Santa Barbara, CA: ABC-CLIO, 2009.

When asked in 2001, “Do you believe the voters will elect a woman president of our country during the next 20 years, or not?” only 47 percent of Argentines said they did. There were no significant differences in the percentages of men and women answering that they believed a woman would be elected in the next two decades (48 percent of men said yes, as did 46 percent of women). Argentines were much more pessimistic about the possibility of electing a woman into the presidency than other Latin Americans: 77 percent of Brazilians and Colombians answered affirmatively, as did 66 percent of Mexicans and 79 percent of Salvadorans (WLCA 2001). Yet of those countries, it seemed Argentina was most likely to see a female president in the next 20 years: women constituted more than a third of members of Congress, the country had already had a female interim president, women were highly educated and increasingly prominent in the labor force, and high-profile women had either run for the presidency or had indicated their intention to do so in the future. Even in 2001, the pessimism of Argentines appeared unfounded—and in October 2007 Argentines demonstrated as much when they elected Cristina Fernández de Kirchner to the presidency. This essay describes the historic advances women have made in Argentine society over the course of the 20th century and into the present day and emphasizes the political, legal, and social leaps that have taken place.

Bringing Women into Politics

Though Argentina ultimately became a leader in female political representation, women did not receive suffrage until September 29, 1947, after it was granted to their counterparts in Ecuador, Brazil, Uruguay, and other countries across Latin America. Women had earlier made some gains at the provincial level, however. In 1921, women had received the right to vote in municipal elections in the province of Santa Fe. Six years later, San Juan Province granted women suffrage in municipal and provincial elections (Alegre 2002, 2), and in 1934 San Juan Province had the distinction of electing its first female provincial legislator (Martin 2000).

Despite Argentine women’s slow start in obtaining the right to vote, they exercised that right enthusiastically. In the first national elections after suffrage, 3,816,653 women voted (Zabaleta 2000, 265). Women voted overwhelmingly for the Peronista Party: 64 percent of them voted for the Peronistas. Though this has often been interpreted as gratitude for the party that gave them suffrage, women’s enormous support for the Peronista Party cut across class lines (Hollander 1974, 47). In these same elections, 61 percent of men voted for the Peronistas (Zabaleta 2000, 265). Women were also able to stand as candidates for the first time in these elections—7 women entered the Senate, and 24 entered the Chamber of Deputies—thanks largely to Eva Perón and the Women’s Peronista Party. Among this original cohort was Delia Parodi, who was elected vice president of the Chamber of Deputies (Hollander 1974, 47).

Eva Perón: Informal Influence

Perhaps the best-known Argentine woman in history was Eva Duarte de Perón, a small-time actress who rose to prominence because of her relationship to Juan Perón. Juan Perón and Eva Duarte met in January 1944, only months after the military coup of 1943 that brought him into power as head of the Ministry of Labor, and they married shortly thereafter. From his position in the Ministry of Labor, Juan was able to build an overwhelming base of support and launch himself into the presidency.

Eva, known popularly as Evita, may have obtained power through her husband, but she was also an extraordinarily talented politician in her own right, whose “bond with the descamisados” who voted for her husband was nearly religious (Fraser and Navarro 1980, 146). (The descamisados were literally “the shirtless ones.” The term was originally a derogatory one used by Juan Perón’s foes to refer to his working-class followers.) Evita’s influence was heightened through the Eva Perón Foundation, a charitable organization that she set up personally. The foundation, whose assets were valued at more than US $200 million in 1950 (Zabaleta 2000, 231), allowed her to personally influence the lives of the many thousands who received sewing machines, bicycles, clothing, or cash from the foundation.

Evita’s political potential became evident when her supporters in both the Women’s Peronista Party (Partido Peronista Feminino—PPF) and the Confederation of Labor urged a Perón-Perón ticket in 1951. Evita Perón was an ambitious woman, who clearly relished the possibility of becoming vice president of the nation. Political pressures ultimately forced her to forgo consideration as her husband’s running mate (Zabaleta 2000, 261), and Nancy Caro Hollander (1974) suggests that some of those pressures came from Juan Perón himself, who may have been afraid that Evita could pose a real challenge to him (53).

