Three Marias, The

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Three Marias, The

By writing and publishing The New Portuguese Letters (1972), Maria Barreno, Maria Velho da Costa and Maria Teresa Horta led the modern feminist literary movement in Portugal and achieved notoriety because of the government's attempt to suppress their work.

Maria Isabel Barreno (1939—). Born in Lisbon, Portugal, on July 10, 1939; granted degree in historic and philosophic sciences from the Lisbon Arts Faculty; employed in the National Institute of Industrial Research; participated in the writing of A Condicão da Mulher Portuguesa (1968); published first novel, De Noite as Arvores São Negras (1968).

Maria Teresa Horta (1937—). Born in Lisbon on May 20, 1937; studied at Lisbon Arts Faculty; published first volume of poetry, Espelho Inicial (1960); published first novel, Ambas as Mãos sobre o Corpo (1970); Minha Senhora de Mim confiscated by censors (1971).

Maria Velho da Costa (1938—). Born in Lisbon on June 26, 1938; granted degree in German philology from the University of London; high school teacher; employed in the National Institute of Industrial Research; co-author of Novas Cartas Portuguesas (1972); her novel Casas Pardas won the City of Lisbon Prize (1977).

In March 1971, a Portuguese printing house was typesetting Novas Cartas Portuguesas, written by Maria Isabel Barreno, Maria Velho da Costa, and Maria Teresa Horta, when an employee told the owner that the book was pornographic. He stopped production and spoke with Manuel Aquino, general secretary of the Estúdios Cor publishing house, which had hired the printer to produce the book. Aquino temporarily suspended the printing, but a few days later publisher Romeu de Melo authorized the printer to continue. The authors had reportedly worked with Natália Correia , the publisher's literary director, on revisions of some sections of the manuscript. Toward the end of April, after printing 2,000 copies, the printer sent one to the government censor. Meanwhile, Estúdios Cor distributed the new book for sale. By mid-December, however, the government arrested the authors and Melo on charges of pornography and offenses against public morality. Judicial proceedings commenced, with the accused free on bond. Thus began the case of "The Three Marias," as it became known internationally.

It unfolded in the waning days of the dictatorship that ruled Portugal for four decades. As minister of finances in 1932, António de Oliveira Salazar seized power and imposed a corporatist state (the Estado Novo or New State) on Portugal. He dominated Portugal through his National Union, the only legal political party, until 1968, when a stroke incapacitated him. President Américo Tomás then appointed Marcelo Caetano to head the Council of Ministers. A Salazar loyalist, Caetano nonetheless recognized the need for reforms. He allowed opposition candidates to stand for election to the National Assembly in November 1969 and generally maneuvered to win the support of middle-class liberals. He also attempted to modernize Portugal by bringing technocrats into the government as ministers. Salazar died in 1970, but the arch-conservatives (Ultras) of the ruling coalition forced Caetano toward the right. Even so, according to social scientists Ben Pimlott and Jean Seaton, Portugal witnessed "a growing awareness of a middle-class intelligentsia—expansive, outward-looking, and essentially liberal—steadily gaining confidence in an offensive against an anachronistic and traditional oligarchy whose institutional and corporate supporters were increasingly distracted and unsure, and which was moving toward its last stand."

The case of the Three Marias both reflected and helped shape the hope and the anxiety, the sense of emancipation and the final attempts at repression that characterized the expiring dictatorship. In their early to mid-30s at the time, Barreno, Velho da Costa, and Horta were university-educated, middle-class women. Aspiring writers with feminist inclinations, all three were wives and mothers. Although their case gained the most international notoriety, several male writers also suffered the wrath of the dying regime. The Marias and their literary colleagues drew purpose from their nation's political crisis, and the regime's oppression grew more and more ineffectual.

