Of all changes occurred in the last two decades, the most impressive
was the massive entrance of Brazilian women into the nation’s workforce.
They are in the Army, the Brazilian Academy of Letters,
and all the government branches. The first woman was just appointed
to the 11-seat Supreme Federal Tribunal.
By Marta Alvim
Nearly sixty years ago, songwriters Ataulfo Alves and Mário Lago teamed up to compose
what would become one of the most enduring hits in the history of Brazilian popular music.
It was an unpretentious samba, called Ai, que saudades da Amélia, and it struck
a chord with both male and female audiences throughout Brazil. Lago’s lyrics rhapsodized
about a former loverAmélia, "a mulher de verdade" (the real
woman)who had stuck by her partner faithfully under the most excruciating
That samba so accurately mirrored society’s entrenched view on the "proper"
role of females that before long, Amélia was unofficially incorporated into the
(Brazilian) Portuguese vernacular. According to the Aurélio Dictionary (Brazil’s
most prestigious), Amélia is synonymous with "a woman who accepts all sorts of
afflictions and/or abuse, without complaining, for the love of her man." Even today’s
generation of young Brazilians knows what "ser uma Amélia" (to be an
Amélia) means, although the number of Brazil’s Amélias has since dwindled
Brazilian women have arrived at the end of the 20th century with a long list
of achievements to celebrate. Be they famous or unknown, they’ve achieved the right to
vote and decide what to do with their own bodies with regards to birth control. They have
stormed the workplace and taken over traditionally held male realms. They have demanded
and succeeded in putting a stop to the impunity bestowed upon wife killers, who invariably
got acquitted for their "crimes of passion" by pleading the "honor
defense" on the grounds of wife’s adultery.
It hasn’t been easy to overcome cultural barriers against Brazilian women, especially
since the laws of the nation only reinforced women’s marginal role in society. Until the
early ’60s, Brazil’s Civil Code recognized only the man as the sole head of the household,
and it greatly restricted women’s rights concerning fundamental aspects of her life. By
getting married, for instance, women became subject to their husbands’ authorization just
to sign a work contract; to open a checking or savings account; to travel abroad; and she
did not even have a say when it came down to deciding where the couple would set up
In 1962, those resolutions were stripped off the Civil Code, and the following years
were marked by significant changes. For one thing, women’s enrollment in Brazilian
universities soared, and that in turn increased their presence in less traditional areas
of the job market. However, it wasn’t until the mid ’70s that the first organized women’s
groups started to blossom and to spread all over the country.
The Feminist Movement
Although the ideas of American feminist Betty Friedan and French philosopher Simone de
Beauvoir were discussed and debated by Brazilian women in the early stages of Brazil’s
feminism, Brazilian women’s movements have always been more active and successful in
dealing with concrete social issues. Whereas in the United States women were proclaiming
free love, in Brazil the Female Movement Against High Prices was demanding more food for
the nation’s households. And while hordes of French women took to the streets of Paris,
demanding the right to have an abortion, in Brazil the Female Movement for Amnesty was
confronting the military dictatorship, which then ruled Brazil with an iron fist.
Thousands of husbands had either disappeared or been arrested under the military rule, and
women were fighting to bring them home.
However, this doesn’t mean to say that no reshaping of Brazilian attitudes towards
women was taking place on other fronts. The media began to openly discuss issues related
to women’s sexuality, including some that had been taboo subjects before, such as
lesbianism and birth control. Plays, movies and TV soap operas also reveled in these new
sources of inspiration and reference.
In 1980, Malu Mulher (Malu Woman) was the most popular and successful TV program
in Brazil. In its weekly episodes, it depicted the daily struggles and achievements of a
divorcéeMalu. Divorce had been legalized three years prior to that, in 1977, and Malu
Mulher symbolized the doubts and expectations of Brazilian women at that time. In
addition, none other than Regina Duarte had been chosen to star as Malu. The famous
actress, nicknamed the "Namoradinha do Brasil" (Brazil’s Sweetheart, due
to the docile roles she played in numerous soap operas) had been the archetype of a
submissive woman, through the characters she impersonated on TV. So out went Ai que
saudades da Amélia, and in came Começar de Novo (Starting Over), the Malu
Mulher theme song by Ivan Lins and Vitor Martins, which became the hit of the season.
