When the Man Gets You Down… Or the Power of Transnational Feminism

When the Man Gets You Down… Or the Power of Transnational Feminism

Over the last fifteen years, Latin America has seen the rise and fall of women in politics. A decade before the U.S. (almost) elected their first woman president, Chile elected Michelle Bachelet (2006-2010 and 2014-present); Argentina voted in Cristina Kirchner (2007-1015); and Brazil chose Dilma Rousseff (2010-2016). These women ran on mainly leftist platforms and often pushed for women’s rights, lest one think that being a woman is the same thing as being a feminist politician. Yet they have also faced serious setbacks. Corruption has rocked these women’s administrations with the same ferocity as their male counterparts. While corruption scandals don’t seem to discriminate based on gender, public backlash and congressional inquiry do. For example, Dilma Rousseff was recently impeached on charges nowhere near comparable to those currently being levied against the male politicians who led the charges against her.

To students of Brazilian history, Dilma Rousseff’s recent political rise and fall is neither surprising nor new. In fact, the country has a long and illustrious feminist tradition interposed with authoritarian political actions. Brazilian feminists such as the scientist and politician Bertha Lutz paved the way for the political careers of Rousseff, Bachelet, and Kirchner. Lutz championed women’s suffrage in Brazil and worked transnationally with feminists across the globe on women’s rights, all the while building an illustrious career as a scientist. Yet the country’s unstable democracy — with long periods of authoritarian and even military rule — forced Lutz to constantly revamp her activism, shifting her goals and actions to the political climate at hand.

Portrait of Bertha Lutz in 1925 (Library of Congress | Public Domain)
Portrait of Bertha Lutz in 1925 (Library of Congress | Public Domain)

Bertha Maria Júlia Lutz was born in São Paulo, Brazil in 1894 to the Swiss-Brazilian scientist Adolfo Lutz and the English nurse Amy Fowler. Lutz started her schooling in Brazil but completed her higher education in Europe, studying first in England before receiving a degree in biology from the Sorbonne in 1918. (She would later earn her law degree in 1933). While in England, Lutz witnessed the English suffrage movement, and her early writings show the influence this activism had on her incipient feminist identity.1

Upon her return to Brazil, Lutz became the second Brazilian woman to hold a civil service position after she competed for and won a post as secretary at Rio de Janeiro’s National Museum (Museu Nacional), where she would later advance through the ranks and enjoy a forty-five-year scientific career. Trained as a zoologist and working as a herpetologist (the study of frogs), Lutz’s scientific endeavors brought her national and international fame, gaining international prominence in a period when prominent female careers in science were rare.

Throughout the 1920s, Lutz became active in transnational feminist circles, working with American feminists such as Carrie Chapman Catt, while also organizing a formidable woman’s suffrage campaign in Brazil. In August 1922, Lutz founded the Brazilian Federation for Female Progress (Progress Federação Brasileira pelo Progresso Feminino, FBPF). The group’s main goal was women’s suffrage, but they also campaigned for women’s educational, civil, and employment rights.2 Like many suffragist campaigns, the FBPF’s members were mainly middle- and upper-class women. Women of color were not represented in its ranks, not surprising in a country that only thirty years earlier had abolished slavery.

In 1930, political change swept the country as Brazil’s liberal First Republic (1889-1930) fell to the Revolution of 1930, led by populist leader Getúlio Vargas, whose rise to power altered the existing political structure based on a longstanding tradition of patronage and economic privilege. This political change facilitated the continued efforts of the FBPF, as Vargas was sympathetic to their cause.3 On February 24, 1932, the federal government passed Decree 21.076, granting literate women the right to vote. It was the third country in Latin America to pass women’s suffrage after Ecuador and Chile. In 1936, Lutz became a federal congresswoman in Brazil and assumed the chair of the Special Congressional Commission on the Statute on Women. As a legislator, she advanced a feminist agenda, advocating for married women’s civil rights and gender equality before the law.

Despite the major advances the feminist movement had made, by the mid-1930s, political unrest threatened the new Vargas government. Vargas began to crack down on political organizing and ultimately dissolved Congress and ended electoral politics with the onset of his dictatorial Estado Novo (1937-1945). Vargas’s corporatist-fascist dictatorship co-opted all forms of activism, subsuming labor and women’s rights under a clientelistic patronage system in which the government provided services and favors in return for support. In other words, the Estado Novo de-politicized the women’s movement by including it within an authoritarian political system.4

While Lutz’s feminist agenda suffered under the Estado Novo, her career as a scientist, as well as those of other female scientists, gained considerable traction. At the National Museum, Lutz was promoted repeatedly throughout the 1930s, and by 1937 she had achieved the scientific post of naturalist. She was named to national scientific bodies, and her scientific organizing demonstrated her interest in supporting the growth of scientific institutions in Brazil. In fact, her career was pioneering in the male-dominated scientific community.5

