Lutz, Berta (1894–1976)

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Lutz, Berta (1894–1976)

Brazilian feminist, writer, and activist committed to the enfranchisement of women. Pronunciation: BEAR-ta LOOHTS. Born Berta María Júlia Lutz on August 2, 1894, in Sâo Paulo, Brazil; died on September 16, 1976, in Rio de Janeiro, Brazil; daughter of Adolfo Lutz (a pioneer of tropical medicine in Brazil) and Amy (Fowler) Lutz (a volunteer nurse among lepers in Hawaii); attended primary school in Rio de Janeiro, secondary and advanced study in France; earned a Licenciée dès Sciences at the University of Paris (Sorbonne), 1911–18; earned a bachelor's degree in law from the University of Rio de Janeiro in 1933.

Founded many feminist organizations, including the influential Federaçao Brasileira pelo Progresso Feminino (Brazilian Federation for the Advancement of Women), of which she was president (1922–42), and led the battle for female enfranchisement.

"Miss Bertha Lutz, a beautiful young woman, is the 'propulsive force' at present," wrote American feminist Carrie Chapman Catt in 1922. She was referring to the central and guiding role played by Berta Lutz in the creation of the Federaçao Brasileira pelo Progresso Feminino (Brazilian Federation for the Advancement of Women), an organization that pushed for the education of women, protective legislation for women and children, and, first and foremost, the right of women in Brazil to vote.

Lutz was well positioned for such a role. Born into an upper-middle class family, she enjoyed their support and was given the education and the freedom to advance her feminist agenda. Her father Adolfo Lutz, a renowned doctor and scientist, had been born in 1855 to Swiss parents who had immigrated to Brazil in 1849. Educated in Europe, he reputedly met Joseph Lister in London in 1880 and Louis Pasteur in Paris. Upon his return to Brazil, he engaged in biological research and published widely. His work won him international fame, and he was invited to visit the Molukai leprosarium in Hawaii, where he met and married an English nurse, Amy Fowler (Lutz) . They returned to Brazil in 1893 and Adolfo was named interim vice-director of the Bacteriological Institute in Sâo Paulo. The following year, Amy Lutz gave birth to Berta María Júlia Lutz.

Berta had, from the outset, the advantages of the best possible education in Brazil and traveled to France, in 1911, for secondary and advanced study. At the Sciences Faculty of the University of Paris at the Sorbonne, she enrolled in courses in botany, natural sciences, zoology, embryology, chemistry and biology. A degree, the Licenciée dès Sciences, was awarded to her in 1918. She traveled to England the same year and observed firsthand the struggle of that country's suffragists. It was a cause which had piqued her interest while she studied in Paris. Some of Britain's women won the right to vote in 1918, but it had been a drawn-out campaign which embraced, from 1910, radical and occasionally violent tactics. Arson, smashing windows, destroying postal boxes, and hunger strikes marked the movement.

Intent on organizing women in Brazil to battle for equal access to education, public office, and the right to vote, Lutz, upon her return in 1918, initiated a public campaign with a letter to the Revista da semana, a weekly news magazine. "Surely most of the responsibility for this unfortunate state of affairs falls to men," she wrote, for men controlled "legislation, politics, and all public institutions." But women "are also a bit to blame." Lutz was witness to the progress of women in Europe who assumed tasks during the war that would have been unthinkable in other circumstances. While Brazilian women were not called "to the same level of sacrifice … even so we feel that we are worthy of occupying the same position." The empowerment of women would come through education, not only of women, but also of men, who "must become aware that women are not toys created for their amusement." Lutz was convinced that the violent approach of England's suffragists would not succeed in Brazil. She counseled instead "practical demonstrations" and the creation of a League of Brazilian Women who would lobby for their rights rather than "break windows along the street."

Employment with her father at the famous Instituto Osvaldo Cruz in Rio de Janeiro afforded Berta the means to pursue her campaign for women's rights. Because she was fluent in four languages, she was hired as a translator in the zoology section. This same facility with languages would determine, in part, that much of her career as a fighter for women's rights involved her with the international movement. Also instrumental in her international connections was the fact that in 1919 she was named secretary to the National Museum, a high civil-service post not usually held by a woman. In June Hahner 's words, "Lutz's position in government service provided her with opportunities to establish international ties as well as facilitate organizational activities within Brazil."

