“I am a woman like you”


Gender Agenda

Gender Agenda

Issue 2 Michaelmas 2002

The magazine of


Women's Union

“I am a woman like you”

Imogen Osborn

Fifty years ago, on July 26th, Eva Peron died of uterine cancer. She said she had wanted to
be “a bridge towards the happiness of all.” This article discusses the way in which she
acquired her status of First Lady of Argentina, and her subsequent work in relation to the
traditional roles society assigned to women.

Argentina had a traditionally patriarchal society which devalued women. Evita’s behaviour
prior to her relationship with Peron is widely criticised. She worked as a radio starlet and
then as a fairly unsuccessful actress, but was reputed to have had numerous affairs with
actors, producers and directors and to have thus climbed the social ladder, controlling men
through her sexuality and perhaps being controlled by it herself. Evita thus first met Peron
at a charity fundraiser concert. However, her biography shows how she later came to genuinely
love him, respected him and identified herself with him.

Eva Peron

© www.falkoliebtdic.de/evita.htm

Her negative sexual reputation was hard to escape from. It was customary for the First Lady
to be made honorary president of the Sociedad de Beneficia, the organisation in charge of
Argentine charities. Eva did not receive this title because the aristocratic women in charge
thought she had slept her way to power. Furthermore in Italy during the Rainbow Tour visit to
Europe, Pope Pius XII did not bestow any honour on her except the traditional rosary given to
everyone granted an audience with him, because she had begun her relationship with Peron as
his mistress. The negative way she was received in Italy is illustrated in Webber & Rice’s
musical Evita: “Did you hear that? They called me a whore!” Evita exclaims, as she passes by
jeering crowds. “But Senora Peron, what an easy mistake,” replies her guide. “People still
call me ‘Admiral’, though I gave up the sea long ago!”

Yet despite reaching power by somewhat less than commendable means, Evita went on to carry
out numerous works and, in a climate potentially hostile to women, apparently defied the
typical image of women being subordinate to men and their place being in the home. She was the
principal driving force behind social reforms and welfare: she established the Eva Peron
Foundation, which brought relief to the poor, she campaigned for women’s civil rights,
obtaining votes for women and setting up feminist civic centres in Buenos Aires, she set up
women’s organisations and made weekly feminist speeches. By her death she had become an
internationally recognised figure and had turned down the nomination for Vice Presidency.
Whilst this suggests that Evita in no way conformed to the typical image of women, perhaps it
can be suggested that in some ways she did. Argentines considered women’s behaviour to be
uncontrolled and impossible to analyse; femininity was thought to transcend reason. This led
to women being required to behave as subordinate to men, who were to “restrain” women’s
natural impulses, achieving rationality, and hence perhaps by implication enabling cultured
society to exist. Thus women were excluded from powerful roles and institutions.
Eva certainly did not seem subordinate to Peron and some suggest that she had more drive for
political power than he did. No Argentine woman had ever assumed the title of First Lady so
officially. However, her earlier sexual behaviour could be taken as conforming to the
stereotype in being uncontrolled (although on the other hand perhaps rumours of her sexual
exploits stemmed in part from society’s hostility to women in powerful positions). Also, once
in power, her leadership was largely spiritual and moral, and this spirituality corresponds to
the uncontrolled and instinctive behaviour typically associated with women. Moreover many of
the areas in which Evita was powerful, for example organising initiatives to care for the poor
and for children, could be taken to be versions of women’s domestic roles, simply extended
beyond the home.

Despite the huge support for Eva amongst the descamisados, in other words the Argentine
poor working class, she also met with much rejection. Her working-class roots gave her a
special relationship with the descamisados, saying, “I have only one valuable possession… it
is the love my people have for me and Peron.” Her position doubtless also increased Peron’s
power: if he loved her, she argued, then he loved them too. However she was forced to step
down from candidacy for Vice President because the army threatened rebellion if she were to
come to power, as they would not tolerate the prospect of a working class woman being in
charge of the army, the Vice President’s role if duty called the President away. Social
relations meant that Evita’s undeniable leadership could still be manipulated by those of a
social status she could not claim.

These limitations to her power did not prevent certain disturbing comparisons being drawn
between Evita and fascist or dictatorial figures like Hitler, Stalin and Mussolini,
suggestive of negative but very unfeminine exertions of power. Some such aspects can be found
in the Peronist regime: those who had insulted or mistreated Eva prior to her marriage to
Peron were blacklisted, newspapers opposing the regime like La Vanguardia were closed down,
propaganda was controlled, and Eva hand-picked many cabinet ministers. One rumour, though
vague and rather unsubstantiated, suggested that some men in the government who opposed Eva
were castrated. A Freudian analysis of this might imply envy or jealousy of masculine social
power, symbolised by the male genitalia.

As Eva began to succumb to uterine cancer, she refused to take the rest her doctors
recommended, partly as she feared that her absence due to illness would allow others to take
away the power she had earned. Her refusal to take on a more passive role was perhaps another
way in which she did not fit the stereotypical view of a woman. It seems a harsh irony that
she should die of a woman’s illness. Soon after Eva’s death, Peron was forced out of office,
and although he regained it years later, this suggests Eva’s importance.
The many sides to Eva are clear and big discrepancies between sources mean that it is hard to
take any definitive stance. She is quoted as saying, “I am a woman like you,” and this is a
reminder that there were many sides to her personality. It also suggests that other women
should not be afraid to try to experience her success.
She had managed to lead without trying to assume male behaviour. She wrote in an open letter
in the magazine Democracia that women should not try to supplant men but should take advantage
of their talents to better fill their role. Eva acknowledged differences between men and women
without feeling that one sex should be subordinate to the other. The fact that for many she
has acquired a saintly status, still being prayed and even written to, rather than being
prayed for as is more usual in the case of the deceased, emphasises the importance of her
work.

 


 

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