Despite her own political ambitions, Evita Perón publicly subjugated herself to Juan Perón, as her own words in 1951 indicate:

In different ways, we both had wanted to do the same thing; he, knowing well what he wanted to do; I, by only intuiting it; he, with intelligence; I, with the heart; he, prepared for the struggle; I, disposed to all without knowing anything; he, cultured and I, simple; he, enormous and I, small; he, the teacher and I, the student. He, the figure and I, the shadow.” (quoted in Hollander 1974, 52)

Although Evita Perón often used traditional conceptions of womanhood and motherhood, she also pushed for women’s equality. She believed that after marrying “each woman should receive her own wage that would come from all the paid workers of the nation, thereby allowing the wife and mother independence from her husband” (Hollander 1974, 53). While still a radio actress, Evita came up with the idea of having a series of biographies on important women in history, which she then produced (Hollander 1974, 51). Through her efforts, the PPF was able to field a substantial number of female candidates and place these women in the Senate and Chamber of Deputies. Craske (1999, 82) notes that the rhetoric Evita used in her political mobilizing was based on both traditional conceptions of women’s roles and “political action based on female consciousness. The political role of women in Peronism challenged few gender constructions directly, but, simply by being there, they demonstrated that women could be politicians.”

Evita Perón was officially designated “Spiritual Leader of the Nation” by congressional decree a few weeks before her death (Craske 1999, 81), and was nominated for sainthood yearly by her loyal followers after her death on July 7, 1952.

A Party of Women

One early effort toward women’s political involvement was the PPF, which was founded by Evita Perón on July 26, 1949. The new party emerged from the “basic units,” which had formed within the Peronista Party. These units had been organized by women throughout the country “to affiliate women with the Peronist movement; to provide a social meeting place for women outside their homes; to provide day care centers for the young children of women; to supply free legal and medical aid; to offer classes in language skills, painting and sewing; to offer conferences, lectures and discussions of current events; and to give annual exhibits of the work which the women had accomplished during the year” (Hollander 1974, 48).

These units ultimately became the PPF. The PPF was one of three branches of the Peronista movement, along with the Peronista Men’s Party and the General Confederation of Labor, and it was officially on equal footing with the Peronista Men’s Party. The tripartite nature of the movement would allow Evita Perón to push for women’s candidacies on the party’s lists in subsequent congressional elections because all three sectors of the movement proposed a single Peronista Party list.

Craske (1999, 99) argues that the PPF ultimately “undermined women’s activity” within the General Confederation of Labor. Separating female party members from the Confederation of Labor might ultimately have been disadvantageous to women, given two facts: the short run of the PPF and the continued influence of the General Confederation of Labor in politics.

The PPF was nonetheless instrumental in the proposal for a Juan Perón-Evita Perón ticket in 1951. After a series of meetings, the PPF “formally requested her as President of the PPF to join the presidential ticket” (Zabaleta 2000, 258). Although the PPF may have put forth this proposal, as Zabaleta notes, the other part of the trinity, the General Confederation of Labor, announced its support for Evita Perón’s vice presidential candidacy. It was only the Peronista Men’s Party that failed to approve a Perón-Perón ticket (Zabaleta 2000, 258).

The basic units and the PPF may have contributed to women’s high levels of support for the Peronista Party. In the 1954 midterm elections, 61 percent of men voted for the Peronista Party, compared to 65 percent of women. Women were also more likely to turn out to vote than men—88 percent of women versus 84 percent of men (Zabaleta 2000, 268). This is even more impressive in light of the fact that women had only recently acquired the right to vote. The unit structure may have been key to increasing women’s participation in elections.

After Evita Perón’s death from cancer in 1953, Juan Perón temporarily took over as head of the PPF, “an anomaly that he later corrected,” by naming Delia Parodi, one of the first women to enter Congress, as the new president (Zabaleta 2000, 254). The PPF ultimately disappeared after Juan Perón was removed from power in 1955 (Craske 1999, 81).

The Other Perón: The First Woman President

Like Evita, Isabel Perón entered politics through her husband, Juan Perón, but she was able to do something Evita had not done: become Juan’s running mate and ultimately interim president. Though Evita and Isabel shared a tie to the same man, their political roles were very different. Evita represented women’s informal political participation, as the wife of a powerful man. She succeeded in gaining real political power in part by carving out niches of formal power for herself and other women through the formation of the PPF, instituting unofficial quotas for women legislators, and creating her own foundation. On the other hand, Isabel’s power was formalized, first in the office of the vice president and then in the presidential office; but despite this more formal authority, she was unable to muster political power and left a legacy of failure.

Though Isabel Perón was formally in office from July 1, 1974, until the coup of 1976, little has been written about her short and disastrous presidency. Although Isabel always insisted that she had met Perón while performing as a ballerina, she met her future husband shortly after joining a folk music ensemble that had her dancing in nightclubs throughout Latin America. Isabel, the name she used throughout her life and even during her short political career, was a stage name. During one of her performances in Panama City in 1956, 25-year-old Isabel met the exiled Juan Perón. Isabel left her dance troupe to travel with Juan as his secretary and moved with him to Spain when he was offered permanent exile. In January 1961, five years after their initial meeting, Isabel Martinez and Juan Perón were married in Madrid.