When the Three Marias began writing Novas Cartas Portuguesas in 1971, each had already published literary works on her own. Maria Isabel Barreno provided the initial impetus for the undertaking. She knew that in early 1971, when Maria Teresa Horta published Minha Senhora de Mim (Milady of Me), a collection of poems that celebrated the female body, passion and love, officials had reacted harshly and confiscated unsold stocks of the book. Angry at the government's attack, Barreno suggested to Horta and Maria Velho da Costa that the three work together on a volume of feminist literature that would expose the abject conditions of Portuguese women and their sisters throughout the world, while at the same time censuring the dictatorship. From the beginning, they envisioned a political as well as literary work. Long-time friends, Barreno and Velho da Costa worked together in the Institute of Industrial Research, while Horta was a journalist who already enjoyed a reputation for her poetry and fiction.

Horta wondered, however, whether collaboration would interfere with her own creativity. When she finally agreed to go along, the women decided to meet twice each week. They gathered at a restaurant for a weekly lunch and the opportunity to discuss their own lives, radical politics, feminism, and literature. Meanwhile each wrote something to discuss at a private evening gathering. During the week, they also corresponded with each other. Their strategy was to date each piece of work but otherwise leave it anonymous. Their writings were consequently not conceived and executed in isolation. They were instead, as the three women later remarked, "the written record of a much broader, common, lived experience of creating a sisterhood through conflict, shared fun and sorrow, complicity and competition—an interplay not only of modes of writing but of modes of being, some of them conscious and some far less so, all of them shifting in the process."

It soon became obvious that they needed a unifying theme for their writings, and the Lettres Portugaises came to mind. Allegedly written in the 1660s by a Portuguese nun, Mariana Alcoforado , these five love letters expressed her passion and anguish after being abandoned by her lover, the French military officer Noël Bouton, marquis of Chamilly. They created a sensation when published in Paris in 1669, in a French translation. Yet the Portuguese originals never surfaced, leading a number of scholars to argue that the Lettres were a fiction, written not by Alcoforado but by Gabriel Joseph de Lavergne, vicomte de Guilleragues. Be that as it may, the Lettres echoed with the tragic tones of a woman cast against her will into the celibate life of the convent.

The renown of Alcoforado and her letters in Portuguese literature made them a superb device for her literary descendants, the Three Marias. According to Darlene J. Sadlier , professor of Portuguese literature: "Whether or not these letters or ones like them were in fact written by Mariana Alcoforado is unimportant. For the three contemporary women writers, the letters became symbolic of the plight of all women who are confined, whether by an actual convent or by a reactionary political system." To Velho da Costa, Horta and Barreno, Portugal was a convent that imprisoned its unwilling female occupants. The patriarchy dominating Portuguese culture and society demanded that women remain at home, subservient to their fathers or husbands. An old Portuguese dictum held, for example, that a woman should leave home only twice: for her marriage and for her burial.

We three … will be regarded as peculiar creatures, and the courageous battles we wage will be dismissed as mere literary skirmishes, though their roots lie much deeper, the fruit of vines that have intertwined, grown, and been toughened as we have trained ourselves to be more conscious of ourselves as women, as something more than vineyards for men.

—The Three Marias

Between March and October 1971, the writings accumulated. By the authors' own reckoning, they ended up with poetry, letters written to each other, fictitious letters, essays, and fictional sketches. Several of the letters purport to be written by Mariana Alcoforado, her family, or friends. The women's work and family responsibilities, plus the requirement to complete something each week, meant that none of the items was more than a few pages long. Then they organized the pieces chronologically for the manuscript: "Things in it are presented as they came, with no other criteria for their arrangement save our belief in their own (our own) inner development and unity, each piece dated but unsigned, the THING pulsing with a life of its own."

While they understood they were challenging the regime with a book that would disturb many Portuguese, they did not anticipate their work's public impact nor the outpouring of national and international support once they were arrested. In fact, the legal proceedings against the Three Marias ripped away the mask of anonymity behind which nearly all Portuguese women lived and gave them each a public face. Barreno, Horta, and Velho da Costa became national figures, defended by prominent writers and international feminist organizations. European feminists went to Portugal to attend the court proceedings. Meanwhile, the Portuguese press hesitated. Fearful of the regime's ire, it made little mention of the Three Marias or other cases of Portuguese writers persecuted by the government.