In that same year, 1919, Lutz and another woman represented Brazil at a conference sponsored by the International Labor Organization. Its focus was on the conditions endured by working women and possible remedies. In Brazil, the indefatigable Lutz also served as an officer in the Legiâo da Mulher Brasileira (League of Brazilian Women), a social-service organization established in Rio de Janeiro in 1919 with the motto "Aid and Elevate Women." The organization believed that self-help and good organization was the best way to represent women's interests and rights. The seed for another organization, the Liga para a Emancipaçâo Intelectual da Mulher (The League for the Intellectual Emancipation of Women), was planted in 1919 and would come to fruition in 1920.

Lutz, together with María Lacerda de Moura , a schoolteacher and writer from the state of Minas Gerais, led that nascent organization, which broke new ground in that its focus was neither religious nor philanthropic. It had both a political agenda and an educational mission. The Liga supported the campaign of Senator Justo Leite Chermont, a legislator in favor of the right of women to vote. It also wanted to emancipate women intellectually through rational and scientific education. Hahner feels that the Liga was actually little more than a "study group" that sought to promote women's intellectual freedom through public meetings and the printed media. A strong personality, Lutz served as president and enforced her will on the Liga. One result was the gradual alienation of Lacerda de Moura, whose views did not coincide with those of Lutz.

Interested in pursuing her goals within the existing political system and social milieu, Lutz was not a radical. She pushed for legislation to enhance the political and legal rights of women which, in turn, would enhance their economic opportunities. In 1921, the Liga shortened its name to the Liga para a Emancipaçâo de Mulher (League for the Emancipation of Women). No longer especially interested in "intellectual" or "sexual" freedom, Lutz pushed harder for political and legal rights as well as economic and educational issues. The right to vote would serve a twofold purpose: it would enable women to transform their position within Brazilian society, and it would be an important symbol of the equality of citizenship of women and men.

Lutz publicized her program through newspaper interviews in three Rio de Janeiro newspapers, Boa Noite, A Noite, and O Imperial. The unequal treatment of women in the workforce was a key target. Equal pay for equal work and equal educational opportunities could only be realized through the power of the ballot box. Critics charged that the tough world of politics was no place for women, whose chief role in society should be confined to the home and family. Others felt that feminists like Lutz had become masculinized, a characterization designed to humiliate women and remind them of their "true station" in life. To the chorus of dissent was added the powerful voice of the Roman Catholic Church which preached that motherhood, family, and religion should not be linked to the oppression of women. Lutz answered the critics in an interview. She said, in Hahner's translation, that "it is neither accurate nor logical to assert that when women acquire electoral rights they will abandon the place conferred on them by nature…. Woman's domain, all feminists agree, is the home. But … nowadays the home no longer is the space encompassed within four walls." The home, in a progressive Brazilian society, was in the factory and the legislature.

Because of her stature in the feminist movement, the Brazilian government chose Lutz to represent the nation at the Pan American Conference of Women, held in Baltimore, Maryland, in April 1922. It was a learning experience for the Brazilian delegate who now became even more convinced that her strategy of working within the system was the best way to realize women's political and legal rights. Her model was similar to that of women in the United States. Respect and restraint, not the violence of some European feminists, would produce results.

Upon her return to Brazil in August, Lutz dismantled the League and replaced it with the Federaçâo Brasileira pelo Progresso Feminino (Brazilian Federation for the Advancement of Women, or FBPF). The birth of the new organization was celebrated by the visit of the famous U.S. feminist Carrie Chapman Catt, president of both the International Woman's Suffrage Alliance and the Pan American Association of Women. Catt wrote that Lutz had "organized a Brazilian Congress of Women to receive us …. Education, organization methods, child-welfare, laws for women, Pan Americanism and woman suffrage were subjects on the program." Catt was particularly impressed by the support afforded the Brazilian women by male lawyers and politicians.

Quickly, affiliates of the FBPF were established in 13 Brazilian states. The new organization was not designed for the poor women of Brazil, which would eventually turn some feminists away from Lutz. There was little doubt that the FBPF targeted and was supported by middle- and upper-class women in urban areas. Morris Blachman notes that the most insistent demand of the FBPF, the vote, was "in an immediate sense totally irrelevant to the majority of Brazilian women, who were illiterate and therefore not eligible to vote."

