The Condition of Woman
Note: Alicia Jurado (1922-2011) was part of a generation of Argentine writers and intellectuals including Borges, with whom she co-wrote a book on Buddhism. Though lauded as a major figure of letters in her time, Jurado’s passing two years ago went largely unnoticed in the Argentine media, with only a few major newspapers publishing an obituary. In the English-speaking world, she remains virtually unknown. Yet her socially aware, beautifully-written novels and autobiographical works are still worth reading today for both style and content, even if one takes issue with her strongly anti-Peronist views. The following is an excerpt of the tenth chapter of her 1989 memoir Descubrimiento del mundo, in which she discusses the woman in Argentine society.
I don’t know if today’s young women are fully aware of the vast change that has occurred in our lives over the last fifty years. During the last half century, and with a prodigious rapidity if compared with the stagnation of millennia, the right has been given to us to study and work, to follow a profession, to live and travel alone, to make a career in the arts and not be a mere adornment of the home, and to practice sexual freedom, family planning, and political activity, among other things it would be tedious to number. I have been witness to that change and had the fortune of enjoying it in its early stages, at least so far as study goes.
At the age I entered secondary school, not many girls studied for a diploma, and in the social group in which I moved one could count them on the fingers of one hand. Some followed a short secretarial course that qualified them for a position in which they had to know shorthand and how to use a typewriter; others studied for a teaching degree, which could mean immediate work upon graduating and, what’s more, work accepted as appropriate to their sex. But the diploma was for general instruction, of little use unless studied as a prior stage to the university, where the number of women was negligible, and in certain courses nearly zero. My cousin Nair had begun it before me — both of us had intelligent and progressive mothers — and, with my eagerness to learn everything, it seemed natural that I follow her example.
Mama never wanted to send me to a nun’s school like the Sacred Heart or the Holy Union, where the majority of young girls of traditional, or as was said then, distinguished, family went; nor did she grant my desire to be a pupil at an English school, which I dreamed of because at age ten or eleven I had my head full of a typically British literary genre, the school story, of which I possessed innumerable volumes and whose author, Angela Brazil, had given me the impression that English schools were a seedbed of the most exciting and improbable adventures. I had some friends who went to the Michael Ham Memorial College, and although their adventures didn’t go beyond some bruises playing hockey, the literary prestige that boarding school had for me made me beg my mother to send me. Mama didn’t want me to go to boarding school, as she wanted to watch over me personally; in truth, she didn’t want me in any kind of private school, since she maintained that in public schools the teaching was better and more severe, since there was no interest in either retaining the student or making him pass. In those days, she was right; later, the deterioration of public education in Argentina was so complete that students now often arrive at university and leave it without knowing how to form a coherent phrase and lacking even the rudiments of general culture. But that, as Kipling would say, is another story.
At university, I repeat, few women attended and nearly none within the social circle I frequented. This was a narrow circle, somewhat heterogeneous if compared with its European equivalents, of rigid tradition but sufficiently reduced that all knew by memory the surnames that composed it, to the point that saying he has a known surname was enough to situate someone. As in all closed circles, the members married among themselves, and those who intended to do so with a person of another background faced universal opposition. Money could overcome some of this resistance, but it didn’t have the prestige conceded to it today; a gringo with money was seen poorly by parents, and all possible was done to avoid the mésalliance. The result was a group in which everybody knew who was who, and the story of their family; members recognised each other immediately because of a common language and a series of conventions and presuppositions that all shared. To ensure that a daughter didn’t have the notion of marrying someone outside the group, the obvious precaution was to prevent her from ever meeting him; for that reason extreme caution was taken in the selection of friendships, and for all that one could co-fraternise in primary or secondary school, only girls of the same background were invited to one’s own house or visited at theirs. Other girls might, of course, be wonderful, but the risk was that they had brothers.
I accepted, during the first years of my life and like any other creature, the circumstances that surrounded me. That circle had not yet been displaced in journalistic interest by the jet-set, that peculiar mixture of cinema actresses, famous sport figures, deposed kings, successful businessmen, international playboys, and other elements which today invade the magazine pages, whose only common denominator is to possess a great deal of money. Back then, magazines occupied themselves with what they called our grand world, describing the parties, engagements, weddings, and other social activities, and the dresses of the ladies and as much innocent frivolity as could be divulged, because gossip or the publication of intimate secrets would in no way be permitted to journalists as it is today. Frequently there was a section called Our girls, with photographs of the girls who were single and at the ‘deserving age’, as novels of the previous century referred to it. I didn’t like to appear in them, because one of my cousins had told me that he knew an anarchist who covered the walls of his hovel with faces cut out of the magazine Atlántida, with the goal of recognising us and avenging social injustices on the day of the Revolution; the idea that my face might be decorating the anarchist’s walls that very moment disturbed me.
