In the early 1920s, Cuban women experienced profound prejudice and discrimination, rooted in law and social convention. The immense majority of women of employment age did not work, and working women received salaries much lower than men for the same work. Women did not have the right to vote or to hold public office. The rights of women in the family also were minimal, as is illustrated by a law effectively granting a husband authorization to kill an adulterous wife (Instituto de Historia 1998:217-18).
In 1918, the Feminine Club of Cuba was formed, which led to the establishment of the National Federation of Feminine Associations of Cuba in 1921, with Pilar Morlón as president. The Federation convened the First National Congress of Women, held from April 1 to April 7, 1923, in which thirty-one organizations participated. The delegates to the Congress were middle class women with a variety of political, social, and religious perspectives, but on common ground with respect to the issue of gender. The Congress called for a campaign for woman suffrage; a struggle for the attainment of full and equal social, political, and economic rights for women; a battle against drugs and prostitution; the securing of laws for the protection of children; and the modification of teaching and education (Instituto de Historia 1998:217-18).
The Second National Congress of Women was held from April 12 to April 18, 1925, which passed resolutions similar to those of the first Congress. Reflecting a tendency toward the integration of the women’s movement with the workers’ movement and with the popular struggle for national liberation, the Second Congress included Estela Marrero, a delegate of the Union of Women Cigar Factory Workers, an important sector of working-class women; and Ana Cañizares, a delegate of the Anti-Clerical Federation of Cuba, which had been founded by Julio Antonio Mella in 1924 (Instituto de Historia 1998:218).
The evolution of social movements is significantly influenced by the political, economic, and ideological environment, and accordingly, the evolution of the women’s movement in Cuba has been different from its evolution in the United States. The women’s movement in the United States was formed in the 1840s, and it developed for the next twenty years in a national environment influenced by the abolitionist movement and the subsequent struggle for the protection of the rights of the emancipated slaves. In this progressive environment, the women’s movement called for full political, economic, and social rights for women, challenging laws and social conventions with respect to women in all areas of life. But from the 1870s to the beginning of the twentieth century, the nation turned to the Right, developing laws and customs of racial segregation and discrimination, and developing imperialist policies with respect to other lands. In this conservative ideological context, the women’s movement narrowed its program to the protection of the right to vote, and it de-emphasized calls for a comprehensive transformation of the economic and social position of women. The US sociologist Stephen Buechler (1990) describes this process as the transformation from a women’s rights movement to a woman suffrage movement. Later, in the context of the social movements that emerged in the 1950s and 1960s, which would culminate in the Revolution of 1968, the women’s movement would rediscover its liberationist roots, and it would be able to affect significant and permanent social changes with respect to women, although it has been somewhat restrained since the restoration of the conservative mood in 1979. At the same time, consistent with limitations in the development of US popular movements, the evolution of the women’s movement would be characterized by limited integration with movements formed by other popular sectors of African-Americans, Latinos, indigenous peoples, workers, and farmers.
In contrast, the women’s movement in Cuba emerged at a time of the revitalization of popular revolutionary movements in the 1920s, and it evolved in the context of the continuing popular revolution, which triumphed in 1959. For both the women’s movement and the various popular sectors that formed the revolution in Cuba, the compelling mutually beneficial political strategy was the integration of women’s demands into the popular struggle. At the same time, the turn of the popular movement to Marxism-Leninism (see “Mella fuses Martí and Marxism-Leninism” 7/9/2014), with its prior appropriation of the principle of full equal rights for women, gave ideological reinforcement to the integrationist strategy. Thus, the dynamics in Cuba favored the tendency for the women’s movement to continue its radical demands for the full political, economic, and social rights of women and a social transformation with respect to gender, integrating itself into a general popular struggle that was seeking a fundamental political-economic-social-cultural transformation.
With the triumph of the revolution, the principle of gender equality was given high priority in word and in practice, such that women have played an important role, and in some respects a dominant role, in the development of the socialist revolution, particularly in the areas of science, education and health. The Federation of Cuban Women (FMC) was founded in 1960 by Wilma Espín, a prominent member of Fidel’s July 26 Movement and wife of Raúl Castro. The FMC organizes woman in neighborhoods throughout Cuba, providing women with an opportunity to discuss their particular needs and concerns, and it has a constitutionally guaranteed voice in the national decision-making process. With the participation of 85% or 90% of Cuban women over the age of 16, the FMC is today one of the principle mass organizations in Cuba, alongside those of workers, students, and agricultural workers and cooperativists.
In some respects, the integrationist orientation of the Cuban women’s movement has made it more conservative than the women’s movements in the North. Not wanting to provoke rejection by other popular sectors, the women’s movement in Cuba has persistently maintained a cooperative rather than conflictive orientation with the revolutionary movement and leadership and with the revolutionary government; and it has been cautious with respect to potentially divisive issues, such as lesbianism. Because of its integrationist, cooperative, and cautious approach, it has not generated the popular hostility that the US women’s movement has generated; and it has attained, in cooperation with other popular movements, a radical transformation with respect to gender as well as other social dynamics pertaining to race, class, and imperialism.
We will be further describing the Cuban Revolution as an integral movement uniting various popular sectors and characterized by high levels of popular participation in subsequent posts.
Buechler, Steven M. 1990. Women’s Movements in the United States. New Brunswick: Rutgers University Press.
Instituto de Historia de Cuba. 1998. La neocolonia. La Habana: Editora Política.
Key words: Third World, revolution, colonialism, neocolonialism, imperialism, democracy, national liberation, sovereignty, self-determination, socialism, Marxism, Leninism, Cuba, Latin America, world-system, world-economy, development, underdevelopment, colonial, neocolonial, blog Third World perspective, Cuban Revolution, neocolonial republic, women’s movement, 1920s