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Brazzil - Literature - May 2004

Unearthing Brazil's Women Writers

The book Brazilian Women Writers of the Nineteenth Century
runs to almost one thousand pages, and represents a true labor
of literary archeology. No fewer than 52 unknown women
authors were uncovered. They wrote from letters and diaries,
albums and notebooks to novels, poems, essays and criticism.

Cecília Prada


Picture In 1928, the English writer Virginia Woolf received a prestigious invitation: she was to lecture on women in English literature, at one of the most prestigious and traditional British universities, Cambridge.

An average writer would open a history of English literature, and from it would extract some of her predecessors, such as Jane Austen and George Eliot, and would make her lecture brilliant with only a little effort, striving to demonstrate that, "after all, we were always here (it was just that no one noticed)".

Hers would have been one more of those pathetic presentations that the representatives of various minorities are accustomed to making to assure their "presence" in the picture—which never required this sort of demonstration—of the traditional masculine, white, well-born, Christian, heterosexual society.

The audience would have listened politely, would have applauded the "brilliant lecturer", who would receive a bouquet of flowers and everyone would move into the salon of the famous temple of wisdom to take five o'clock tea. As we know, in Brazil everything ends with pizza, while in England everything ends with tea.

But Mrs. Woolf decided that, in her 46 years of life, she had already had a sufficient quantity of tea and crumpets. She produced a deep and original reflection on what had been (or not been) the "presence" of women in the literature of her country; on the circumstances that surrounded and impeded, through time, the expression of feminine writing; on the contradiction, the hypocrisy of the essentially macho world of culture—beginning with the universities themselves, access to which had always been forbidden to women.

According to Virginia, this system prevailed up until her epoch. Speaking ironically, she uses the term Oxbridge, which refers to Oxford and Cambridge, to designate a "very famous university" in whose domain she herself, as a woman, could only enter if accompanied by a member of the faculty; and in whose library she would not have been able to do research, since it also was "for gentlemen only".

Transformed into a book (Todo Seu published by Nova Fronteira), the famous lecture by Virginia and other writings of hers on the topic, collected in Three Guineas (1938), are considered classics of the genre, fundamental to study of literature and the feminine condition. We do not have information on the repercussions of the lecture at Cambridge by the brilliant Englishwoman, but it is not difficult to imagine the reaction of the guardians of the establishment, in defense of its privileges.

A contemporary detail can give us an idea: even today the most serious and reputable of encyclopedias, the famous Encyclopedia Britannica, in consecrating Virginia Woolf for "her original contribution to the form of the novel" and "as one of the most prominent critics of her time", not only ignores her feminist position but also simply omits from her bibliography precisely the two works cited.

Virginia thus becomes at least a partial victim of the suppression that she had denounced.

Here in Brazil

Meanwhile, on the other side of the world... and in quite a distant epoch, a group of women doing research in the area of Brazilian literature from various points in the country, led by Dr. Rita Terezinha Schmidt, Dr. Eliane Vasconcellos and Dr. Zahidé Lupinacci Muzart, were, over the last 15 years, working to recover the work of all the women writers of the nineteenth century who had been completely eliminated from literary histories and from many dictionaries.

The book which records the results of this research, Escritoras Brasileiras do Século XIX (Brazilian Women Writers of the Nineteenth Century), organized by Zahidé Muzart and launched in 2000 by Editora Mulheres, of Florianópolis, in partnership with Edunisc, runs to almost one thousand pages, and represents a true labor of literary archeology—in which they uncovered up until now no fewer than 52 women authors who, according to the organizer, "wrote much and addressed all genres: from letters and diaries, albums and notebooks to novels, poems, crônicas and stories, dramas and comedies, revues, operettas, essays and literary criticism.

Many of these women did not even dare to admit publicly their authorship of these texts. They lived confined in their domestic environment and produced in secret. It is significant that the anthology begins with an "anonymous" woman from Bahia who wrote and published in 1887 a feminist booklet, As Mulheres (Women)—her identity has still not been discovered, but through the text we can see that she was from high society, had married well, had been very well educated, and knew various languages, including Latin.

We also know that the fiction writer Júlia Lopes de Almeida was obliged, when she was a girl, in the second half of the 19th century, to hide her literary activity from her father (the same had happened to the Brontë sisters, in the first half of the century). A note: an adaptation, with the actress Marília Pêra, of the magnificent story by Júlia Lopes de Almeida—"A Caolha" (The Cross-Eyed Woman) was broadcast recently on television in São Paulo. The strength of her literary talent, very little known until today, was shown to be incontestable.