Seen with the perspective granted by the years, this class, today rather disintegrated by fusion with the higher strata of the middle class, was neither better nor worse morally than any other, and had the advantages of an education amounting to several generations, a code of conduct whose transgression meant ostracism, and a refinement in tastes and manners that made the behaviour and aesthetic of the environment in which one moved agreeable. The majority were not excessively rich, but rather had simple customs and preferred poor relatives over upstarts of dubious origin. Many were landowners and had the simplicity of those raised in contact with the land and its inhabitants; with rare exceptions, they were courteous and considerate with the people they encountered. Very far from what might be inferred from the film Miss Mary, the typical family was not constituted by a shameless husband, a mad woman, some arteriosclerotic grandparents, and a few small children who make obscene jokes at the expense of their governess, who sacrifices her virginity in a yacht full of people for pure sport, with a boy with whom she isn’t in love. The family referred to in the film, if it had a counterpart in reality, was so anomalous that it seems unjust to me to have shown it to a public that, in its ignorance, likely took it for a typical example. Forgive this cinematic digression, but I cannot help but regret that the director, after the unobjectionable splendour of Camila, offended his own social sphere, spreading its image by means of that absurd family of neurotic millionaires.
“It was better that she didn’t have too much character”
Returning to the theme of marriage, a girl could marry the candidate she had the liberty of choosing, but within the circle in which choice was permitted to her, and as long as her parents approved the personal conditions of the aspirant. She had to — and this admitted no discussion whatsoever— be a virgin when she married; no man would have accepted her otherwise. It was necessary that she know how to run her house and possess basic notions of the domestic arts, although not too much was demanded of her in this respect because these tasks were taken care of by others; she had to be flirtatious in her self-presentation, well-mannered, if possible pretty, sweet, obliging, tender, and good. Intellectual virtues were appreciated little and the same went for more serious aspects of culture, although nobody objected if she knew a bit about silver, porcelain, lacework and embroidery, knew how to gracefully arrange a vase, and perhaps played some musical instrument, despite the fact that the obligatory piano had already been abolished in my generation. It was better that she didn’t have too much character, in order to get along well with her husband; her cowardliness or ignorance, if she suffered them, would be one charm more in the eyes of her besotted fiancé.
It is difficult, as I have already said in another context, to break the moulds in which we have been formed when young. But like any thoughtful girl, I had noticed since I was small that the second sex occupied an inferior position in all of society’s plans and saw itself ringed in by multiple restrictions, of which the men of the family were exempt. To perceive this and to rebel, for me at least, was all one, but my eyes had to be opened by many subsequent readings in order to distinguish with some objectivity that what concerns the feminine condition. Personally, I was not frustrated. It is true that I would never have been permitted to be an opera singer and die a death dreamed by Puccini or Verdi, while splendidly dressed on the stage of the Colón; but I won the battle of university, I had at my disposition vast quantities of books, and I wasn’t impeded from learning anything I wanted. Like Mary Wollstonecraft in her poignant Vindication of the Rights of Women, inspired by those Rights of Man in which the French revolution forgot woman, I asked nothing more than that I be taught. It is true that this was not insignificant, since by that door one moved on to questioning everything and to comparing, revising, assessing, and examining each one of the ideas that had previously been accepted without discussion, seeing them from different angles and establishing new relationships between them. Virginia Woolf passed through that door when in Three Guineas she questioned with such lucidity that which she denominated fictitious loyalties to masculine habits of thought and traditional male values, as for instance when writing about the attitude of females faced with war.
“I am not an adornment, I am a person”
In the faculty, the differences of the sexes didn’t disturb us; we were all equals, with the exception perhaps that we addressed each other with the informal ‘tu’ when with persons of the same sex but not when with those of the other. It would have occurred to nobody to look down on us, because they saw that we performed in our jobs and exams as well as the boys, and in many cases better. It was in another environment that I would often have harsh discussions on the theme. There, attentions and gallantries were paid to us that often were nothing but a disguise for the profound disdain we inspired as human beings, though as sexual objects we awoke intense passions. There was always someone who insisted on the classic feminine stereotype: that woman was emotional, incapable of reason, suitable only for reproduction; that she obtained from man all she desired with her mere charms and had no need of rights. Inspiring muse, ornament and jewel of the home, what necessity did she have for artistic creation, scientific investigation, or participation in the daily struggle? I grew indignant and argued heatedly, because nothing infuriates a young person so much as injustice: I am not incapable of thinking, I do not want to be an animal for breeding, and what should the ugly women, the old women, the widows, and unmarried do to obtain something if they don’t have someone to flatter with ruses and flutterings of the eyelashes? Do they have no right to anything? I do not want to be a muse, I want to work. I am not an adornment, I am a person.
At home, Mama agreed with me completely; Papa, though old-fashioned and reluctant to let me study at first, came to boast of the good grades I received on my exams to his friends at the Jockey Club (as I came to know through one of them). My uncle Pastor encouraged me, interesting himself in my studies, but the day I learned of his regret that I was not a male, as in his judgement I would have given lustre to our surname, I wrote to Papa, who was then on the ranch, a letter that I still possess and that today makes me smile at the insolence — I would nearly say the cheek – of my boastful eighteen years.
