SANTIAGO – In 1949, women gained the full right to vote in Chile. But 72 years later, women must still fight for proper representation. Historian María José Cumplido helps shed light on that struggle.
Having fought for 60 years against a law that banned them from participation in national politics, women gained the full right to vote and run in national elections 72 years ago. In 1934, women already gained the right to participate in local elections.
The victory resulted from feminist activism to push for broad social and political support. But the victory is not yet final, according to historian María José Cumplido, who is also running for a seat in the convention that will draft a new Constitution.
Original Ban on Women Participation
The 1833 Constitution restricted voting rights. But they expanded under the 1874 voting laws, which allowed literate male citizens aged at least 21 to vote.
In 1875 a group of women attempted to register Domitila Silva to vote in San Felipe. While she was rejected, the attempt sparked the rise of the Chilean suffragists.
But any advancements were nipped in the bud in 1884, when the government reformed the voting laws and explicitly banned any female participation because “the woman’s husband would work his power and influence through his wife.”
Yet, women had gained the right to enter universities in 1877, so a new class of highly educated activists was just emerging.
This upper-class struggle ran parallel to a working class suffragist movement. “Without the [university] decree these [working class] movements would have continued their work, only with greater difficulty and with less visibility,” Cumplido told Chile Today.
Organization and Early Victories
At the turn of the century numerous suffragist and feminist organizations like the League of Free Thinking Women sprang up. But the political establishment refused to even debate women suffrage in congress, claiming that voting would compromise women’s role as primary household caretakers.
Progress, however, seemed inevitable as women entered the workplace en masse as secretaries, teachers, or shop assistants.
In 1917, the Conservative Party’s youth branch presented a bill to start discussing the female vote. Progressive forces were most opposed to the bill, fearing women’s support for the Catholic Church would translate into a more conservative voting base.
Elena Caffarena, a lawyer and key suffragist, achieved in 1934 that women could participate in the local elections the following year.
“There was this idea that managing a municipality was similar to administering a home, which is why the male elite saw it as sensible for women to participate in these elections,” Cumplido said.
Caffarena created the Pro Emancipation Movement for the Women of Chile (MEMCH). The movement swung strongly toward the leftist Popular Front coalition and presidential candidate Pedro Aguirre Cerda rather than the conservative parties, and advocated progressive policies like legalizing abortion.
According to Cumplido, “the closeness between Elena Caffarena and Pedro Aguirre Cerda was fundamental in initiating the discussion over universal suffrage, that’s why her political influence in that sector was indispensable.”
After electoral victory in 1938, Aguirre Cerda tasked Caffarena with drafting a bill to allow women to vote in national elections.
But the president’s death in 1941 delayed the project until 1945, when the newly formed Federation of Feminist Institutions (FECHIF) pushed a multipartisan bill in the senate which was supported by former president Arturo Alessandri and future president Salvador Allende.
The bill passed in 1948 and became law in 1949. First lady Rosita Markmann participated in the signing ceremony. Markmann even set up an office in government palace La Moneda from where she pursued the fight for women’s rights.
“Her role has been tarnished due to her later support of Pinochet, but she was fundamental in obtaining progress, giving visibility to women’s issues and for being willing to stick her feet in the mud for community work,” Cumplido told Chile Today.
Caffarena refrained from attending the ceremony, however. She said, “the ability to vote was won by women after fighting hard for 20 years. The only thing [the president] did was his constitutional duty in signing the bill.”
Feminists immediately started registering women to vote. In 1952, women participated for the first time in a national election, although only 32.3% did so. The female vote share has increased steadily, however, and is around 50%, compared to 48% male participation in the last presidential election.
The process toward a new Constitution has once again brought women’s rights to the fore.
“A very specific issue is that the constitution should guarantee sexual and reproductive rights, as well as guarantee parity in the public administration. This is because women have been historically essential in public policy to generate solutions to women-specific problems,” Cumplido said.
“It is important to advance on this so that, finally, the culture can change into one that is more participatory and inclusive.”