Nevertheless, in spite of the fact that all over the world, especially in the university setting, the archeological rediscovery of the cultural contribution of women in various fields of knowledge and the arts is going onwards, in Brazil, as is the case elsewhere, prejudicial attitudes continue to prevail.

Some critics have doubted that so much effort on the part of the organizers of Escritoras Brasileiras do Século XIX was worth it—after all, "the majority of the recovered texts are mediocre, and those women who were suppressed did not produce any famous works…"

This observation in itself merits close criticism: it was precisely in the name of a predefinition of intellectual "mediocrity" and of the continuous and violent restriction to the domestic sphere and to the functions defined as "the only ones worthy" of the feminine sex (marriage and maternity), that women were pushed away from the world of knowledge and kept ignorant, illiterate or only given a social polish of education, learning a little French, embroider, etiquette. And much religion, of course.

As Pedro Nava says in his memoirs, "the course [in a school run by nuns] was entirely light-weight, each student attending whichever class she wished"; when asked what year they were in school, the girls could answer "I really don't know…now I am learning pyrography, the mountains of Africa, and about Easter lilies".

Thus, in the first place, women are obliged to be exceptional, as are the representatives of various minorities, always. The passport to recognition, even if it is simply in a historical listing, is, for these, by necessity, extraordinary talent, genius, heroism or an "iron force of character", a "resistance" maintained in spite of all unfavorable circumstances. A woman, or any member of a minority, bears the onus of proof never demanded of the mere normality of the privileged being.

And even the very few women who managed, in spite of history, to demonstrate a talent which could stand up to the worst circumstances, had continually imposed upon them a powerful masculine pact of silence, which included (and includes until today) systematic ignorance, a crushing critical effort, and even the physical destruction of books and documentation.

The organizer of the anthology cited describes the details of the work necessary to disinter even fragments of texts by some writers whose bibliography was recorded in writings of the period, but whose works were not found.

For example: those by the almost mythical Rita Joana de Sousa (1696-1718), who is supposed to have written 21 works, but of whom not a line is extant. Another case is that of the gaúcha Maria Josefa Barreto, born around 1786/88 and died in 1837, poet cited in 14 articles or entries of her period, from whom, however, only one poem was found.

Thus, the "official" history of Brazilian literature has transmitted until now an erroneous idea of the feminine presence (or rather, "absence") in the culture of the country—as we can note with a pleasant surprise in the census done by Zahidé Muzart's team.

It is interesting to note that even a critic such as Viveiros de Castro (cited by Zahidé Muzart), who in 1895 set himself to prove that the "influence of women in the intellectual panorama of the country was zero", recognized the reason for the feminine absence in the literary field: "those women, who breaking with such a hostile medium, are bold enough to cultivate letters, becoming writers, must soon resign themselves to the most pungent sarcasm and the crudest taunts".

And he further said: "They dispute their talent and spew the most vile calumnies about their honor as women. They rarely receive an encouraging word, and if someone greets them, he is immediately suspected of being their lover."

It is not difficult to imagine, then, how these writers had to struggle for their (minuscule) cultural space, and how the intolerance sanctioned by society must have done everything, in fact, to destroy their legacy physically and spiritually.

Very few of these women managed to breach the barrier of the macho establishment—those who were remembered by critics and historians of literature can be counted on the fingers of one hand. : in the

História Concisa da Literatura Brasileira, by Alfredo Bosi—the most widely used in schools at present—there are only four names cited, all poets, Francisca Júlia, Gilka Machado, Auta de Sousa e Narcisa Amália, for which only the first merited a biography and special note, the mere mention of their name being sufficient for the others, in the midst of various poets of their epochs.

For the historians of the nineteenth century women really did not exist—none appears in the histories of literature by Sílvio Romero and by José Veríssimo, although the former had written encomiastic prefaces for books of some of them…

The Enciclopédia da Literatura Brasileira, by Raimundo de Menezes, which in its last edition lists a reasonable number of women writers, relates them in general to a man, for whom they were spouses or lovers. In biographies of women, the public and the private are always perforce intertwined—spouses, number and names of children are mentioned, a family relationship well established, or "spurious" loves and lovers. These elements are of little importance in biographies of men.

For a writer like Carmen Dolores (pseudonym of Emília Moncorvo Bandeira de Mello), one of the most important women writers of the nineteenth century, a journalist and writer of fiction, Raimundo does not forget to say that "she entered the press through the hand of the very famous politician Alcindo Guanabara".