But the Federation helped lower-class women in other ways. Lutz in 1922 worked with the Union of Commercial Employees in Rio de Janeiro to shorten the work day for shop clerks; she also succeeded in gaining the entrance of girls to the prestigious Colégio (School) Dom Pedro II. Historian Francesca Miller notes that Lutz used her high-level contacts and appealed directly to the minister of education to lower the barrier that denied women high-quality secondary instruction. A diploma from the Colégio allowed women to prepare for university entrance examinations and, ultimately, to be competitive with men in the search for paid employment.

The Federation did not ignore poor or rural women. On the contrary, it developed extension programs in the states of Sâo Paulo and Rio de Janeiro that concentrated on health issues and income-generating activities for rural women. Another program attempted to address the growing problem of abandoned children.

In 1925, Lutz was elected president of the Inter-American Union of Women at the Inter-American Congress held that year in Washington, D.C. Frequent foreign travel, even though it brought a measure of prestige to the Brazilian feminist movement in general, and enhanced the personal leadership of Berta Lutz, gradually separated her from other Brazilian feminists.

When in Brazil, she campaigned tirelessly for women's suffrage and in 1928 flew over Rio de Janeiro and dropped leaflets that called upon the Senate, the press and the people in general to support votes for women. Despite the novelty of the delivery and the importance of the message, the Senate remained unresponsive, and legislation with respect to female suffrage was allowed to die. Undaunted, Lutz threw the support of the Federation behind a gubernatorial candidate in the state of Rio Grande do Norte who was in favor of women's suffrage. He won the election and the right of women to vote became law in the state in 1928.

Lutz's international schedule remained full. In 1929, she was named to a leadership position at the 11th Congress of the International Woman Suffrage Alliance, which met in Berlin. Shortly after her return, she established yet another organization, the Uniâo Universitária Feminina (Feminist University Union).

The prospects for female suffrage in Brazil brightened considerably in 1930 with the collapse of the Old Republic and the emergence as president of Getulio Vargas, a reform-minded leader. By August 1931, legislation was passed which provided for a restricted franchise, i.e., single women, widows with their own income, and married women with their husband's approval were allowed the vote. Naturally, the Federation was displeased and immediately launched a publicity campaign to remove the offending restrictions. Lutz and other women leaders met personally with the Brazilian president, who left them with the impression that he was in agreement with an unrestricted franchise for women. True to his word, he supported a new civil code, issued by decree on February 24, 1932, that gave women the same right to vote as men. Illiterates of both sexes were excluded by law. The next battle for Lutz and the Federation was to incorporate the decree into Brazil's new constitution.

Vargas invited Lutz to serve on the drafting committee for the constitution, and she used her position not only to fight for the franchise, but also to incorporate constitutional guarantees with regard to the total equality of the sexes. In 1933, she published two studies, 13 principios basicos: sugestoes as anteprojecto da constituicâo (13 Basic Principles: Preliminary Sketches for the Constitution) and A nacionalidade da mulher casada (Nationality and the Married Woman), which dealt with a host of issues of interest to Brazilian women. Included were Lutz's thoughts on equality before the law, equal pay for equal work, paid maternity leaves, the right of all women to hold public office regardless of their married state, child care, and homemaking.

With the support of other women's groups, Lutz and the Federation won their main battle. The right of women to vote was enshrined in the new constitution, which was adopted in July 1934. Additionally, Lutz's 13 Principles also found a place in the document. She now turned her attention to using the vote to place women and men who had supported feminist issues in office. In a celebratory mood, Lutz represented Brazil at the VII Pan American Conference for Women, held in Montevideo. She also found the time to establish two more women's organizations, the Uniâo Professional Femenini (Professional Women's Union) and the Uniâo das Funcionárias Públicas (Union of Public Employees), and earn a bachelor's degree at the Law Faculty of the University of Rio de Janeiro.

One of the greatest forces for emancipation and progress lies within our power: the education of women and men. We must educate women so that they can be intellectually equal and be self-disciplined. We must educate men so that they become aware that women are not toys for their amusement.