Brazilian propaganda issued under Getúlio Vargas's regime. (Unknown/Wikimedia | Public Domain)
Brazilian propaganda issued under Getúlio Vargas’s regime. (Unknown/Wikimedia | Public Domain)

After Vargas was disposed in a coup in 1945, Bertha Lutz was one of four women who signed the newly-formed United Nation’s Charter in San Francisco. The preamble to the document included the mention of “equal rights of men and women.” Lutz was also instrumental in forcing the UN to create a specific committee to study women, later named the Commission on the Status of Women.6

While scholars have studied Lutz’s early national and international feminist career, less is known about her feminist activism after the UN’s Charter in 1945. Examining the Bertha Lutz collection at the Museu Nacional, however, demonstrates that Lutz continued her feminist organizing and scientific inquiry for decades after playing her pivotal role at the 1945 meeting. She continued her feminist and scientific friendships and served as the Brazilian delegate to the Inter-American Commission on Women throughout the 1950s and 60s.7 In 1975, thirty years after the UN was formed, Lutz arrived as a representative of Brazil in Mexico City for the UN’s first International Women’s Year. After the Conference, true to her scientific nature, Lutz spent “a delightful day in the Zoological Institute and in the Botanical Gardens of Chapultepec.”8

Lutz’s career serves as an important reminder of how feminist organizing and progressive movements don’t work in a linear movement. Lutz worked tirelessly to pass women’s suffrage, but just a few years later an authoritarian government shut women out of politics entirely. But Lutz didn’t give up; rather, she focused her energies elsewhere by advancing her scientific endeavors, working with international organizations, and pushing for women’s rights when electoral politics returned in Brazil. When authoritarianism once again took power with Brazil’s twenty-year military dictatorship (1964-1985), Lutz focused once again on her international connections, advancing the Inter-American Commission on Women. It is fitting to remember that this was the same dictatorship that captured and tortured Dilma Rousseff for her leftist militancy. Lutz’s amazing career can serve as a reminder that when the man gets you down, you have to get back up. And it seems that women across the Americas have taken this to heart.


  1. Katherine M. Marino, “Transnational Pan-American Feminism: The Friendship of Bertha Lutz and Mary Wihelmine Williams, 1926-1944,” Journal of Women’s History 26.2 (2014): 68; Rachel Soihet, “A pedagogia da conquista do espaço público pelas mulheres e a militância feminista de Bertha Lutz,” Revista Brasileira de Educação, no. 15 (2000): 100. Return to text.
  2. Susan K. Besse, Restructuring Patriarchy: The Modernization of Gender Inequality in Brazil, 1914-1940 (Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 1996), 166. Return to text.
  3. Ibid., 169; June Hahner, Emancipating the Female Sex: The Struggle for Women’s Rights in Brazil, 1850-1940 (Durham: Duke University Press, 1990), 159–61. Return to text.
  4. Besse, Restructuring Patriarchy, 174; Hahner, Emancipating the Female Sex, 176–77; Marino, “Transnational Pan-American Feminism,” 77; Soihet, “A pedagogia da conquista,” 115. Return to text.
  5. Jaime L. Benchimol et al., “Bertha Lutz e a construção da memória de Adolpho Lutz,” História, Ciências, Saúde – Manguinhos 10, no. 1 (2003): 203–50; Mariana Moraes de Oliveira Sombrio, Maria Margaret Lopes, and Léa Maria Leme Strini Velho, “Práticas e disputas em torno do patrimônio científico-cultural: Bertha Lutz no Conselho de Fiscalização das Expedições Artísticas e Científicas do Brasil,” Varia História 24, no. 39 (2008): 311–27. Return to text.
  6. Marino, “Transnational Pan-American Feminism.” Return to text.
  7. Museu Nacional (BR, MN), Bertha Lutz (BL). Return to text.
  8. Maria Margaret Lopes, Lia Gomes Pinto de Sousa, and Mariana Moraes de Oliveira Sombrio, “A construção da invisibilidade das mulheres nas ciências: a exemplaridade de Bertha Maria Júlia Lutz (1894-1976),” Gênero 5, no. 1 (2004): 97–109. Return to text.

Cassia received her PhD in Latin American History with a Concentration in Gender Studies from the University of California, Los Angeles. Her book manuscript, titled A Miscarriage of Justice: Reproduction, Medicine, and the Law in Rio de Janeiro, Brazil (1890-1940), examines reproductive health in relation to legal and medical policy in turn-of-the-century Rio de Janeiro. Cassia’s research has been supported by the Woodrow Wilson Foundation, the Coordinating Council for Women in History, the Fulbright IIE, and the National Science Foundation.