And about Cecília Bandeira de Mello de Vasconcellos, Emília's daughter, and also a writer and journalist (she used the pseudonym of Madame Chrysanthème), Raimundo does not forget to say that she "was a late and ardent passion" of the same Alcindo Guanabara, and that she also entered the press through his hand...just that, if there was a hand in question, this time it must have been that of her own mother, who had become the assiduous and famous writer of crônicas for O País.


The interdiction on feminine literature always took two forms: the generic—"women should not write", or study, or have a profession, etc.; and the specific—"women should not write on particular topics, or in such and such a way".

The idealized definition of "woman" as an ethereal being, "superior" (a little foolish...), virtuous, delicate, naïve—a romantic being, outside the vile reality of the world, protected in the shelter of the home, endowed with the sublime (exclusive) mission of maternity, etc.—was imposed by the masculine ideology over the course of centuries, and principally in the 19th century, the apogee of the bourgeois patriarchal society.

And thus, even the women who managed to break with the first interdiction ("women should not write") and struggled arduously for a position in the literary world were not capable, in the majority of cases, of eliminating the barriers of their own unconscious and transgressing the limits of a certain well-behaved literature, formal, strictly faithful to the literary canons of genre and form imposed by the (masculine) conventions of "writing well". Even in their rebellion, they bend before the macho restrictions or sought to be "as good as" men.

The eighteenth and nineteenth centuries saw the explosion both here and there, in Europe as in Brazil, and even in the United States, of semi-rebels and halfway feminists who only raised (and that is already a lot) the problems of the feminine condition, or expressed fearfully, under a pseudonym, and as if they were asking to be forgiven, their sexuality and their true feelings.

It is sufficient to recall that one of the greatest English writers, Mary Ann Evans (1819-80) only managed to penetrate the literary circuit and have success through maintaining the masculine pseudonym that made her famous, George Eliot. The same thing happened with the French writer Amandine Aurore Dupin, baronesa Dudevant, who entered history as George Sand (1804-76).

In an article on the education of women in Brazil in the nineteenth century (the journal "Tempo & Memória" nº 1, Aug/Dec 2003, from Unimarco Editora), Alzira Lobo de Arruda Campos examines how in addition to the repression of the macho system itself, which confined women to the domestic sphere, were added prejudices coming from the European educational system, which considered a temperate climate the only proper one for the moral training of its female charges.

And if the mademoiselles from good families were sent to schools that inexorably reflected "various colonizations of the body and of the spirit", making them dependent on at least three factors, i.e., on man, Europe, and science (which defined them decidedly as "less intelligent"), evidently for slave and proletarian women this picture was added to with racial and class discrimination, and they were kept in the most complete ignorance.

Taking all this into consideration, it is worthy of admiration that in all of Brazil, from north to south, there arose even at the beginning of the nineteenth century as many as 19 women journalists and writers aware of these injustices, and who struggled for the rights of women to education and the vote.

In the middle of that century there already existed a "women's press"—magazines and other publications with staffs consisting, often, exclusively of women, and intended for women. The first of these was O Jornal das Senhoras (The Women's Journal), founded in 1852 in Rio de Janeiro and published initially by the Argentinean Joana Paula Manso de Noronha and then by the Bahian Violante de Bivar.

But all these organs of the press did not go past certain boundaries and propagandized in favor of bourgeois values, that is, fighting for the education of women, they supported this necessity so that she might "better educate her children, future citizens" and "reign in her own home", "as loyal and worthy companion of her husband".

Some Highlights

One of the most important women writers of the nineteenth century was Dionísia Gonçalves Pinto, born in Rio Grande do Norte in 1810, died in Rouen (France) in 1885—known under the pseudonym of Nísia Floresta. She was one of the first women to publish stories, poetry, novels and essays in the so-called grand press of the period, in Rio de Janeiro, beginning already in 1830—note that the Brazilian press only existed from 1817 onwards.

She was the precursor of feminism in Brazil, and even in Latin America, and had a significant political, social and literary presence in that period—not only in Brazil, but in Europe as well, where she moved for good in 1849, sick of the profound mediocrity of Brazil, having spent the last 28 years of her life writing and traveling.

Nísia founded in 1838 a school for girls, in Rio de Janeiro, the Colégio Augusto, the curriculum of which was bitterly criticized, since it emphasized instruction in languages and sciences, to the detriment of the manual arts. Over her lifetime, she published twenty works, in Portuguese, French and Italian—but although her books were well-received in Europe (where she had ties with the most important writers, such as Victor Hugo, Alessandro Manzoni, Augusto Comte, George Sand, Alphonse de Lamartine e Alexandre Herculano), she received not even a mention from any of the critics and historians in Brazil.