—Berta Lutz (1918)

With the promulgation of the constitution, the women's movement hesitated and then began to fragment. The fissures masked by years of common struggle burst open. Factions quarreled and personality conflicts moved to center stage. Some women found Lutz "too authoritarian, brusque, and impatient" and abandoned the Federation for other organizations. More could have been accomplished, others complained, if Lutz had been less "difficult" and more "amiable."

With the elections of 1934, Lutz ran as a candidate of the Partido Autonomista (Autonomous Party) for the Federal District for the Chamber of Deputies (Lower House). The party was affiliated with the Liga Eleitoral Independente (Independent Electoral League) which in turn was linked to the feminist movement in Brazil. Lutz was elected as an alternate. In 1936, however, the incumbent died in office, and Lutz entered the Chamber of Deputies. She immediately set to work, and during her year in office helped to create the Commission for the Code for Women. As chair of the commission, she pushed for the enactment of a comprehensive law with regard to the legal status and social rights of women. Specific measures for women in the workplace were envisaged and were similar to those she had outlined in her publications in 1933. Also discussed was the creation of a government department charged with the supervision of services with regard to the protection of children and of women in the workplace and at home.

All the high hopes entertained by Brazil's women were dashed in 1937 with the forced closure of Congress. Vargas' declaration of the Estado Novo (New State) terminated all political activity, including that of women. Pending legislation on women's rights was lost. Vargas, who had been so conciliatory to Lutz and others in the early 1930s, abandoned women: they would play no significant role in the new order. Indeed, from the perspective of Vargas, social harmony demanded order and discipline which included the legal subordination of wives to husbands.

Forcibly retired from politics, Lutz became the interim director of the botanical section of the National Museum, and assumed the directorship in February 1938. It was a position she would hold until her compulsory retirement in 1964.

In 1940, Lutz penned a frustrated letter to Carrie Chapman Catt in which she noted that Brazil's women "had been unable to maintain what they had won." Indeed, it was as if the rug had been yanked from beneath their feet. Much damage was done to the women's movement by Vargas; it lost its momentum and, even with the collapse of the New State in 1945, the movement failed to recover.

Lutz maintained her high international profile, however. In October 1945 in San Francisco, she represented Brazil at the Inter-American Commission of Women, a group that offered advice with regard to the framing of the United Nations Charter. It was Lutz, together with representatives from the Dominican Republic and Mexico, who insisted, successfully, that the opening paragraph of the Charter include the phrase "the equal rights of men and women." In 1952, Lutz's input was important with regard to the formation of the United Nations Commission on the Status of Women, a body for which she served as an officer. In 1975, a year before she died, the tireless Lutz attended the International Women's Year conference in Mexico City. Death came to her in Rio de Janeiro on September 16, 1976.

A later generation of feminists in Brazil recognized the pioneering work of Berta Lutz and in 1982 gave her name to the Berta Lutz Tribunal, an interesting combination of mock trial and public forum that had as its focus the continuing discrimination in Brazil against working women.


Blachman, Morris J. "Selective Omission and Theoretical Distortion in Studying the Political Activity of Women in Brazil," in June Nash and Helen Safa, eds., Sex and Class in Latin America. NY: Praeger, 1976, pp. 254–264.

Fundaçâo Getúlio Vargas. Dicionário Histórico-Biográfico Brasileiro, 1930–1983. Vol. 3. Rio de Janeiro: 1984.

Hahner, June. Emancipating the Female Sex: The Struggle for Women's Rights in Brazil, 1850–1940. Durham: Duke University Press, 1990.

——, ed. Women in Latin American History: Their Lives and Views. Los Angeles: UCLA Latin American Center Publications, rev. ed., 1980.

Miller, Francesca. "Latin American Feminism and the Transnational Arena," in Seminar on Feminism and Culture in Latin America, Women, Culture, and Politics in Latin America. Berkeley: University of California Press, 1990, pp. 10–26.

——. Latin American Women and the Search for Social Justice. Hanover, NH: University Press of New England, 1991.

suggested reading:

Burns, E. Bradford. A History of Brazil. 3rd ed. NY: Columbia University Press, 1993.

Paul B. Goodwin , Jr. , Professor of History, University of Connecticut, Storrs