Bernardino, Minerva (1907–1998)

views updated

Bernardino, Minerva (1907–1998)

Dominican Republic feminist who was a major player in the founding of the UN Commission on the Status of Women. Born in Seibo, the Dominican Republic, in 1907; died on August 29, 1998, in the Dominican Republic, age 91; daughter of Alvaro and Altagracia Bernardino.


honored as the "Woman of the Americas" and awarded the Pan American Union's Bolivar and San Martin medal (1948); granted the Hispanic Heritage Award for excellence in education.

A pioneer among Latin American feminists, Minerva Bernardino was the predominant force in founding the United Nations Commission on the Status of Women. In 1997, Secretary General Kofi Annan noted that the commission was "to an important extent" Bernardino's "creation."

Granddaughter of a provincial governor and eldest child in a family of four girls and three boys, Minerva Bernardino was born in Seibo, in the Dominican Republic. She came from an unconventional family, receptive to the notion of women's rights. "My mother was very progressive," she once told Ann Foster of the Christian Science Monitor, "and I was reared in an atmosphere that was, at that time, most un-usual in my country." Her father evidently shared her mother's views. When Bernardino complained of the social strictures on women and travel, he replied, "Go out if you like, travel if you want, and let criticize who will."

Orphaned at 15, Bernardino, along with her eldest brother, became the chief support of her siblings.

"We both believed in equality from the beginning," she told Foster, "and were determined that he should go in for law, that my sister should do as she also wished, and become a doctor, and that I should enter public life." While earning a bachelor of science degree, she pursued a career in the civil service, eventually becoming head of the file office of the Dominican Republic's Department of Development and Communications in 1926, chief of a section of the Department of Agriculture in 1928, and chief of the statistics section of the Department of Education from 1931 to 1933. By 1929, she was also a leader in Acción Feminista Dominica, a women's rights organization credited for successfully leading the battle to insert suffrage and civil rights for Dominican women into the amended Constitution of 1942.

In 1933, Bernardino was appointed Dominican delegate to the Inter-American Commission of Women to be held in Montevideo, the first such body formed to advance the rights of women. The group, sponsored by the Organization of American States, was to convene every five years. By 1938, when the commission met at Lima, Bernardino was its rapporteur. In autumn 1939, when Ana Rosa de Martinez Guerrero of Argentina was elected chair, Bernardino was chosen vice chair.

During World War II, in November 1943, Bernardino effectively presented a resolution urging the women of Chile and Argentina to press their governments to "sever diplomatic relations with aggressor nations" (Germany, Italy, and Japan). But siding with the Allies was unpopular with the government of Argentina. When Martinez Guerrero's Argentine organization, the Junta de la Victoria, comprised of 50,000 women, raised funds for the Allies, it was disbanded, and the Argentine government replaced Martinez Guerrero as a delegate to the Inter-American Commission with Angelina Fuselli . On November 3, 1943, Bernardino was elected chair to fill the vacancy; she held that office for the next six years.

In 1945, Bernardino was one of only four women seated at the Inter-American Conference on Problems of War and Peace which convened at Chapultepec, Mexico, and the only woman with the power to vote. The Act of Chapultepec pledged joint action by all American republics against aggression directed at any member nation.

That same year, Bernardino attended the founding conference for the United Nations in San Francisco and was one of only four women to sign the United Nations Charter. It was Bernardino, along with Bodil Begtrup of Denmark and Berta Lutz of Brazil, who demanded the document contain the phrase "to ensure respect for human rights and fundamental freedoms without discrimination against race, sex, condition, or creed." In 1946, Bernardino teamed with Eleanor Roosevelt and three other delegates to the first United Nations General Assembly—Jean McKenzie of New Zealand, Evdokia Uralova of the Soviet Union, and Ellen Wilkinson of Great Britain—to write an "Open Letter to the Women of the World," urging them to take a more active role in politics and government.

In January 1950, Bernardino was appointed her country's Minister Plenipotentiary to the United Nations, a post that put her only one step below Dominican ambassadors throughout the world. Even so, she opposed the dictatorship of Rafael Trujillo and, at one point, went into self-imposed exile to draw attention to her views.

"Bernardino spoke up for women in the aftermath of World War II," said Kristen Timothy , deputy director of the UN Division for the Advancement of Women, "understanding that [postwar] life for women would never be the same." The Minerva Bernardino Foundation in Santo Domingo was formed to continue her mission, to highlight the contributions of women to society, and to "train female leaders for the coming millenium."


Crossette, Barbara. "Minerva Bernardino, 91, Dominican Feminist," in The New York Times. September 4, 1998.

Rothe, Anna, ed. Current Biography. NY: H.W. Wilson, 1950.

About this article

Bernardino, Minerva (1907–1998)

Updated About content Print Article