What sort of views on feminism were expressed by the Puerto Rican press in the early 20th century? This is an important question to ask considering that the first wave of feminism took place from the late 19th century to the early 1900s, as women advocated for more opportunities and their right to vote. Scholar Isabel Picó de Hernández mentions in her chapter “The History of Women’s Struggle for Equality in Puerto Rico”, found in the book The Puerto Rican Woman, that there was a lack of a feminist movement and consciousness during most of the nineteenth century on the island (Acosta 25). She attributes this to the fact that many women in Puerto Rico during that time did not have access to a proper education and spent most of their time at home performing domestic duties. These circumstances made it difficult for women on the island to establish a solid feminist movement, similar to the ones found in the United States and Europe during the nineteenth century (Acosta 2). Discussions around women’s emancipation by Puerto Rican intellectual elites did not begin until the late 19th century. However, as the island’s economic situation changed due to the United States occupation of Puerto Rico in 1898, more women began participating in the labor force which allowed for the establishment of a feminist movement in the first decades of the 20th century (Acosta 3). This is reflected in the Puerto Rican newspaper La Democracia (1890-1948).
La Democracia was founded by Luis Muñoz Rivera in Ponce, a town that at the time was a major center for nationalist and intellectual discourse. In the front page of a July 14, 1891 issue of La Democracia, Luis Muñoz Rivera states some of the goals of the newspaper, which include giving the newspaper a “modern character, one that is compatible with the intellectual progress of the country” and providing its audiences coverage on a variety of topics.
The topic of feminism and women’s rights was explicitly discussed throughout the newspaper, but mostly by male intellectuals and writers. Some of these male writers supported feminism, while many wrote against it believing it would promote indecency and take away from women’s maternal roles (Findlay 82).
In a May 6, 1907 issue of La Democracia one can find a section titled “Sobre el Feminismo.” It was written by Mariano Abril y Ostalo, a writer and politician who would eventually become the director of La Democracia. In the article, Abril opens up by stating “It is truly alarming how the feminist movement is operating in many nations. Because it is not a movement that tends to elevate and dignify the women, rather the contrary.”
He continues later on asserting “Men have opened up for women all avenues of knowledge, all the doors of universities and academies. And nevertheless, women have not distinguished themselves in anything, they have not invented anything. We have female engineers, doctors, lawyers and they have not opened a tunnel… Progress is man’s work.” Clearly, the article shows disdain for feminism and demeans women in an ignorant manner.
The article however did not go unnoticed and was criticized by Nemesio R. Cannales in La Democracia twelve days later. Nemesio R. Cannales was a lawyer and a major literary figure in Puerto Rico that advocated for women’s rights in the early part of the 20th century. The piece he wrote for La Democracia was also titled “Sobre el Feminismo.” In it, Cannales references Abril and his article declaring “Our friend Abril softens himself and cries before the boldness of the modern woman, the female doctor, the female police officer, the female lawyer, the female voter and he dies of rage and pain thinking that the adorable type of woman that is the married woman, the doll, the object, the seamstress and mender is quickly disappearing.”
He goes to attack Abril’s statement of that women “have not invented anything” and declares that this does not show “a lack of intelligence”, but a lack of an “environment for the expansion and development of their abilities. And, even with that, the cleverest man is a complete a solemn dunce next to the most awkward among them.” Hence, with this article one sees a different point of view towards the feminist movement.
Eight days after the publication of Cannales’ article, La Democracia ran a piece that commented on both men’s point of view. While the author disagrees with both men saying that La Democracia does “not accept the reactionary form of the first (Abril), nor the liberal form of the second (Cannales)”, he tends to be more critical of Cannales. Moreover, he explains that Cannales’ school of thought is both radical and dangerous, and comes to agree with a few of Abril’s ideas.
These articles demonstrate how La Democracia tried to bring forth different perspectives, both conservative and liberal, on important topics, such as feminism. However, one needs to keep in mind that these works are written by men with no input by women. Were there Puerto Rican female writers contributing to La Democracia and writing about their own feminist ideas? According to her biography by Norma Valle-Ferrer, Luisa Capetillo, a major figure and leading force in the Puerto Rican feminist movement, did work as a correspondent for La Democracia. However, it is difficult to find her name mentioned in the newspaper in Chronicling America. Many of the sections of La Democracia are published without indicating who the author is and therefore, it is possible that her contributions to the newspaper do not include her name. This deserves a more thorough investigation.
There are more writings on feminism and women’s rights throughout the Puerto Rican press during the beginnings of the 20th century. This post provides a glimpse with a few examples from La Democracia. Additionally, it is important to note the female writers and activists that lead the feminist discourse on the island during this time, including not only Luisa Capetillo, but also María Luisa de Angelis and Ana Roqué de Duprey. Their works and essays can be found in other published works. María Luisa de Angelis for example wrote Mujeres puertorriqueñas: que se han distinguido en el cultivo de las ciencias, las letras y las artes desde el siglo XVII hasta nuestros días in 1908, a book in which she challenges underrepresentation and focuses of the achievements of Puerto Rican women in academic circles. Ana Roqué de Duprey founded several innovative and revolutionary publications, including La Evolución, Álbum Puertorriqueño, Heraldo de la Mujer and La Mujer del Siglo XX. It is interesting to look at their works and see their contributions to the Puerto Rican feminist movement.
***Versión en español se encuentra aquí: Discusiones sobre el feminismo en La Democracia***
Acosta Belén, Edna, and Elia Hidalgo Christensen. 1979. The puerto rican woman. New York: Praeger.
Angelis, María Luisa de. Mujeres puertorriqueñas : Que se han distinguido en el cultivo de las ciencias, las letras y las artes desde el siglo XVII hasta nuestros días. 2. ed. ed. Puerto Rico: Tip. de Real Hermanos, http://hdl.handle.net/2027/uiug.30112070227613.
Findlay, Eileen. 1999. Imposing decency: The politics of sexuality and race in puerto rico, 1870-1920. Durham, NC: Duke University Press.
“La Democracia.” News about Chronicling America RSS. Accessed June 28, 2018. https://chroniclingamerica.loc.gov/essays/1195/.
Latino Rebels. “Ana Roqué: The Feminist Flower.” Latino Rebels. September 30, 2015. Accessed June 29, 2018. http://www.latinorebels.com/2015/09/21/the-feminist-flower/
Valle Ferrer, Norma. 2006. Luisa capetillo, pioneer puerto rican feminist. New York: Peter Lang.