The story of Isabel Perón’s quick rise to power begins in 1973. After 18 years in exile, Juan Perón, the highly popular and charismatic president who had been removed from power in 1955 by a leftist-fearing military, returned to Argentina and shortly thereafter to the presidency. Unwilling to share political power and fearful of antagonizing any elements of the Peronista Party immediately before the impending election, Perón chose his wife as his vice president. In the March 11, 1973, elections, a ticket of Hector Campora and Vicente Solano Lima garnered only 49.6 percent of the nearly 12 million votes cast. A mere six months later, however, the ticket of Juan Perón and Isabel Perón managed to win 61.8 percent of the slightly more than 12 million votes. The introduction of Isabel Perón as Juan’s running mate did not fuel the vehement opposition that the suggestion of Evita Perón’s candidacy had inspired two decades earlier. Evita may have been responsible for the political opening that eventually allowed Isabel to become Juan’s running mate.

On July 1, 1974, Isabel Perón announced her husband’s death and the 43-year-old widow became the first female president in the world. Juan Perón’s death sparked further division between elements of the Peronista Party. Although some demanded that Vice President Perón be installed as president, other groups urged that at the least Isabel should govern with the assistance of a council. One critic described Isabel as “a woman completely without political talent, a person who was hopelessly out of her depth when great responsibility was forced upon her, a figurehead manipulated by unscrupulous men who were little more than gangsters” (Alexander 1979, 150). Regardless of her lack of political abilities, many agree that an increasingly difficult economic situation produced an ungovernable nation. Inflation rates of 350 percent, a growing fiscal deficit, and a lack of markets for Argentina’s primary export (the European Economic Community banned imports of Argentine beef the month Juan Perón died) doomed Isabel Perón’s presidency.

Unlike Evita, who pushed for women’s rights, Isabel was staunchly Catholic and did not pursue feminist policies. One of her first official acts was banning the sale of contraceptives (Zabaleta 2000, 31). Shortly thereafter, she vetoed a law that would have allowed mothers and fathers equality in patria potestad, or the “rights of parents over the person and property of minor children, exercised uniquely by the father” in traditional Argentine law (Htun 2003, 48, 120). Isabel’s short presidency ended on March 23, 1976, when, in a coup against her government, armed members of the military arrested her, took her to the countryside, and placed her under house arrest; she would not be released until 1981, when she was granted exile in Spain.

Aiming High: Women’s Political Representation

Although women’s representation in politics has traditionally been increasing, Argentina is again an outlier. It was only in 1997 that the Argentine Chamber of Deputies was able to equal the levels of women’s representation it had seen in the 1950s, and it was only in 2001 that more women entered the Senate than had served there midway through the 20th century. In November 1951, the first women entered the Chamber of Deputies. Thus, the first elections after female suffrage had ushered 24 women into the legislature, making Argentina the world leader in female representation. All of these women ran on the Peronista Party ticket. All were said to have been personally selected by Evita Perón (Martin 2000).

Women’s representation in the Chamber of Deputies and in the Senate dropped precipitously after the 1955 coup. In 1958 only 2.1 percent of deputies were women, and there were no women in the Senate. Seven years later the situation was unchanged. The return of the Peronista Party to power in 1973 also brought an increase in women’s political representation. Women made up 7.8 percent of deputies that year and 4.3 percent of senators. After the return to democracy, women’s representation was minimal, and it only increased after the passage of the quota law, as the data in Table 1 indicate. After the elections of 1995, 64 women were deputies (24.9 percent). In 2001, female representation in the Chamber of Deputies exceeded the 30 percent mark: 76 of the 257 deputies were women. By the 2005 elections, there were 93 women (36.2 percent) in the Chamber of Deputies (Inter-Parliamentary Union 2006).

Women’s representation in the Senate was initially hindered because of the indirect election of senators, which prevented use of a gender quota. In 1995, only 2.8 percent of the 72 senators were women. After the implementation of direct elections (which would also need to adhere to the quota law), women’s representation increased dramatically, as can be seen in Table 2. In 2001, 33.3 percent of senators were women. After the elections of 2005, women were an astounding 41.7 percent of the Senate (Inter-Parliamentary Union 2006). The gender quotas in place have done much to increase women’s representation in the legislature.

