Ocampo, Victoria (1890–1979)

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Ocampo, Victoria (1890–1979)

Well-known and respected essayist, editor, publisher, and patron of the arts, who also advanced the cause of women's rights in Argentina. Pronunciation: Vik-TOH-reah O-CAM-po. Born Ramona Victoria Epifanía Rufina Ocampo on April 7, 1890, in Buenos Aires, Argentina; died on January 27, 1979, at Villa Ocampo, San Isidro, Argentina; daughter of Manuel Ocampo (an architectural engineer) and Ramona MáximaAguirre; sister of writer Silvina Ocampo (1903–1993); taught by private tutors at home; married Luis Bernardo de ("Monaco") Estrada; no children.

Pursued self-definition and mildly rebelled (1900s–29); cultivated great literary figures such as Ortega y Gasset and Tagore; established literary magazine Sur (1931) and Editorial SUR, a publishing house (1933); helped found the Union of Argentine Women (1936); arrested by the Perón regime (1953); was the first woman named to the Argentine Academy of Letters (1977).

Major works:

Testimonios (Testimony, 10 vols., 1935–77); Autobiografía (Autobiography, 4 vols., 1979–82); De Francesca a Beatriz (From Francesca to Beatrice, 1924); 338171 T.E. (a biography of T.E. Lawrence, 1942, 1963).

Our small individual lives count for little, but all our lives united will carry such force that history will change its course.

—Victoria Ocampo

In the early 1920s, the fleeting image of the beautiful young woman in short sleeves and unchaperoned, speeding through the streets of Buenos Aires behind the wheel of a Packard, attracted a flurry of cat-calls from those offended by such unwomanly behavior. Rebellion against patriarchal orthodoxy and a struggle to strike out in directions independent of traditional expectations would highlight the life of that driver, Victoria Ocampo. In popular mythology, the persistent image of Ocampo was and is that of "a flamboyant, widely traveled collector of famous figures, both Argentine and international," writes Janet Greenberg . She was a femme fatale, Count Hermann Keyserling's "Amazon of the Pampas" who "flaunted her fortune and sexuality." There is no question that she polarized opinion; she was the bête noire of the Catholic Church and hated by the followers of dictator Juan Domingo Perón. But she was also known affectionately as Señora Cultura ("Mother Culture"), the first lady of Argentine culture and letters and a vigorous proponent of women's rights.

Ocampo's early years are well documented in large part because she felt that everyone had a particular destiny, a role to play in life. Consequently, she wrote voluminously about her childhood in a search for signs of the course of her life. Ocampo was born in 1890 into a wealthy family that on both sides had a distinguished lineage that could be traced to Argentina's origins as a Spanish outpost in the 16th century. A great-aunt Victoria, whom Ocampo called "Vitola," was her favorite relative and became a second mother. "There is no doubt," wrotes Doris Meyer , "that Vitola was the first to inspire her to dream of doing great things with her life."

In 1896, the Ocampo family embarked on its first trip to Europe, a customary practice for Argentina's wealthiest families. During the family's extended sojourn in Paris, Victoria's first schooling was in French. Indeed, in later years her written work reflected her love of French which she preferred to Spanish and for which she was criticized by Argentine nationalists in the 1930s and 1940s. Victoria's schooling continued upon the Ocampos' return to Argentina in 1897. She and her sisters were taught at home by tutors who were expected to groom them to be good wives and mothers. Subjects were concentrated in the humanities, history, religion and basic math. Languages were stressed and Ocampo became fluent in French, English, and Italian as well as her native Spanish. Piano and voice training were also considered positive attributes of a woman. Ocampo was something of a nightmare for her tutors. Her intensity and desire to learn were reflected in her aggressive independence and rebellious nature; she learned but was a difficult student. Victoria's independence, if wholly unleashed, would have certainly clashed with the conservatism of her parents—but she held back out of love and respect and channeled her energies into books. Ocampo became a voracious reader.

The 30 years between 1900 and 1929—i.e., from puberty through the loss of the great but illicit love in her life, Julián Martínez—"are characterized," writes Greenberg, "by a seemingly endless series of rites of passage." Ocampo saw herself as a "timid rebel victimized by a complex system of double standards that held her prisoner." In 1905, after viewing a performance of the great French actress Marguerite Moreno , Victoria seemed intent on a career in the theater. This was not possible in Argentine society without creating a scandal, however, and Victoria again placed the well-being of her parents ahead of her inclinations. Her frustrations are most evident in the remarkable letters she wrote to Delfina Bunge . "I'm weary of feeling misunderstood. I wish to be known for what I am," she complained to Bunge in 1907, "a person 'who thinks,' a person who unceasingly analyzes herself."

