Academic journal article The International Journal of Cuban Studies

Women in Cuba: The Emancipatory Revolution

Academic journal article The International Journal of Cuban Studies

Women in Cuba: The Emancipatory Revolution

Article excerpt

The status of Women before the triumph of the revolution

During Fulgencio Batista's dictatorship, which lasted from 1952 to 1958, Cuban women, who lived under the yoke of a patriarchal society, constituted only 17 per cent of the labour force. Those who were employed received significantly lower compensation than men for doing equivalent work. Under the omnipotent rule of their husbands, women were confined to the role of mother and assumed responsibility for household and domestic tasks. As the primary victims of the illiteracy that afflicted much of the population, prospects for Cuban women were grim. Of the 5.8 million inhabitants of the island, only 55 per cent of children aged 6 to 14 were enrolled in school. Over 1 million were denied access to education and remained at home under their mother's charge. Illiteracy afflicted 22 per cent of the population, more than 800,000 people, of whom the majority were women.2

Despite having obtained the right to vote in 1934 under the progressive government of Ramón Grau San Martín, itself a product of the popular revolution of 1933, the role of women in political life was quite limited. From 1934 to 1958, only 26 women (23 deputies and 3 senators) held legislative positions.3

Cuban women, however, played a key role in the insurgency against the Batista dictatorship, particularly through organisations such as the Frente Cívico de Mujeres Martianas and Mujeres Oposicionistas Unidas. In September 1958, after the creation of the exclusively female military squadron, 'Mariana Grajales', Cuban women joined Fidel Castro's guerrillas in the 26 July Revolutionary Movement in the Sierra Maestra. Several well-known female figures, for example, Celia Sanchez, Melba Hernández, Haydée Santamaría and Vilma Espín, emerged from the struggle against the Batista regime.4 Nevertheless, the demands of these activists were not purely feminist. As Maruja Iglesias, leader of Frente Cívico de Mujeres Martianas underscored, 'We are not fighting for women's rights. We are fighting for the rights of everyone.'5

The First measures taken by the revolutionary Government

Since the triumph of the Revolution in 1959, the ideological foundations of which were rooted in the thought of national hero José Martí, the Cuban state has made the empowerment of women one of its main priorities. In his first speech delivered on 1 January 1959 in Santiago de Cuba, a few hours after Batista had fled the country, Fidel Castro spoke of the situation of women and recalled that the mission of the revolutionary government was to put an end to the subordination of the most oppressed sectors of society:

This is a sector of our country that needs to be liberated, because women are victims of discrimination at work and in other aspects of life [...] When our revolution is judged in the years to come, one of the questions that will be asked is how our society and our country resolved the problems of women, even though this is one of the problems of the revolution that requires the most determination and firmness, the most perseverance and effort.6

Cuban women have been the main beneficiaries of the revolution's social and popular achievements. In 1960, the Federation of Cuban Women (FMC), founded by Vilma Espín, was created to defend equal rights for all and to end discrimination. Women would finally come to occupy their appropriate social space and contribute fully to the building of the new society. Fidel Castro emphasised the importance of this: 'Cuban women, doubly humiliated and repressed by a semi-colonial society, required their own organization, one that would represent their specific interests and work to achieve their greater participation in the economic, political and social life of the Revolution.'7 The FMC now has over 4 million members.

Vilma Espín Dubois played a fundamental role in the emancipation of the Cuban women. As a revolutionary activist, she joined the 26th of July Movement and became a member of its National Directorate. …

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