Table 1. Women’s Representation in the Chamber of Deputies
Year No. of Deputies No. of Women Deputies Percentage of Women Deputies
Sources: Consejo Nacional de la Mujer (2006); Inter-Parliamentary Union (2006).
1983 254 11 4.3
1985 254 12 4.7
1987 254 12 4.7
1989 254 15 5.9
1991 257 16 6.2
1993 257 32 12.5
1995 257 64 24.9
1997 257 72 28.0
1999 257 71 27.6
2001 257 76 29.6
2003 257 86 33.7
2005 257 93 36.2


Table 2. Women’s Representation in the Senate
Year No. of Senators No. of Women Senators Percentage of Women Senators
Sources: Consejo Nacional de la Mujer (2006 ); Inter-Parliamentary Union (2006 ).
1983 46 3 6.5
1986 46 3 6.5
1989 46 4 8.7
1992 46 2 4.4
1995 72 3 4.2
1998 72 1 1.4
2001 72 25 34.7
2005 72 30 41.7 46

Part of the reason for the success of the Argentine quotas can be attributed to “a closed-list system, a placement requirement, large district magnitude, and good-faith compliance by political parties” (Htun and Jones 1999, 5). In closed-list systems, the party ranks its candidates rather than allowing voters to do so; this combined with a placement requirement is advantageous for women’s candidacies since placement requirements dictate where women’s names must appear on party lists (for example, every third name). In the first national elections after the quota law was adopted, women’s representation did not increase as expected. Though the quota law specifically stated that 30 percent of all candidates had to be women and that women had to be placed in elected positions on the list (Htun and Jones 1999, 7), it was only after the law was amended to allow anyone to take a political party to court for failure to comply with the quota law (previously only the women who had been wronged could challenge a party’s list) that women’s representation most dramatically increased. The effects of this amendment are startling: in 1993, 13.2 percent of deputies were women, but by 1995, 27.7 percent of the Chamber was composed of women (Waylen 2000, 777).

Argentina’s Quota Law

The Argentine quota law started a revolution: more than 11 Latin American countries subsequently adopted gender quotas for national elections within the next decade, and many others across the globe have followed suit. Law 24.012, also known as the Ley de Cupos, was passed in 1991 and set a quota of 30 percent for female candidates (Jones 1996). The success of Argentina’s quota is clear: by 2007, 42 percent of senators and 33 percent of deputies are women.

In addition, the vast majority of Argentina’s 23 provinces have adopted gender quotas for state legislatures and municipal councils, and the federal capital also uses gender quotas for elections. Although the provinces differ substantially in their legislative forms and electoral rules (Jones 1998), on average their efforts to increase women’s representation have also been successful. In October 2003, 27.9 percent of deputies and 20.4 percent of senators in provincial legislatures were women. Tables 3 and 4 provide data on women’s representation at the provincial level.

How was Argentina able to pass the first gender quota law in the world? Georgina Waylen identifies three reasons. The first is historical: unofficial quotas had been used in the early 1950s within the Peronista Party, allowing for extraordinarily high female participation and setting a “precedent in Argentine political history” (Waylen 2000, 776). Second, the gender quota law was supported by a broad alliance of women from the different political parties (and was actually proposed by the Radical Party), nongovernmental organizations, the National Council for Women, and feminist groups. The final reason she offers is the support of then President Carlos Menem who “was known to favor the quota law” (Waylen 2000, 776).

Table 3. Women’s Representation in Provincial Chambers of Deputies
Province No. of Deputies No. of Women Deputies Percentage of Women Deputies
Source: Consejo Nacional de la Mujer (2006 ).
Buenos Aires 92 29 31.5
Catamarca 41 12 29.3
Chaco 32 11 34.4
Chubut 27 8 29.6
City of Buenos Aires 60 23 38.3
Córdoba 70 24 34.3
Corrientes 26 10 38.5
Entre Ríos 28 4 14.3
Formosa 30 10 33.3
Jujuy 48 13 27.1
La Pampa 26 9 34.6
La Rioja 23 3 13.0
Mendoza 48 8 16.7
Misiones 35 9 25.7
Neuquén 35 10 28.6
Río Negro 43 16 37.2
Salta 60 11 18.3
San Juan 34 5 14.7
San Luis 43 14 32.6
Santa Cruz 24 3 12.5
Santa Fe 50 16 32.0
Santiago del Estero 50 23 46.0
Tierra del Fuego 15 5 33.3
Tucumán 40 6 15.0
Total 930 259 27.9