Travel to Europe occupied the Ocampo family in 1908, and Victoria took classes at the Sorbonne with French philosopher Henri Bergson and discovered the work of Saint Augustine, Friedrich Nietzsche, and Arthur Schopenhauer from whom she learned respectively about dualism, hero-worship, and the inadequacy of reason as a guide. As a prescient 18-year-old, Ocampo looked for a way to escape from not only the parents who constrained her but from what she saw as the materialistic, shallow culture that prevailed in Buenos Aires; she began to search for "true culture." Escape took the form of marriage in 1912 to a scion of the Argentine oligarchy, Luis Bernardo de Estrada, also known as "Monaco."

The marriage was a disaster and within a year they led separate lives; divorce was not possible. Appearances were maintained for the family's sake, though Victoria engaged in a passionate adulterous affair with Julián Martínez, a cousin of her husband. According to John King, "She found a way through these dilemmas caused by social control through writing." Ocampo's first two published pieces concerned Dante's Divine Comedy and masked her own search for, in Meyer's phrase, "direction and wholeness." De Francesca a Beatriz, published in 1924, marks "the beginnings," writes King, "of Victoria's break with her class and with society's network of moral and social prejudices." Her "pilgrimage towards self-confidence and self-sufficiency in a man's world was punctuated by a series of love-hate relationships with certain male writers" of the 1920s whom she worshipped as heroes. Most prominent were philosophers José Ortega y Gasset, Rabindranath Tagore, and Count Hermann Keyserling. Meyer observes that each of these men had a "profound influence on her personal and literary development" and her perception of the dialectic between the sexes.

In 1929, Ocampo finally identified her proper course in life after a decade of false starts. In 1931, she founded the cultural journal Sur, destined to become Latin America's longestlived, best known, and highest quality publication of this genre. The review was intended as a cultural bridge between South America, North America and Europe. Its international focus ran against the strong and growing current of narrow nationalism in the 1930s. To help defray the review's publication costs, Ocampo opened a publishing house, Editorial Sur, in 1933.

In 1935, the first volume of her Testimonios was published and laid bare her view of life and literature. "What moves me most in man is the human being who suffers, struggles, and seeks his expression," wrote Ocampo (translated by Meyer). "What interests me is the way in which this being is resolving his human problem, the way in which he is accepting, enduring, and carrying out his human destiny." Through her writing,

she would be a witness to the drama of her times. And she would capture those times from the perspective of a woman. Indeed, early in the Testimonios, Ocampo "insisted," writes Francine Masiello , "on the right to be received as a female author." "My only ambition," wrote Ocampo, "is to write one day, no matter how well or poorly, but as a woman."

After 1935, Victoria and Alicia Moreau de Justo were the acknowledged leaders of the Argentine women's movement, although each approached their task from different perspectives. Moreau sought a leveling of society along the lines of democratic socialism; Ocampo, the practitioner of aristocratic liberalism, felt that a leveling was neither possible nor desirable. While Victoria for the most part avoided the world of politics, in 1936 she was one of the creators of the Argentine Women's Union, which fought hard against attempts by a conservative government to annul civil rights for women gained in legislation in 1926. Newly back from a European trip during which she witnessed firsthand the anti-feminism of Benito Mussolini and the policies of fascist governments that urged women to produce soldiers for the state, Victoria was particularly attuned to issues of women's rights. Furthermore, she had made the acquaintance of English author Virginia Woolf who encouraged Victoria to strike a blow for women. In a radio speech delivered in 1936, Ocampo, as reported by Nancy Caro Hollander , argued that the feminist movement in Argentina "should begin to speak of 'women's liberation' instead of 'women's emancipation,' because the term referred better to the reality of the master-slave relationship between men and women." The Union's campaign generated a good deal of support, and the offensive legislation was not passed. Two years later, when several members of the Union attempted to transform the organization into a mouthpiece for leftist political ideas, Ocampo withdrew. Her retirement was not because of ideology per se or because of her upper-class credentials, but because of the politicization of the movement. Her positions were always apolitical, but they were positions that could generate a good deal of controversy. King notes that her "support of 'personalist' Catholic philosophers in Sur … incurred the wrath of the traditional, reactionary Argentine church." Indeed, she "was a threat to the stable moral codes in several respects: she lived openly as a separated woman, flaunting the sacred vows of matrimony; … she published dangerously progressive Catholic ideas," and she had given up Catholicism in favor of Eastern philosophers.