During the legal proceedings, the government's behavior revealed its own internal weakness and lack of confidence. The accused gave depositions in mid-1972, denying the charges that their book was "immoral and pornographic." Barreno challenged the regime: "I mean that without those passages considered strongest the book would be amputated, as it is intended not only but very fundamentally to denounce the inferior situation of woman in Portuguese society and in all societies in general; it was necessary to denounce this situation not only on the economic, political, and social plane, but also on the sexual plane since relations between men and women concentrate all the laws of woman's inferiority."

The judge moved slowly, especially as international delegations of feminist organizations appeared in Lisbon to show their solidarity with the accused and to hold Portuguese justice up to the world's scrutiny. More than a year and a half passed without resolution of the case. Several notable Portuguese writers contributed strong depositions against the charges. Urbano Tavares Rodrigues asserted, for example, that two of Barreno's novels (De Noite as Arvores São Negras and Os Outros Legítimos Superiores) were among the most important works of Portuguese literature during the previous half century. He considered the controversial passages necessary to the structure of the book and in "no way pornographic." The accused also presented a letter of support written by José Gomes Ferreira, president of the Portuguese Writer's Association.

Several times the court scheduled the trial, only to postpone it, perhaps fearing the international protests that a conviction of the Three Marias would have caused. Probably out of sympathy for the accused, the state prosecutor refused to push the case. The dictatorship finally

replaced him. Feminists from abroad complained of the regime's delaying tactics but continued their support. Eventually the judge scheduled a final judgment for mid-April 1974. He then delayed it once again, however, because of Portugal's deepening political crisis.

For Portugal had grown tired of the regime itself. After 1971, the Ultras forced Caetano to end his reforms and swing back to the right. Portugal's colonies were in open revolt. Young men resented the draft that carried them off to Africa to serve in futile imperialist wars. The Portuguese military became restive, dismayed at the cost of the African campaigns and convinced the intransigent dictatorship would destroy the nation. On April 25, 1974, the armed forces overthrew the dictatorship and implemented a "bourgeois democratization of Portuguese society from above."

The Three Marias received almost immediate benefit from the Revolution of 1974. On May 7, the presiding judge, Dr. Acácio Artur Lopes Cardoso, rendered his verdict: " Novas Cartas Portuguesas is not pornographic nor is it immoral. To the contrary, it is a work of art, of a high level, in the sequence of other works of art that the authors have already produced." He praised the publishing house for providing a "service to culture," declared the authors innocent, and dismissed all charges against them.

Even before the judge made his ruling, translations of the New Portuguese Letters had been undertaken for the major European languages, and within a year after the trial, those editions began to appear. In October 1978, the theater of the University of Paris presented a dramatized version of the book, with the title of La Clôture. Barreno, Horta, and Velho da Costa built on the prestige won by their legal triumph. They published new novels and volumes of poetry. Velho da Costa's novel Casas Pardas won the City of Lisbon prize in 1977, and her Lucialima shared the D. Dinis Prize in 1983. More moderate in its feminism than the works of her two colleagues, Velho da Costa's writing showed the influence of French experimental linguistics. Barreno remained remarkably productive. She published a series of novels and short stories, including Morte da Mãe (1977); Inventário de Ana (1982); Célia e Celina (1985); O Enviado (1991); and O Senhor das Ilhas (1994). By temperament more sociological in perspective than the other two, Barreno also studied the Portuguese media's portrayal of women (A Imagem da Mulher na Imprensa [1976]) and sexual discrimination in education (Falso Neutro: Um Estudo sobre a Discriminação no Ensino [1985]). Probably the most prolific of the Three Marias prior to the trial, Horta continued to explore feminist themes in her later poetry and novels: Os Anjos (1983); Ema (1984); Cristina (1985); Minha Mãe, Meu Amor (1986); Rosa Sangrenta (1987); Paixão Segundo Constança H (1994). She also co-authored a work on abortion rights, Aborto: Direito ao Nosso Corpo (1975).

