In the late 19th century and early 20th century, Puerto Rican women with different perspectives and historical experiences began to demand the right to vote. The suffragist movement was not monolithic, but pluralistic, with various connections that interacted among each other and contributed to the struggle. For women workers, the movement was mainly a way to achieve a higher standard of living and labor rights. For middle-class women, it was a questioning of their subordinate position in the patriarchal society. Despite their differences, both working-class and middle-class women demanded full participation in the society in which they lived and worked. They could not accept being denied the main tool of democratic people: the right to vote.
With the arrival of industrialization and the strengthening of capitalism in Europe and the United States, the old social and material structures began to change, allowing a more active role for women in the public sphere. The new forms of production and liberal political modernization projects meant the home was not the only place for women. Their inclusion in the public sphere was accompanied by the need to prepare and educate them to be participants in society. That did not mean, however, full rights for women or the dismantling of the system of patriarchal oppression. They were included while their subordinate roles as mother and spouse were reinforced. Men in power strongly limited the participation of women in new political, economic and social projects, denying them the right to vote. In this context, in the second half of the 19th century, upper-class women in Europe and the United States raised their voices in protest and began to question their position in society and demand the right to vote through organized activism.
In Puerto Rico, under Spanish control, members of the island-born liberal intellectual elite adopted the European arguments for progress and modernization in defending the need to educate women. Alejandro Tapia y Rivera, Salvador Brau and Eugenio María de Hostos, among other intellectuals, supported education for females, as long as it did not prevent their social function: raising children. Beginning in 1860, several educational institutions for girls were formed on the island: the San Ildelfonso Refuge School, the Mothers of the Sacred Heart School, and the Ladies Association for the Instruction of Women. These efforts did not represent recognition of women’s political rights, however.
Educated women took the initiative and inserted themselves into the public sphere through their writing. Ana Roqué de Duprey, a teacher and writer originally from the town of Aguadilla, founded La Mujer, a feminist newspaper, in 1894. Other publications followed that lobbied for recognition of women’s rights and served as a starting point in the suffragist movement. The sector included women of the island elite who, in a strategic move, presented themselves as more interested in promoting the rights of literate women than in radically breaking the old patriarchal structures. The first demonstrations in favor of women’s right to vote appeared in 1896.
The change from Spanish to U.S. sovereignty did not mean women were immediately granted the right to vote. It was accomplished by years of tenacious effort. On one hand, working women inspired by the anarchist, unionist and Marxist doctrines of the era began to develop strong feminist convictions that led them to demand the right to vote. Their awareness was born from the shared histories and injustices experienced while working in the tobacco workshops or in the lectures given there. On the other hand, middle-class and upper-class women, intellectuals and professionals also fought for the right to vote from a more conservative and traditional perspective. They began to question their subordinate position in the patriarchal society.
Leaders such as Juana Colón, Ramona Delgado de Otero, and Luisa Capetillo had important roles in the labor movement. Among the rights that Colón, Delgado and Capetillo demanded for female workers were full political and social recognition for women. Delgado wrote in the newspaper El Pan del Pobre on September 7, 1901: “If I fill and continue to fill the columns of this brave newspaper that defends our ideals, it is only with the goal of making the inhabitants of our land know that those of us who wear skirts have already learned to understand the sacred rights of the worker, and not that we have not entered into the beautiful clash of ideas because we are women.” Labor leaders answered the call and, despite opposition, feminist ideas were included in the political platform of the Free Federation of Workers and the Socialist Party.
Upper-class and middle-class women, and those who had recently joined the workforce in new industries developed an awareness of the struggle in feminist publications and organizations. Among these publications were Pluma de Mujer, La Mujer del Siglo XX, and Nosotras. The voices of the feminist leaders Ana Roqué de Duprey, Isabel Andreu, Mercedes Solá and María Luisa de Angelis resounded strongly in constant demands.
Organizations such as the Feminine League and the Popular Feminist Association played key roles in the suffrage movement. The Feminine League, consisting of upper-class women, was the first suffragist organization founded in Puerto Rico. The organization defended women’s right to vote through the dispositions of the Jones Act, but only for literate women. To include in its demands the right of women to hold political office, the league changed its name in 1921 to the Suffragist Social League. The Popular Feminist Association of Women Workers of Puerto Rico was born in 1920 as part of the labor movement and defended universal suffrage. Its members came from the tobacco industry and were illiterate.
Rallies, marches, and petitions sent to the Legislature were constant in the 1920s, despite hard opposition. The suffragists got bills filed in 1919, 1921, 1923 and 1927 to allow women to vote, but all were in vain. In 1929, they achieved the partial success of obtaining the right to vote for literate women. In 1932, thousands of women voted for the first time, resulting in the election of Isabel Andreu and María Luis Arcelay to the Legislature.
Finally, in 1935, the right to vote was made universal. The right to vote recognized the full and active participation of women in the political sphere. While it did not end the system of patriarchal oppression, it did begin a rebalancing. Thanks to brave women such as Ramona Delgado de Otero, Juana Colón, Luisa Capetillo, Ana Roqué de Duprey, María Luisa Arcelay and Trinidad Padilla de Sanz, among many others, Puerto Rican women today fully enjoy the right to vote. Though it remains incomplete, they opened the way to full equality and justice for women in Puerto Rico.
Author: Yanelba Mota Maldonado
Published: February 23, 2016.
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