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Lutz, Bertha Maria Julia (1894–1976)

Lutz, Bertha Maria Julia (1894–1976)

Bertha Maria Julia Lutz (b. 2 August 1894; d. 16 September, 1976), the principal leader of the Brazilian woman's suffrage movement. Bertha Lutz was born in São Paulo to a Swiss-Brazilian father, Adolfo Lutz, a pioneer in the practice of tropical medicine in Brazil, and an English mother, Amy Fowler, a former volunteer nurse who cared for lepers in Hawaii. Lutz was educated first in Brazil and then in Europe, receiving her licencié ès sciences from the Sorbonne in 1918. Later, in 1933, she earned a degree from the Faculty of Law in Rio de Janeiro.

Following seven years of study in Europe, Lutz returned to Brazil and helped to initiate a formal woman suffrage movement. Unlike many of her contemporaries, she felt that this was the time to organize, rather than just inform and educate, women. In 1920 she founded her own women's rights organization. Two years later, immediately after Lutz's return from the United States, where she had served as Brazil's official delegate to the first Pan American Conference of Women, this small local group was transformed into the Brazilian Federation for Feminine Progress (Federação Brasileira pelo Progresso Feminino—FBPF), affiliated with the International Woman's Suffrage Alliance. Lutz served as its president from 1922 to 1942. The main suffrage organization in Brazil, the FBPF led the campaign for the vote, because no other suffrage association attained a similar size, geographic range, or network of personal contacts. In 1932, it achieved its major goal when a new civil code enfranchised women under the same conditions as men (illiterates of both sexes were still denied the vote).

More than other leaders of the FBPF, Lutz linked women's economic emancipation with their political and social emancipation. She repeatedly warned women that the franchise was not an end in itself, and she understood that without access to education and jobs, political rights would remain mere abstractions. In print and in public, she spoke out against the exploitation of the working class, and particularly of its lower-class women. But even though the professional women leading the FBPF tackled problems of concern to the working class, such as salaries, shorter working hours, working conditions, and maternity leaves, interclass linkages were not very strong.

Following the promulgation of the 1932 civil code that enfranchised women, Bertha Lutz served on the committee that drafted a new constitution for Brazil. The Constitution of 1934 confirmed the women's 1932 victory by specifically guaranteeing women the vote and equal political rights with men. Lutz ran twice for Congress; elected as an alternate deputy, she entered the Chamber of Deputies late in 1936 to fill the vacancy created by the death of the incumbent. During her year in Congress, she helped create the Commission on the Code for Women, which she headed. Through the commission, she pushed vigorously for enactment of a statute on women, a comprehensive law concerning women's legal status and social rights. But the establishment of the dictatorial Estado Nôvo in 1937 ended electoral politics and women's participation in them until 1945.

Although Lutz, like the FBPF, never regained a preeminent position as a voice for Brazilian women, she continued to work for women's rights in Brazil while also pursuing her own scientific work in botany and herpetology. In 1973 she published a major work on Brazilian species of hyla. She also participated in international women's rights activities, attending numerous women's conferences abroad, including the International Women's Year conference held in Mexico City in 1975, a year before her death at the age of eighty-two.

See alsoBrazil, Constitutions; Feminism and Feminist Organizations; Women.


June E. Hahner, Emancipating the Female Sex: The Struggle for Women's Rights in Brazil, 1850–1940 (1990).

Additional Bibliography

Besse, Susan K. Restructuring Patriarchy: The Modernization of Gender Inequality, 1914–1940. Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 1996.

Castellanos, Gabriela, and Simone Accorsi, eds. Género y sexualidad en Colombia y en Brasil. Cali: Editorial La Manzana de la Discordia, 2002.

Souza, Lia Gomes Pinto de. "Para ler Bertha Lutz." Cadernos Pagu 24 (Jan.-June 2005): 315-325.

                                         June E. Hahner

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