It was also during the mid ’70s and the early ’80s that Brazilian feminists waged a
relentless campaign targeting violence against women by pressuring the judicial system
into properly prosecuting and punishing those so-called crimes of passion which previously
had been committed with impunity. For centuries, Brazil’s legal system condoned the murder
of unfaithful wives, companions and lovers. During the colonial period, a man could use
the honor defense if he had caught his wife in the act of adultery and killed her, or her
lover. Although the Brazilian Penal Code officially abolished this type of defense in
1830, this practice nonetheless continued to be widely used in 20th century
The women’s upheaval came in the wake of several infamous, high-profile murders, whose
victims were, among others, Angela Diniz, shot by playboy Doca Street; Eliane de Grammont,
murdered by popular bolero singer Lindomar Castilho; Eloisa Balesteros, killed by her
wealthy mineiro (from Minas Gerais State) husband, just to name a few. With the
slogan Quem ama não mata (He, who loves, doesn’t kill) and by staging widely
publicized street protests, demonstrations and petitions, Brazilian feminists managed to
mobilize the nation around their cause. In 1985, the governor of São Paulo State, Franco
Montoro, created the first specialized women’s police station (DEAM) to assist the female
population. Today, there are 255 DEAMs across the country.
However, of all the changes that occurred in the last two decades, the most impressive
was the massive entrance of Brazilian women into the nation’s workforce. They have gained
access to once-exclusive male enclaves such as the Army, the police force, the Brazilian
Academy of Letters, the judicial system, and the legislative and executive branches of
government. Just last October, President Fernando Henrique Cardoso appointed the first
woman to the 11-seat Supreme Federal Tribunal, Brazil’s highest court.
In 1970, 18.5 percent of Brazilian women worked outside the home. A recent study
conducted by Seade Foundation (an entity linked to the government of São Paulo State)
shows that women now represent 51 percent of Brazil’s workforce, compared to 47 percent in
1994. The same study reveals that 43 percent of the country’s women have a High School
diploma, compared to 35 percent six years ago.
Another revealing indication of the widespread participation of women in Brazil’s job
market comes from the income tax returns of Brazil’s working population. Data provided by
the Secretariat of Federal Revenue confirm that women are active in nearly all
professional categories and have even surpassed their male counterparts in several of
those. (See accompanying chart.)
In the corporate world, changes are evident as well, although women are still the
minority in decision-making positions. One remarkable exception is Maria Silvia Bastos
Marques, now CEO of National Steel Company (CSN). Last year, she was the only woman
featured among the twelve most important business personalities selected by Time magazine.
Ironically, until three years ago, the very same CSN didn’t have any female restrooms at
its industrial unit in the town of Volta Redonda.
Other companies, such as Merrill Lynch, are hiring an increasing number of female
workers. Of the 244 people employed by Merrill Lynch’s Brazilian branch, 42 percent are
women, but only a third occupies high-ranking positions. Carmaker Citroën is betting on a
bolder hiring approach, though. Last October, the company opened a São Paulo dealership
in which all of the employeesfrom management to reception and security, as well as
all the mechanicsare female. Citroën’s decision was made after company research
revealed that the women’s opinions are decisive in the sale of seven out of ten cars in
However, not all that is well ends well. On average, Brazilian working women still earn
60 percent of what their male counterparts earn in the same position. In the United
States, that difference has been decreasing and is now up to 82 percent.
Much needs to be done to fully implement and enforce the existing labor laws as well,
although women’s organizations agree that Brazil’s labor legislation is relatively
satisfactory and even more advanced than in other countries. For instance, Brazilian women
are granted 120 days of paid maternity leave, with the State covering 100 percent of their
salaries during that period. Other countries offer fewer days, such as Argentina (90 days)
and the U.S. (84 days). Legislation in Australia and the United States guarantees job
stability, but no payment of wages. In Brazil, problems arise because many companies
systematically ignore the labor statutes.
According to the Brazilian Institute of Geography and Statistics (IBGE), 26 percent of
all heads of households (approximately one out of four) in Brazil were women in 1999,
compared to 23 percent in 1995. However, rather than a sign of emancipation, the increase
in the number of Brazilian female heads of household is more symptomatic of family
disintegration and poverty.
Abandoned by their husbands and companions, women are left to fend for themselves,
usually with the added responsibility to provide for their children, as their partners
often disappear without paying any kind of child support. The situation is tragic,
especially among low-income women. Unable to afford private daycare centers and faced with
limited choices of public-funded centers, those women often have no choice but to leave
their minor children alone in charge of the household and of themselves while they are
away at work.