Women have also pursued the presidency in recent years. In the presidential elections of 1999, two women ran for the presidency and two more ran as vice-presidential candidates. These women all ran on the tickets of minority parties, and neither Patricia Cecilia Walsh of the United Left Alliance (Alianza Izquierda Unida) nor Lia Méndez of the Humanist Party (Partido Humanista) was able to obtain 1 percent of the vote for their presidential candidacies (Georgetown University n.d.). Graciela Fernández Mejide is among the best-known politicians in Argentina; her political trajectory began after her son disappeared during the Dirty War—the dictatorship of the 1970s. She was first elected to the Senate and then to the Chamber of Deputies, where her fellow deputies chose her as vice president of that body in 1998. She was also leading in the presidential polls in 1998. Ultimately, Fernández lost her party’s presidential nomination to Fernando de la Rúa. Since then she has been a candidate for the governorship of Buenos Aires province and minister of social affairs (Craske 1999). In the 2003 presidential elections, Elisa Carrió, who had made a name for herself in the Chamber of Deputies and in 2002 was considered a frontrunner for the presidential elections, managed to obtain a respectable 14.2 percent of the vote, which was not enough to get her into the second round (Georgetown University 2006). By 2005, two female politicians stood out, in part because they, like Evita and Isabel Perón, are also political wives: Cristina Fernández, wife of then-president Néstor Kirchner, and Hilda González, wife of former president Eduardo Duhalde, had both been elected to the Senate and expressed further political ambitions. In mid-2007, President Kirchner announced that his wife would be running as the next Justicialist candidate for the presidency. Fernández de Kirchner, the clear front-runner, won the October 2007 elections by a landslide, beating out her nearest competitor, Elisa Carrió, by more than 20 percentage points. She was sworn into office on December 10, 2007.

Table 4. Women’s Representation in Provincial Senates*
Province No. of Senators No. of Women Senators Percentage of Women Senators
Source: Consejo Nacional de la Mujer (2006 ).
*Table 4 provides data only for bicameral legislatures. The provinces of Chaco, Chubut, City of Buenos Aires, Córdoba, Formosa, Jujuy, La Pampa, La Rioja, Misiones, Neuquén, Río Negro, San Juan, Santa Cruz, Santiago del Estero, Tierra del Fuego, and Tucumán all have unicameral legislatures.
Buenos Aires 46 14 30.4
Catamarca 16 1 6.3
Corrientes 13 4 30.8
Entre Ríos 17 2 11.8
Mendoza 38 9 23.7
Salta 23 2 8.7
San Luis 9 3 33.3
Santa Fe 19 2 10.5
Total 181 37 20.4

Although Argentina is clearly a world leader in female political representation, some limits to women’s participation remain. Women’s representation in appointed positions lags behind their representation in elected positions. Few women have served as ministers, for example. Alejandra Giovarini became minister of labor and social affairs under the Perón administration in 1952 (Martin 2000), and there was a female minister of justice from 1973 to 1974. Women did not again obtain such important positions until the 1980s and then they were given traditionally feminine ministries, such as those for education, culture, and the environment. Perhaps because women had been poorly represented in appointed positions, in 1992 President Menem set up a shadow cabinet composed of women. The shadow cabinet had no real powers and no financing but could advise cabinet members (Waylen 2000, 778). Since 2000 and especially in the administration of Néstor Kirchner, women have been appointed into the more important ministries. Graciela Camaño was appointed minister of labor in 2002, and in 2005, Nilda Garré became minister of defense and Felisa Micela became minister of the economy and production.

Other obstacles to women’s equitable political representation also exist. The National Women’s Council (Consejo Nacional de la Mujer—CNM) is not a separate ministry, unlike its earlier incarnation (Craske 1999, 74). In 1987, the government of Raúl Alfonsín established the Subsecretariat for Women, but the Menem government replaced this with the CNM. Htun (2001) notes that during the first Menem government, the CNM lobbied for women’s rights, but it stopped pushing policy under different leadership during the second Menem administration, while simultaneously using its increased funding to expand its reach into the provinces. The CNM changed once again under De la Rúa’s government, when its budget was slashed (Htun 2001, 11-12). The CNM currently maintains an active agenda, but receiving ministerial status could increase its influence. A further obstacle to women is that they must participate in party politics. Although political parties have incorporated women (in fact, the Justicialist Party sets a higher quota for itself than set by law), independents cannot compete in elections, which forces women to go through parties if they aspire to political office.

Legislating Gender Equality

Women’s status in Argentine society has improved noticeably because of international influence. In the early 1900s, the International Feminine Congress held its first meeting in Buenos Aires and helped spread modern feminist ideas (Htun 2003, 48). Women’s demands were influenced by the changes that were taking place in other parts of the globe, especially in the United States; as Htun notes, “The liberalization of gender relations following World War II was captured in Hollywood cinema images that provoked new debates about women’s political and civil rights” (Htun 2003, 69). After democratization in 1983, Argentina aspired to be perceived as a “modern and fully democratic society,” and the quota legislation was framed by feminist groups as a means to do just that (Waylen 2000, 776). Argentina consistently demonstrates a commitment to women’s equality and has been a signatory to United Nations (UN) and International Labour Organization (ILO) conventions on women’s labor rights (Maxfield 2005), as well as to the Committee on the Elimination of Discrimination Against Women (CEDAW) in 1985 (Consejo Nacional de la Mujer 2006).

