In the summer of 1945, during the San Francisco Conference, the United Nation Charter was signed, becoming the first international agreement to proclaim the equal rights of men and women as part of fundamental human rights. Out of 850 delegates who participated in the Convention, only four were women: one of them was the famous Brazilian zoologist, feminist activist and politician Bertha Lutz.
Born in 1894 in São Paulo, Brazil, Bertha was exposed at an early age to science through her naturalist and physician father, Adolpho, who specialized in tropical medicine. The two would often travel together through rainforests, where Bertha began to study tree frogs. She then left for Paris to study biology at the Sorbonne.
During her time in France, Bertha became interested in feminist writings from European women, especially from the emerging suffrage movement in England. Although she did not agree with their violent approach, she found that many of the cause’s ideas matched her own. Therefore, upon her return to Rio de Janeiro in 1918, she started writing feminist statements and published a feminist manifesto in the Rivista da Semana. Her vision of feminism maintained that women should have equal access to educational opportunities and to professions beyond the home. Indeed, she insisted that women had important contributions to make to society, particularly in the field of politics and business.
In 1919, Bertha became the head of the National Museum in Rio de Janeiro, the first woman appointed to that position. That same year, she also formed the Liga para a Emancipação Intelectual da Mulher (League for the Intellectual Emancipation of Woman). Her position at the National Museum allowed Bertha to get in contact with many politicians and members of the elite, to whom she could express her ideas on women’s equality. In 1922, Bertha officially formed the Federação Brasileira pelo Progresso Femenino (Brazilian Federation for Feminine Progress), which affiliated with the International Women’s Suffrage Alliance. One of the group’s biggest lobbying successes was persuading the government to allow girls to enroll in the Colégio Pedro II, the country’s most prestigious academy that trained its students for positions of political power, allowing women to be educated there as well.
Through her work with the Brazilian Federation for Feminine Progress, she understood that, if she were to make some serious change, she would need to approach injustices from a legal standpoint in addition to a social one. She decided to attend a law school in Rio de Janeiro and then was able to negotiate with the President the inclusion of women’s suffrage in his rewrite of Brazil’s electoral code. Her efforts won out, as the 1934 Brazilian Constitution granted women the right to vote, making Brazil the third Latin American country to grant women’s suffrage.
Lutz remained active in the international women’s movement for the rest of her life. In 1936, she was elected to the national congress and became one of the first female Congresswomen in Brazil. She promoted the establishment of a Special Commission on the Status of Women, to overlook all legal proposals and political directives in the Congress and how these affected women’s rights, and became its Chair. However, she was the only woman on the Committee, reflecting the ongoing inequalities and struggles women faced. Adding to the challenges, in 1937, President Getulio Vargas closed Congress, indefinitely banning elections; now, Brazilian women had the right to vote, but no significant national elections in which they could exercise their right.
Nonetheless, Lutz continued to work both in women’s rights and in the sciences. She became the head of the Botanical Sector of the National Museum, and continued to make a name for herself as an accomplished botanist in the academic community. She published her research and scientific studies on tree frogs in scientific journals, thus helping further women’s participation in science. When delegates from countries belonging to the United Nations converged to sign the United Nation Charter in 1945, Vargas sent Bertha as one of Brazil’s delegates because of her many scientific accomplishments. As Brazil’s delegate to the United Nations, she was among the small group of women who waged a three-month struggle to have “sex” included in the Universal Declaration of Human Rights (1948). Thus, Article 2 reads: “Everyone is entitled to all the rights and freedoms set forth in this Declaration, without distinction of any kind, such as race, colour, sex, language, religion, political or other opinion, national or social origin, property, birth or other status.”
Lutz’s tireless fight for women’s rights and advancement make her an important figure, both politically and symbolically, coming to be seen as one of the “founders” of Brazilian feminism. Indeed, when the United Nations declared 1975 to be the “International Year of the Woman,” Brazil’s government invited Lutz to be the Brazilian representative to the International Conference on Women in Mexico City. It ended up being her last major public act in her nearly fifty-year struggle for feminism; in 1976, she passed away at the age of 84.
By Valentina Canepa, WAVE Intern