Tell Pastor on my part, I wrote, that he should not regret I am a woman; while once I passed my short life mourning it, today I do not do so. Many times I clamoured against the destiny that did not make me a man, not so much for the detail of the surname itself but for the thousand advantages of all orders it signifies; but today I think that this same fate made me a woman to help other women, so that I am strong and a fighter and untameable and independent, so that setbacks do not daunt me nor obstacles frighten me, so that I go out one day in defence of my poor sex, overcome by centuries of oppression and ignorance, and raise it up, dignify it, and teach it to be conscious of its own rights and possibilities, telling it that it is the hour to leave off being simple spectators of the progress of the world and begin to be workers, to act in all fields that life offers and be useful members of the community instead of social parasites with no other aspiration but dressing well, eating well and having the best time possible: sad aspiration, I say with shame and pain, of the great majority. The text continues in this same vehement tone, claiming that we areneither useless, nor inferior, nor incapable, and all that nullifies us is ignorance and poor education with respect to our duties, and the day one prepares us, we will be as brave and capable and commendable, as hard-working and conscientious and responsible, as the best of men. That hurricane concludes with the final boast: As far as your surname goes, today a woman is the one making it appear at the head of exam lists; perhaps tomorrow, if my luck equals my energy, a woman will also give it more lustre than anyone suspects.
I imagine the perplexity that my poor father must have felt upon receiving the missive, asking himself, with the mentality of a conservative creole gentleman, what class of devil-possessed suffragist he had engendered. The letter is from 1940; I do not have his reply, if I ever had it, and do not remember any comments from him. The intentions I outlined then with such heat remained unfulfilled: I never militated in any feminist movement, never wrote any book in defence of our cause, and never headed any agitation in favour of the female vote. I also dreamed of being a brilliant woman of science and was not, because life offers many paths when one begins it, but finally only one is chosen. In Argentina and without my intervention, my desires were fulfilled. The vast majority of women work and dedicate themselves less to frivolity; in the universities, they are signed up for all the courses; there are few doors which still remain closed to them. Suffrage arrived to us at a moment in which there were few motives to celebrate, because it was voted as a consequence of an electoral calculation by Perón, sure that he would increase the number of supporters by incorporating the feminine masses; however, the shady motives have been forgotten and suffrage remains. As far as customs go, much more important than laws in establishing woman’s position, these have been modified so much that I prefer not to think how a boy would be received today who dared propose to a university girl the role of muse or domestic adornment.However, neither is it a question of deluding oneself too much. The great advance of woman has only been in the educated strata of an urban population and in countries belonging to western culture. In Asia, in Africa, in the rural zones and lower classes, masculine despotism continues to reign, as do the thousand-year old habits that respond to it. Feminism has a great task ahead of it and will continue to have one for many decades.Even in advanced communities, the traditional image of woman in her role as housewife and mother has persisted with significant force. For example, one can see young people married with children going to work full of feelings of guilt created by feminine magazines and television, which insist on the necessity of not separating oneself a single instant from the children, as if a few hours of rest from the mother weren’t treasured by the latter like pearls, and vice versa.
“My eyes weren’t closed”
Although I never worked for that cause in active form, I have always considered myself a feminist, a word that simply means agreeing that woman has the same rights and same opportunities as man. It is curious that the word produces such panic for many women, who do not read the dictionary and hasten to exclaim, as if defending themselves against an accusation, I’m not a feminist! They believe that the term signifies lesbian, or a person who hates the masculine sex, or some mad idea like that, something that strips them of their femininity. In contrast, I have no problem in affirming, if the term is understood with its correct meaning, that I have been a feminist since adolescence. But I needed many years to see clearly in this matter, or at least, to set to one side the accumulation of prejudices and stereotyped images with which the greater part of society operates, as well as my own irritation when confronted with them. The problem for us, like all those of our species, like all those of a biological nature, is that the sex that incubates its offspring within its own body is at a tremendous disadvantage with respect to that which does not do so; it is natural that the male, with the tendency the human being has to dominate and subjugate the weakest, whoever it is, has subjugated his partner and then invented laws or implanted customs to secure and establish his power. And it is so difficult to break the habits of thought incorporated since the start of life that we cannot be angry with our contemporaries for enjoying a state of things which they did not establish, but which they defend and justify because it coincides with their interests. Few are like Stuart Mill, who in the middle of the Victorian age dared maintain that the total talent available to humanity is too scarce to permit ourselves to do without half of it; women should revere men like these, because they were defenders of someone else’s cause, and preferred the justice of that cause to the advantages of leaving things as they were. But we cannot ask that level of comprehension and generosity of all men; the majority have had to change little by little, and now the force of circumstance has modified the point of view of many, above all the youngest. Men and women share a characteristic of humankind: they are little given to reason. But one doesn’t have to upset oneself about this, because both also have other charms, to which it would be absurd to close one’s eyes. It’s enough to say that my eyes weren’t closed to them.