Unearthing Brazil’s Women Writers

 Unearthing Brazil's Women 

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.
by: Cecília


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

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

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

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

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

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"

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 Brasileiros— http://www.sescsp.org.br/sesc/revistas/pb

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