Gilberto Freyre is one of the rare Brazilian writers who was aware of the existence and importance of Nísia Floresta. In Sobrados e Mocambos (The Mansions and the Shanties), he presents her as "a scandalous exception": "Among men who dominated solely all extradomestic activities, with even baronesses and viscountesses barely being able to read, the finest ladies lettering out only devotional books and novels which were almost fairy stories, it astounds us to see a figure such as Nísia".

The master of Apipucos does not avoid, however, a certain machismo, in using a loaded adjective to classify Nísia as a "truly masculine woman among the swooning mademoiselles of the middle of the nineteenth century.

Even without her other works, which are little by little being rediscovered by contemporary feminist criticism, Nísia would have deserved to be the object of study by our literary history for at least one thing: a contemporary of the romantic and Indianist poets, she was also the precursor of a more "modern" vision of the problem of the indigenous population.

As Constância Lima Duarte says, in the work we are examining, "the poem brings us not a vision of the heroic Indian and his struggle, which is present in most of the known Indianist texts, but rather the point of view of the defeated, of the vanquished Indian, aware and unaccepting of the oppression of his race by the white invader."

Another important name: Josefina Álvares de Azevedo (1851-?), who some biographers believe was an illegitimate sister of the Paulista poet Manuel Antônio Álvares de Azevedo, and others believe was his cousin. Even her place of birth is uncertain—some list it as Itaboraí, state of Rio de Janeiro, others as Recife, in Pernambuco state.

What is certain is that she was a great battler for the feminine cause, and founded the newspaper A Família (The Family) in São Paulo in 1888 (it moved to Rio de Janeiro six months later), which welcomed exclusively contributions from women, which continued to publish for about a decade.

Her principal cause was the struggle for the right to vote for women. She left at least five books, and a play that was staged, titled O Voto Feminino (The Feminine Vote). More information about her life and work can be found in Valéria Andrade Souto-Maior's master's thesis, O Florete e a Máscara (The Foil and the Mask), published in 2001 by Editora Mulheres.

The journalistic activities of women during the nineteenth and early twentieth centuries were not restricted to the domestic or feminine sphere. For example, in the output of a woman born in 1855 in Jaboatão, Pernambuco state, Francisca Izidora Gonçalves da Rocha—who was also a teacher, lecturer, poet, writer of crônicas, novelist and translator—it is surprising to see the range of topics that she addressed in the various organs of the press in Pernambuco.

She dealt with politics and current event, both in Brazil and abroad, such as the assassination of the Empress of Austria, or the discovery of originals of Bento Teixeira by Oliveira Lima. She wrote reviews of important books, such as Páginas de Estética (Pages on Esthetics), by João Ribeiro.

Even without leaving the state of her birth, she wove commentaries that took in all of the Brazilian reality, denouncing the "feudalism" which the capital of the Republic exercised over the other states, or foreseeing, in 1910, future problems, such as the "excess of material activity in the struggle for industrialization, to the detriment of our artistic and literary culture".

Among the Paulistas, we cannot forget Maria Paes de Barros (1851-1952), who at 81 years old wrote a História do Brasil (History of Brazil) and at 94 a treasure—No Tempo de Dantes—her memoirs, published in 1946 by Monteiro Lobato, with a preface by Caio Prado Júnior, and republished by Paz e Terra in 1998.

It is an extremely well written work, considered to be of great historical and sociological value, since it depicts the ambiguity of the Brazilian society in the second half of the nineteenth century, divided between tradition and political liberalism.

Angels or Demons

Woman in Brazilian literature: absent or mischaracterized

A look at Brazilian literary history makes evident the absence not only of women writers, but also of strong, authentic, well delineated female characters, until the beginnings of the twentieth century. During the colonial period, Brazil saw descriptive reports of the land, an incipient historiography of a primarily Jesuitical character, lyric or satiric poets, the Arcadian poetical movement—from all these the lasting impression is one of a "land without women", where some enlightened men (with a classical education coming primarily from the University of Coimbra) entertained each other by composing verses, sacred works, or panegyrics to governors.

When she appeared, a woman was—like Marília de Dirceu [the object of an extensive poem by Tomás Antônio Gonzaga (TM)] not created as a person and reduced to the condition of an object of desire. An object, never a subject.

