Academic journal article Cuban Studies

"In the General Interest of All Conscious Women": Race, Class, and the Cuban Women's Movement, 1923–1939

Academic journal article Cuban Studies

"In the General Interest of All Conscious Women": Race, Class, and the Cuban Women's Movement, 1923–1939

Article excerpt

In April 1939, Santa Clara poet and teacher María Dámasa Jova gave a speech entitled "La situación de la mujer negra en Cuba" at the Third National Women's Congress. The forty-three-year-old woman of African descent argued that "the black mother suffered most because she was the mother of the marginal black child, the prostitute, the little newspaper vendor, the gang of robbers, the great number of unemployed and illiterate, and the ill-mannered black child." She went on to assert that discrimination within schools undermined social equality, as they trained black girls to become ironers rather than professionals. "When the black woman is conceded her rights and when there is a [sizable] percentage of black women in shops and offices, one can rest assured that women in Cuba are united in the struggle for their overall betterment and in the interests of mothers and children," she determined.1 She insisted that any movement for democratic reform must include a commitment to securing the rights of women and children of African descent.

Dámasa Jova critically examined the role of white feminists in Cuban society.2 She stressed that "the problem of racial discrimination calls the attention of white women to the situation of black women."3 "One must note," she explained, "that in this fight for the vindication of the white woman, she holds the greatest responsibility in being able to reject her unjust privileges. She must fight for a redistribution of resources by rejecting her privileges so that the black woman might receive her rights."4 She thus implored white female attendees to act on their stated commitment to racial solidarity.

Dámasa Jova's speech is a striking indictment of Cuban democracy and its failure to realize the principles of racial equality put forth by the independence movement and the 1901 Constitution. Equally significant is her participation in the congress. The first two national women's congresses—which took place in 1923 and 1925—included few women of African descent in attendance. Delegates and organizers did not discuss racial discrimination. The 1939 Third National Women's Congress, however, featured black women as executive committee members, delegates, and presenters. Women of African descent put forth an analysis of Cuban womanhood that emphasized the intersection of gender discrimination with anti-black racism and class exploitation. This article examines these shifting dynamics from three angles: how discussions of class and race evolved during each congress as white and black feminists built alliances; the transformation of black women's activism during the 1920s and 1930s that led them to emerge as leaders within national organizations; and African-descended women's efforts to address racial discrimination as part of the national feminist platform during the 1939 congress. These dynamics demonstrate shifts in Cuban political culture more broadly, including how black women helped forge an intersected political coalition leading up to the 1940 Constitutional Assembly.

Recent studies demonstrate a growing interest in the Cuban women's movement during the Republican era.5 While scholars have explored the lives of a primarily elite and middle-class white leadership, acknowledging the presence of individual black (and) laboring women, few have discussed how race shaped the evolution of the movement.6 The political and economic turmoil of the 1920s led many white feminists to collaborate with poor and African-descended women in order to attain suffrage rights, and the national women's congresses presented opportunities for women to articulate a common agenda. This article contributes to the study of women's activism in Latin America by focusing on evolving discussions of race and cross-racial alliances; it highlights the utility of an intersectional analysis that takes into account the contributions of a range of social groups. …

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