During 1942, Ocampo undertook to write a biography of T.E. Lawrence (Lawrence of Arabia) entitled 338171 T.E., which was his number in the Royal Air Force. Although Lawrence was different in almost every respect from Victoria, it is clear why he became the subject of her interest. Lawrence's affinity for the desert was not unlike an Argentine's relationship with the pampa. Lawrence, like Ocampo, wrestled with a crisis of the spirit and was forced to confront an essential dualism in his personality. He was a man playing a role set by destiny; he acted to achieve self-realization. Victoria Ocampo also played a role, and her written work was certainly an act of self-realization and self-identification.

While war raged in Europe, Ocampo welcomed the voluntary and involuntary exiles from Spain and France. Buenos Aires seemed to be an oasis in a sea of fascism. But times were changing in Argentina, and in 1943 a military coup set the stage for the emergence of the dictatorial regime of Juan Domingo Perón. Not surprisingly, Ocampo was officially branded both as a dissenting intellectual and persona non grata. Sur continued to publish, however, for the government did not deem it a threat. As Perón's government began to lose its grip on power after the death of Eva Perón in 1952, there were more open manifestations of discontent. In 1953, several bombs detonated in the Plaza de Mayo during one of Perón's speeches, and Ocampo was one of about a thousand intellectuals and dissidents arrested and imprisoned. She was released after nearly a month of captivity, following an international furor. The intervention of Nobel Prize-winning Chilean poet Gabriela Mistral was instrumental in securing Ocampo's freedom.

Ocampo had begun to write her Autobiografía in 1952, although the first volume would not be published until after her death. Greenberg sees the six-volume work as a "classic case of feminist consciousness-raising. The story outlines the conflict between who she is and who others want her to be, and offers a justification of who she became." When set against all her written work, the Autobiografía is "the boldest possible affirmation of self-narration: it represents an attempt to lay down the shield of the mirrored reflections of her self through others."

Beginning in the late 1950s and continuing until her death two decades later, Ocampo was the recipient of numerous awards. In 1965, she won the Maria Moors-Cabot prize and was made a Commander of the British Empire (CBE). Two years later, when Harvard University gave her an honorary degree, she was described as a "dauntless lady; bright burning spirit; exemplar and defender of the unfettered mind." Ocampo's relationship with Tagore and her admiration of Mohandas Gandhi were recognized in 1968 when Indira Gandhi , on the occasion of a state visit to Argentina, gave her a Doctorate Honora Causas of the University of Visva Barathi. When Ocampo died in 1979, at age 89, she was memorialized by many. Noted critic Emir Rodríguez Monegal wrote that her Testimonios needed the passage of time to be read for what they really were, "the chronicle of a woman who, in a country of condescending machos, dared to think and to feel and love just as she pleased."


Greenberg, Janet. "A Question of Blood: The Conflict of Sex and Class in the Autobiografía of Victoria Ocampo," in Seminar on Feminism and Culture in Latin America, in Women, Culture, and Politics in Latin America. Berkeley, CA: University of California Press, 1990.

Hollander, Nancy Caro. "Women in the Political Economy of Argentina," unpublished PhD. dissertation, UCLA, 1974.

King, John. "Victoria Ocampo (1890–1979): Precursor," in Susan Bassnett, ed., Knives & Angels: Women Writers in Latin America. London: Zed Books, 1990.

Masiello, Francine. Between Civilization & Barbarism: Women, Nation, and Literary Culture in Modern Argentina. Lincoln, NE: University of Nebraska Press, 1992.

Meyer, Doris. Victoria Ocampo: Against the Wind and the Tide. Austin, TX: University of Texas Press, 1990.

Vazquez, Maria Esther. Victoria Ocampo. Buenos Aires: Planeta, 1991.

suggested reading:

Carlson, Marifran. ¡Feminismo!: The Woman's Movement in Argentina From Its Beginning to Eva Peron. Chicago, IL: Academy Chicago, 1988.

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