This characteristic persisted throughout the entire romantic period—in the extensive gallery of female characters of our first novelist, Joaquim Manuel de Macedo, the most famous of which being Moreninha, the protagonist of the work by this name, what is notable is the superficiality, the necessity of romantic idealization in a literature made for the entertainment of the ladies of society.

We detect the same "irreality" in the close to 20 novels of one of our greatest writers, José de Alencar—who entered history as the "writer of feminine profiles", a label he gave himself. He describes the mechanism of money as the moving force in life in the high social stratum in which he lived, gave a detailed portrait of the Brazil of his time, with social and historical references, taking pleasure in details of clothing, furniture, architecture.

Nevertheless, his "feminine profiles" are always colored by a romantic idealization which verges on stereotype—he is a specialist in blond and pallid damsels, virtuous and very elegant, or when he goes to the other extreme to describe "sinners" (principally in Lucíola), he allows the force of prejudice to decharacterize them entirely as persons, and they end up as the old cliché of the "whore with a heart of gold", beautiful, generous, victims of destiny, etc.

And yet, in the end, punished—Lucíola, a "fallen" woman, 19 years old, and who sacrificed her virginity for her family, cannot have a happy ending. When she loves and is loved by a youth from "good society", she is unable to attain the privileged status of married woman, and must die of tuberculosis—a Brazilian dame aux camelias.

We know that Alencar wrote to please his readers—principally women, that is women from his social milieu who, like the television audience for the novelas of TV Globo in 2004, managed to interfere in the unfolding of the plot, and in the denouement, with their prejudices.

He was basically, then, a writer of "entertainment reading", but who in the field of expression and of language created a true literary fiction, something which had been practically non-existent in Brazil up to that point.

Senhora, his last novel (1875), seems at first to situate itself as a "realist" work, since it presents the character of Aurélia as a "different" woman, intelligent, revolting against the money-grubbing mentality of her milieu. Upon discovering that her suitor Seixas wants to marry her for financial reasons, she plots revenge, reducing her husband to a bought object and emptying her marriage of any sexual and affective relationship. Just that, unhappily, the novelist undoes his own work by making her repent. The happy ending guaranteed that the publication would sell.

The discharacterization of the real woman reaches the verge of the ridiculous in an author like Bernardo Guimarães. In his famous novel A Escrava Isaura, in which he intends to denounces the stains of slavery, he whitens the character, in order to beautify her:

"Her complexion is like the ivory of the keyboard, a white that does not shine, misted with a delicate nuance, so that you would not be able to say if it was a light pallor or a faded pink".

In order to conclude such a brief look into such a rich subject, we recall the naughty American proverb "Good girls go to Heaven; bad girls go everywhere"—because, of all the heroines in the Brazilian literature of the nineteenth century, we are only able to remember as "real" certain "bad girls" of flesh and blood—some figures from O Cortiço, by Aluísio de Azevedo; the masculinized Luzia-Homem (Luzia-Man) (1903), of Domingos Olímpio; and the homicidal Dona Guidinha do Poço, still very little-known, since the novel, written by Manuel de Oliveira Paiva in 1891, was only published after having been discovered by Lúcia Miguel Pereira, in 1951.

Very much of flesh and blood, and enduring, is the mysterious bad girl of Machado de Assis, Capitu, with hung-over eyes—but who was born already on the brink of the twentieth century, in 1899. A century in which, beginning in the twenties and thirties, women writers finally were able, and by fits and starts, to begin to present themselves in literature and other fields.

Cecília Prada is a well-known Brazilian journalist, fiction-writer and playwright. Her book O Caos na Sala de Jantar, (Chaos in the Dining-room), published in 1978, has been awarded three literary prizes. She is considered a stylist and several of her short stories have been published also in Italy, Germany, Switzerland and Sweden, in anthologies. Her career as a playwright began in the 60's, in New York City, where she worked with Joe Chaikin's The Open Theater. In 1964, her play Central Park Bench Number 33, Flight 207 was staged at the Judson Poets' Theater in New York. She is also a former diplomat. She is divorced, has two married sons and three grandchildren and lives now in São Paulo, Brazil. You can email her at revistapb@sescsp.org.br.
Translated from the Portuguese by Tom Moore. Moore has been fascinated by the language and culture of Brazil since 1994. He translates from Portuguese, Spanish, French, Italian and German, and is also active as a musician. He is the librarian for music, modern languages and media at The College of New Jersey. Comments welcome at mooret@tcnj.edu.
This article appeared originally in Portuguese, in the magazine Problemas Brasileiroshttp://www.sescsp.org.br/sesc/revistas/pb

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