Eva Perón, A Powerful Champion of the Dispossessed and of Women
10/1/2010 | | Add your Comment
Few women in politics has been as controversial as Maria Eva Duarte de Perón (1919-1952) of Argentina – known to history as Evita. During her relatively short life (she died of cancer at the age of 33), she accomplished more than most women ever dreamed of doing. From humble beginnings, she fashioned herself as an accomplished actress, radio personality, cover girl, and union organizer.
From 1943 to 1945, she developed a radio series on biographies of illustrious women. Later she wrote, “I would like the name of ‘Evita’ to figure somewhere in the history of my country.” Was this pure coincidence?
When she met Juan Domingo Perón at a benefit for earthquake victims in 1944, she was twenty-six years old and had been self-supporting for ten years; he was minister of labor in the military government and was nearly twice her age. In 1946 Juan Perón was elected president of Argentina in free elections, championing the cause of “justicialismo” (social justice) and Eva Perón took her place at his side as First Lady. She became the first presidential spouse to be portrayed in the official presidential portrait – and symbolically, she – not he – is depicted seated in the presidential chair while he stands at her side. She intended to stand beside her husband, not behind him. This was unprecedented!
The Museo Evita [Eva Peron Museum] in Buenos Aires opened in 2002 with support from the national government of Argentina This museum is committed to tell Eva’s story from the perspective of her achievements in social action, within the historical context of the period and to document the facts behind the myth of Evita. The affiliated research institute collects documentation, oral history interviews, and memorabilia, including many of Evita’s dresses and personal possessions. Both are housed in an exquisitely beautiful mansion, in the fashionable Recoleto district of Buenos Aires, which Eva Perón’s Foundation acquired in the 1940s and turned into a women’s shelter, much to the dismay of snobbish wealthy neighbors. Clio recently had the privilege of touring this museum. This is what Clio learned.
As First Lady, Eva took up the cause of women, children, the elderly, the “descamisados” (shirtless ones) of the working class. Following a successful campaign to give Argentine women the vote and full citizenship in 1947, she founded a women’s political party, the Partida Peronista Feminino. With her foundation, housed in the ministry of labor and social welfare, she served her people by creating a spectacular (though short-lived) system of social assistance: schools, toys and vacation camps for poor children, maternity clinics, an institute for training women as nurses, shelters for homeless or destitute women and children. She sponsored employment opportunities, housing, health care, education, and homes for the elderly. She advocated a salary for married women and mothers – to provide these women with “an income of her own apart from what the man wishes to give her.” She worked long days and into the nights; her door was always open to those in need. In consequence, the workers and trade-unionists began to view her as the heart and soul of the nation, spinning out the myth of “Evita” which grew to major proportions following her untimely death from cancer in 1952. Millions of Argentines, women and men, turned out for her funeral.
Evita insisted in her autobiographical memoir, La Razón de Mi Vida (The Mission of My Life), that Juan Domingo Perón had shown her the way to her feminist path, but hers was a womanly feminist path, what Clio would call “relational.” Both she and Juan rejected the notion that women should aspire to be like men. Both believed in the complementarity of the sexes and their distinctive, separate roles. Both thought that married women should not have to work for pay outside their homes. This was undoubtedly the dominant view in the 1940s and 1950s, but it did not preclude a feminist agenda.
In this memoir, published after her death, Evita presented her perspectives on many issues. Here are a few excerpts that Clio found especially memorable:
“A man of action is one who triumphs over all the rest. A woman of action is one who triumphs for the rest. Isn’t this a great difference?”
“Everything, absolutely everything in our contemporary world has been tailored to the measure of men. We [women] are absent from governments. We are absent from Parliaments. From international organizations. We are neither in the Vatican nor in the Kremlin. We are not part of the upper echelons of the imperialist countries. We are not in the atomic energy commissions. Nor in the great multinational corporations. Nor in freemasonry nor in any secret societies. We are not in any of the great power centers of the world.”
“… it is well to remember that Perón is not only President of the Republic, he is also the Leader of his people. This is a fundamental condition, and is directly related to my decision to handle the role of wife of the President of the Republic in a manner different from any President’s wife who had preceded me. . . .”
“I was not only the wife of the President of the Republic, I was also the wife of the Leader of the Argentines.
“I had to have a double personality to correspond with Perón’s double personality. One, Eva Perón, wife of the President, whose work is simple and agreeable, a holiday job of receiving honors, of gala performances; the other, ‘Evita,’ wife of the Leader of a people who have placed all their faith in him, all their hope and all their love.
“A few days of the year I act the part of Eva Perón; and I think I do better each time in that part, for it seems to me to be neither difficult nor disagreeable.
“The immense majority of days I am, on the other hand, ‘Evita,’ a link stretched between the hopes of the people and the fulfilling hands of Peron, Argentina’s first woman Peronista – and this indeed is a difficult role for me, and one in which I am never quite satisfied with myself.”
“The entire nation ends at the door of our home, and other laws and other rights begin . . . the law and the rights of man – who very often is only a master, and also, at times, a dictator. And nobody can interfere there.”
“The mother of a family is left out of all security measures. She is the only worker in the world without a salary, or a guarantee, or limited working hours, or free Sundays, or holidays, or any rest, or indemnity for dismissal, or strikes of any kind. All that, we learned as girls, belongs to the sphere of love . . . but the trouble is that after marriage, love often flies out of the window, and there everything becomes ‘forced labor’ . . . obligations without any rights! Free service in exchange for pain and sacrifice.”
“. . . the vote is its [the feminist movement’s] most powerful instrument, and with it we women of all the world have to win all our rights . . . or, rather, the great right of being simply women, and thus being able to fulfill, totally and absolutely, the mission that, as women, we have to perform for humanity. . . we cannot ever forget . . . that the vote, that is to say, ‘politics,’ is not an end but a means.”
What are your thoughts about powerful political activists like Evita?
Evita Peron, Evita by Evita: Eva Duarte Peron Tells Her Own Story (London: Proteus, 1978; first published in 1953 as La Razón De Mi Vida [The Mission of my Life]). Quotes: pp. 63, 199, 223-24, 57-58, 184, 182.
Museo Evita (Catalogue), coordinated by Pablo Vaca (Buenos Aires: Asociación Museo Evita, 2007).
J. M. Taylor, Eva Peron: The Myths of a Woman (University of Chicago Press, 1979).
Marysa Navarro, Evita (Buenos Aires: Edhasa, rev. ed. 2005).