As early as 1926, the law stated that adult women who were single, widowed, or separated had full civil rights—“including the right to establish businesses and make money, seek professional employment, travel abroad, and serve as litigants or witnesses in judicial proceedings”—but these rights were substantially curtailed for married women (Htun 2003, 61).

Women’s rights evolved over the course of the 20th century, and Argentina has made substantial efforts to modernize. Abortion was criminalized in the nation’s first criminal code of 1886. Women who had abortions could be punished with one to three years in prison (Htun 2003, 55). By 1922, the criminal code had been adjusted to decriminalize abortions in two instances: when abortion was medically necessary to save the life of the mother and when the fetus was a result of rape (Htun 2003, 55). Illegitimate children were granted the same rights as those children born of wedlock in 1954 (Hollander 1974, 46). Evita Perón’s own illegitimacy may have been elemental to the passage of this law. The law’s importance only increased as the percentage of illegitimate children rose (a fact that Mala Htun attributes to the lack of legal divorce). Although 40 percent of Argentine children were illegitimate in 1960, by the 1980s more than half of children were illegitimate (Htun 2003).

Women have acquired substantial rights since the return to democracy. Mothers gained the right to shared patria potestad in 1985 (Consejo Nacional de la Mujer 2006). Although divorce was legalized by the legislature in 1954, it was criminalized once again by the military after the coup of 1955. Although divorce was not permitted, the new laws of 1968 allowed a couple to legally separate by mutual consent (Htun 2003). Divorce was not made legal again until 1987 because the “return to democratic conditions enabled the partisans of divorce to mobilize in civil society and in Congress, and the eruption of conflict between the Roman Catholic bishops and the government opened a window of opportunity for reformers to enact the new law” (Htun 2003, 96). Family violence legislation was passed in 1994, and, like quota laws, was quickly replicated at the provincial level (Htun 2001). In 1996, Law 23.417 was passed, which provides further protection from domestic violence. The new legislation demanded the removal from the family’s home of the person perpetrating the violence (Consejo Nacional de la Mujer 2006).

Women Demanding Change

Women’s organizing was crucial in furthering women’s civil rights. Although Evita Perón is most closely associated with women’s fight for suffrage in Argentina, others, like Alicia Moreau de Justo and Julieta Lanteri, had played a critical role for many years (Consejo Nacional de la Mujer 2006). By the time Perón came onto the political scene, feminists had been demanding the right to vote for decades and some, including Victoria Ocampo—the well-known writer and head of the National Assembly of Women—took offense at “the idea of women’s suffrage being ‘a gift’ bestowed by Perón on women” (Zabaleta 2000, 287). A physician, Moreau de Justo was also a politician with strong feminist ideals, who ultimately carried out her own academic study to demonstrate that women’s participation in the labor force justified granting them the right to vote (Zabaleta 2000, 149). Francesca Miller (1991, 122) argues that Evita Perón’s role in the struggle for suffrage is overblown: first, some women’s groups had been demanding suffrage for decades; second, female suffrage had already arrived in many countries of the globe, including a number of Latin American countries; third, many bills on women’s suffrage had been introduced in Congress. As Miller writes, it is more plausible that female suffrage was simply “an idea whose time had come (at last) in Argentina” (122).

Many of the advances described earlier depended on the politicization and mobilization of women. The Madres de Plaza de Mayo are the most well-known example of women’s political organizing in Argentina, but women have long banded together to demand their rights and push for reforms. In 1935, the National Assembly of Women and the Union of Argentine Women, among others, prevented the passage of a bill that would have required married women to obtain permission from their husbands in order to work. Three years later, feminist groups worked to pass a law that made it illegal to fire a woman for marrying (Zabaleta 2000, 153). In 1994, more than 100 women’s organizations formed an alliance to oppose adding a phrase to the constitution that would define life as beginning at conception (Htun 2003, 163). The Group of Women Politicians, which was dormant during the Dirty War, reemerged during the 1980s and, together with the newly formed Association of Women in Legal Careers, lobbied for equality in patria potestad (Zabaleta 2000, 121). Divorce was one issue feminist groups spent decades working on (Hollander 1974). Their efforts paid off in 1954, when Congress adopted a new family code legalizing divorce (though the next military regime eliminated the right). The Group of Women Politicians also worked for laws legalizing divorce during the 1980s (Htun 2003, 121).