More than anything, however, New Portuguese Letters identified the Three Marias to international feminist and literary circles and served to raise the consciousness of Portuguese women. For Darlene Sadlier, it was a "pioneer work." According to Maria Graciette Besse , the book "functions as a symbol of all women, the archetype of alienation and feminine clausura in the breast of patriarchal society." Barreno, Velho da Costa, and Horta helped break down the walls that confined Portuguese women. Yet according to Renata Wasserman , their work was largely one of critique, exposing the nature of masculine oppression: "The contrast between the clarity of the portions that refer to the larger world, and the obscurity of the inner-directed ones exemplifies the emergence of private languages within powerless groups whose concerns are denied access to the language of power—but the expression of whose powerlessness must use the same language that resists their claims to empowerment." Their women suffer, often passively. When they strike back at men, they do so out of rage or desperation.


Barreno, Maria Isabel, Maria Teresa Horta, and Maria Velho da Costa. Novas Cartas Portuguesas. Rev. ed. Lisbon: Moraes Editores, 1979.

——. The Three Marias: New Portuguese Letters. Trans. by Helen R. Lane. Garden City, NY: Doubleday, 1975.

Besse, Maria Graciete. "As Novas Cartas Portuguesas e o exercício da paixão," in Letras & Letras (Curitiba). Vol. 7, no. 110. July 1994, pp. 26–28.

Cabrita, António. "Maria Velho da Costa: 'Ha uma linguagem que nos escreve,'" in Jornal de Letras, Artes & Ideias. Vol. 8, no. 314. July 12–18, 1988, pp. 8–10.

Coelho, Nelly Novaes. " Novas Cartas Portuguesas e o Processo da Conscientização da Mulher—Século XX," in Letras. Vol. 23, 1975, pp. 165–171.

Dubois, E.T. "A Mulher e a Paixão: das Lettres Portugaises (1669) às Novas Cartas Portuguesas (1972)," in Colóquio/Letras. Vol. 102, 1988, pp. 35–43.

Figueiredo, Antonio de. "Portugal's Three Marias," in The Nation. Vol. 2. March 1974, pp. 268–269.

Pimlott, Ben, and Seaton, Jean. "Political Power and the Portuguese Media," in Lawrence S. Graham and Douglas L. Wheeler, eds. In Search of Modern Portugal: The Revolution & Its Consequences. Madison, WI: University of Wisconsin Press, 1983, pp. 43–57.

Sadlier, Darlene J. The Question of How: Women Writers and New Portuguese Literature. Contributions in Women's Studies, No. 109. NY: Greenwood Press, 1989.

Vidal, Duarte. O Processo das Três Marias: Defesa de Maria Isabel Barreno. Lisbon: Editorial Futura, 1974.

Wasserman, Renata. "The Absent Term: Private Unhappiness, Public Belief in the Fiction of M. Teresa Horta and Lya Luft," in Roberto Reis, ed., Toward Socio-Criticism: Selected Proceedings of the Conference "Luso-Brazilian Literatures, a Socio-Critical Approach." Tempe, AZ: Arizona State University, Center for Latin American Studies, 1991, pp. 125–134.

"Women Libbed," in Economist. April 13, 1974, p. 33.

suggested reading:

Almeida, Ana Nunes de, ed. Bibliografia sobre a Família e a Mulher no Portugal do Século XX. Lisbon: University of Lisbon, Institute of Social Sciences, 1987.

A Mulher na Sociedade Portuguesa: Visão Histórica e Perspectivas Actuais: Colóquio, 20–221 de Março de 1985: Actas. 2 vols. Coimbra: Instituto de Historia Económica e Social, University of Coimbra, 1986.

Kendall W. Brown , Professor of History, Brigham Young University, Provo, Utah

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