On the other hand, working middle-class women have become increasingly more dependent
on hired household help. Approximately 17 million women make a living as domestic workers
in Brazil. Few laws are on the books to protect these workers, though. For centuries,
Brazilian labor legislation has systematically ignored this professional subcategory,
where workers often toil under conditions resembling slavery. Seventy percent of domestic
workers are black women, and the majority of them are either the primary, or the only
breadwinners in their family.
The average income in households where females are the sole breadwinners is only 2.6
times the minimum wage, versus 6.3 times for families where men are the primary providers.
Brazilian feminists have dubbed this phenomenon "the feminization of poverty".
Brazilian women still represent only a small fraction of the country’s top-level
politicians. Although a woman recently was elected mayor of São Paulo, Brazil’s largest
city, only 7 percent of all federal deputies and senators in the legislative branch are
women, and President Cardoso has not yet appointed a single woman to join the government.
That could change, though. Today, 55.4 percent of Brazilian voters are females, versus
54.1 percent of male voters.
In the year 2000 municipal elections, women won only 11.5 percent of seats on city
councils in 5,500 municipalities and only five of the 26 capital states’ mayoral races.
However, the number of female mayors countrywide has increased 85 percent in the last
three elections, from 171 mayors in 1992 to 317 in 2000.
Until now, no woman has ever been considered to Brazil’s vice-presidency, much less to
the presidency. If Marta Suplicy, mayor-elect of São Paulo, can prove she’s a capable
administrator, she might become the second female presidential hopeful, along with Roseana
Sarney. Maranhense (from Maranhão state) Sarney, Brazil’s only female governor,
has been recognized as a skillful administrator with an exceptional ability to cross party
Brazilian families have changed a great deal over the past few decades. One of the most
significant demographic changes is the sharp decline in birth rate. In 1965, the fertility
rate was 5.7 children per woman; today, it’s 2.3. According to the Civil Society for
Family Wellfare in Brazil (Bemfam), 99.6 percent of Brazilian women are aware of some type
of modern contraceptive method. However, sterilization is still one of the most frequently
used methods of contraception in Brazil. Four out of ten sexually active women of
childbearing age have been sterilized.
This situation can be attributed at least in part to negligence in the public health
sector, which still lacks a comprehensive healthcare program for the nation’s women.
Women’s organizations, researchers and even government officials all lament the excessive
use of sterilization in the country, which borders on abuse. Whereas in developed nations
only 7.6 percent of women choose sterilization over other contraceptives, in Brazil 27.3
percent of women opt for this ultimate resource.
In 1986, the Ministry of Health designed a project called PAISM (Program of Integral
Attention to Woman’s Health) that was supposed to address not only the contraception
issue, but also intended to reduce illness and deaths among women and children.
Unfortunately, the program has yet to be effectively implemented. As a result,
pregnancy-related mortality is still remarkably high150 deaths per 100 thousand live
births. In the United States, that ratio is 10 to 100 thousand. It is estimated that 14
percent of all pregnant women have no prenatal care whatsoever. Moreover, cervical cancer,
which is curable and preventable, is now the main cause of death among non-pregnant
Brazilian women. Only about 10 percent of Brazilian women undergo periodical Pap smears (a
procedure used to detect this type of cancer at an early stage).
Another 10 thousand women die every year as a result of illegal abortions. Still
outlawed in Brazil, it is estimated that 1 million clandestine abortions are performed
every year. Complications arising from botched procedures are the fifth leading cause of
hospitalization in the country, at a cost to the State of nearly $30 million a year. Only
recently did the Brazilian Congress pass a bill that will allow women to seek abortions in
cases of rape or imminent risk to the woman’s life.
On another front, there is an alarming increase in the number of AIDS cases among
Brazilian women. International health organizations have praised Brazil’s government for
its swift actions to prevent this deadly disease, which has dropped sharply among
Brazilian men. However, Brazilian health officials acknowledge that they have been unable
to stop the spread of the HIV virus among women. Two decades ago, there was one
HIV-positive woman for every 27 men; today, there is one for every three. According to the
World Health Organization, 100 thousand Brazilian women are now HIV-positive. Sadly, the
great majority of infected women are married and were completely unaware that their
husbands carried the virus. Many were infected while they were pregnant and therefore not
concerned about the use of contraceptives. One important factor is that many women are
inhibited in insisting on the use of condoms by their own submissiveness or by
intimidation from their husbands or companions.
In spite of all the victories and achievements of Brazilian women in the last few
decades, make no mistake: machismo is well and alive, and still permeates much of
the Brazilian mentality and daily life. Sexual harassment is a reality, but continues to
be greatly underreported and unpunished.