Successful mobilizing has often depended on cross-party alliances, which has happened on some occasions to push through women-friendly legislation. This was the case in 1996 with legislation on women’s reproductive rights initially proposed by a female legislator of the Unión Cívica Radical (UCR) but ultimately supported by women of the Peronista Party. This was also the case with the quota law of 1991 (Waylen 2000, 781). In these instances, civil society organizations also mobilized to support the proposed legislation (Waylen 2000, 790). The passage of the quota law was a joint effort by women from different political parties, nongovernmental organizations, women’s groups, and the National Women’s Council (Waylen 2000, 776). Forcing parties to comply with the quota law also required women from across party lines to band together and, at times, take their own parties to court (Htun and Jones 1999, 8). Fundación Mujeres en Igualdad, Instituto Social y Político de la Mujeres, and Comité de America Latina y el Caribe para la Defensa de los Derechos are a few of the feminist organizations working today. The first of these organizations has set up a network of feminist groups “to provide one voice to interact with and influence the political system and state more effectively” (Waylen 2000, 780-781).

Women’s participation has extended outside the more routinized forms of political participation. For example, upper-class women, like their male counterparts encouraged the 1955 coup against the Perón government (Zabaleta 2000, 189). In the early 1970s, women participated in the secret leftist organizations that emerged to push for revolution. One of the best-known groups, the Montoneros, had a women’s branch known as the Agrupación Evita (Hollander 1974, 56). Organizations of women working to end the Dirty War sprang up to try to bring down the military regime from 1976 to 1983. Some of these groups were considered to have “greater power and tactical intelligence” than men’s organizations (Zabaleta 2000, 268-269).

Politicizing Motherhood: The Madres De Plaza De Mayo

The Madres de Plaza de Mayo is a group of women that formed during the military dictatorship of 1976-1983 as they attempted to find their “disappeared” children. Initially coming together at a time when associational life was heavily curtailed by the regime, these women gathered in the most public of spaces to demand the return of their children (Howe 2006). Prohibited from standing in front of the presidential palace by the guards, the women started silently marching around the Plaza de Mayo wearing white kerchiefs (to connote the diapers their children had worn) on their heads to symbolize their role as mothers. The mothers often carried photos of their missing children.

The Madres used stereotypes of women in their favor. As Craske (1999) states, “In a country where a group of more than three was banned as a public meeting, women could meet in groups because this was perceived as harmless gossiping” (119). The Madres were able to protest because they did so as mothers. Ultimately, the Madres obtained international attention for their cause. More than 20 years later, the Madres continue to march on Thursday afternoons.

Women’s Work: The Female Labor Force

As in politics, Argentine women joined the labor force earlier than their counterparts in the rest of Latin America and obtained more equitable positions earlier. Labor laws reflect the increased presence of women in the paid labor force. In 1907, a new labor law proscribed the number of hours per week that women could work, limited their employment in dangerous jobs, required that they be given breaks during the workday, and guaranteed working women the right to breast-feed (Guy 1981, 83). The law granted women 60 days of maternity leave (Zabaleta 2000). Though only applicable to Buenos Aires, the law set an important precedent. In 1924, the new labor legislation granted women 45 days of maternity leave before the birth and 60 days after the birth, “made it illegal to dismiss a woman for being pregnant, and laid down that her job must be kept open for her, with a penalty of compensation for wrongful dismissal” (Zabaleta 2000, 149-150). In 1926, married women’s income became a “reserved asset,” meaning that it was technically separated from the assets controlled by the husband and that women themselves had full control over these assets (Htun 2003). In 1944, legislation aimed at female workers required that women working in their own homes for employers be paid minimum wage (Hollander 1974). By the mid-1940s, “equal pay for equal work for male and female workers was established as an important principle to be implemented” (Hollander 1974, 45). In 1944, Juan Perón, aware of women’s increasing presence in the labor force, established a Women’s Division of the Secretariat of Labor and Welfare (Zabaleta 2000, 167). More recently, Argentina has “pushed the farthest to make equal opportunity for women a reality” by adopting pro-women conventions elaborated by international organizations (Maxfield 2005, 18).

Because of a changing economy, women’s labor force participation dropped over the course of the 19th century (Zabaleta 2000, 149). Donna Guy (1981) presents compelling evidence that more female laborers existed in the early part of the 1800s than the 58.8 percent of women who claimed in 1869 to practice a trade. Female laborers accounted for only 27.4 percent of all women according to the 1914 census. In particular, Guy argues that women were a necessary labor force in the interior provinces, which had more women than men. Though the demand for women’s labor dried up in these areas around the turn of the century, there was a demand for women’s labor in the new industries of Buenos Aires (Guy 1981, 66). By 1947, 47 percent of 18 to 29-year-old women living in Buenos Aires worked for pay (Htun 2003). A smaller percentage of women were engaged in paid labor in Argentina than in other Latin American countries by the late 1940s, but “the occupations in which they were engaged increasingly demonstrated the attainment of qualifications and a professionalization of women’s work” (Craske 1999, 80).

Women have rejoined the labor force in substantial numbers in the past few decades, a phenomenon that Sautu (1980, 157) partially attributes to the increased size of the tertiary sector. This, she argues, can explain the gains that women made during the 1960s and 1970s. Women continue to be heavily clustered in the service sector. In 2000, 0.3 percent worked in agriculture, 10.0 percent worked in industry, and 89.7 percent worked in services; women were much more likely to work in the service sector than men (United Nations 2004).

Overall, women’s participation in the paid workforce has increased over the past decades. In 1950, 21.4 percent of women were working outside of the home, compared to 81.2 percent of men. Over the course of the next decade the percentage of women in the labor force did not increase, though their numbers did. In 1970, 24.5 percent of women were part of the paid workforce, versus 73.9 percent of men. The 1970s saw virtually no increase in women’s workplace participation but a continued decline in the percentage of men in the paid workforce. By 1990, 26.1 percent of women were in the paid workforce, compared to 69.7 percent of men (Valdés and Gomáriz 1995).

Argentine women’s ability to move into the labor force is attributable to changing societal attitudes, but it is also partially a function of women’s decreased familial responsibilities and their increased educational levels. The decline in the birth rate can be traced back to 1910. By 1942, the birth rate was 38.3 per thousand women; it dropped to 25.5 per thousand women between 1940 and 1945 (Zabaleta 2000, 218). As early as the mid-1940s, it was increasingly more common for married couples not to have children and much more typical for those that did have children to have only one child (Zabaleta 2000, 222). In 1950, across Latin America, women were bearing an average of 5.9 children. By 1970 these rates had dropped to 5.0 children per woman. It was only in 1990 that the number of children per woman decreased to 3.1. Argentine women, by contrast, bore an average of 3.2 children per woman during the period from 1950 to 1955. During 1990-1995, women were having 2.9 children on average (Valdés and Gomáriz 1995), and during 1995-2000, Argentine women were having 2.6 children on average. By 2000-2005 the birth rate was 2.4 children per woman on average (UNSD 2008). This decline in the birth rate has freed up Argentine women to continue their education and participate more actively in the labor force and in politics.

Argentine women have made significant educational gains, which has facilitated their entry into the labor force. Although women were slightly more likely than men to be illiterate as late as 1990 (4.4 percent versus 4.1 percent) because of historic educational differences, by 2005 such differences had been eliminated; 2.8 percent of men were illiterate, and 2.7 percent of women were illiterate (United Nations 2004). At present, boys and girls are equally likely to be enrolled in primary schools, but girls are more likely to be enrolled in secondary schools than boys (84 percent versus 79 percent) (World Bank 2006). Women made substantial inroads into universities early on: by 1970, women made up 36 percent of university students; by 1980, they made up 42 percent of university students (Valdés and Gomáriz 1995, 108); and by the late 1990s, women were more likely to be university students than men and were also more likely to complete their university educations than men (INDEC 2008, 51).

Nonetheless, women have faced obstacles in the labor force. Despite their successes, women have nonetheless hit a glass ceiling: only 7 percent currently occupy corporate board positions (Maxfield 2005, 18). Sylvia Maxfield (2005 ) notes that Argentina consistently demonstrates its desire for equal opportunities by quickly adopting UN and ILO conventions concerning women’s rights in the workplace, but real progress will be made when women are as represented in boardrooms as they are in the Senate.

The wage gap has also been a problem for Argentine women. In Argentina, as in other countries of Latin America, women’s wage disparity decreases as their education levels increase, but only until they obtain more than 13 years of education. In other words, college-educated women experience a larger pay gap relative to men than do women with only a primary school education. Women with 10-12 years of schooling, earned 80.9 centavos for every peso earned by a man with an equal amount of schooling, while women with more than 13 years of education earned only 69.3 centavos for every peso earned by a man with a college education (United Nations 2004). This explains why wage disparities have actually increased in Argentina over time. In 1959, women in Argentina were earning somewhere between 7-15 percent less than men, which meant that wage disparities in Argentina were lower than in most of the world (Hollander 1974, 46). However, in 1980, women’s wages averaged 87 percent of men’s wages, and by 1997 this had decreased to 75 percent (Beneria 2003, 124).

Argentine women have made enormous advances, especially in the past 15 years. They represent a model for women’s participation in all aspects of national life—not only for nations in Latin America, but across the globe, where women have sought to emulate the success of the Ley de Cupos. Women have successfully organized for women-friendly legislation to grant them full equality, even crossing party lines for it. Though they do not participate in the labor force at equivalent rates as men, and though they have largely been kept out of the nation’s boardrooms, women’s economic participation has been marked by steady progress.