Likewise, physical violence against women is still widespread, though largely invisible
and not reflected in official statistics. A report released by the United Nations’
Commission on Human Rights in 1996 concluded that " machismo, as it
exists in Brazilian society, is imbued with the notion that violence is a natural part of
a relationship between men and women, as an indication of passion".
In many activities, gender taboos still prevail, and it will most likely be a long time
before they can be eliminated. A case in point is Brazilians’ sexist attitude towards
female athletes, perceived as being masculinized and often plagued by rumors about their
sexual preferences. The gender discrimination extends not only to female soccer players
but to basketball and volleyball players as well. Some athletes try to counter that kind
of speculation by making public appearances with boyfriends, husbands and children, and
even by posing nude for Playboy, as it was the case with basketball star
Although more independent due to their substantial participation in today’s job market,
most Brazilian women still prefer to share a house with a man rather than live
aloneno matter who the head of the household may be. According to Bemfam, there has
been an increase in the number of couples who, instead of marriage, are opting to live
together under the so-called "consensual union". Brazil’s Constitution of 1988
sanctioned this type of union by extending the same rights given to married couples to
those in such cohabiting relationships. To date, 13% of couples have chosen this path,
compared to only 9 percent in 1986.
Marta Alvim is a Brazilian journalist, freelance translator and
interpreter. You can reach her at firstname.lastname@example.org
The Female Revolution
Women are the majority in
Social Workers 97%
Men and women tie in
Judicial System Workers 52%
Women are the minority in
Source: Secretariat of Federal Revenue
1534 Ana Pimentel takes on the administration of São Vicente Province.
1752 Brazilian Teresa Margarida da Silva Orta is the first woman to publish a
1814 Ana Néri, the pioneer of Brazil’s nursing movement, is born.
1882 Maria Augusta Generoso Estrella graduates from New York Medical College and
1888 Princess Isabel, Brazil’s regent during the second Empire, signs the end of
1899 Chiquinha Gonzaga, the first Brazilian female songwriter, composes "Ó
1914 Eugênia Brandão, hired by carioca (from Rio Janeiro) newspaper A
1918 Maria José de Castro Rabelo Mendes is appointed to the Ministry of Foreign
1922 Berta Lutz founds the Brazilian Federation for the Advancement of Females,
1922 Anésia Pinheiro Machado receives her license from the International
1928 Alzira Soriano, the first woman to run for office in the country, is
1930 Gaúcha (from Rio Grande do Sul State) Yolanda Pereira is the first
1932 Swimmer Maria Lenk is the first Brazilian and South American female to
1933 Carlota Pereira de Queiroz is the first female elected to Brazil’s Lower
1939 Carmen Miranda leaves for the United States and is the first Brazilian
1947 Dona Ivone Lara is the first female songwriter welcomed into the composers
1958 Brazilian Maria Esther Bueno is the youngest tennis player to win the
1961 In Germany, Brazilian Márcia Haydée becomes Stutgart Ballet’s first
1971 Leila Diniz shocks the country by wearing a bikini in Ipanema Beach while
1977 Writer Rachel de Queiroz is the first woman elected to the Brazilian
1979 Eunice Michiles is elected the first female senator in Brazil.
1982 Esther de Figueiredo Ferraz, the first Brazilian female minister, is
1994 Benedita da Silva is the first Afro-Brazilian woman elected to the nation’s
1994 Roseana Sarney is elected Brazil’s first female governor, in the state of
1996 Writer Nélida Piñon is the first woman to preside over the Brazilian
1999 Actress Fernanda Montenegro is the first Brazilian woman nominated for an
2000 – Ellen Gracie Northfleet, the great-granddaughter of an American expatriate who
Women in World Politics
Parliamentary representation of women
Europe 15.5 %
Source: Inter-Parliamentary Union
Ai, que saudades da Amélia
Nunca vi fazer tanta exigência
Você só pensa em luxo e riqueza
Às vezes passava fome ao meu lado
Amélia não tinha a menor vaidade
| How do I miss Amélia |
I’ve never seen so many demands
All you can think is luxury and riches
Sometimes she would starve by my side
Amélia wasn’t vain in the slightest
| Começar de Novo |
(Ivan Lins – Vitor Martins)
Começar de novo
Ter me rebelado
Ter virado a mesa
Começar de novo
Sem as tuas garras
Sem tuas escoras
Começar de novo
Começar de novo…
| Starting over |
That I rebelled
That I turned the table
Without your claws
Without your crutches
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