Women (and Men) in Brazil: Some Personal Notes

As we head into the final stretch of the first round of the presidential election, we have, if we can believe the polls and we probably can, two women heading toward a run off.

Interesting. As President Dilma became Brazil’s first female president, the (international) press says that Marina could be the second and first black to occupy Brazil’s highest office.  I don’t think many Brazilians look at Marina as black, probably more likely a “cafusa” ou “mameluca” as befits descendents of nordestinos born in the Amazon.  But I digress.

Instead of the sociology of race, I am reflecting, personally, more on my 50 plus years since 1963 when I first arrived.  Women at the time were certainly more cloistered, and more dependent.  Certainly, they were less active in the work force and present in upper education pretty much only in language, literature and teaching.  Few women at the time were preparing for and entering the male dominated professions of law, medicine and engineering.

In my teens, I had an acute interest in Brazilian girls and I have fond memories of a 15 year old boy and the clumsy attempts at dating.  It was interesting.  My first GF of note was the mayor’s daughter.  I met her under the pretense of helping with her English and for a period of close to a year we had a wonderfully prim and chaperoned relationship.  I was not even sure that we were dating as we actually never went out.  However, in the little town where we lived, my frequent visits for lunch and afternoons made everyone in town assume that we were “namorando”.  As the mayor’s daughter, my friend was obviously in the urban elite and a trophy to strive for without quite grasping.  Haha!

And as a teenager, I definitely was anxious to find something quite “palpable”.   Indeed, I made the acquaintance of a young lady who did not have the same bonafides as my “official” girl friend.  This girl lived in a small two room bungalow (barracao) with her mother who was something of a drinker.  Because of her living situation, I was able to spend time alone with her and fortunately for me she reciprocated my advances and we engaged in a lot of kissing and what we used to call petting.  From today’s perspective, it was extraordinary.

Over the years, I followed a course which was the normal and expected for boys and men of my age.  We dated nice girls with chaperones and left them at home at 10 and then we were free to run around and find the “bad” girls.  At times these girls were prostitutes usually a few years older than we were or they were girls who had somehow evaded or lost their families and had a freedom unknown to the so-called nice girls.  By this time, I had also moved to Belo Horizonte, “O Capital”, with over a million inhabitants and where social strictures were less tight as compared with the small town of some 15000.

It is also important to contextualize a bit the time period.  We are talking about the sixties with all of its struggles involving sexual liberation, the pill, civil rights, incipient feminism, the anti-war movement and all the related individuation taking place.  Brazil as an organic and patriarchal and only recently urbanized society resisted but eventually succumbed to the radical changes that came sweeping through on a global scale in the 60’s.  Culturally, Brazil’s military coup of 1964 attempted to find roots to resist change.  For a period the far right Catholic movement based on Tradition, Property and Family (read patriarchy) flourished.  Certainly in my home state, dating was strictly controlled by TFM or Traditional Family of Minas.

By the 1970’s, global communications through TV and the press, urbanization, social mobility and access to education, especially for the middle class, led to cracks and then ruptures in the strictures and constraints on social and sexual norms.  I think I was close to the mean when I married in 1973 after a standard, chaperoned courtship and wedded a virgin bride.  However, the rebellion and reaction to the authoritarian military government and paternal domination in a world where women were achieving parity in numbers in upper education and, to a lesser extent in the professions, had to lead to greater freedom for women.  By the end of the 70’s, at least in the big cities, it was no longer a requirement and less and less the norm for a woman to be sexually inexperienced at marriage.

Brazilian men follow the Latin tradition as machos.  There is a desire to be noted for prowess and conquest.  At the same time, we want to be modern and concede autonomy and equality at least on a certain level.  Some of this has to do with economics and money.  If a woman earns more than a man or if she has an inheritance or is somehow independently wealthy apart from her male counterpart, she is likely to assert her freedom both in social and sexual terms.  Undoubtedly, society is still tilted toward males more than women in politics, business, and leadership roles for women are anomalies rather than the norm, until today.

Still it is of interest that Dilma and I are the same age and although I never met her personally, we were in the same circles in Belo Horizonte in the mid-sixties.  Marina is about 10 years younger.  Both have lived through this transformation from the division between good girls and bad to women as a group striving for respect and position of influence and power within society.

I think that in Brazil we have survived the sexual revolution.  On a personal level, there will always be angst about relationships but virginity as a sexual coin and requirement only for women has pretty much fallen out of use and clearly so as levels of education and income increase.  The upside is that two women running for President forge greater respect for women and show that all positions and possibilities of power are available outside of the family and apart from submission of sexuality to male control.  The downside is that women are still generally viewed as objects of sexual desire and for many still subject to male domination and control.





2 comments on “Women (and Men) in Brazil: Some Personal Notes

  1. colltales says:

    Dear Steve, it’s definitely an optimistic view, that of believing that two women poised to become Brazil’s president, for the second time in a row, is an inspiring sign of progress, and we should all applaud that. However, there are two important distinctions that need to be made. One is that Marina, being supported by a fundamentalist religious coalition, has perhaps unwittingly landed on the side that’s actually against a woman’s right to choose and have absolute control over her reproductive system. Which is a pity because Marina herself may not be completely onboard of such intolerant views. But it is her choice to be supported by them, so it’s proper to identify her with the political and financial support that she’s received. Also, even with Dilma, Brazil seems to be experiencing a turnaround in women’s rights, with rampant numbers of rapes and sexual assaults, underreported domestic violence (despite the innovative police precincts dedicated to it in a few cities), and, what you’ve referred to, the way they’re still considered sex toys with diminished access to professions and positions of power.
    Still, your view of the country is not naive or out of purpose, and should actually be emulated by many who seem to have given up on Brazil. I certainly haven’t, and when I see someone expressing a healthy outlook for the country, even if parts of it are indeed idealized, I’m right there in support of it. As you also imply it so well, it’ll be up to Brazilian men to make sure that the election of yet another woman to high office will represent change for the over half of Brazil’s population that’s entitled to.Thanks for that, Steve.


    • Oi Wesley,
      Thanks for the gentle criticism. I actually expect that even while I consider myself moderately to the left and somewhat attuned to women, I kind of expected some harder comments from friends (some of whom might be women) along the lines that you are raising. So I must admit to a certain naivete which might lead to a an optimistic slant. But I really am generally optimistic, although hopefully within bounds of the reality that we know. So yeah, Marina is beholden to the evangelical vote (but so is Dilma albeit to lesser extent). The PT and parts of the left though are just being instrumentalists in attacking Marina for being a “crente”. But, in my opinion, that is like attacking Leonardo Boff for being a papist. It is not really fair. Now you are right about the under-reported domestic violence, rape and general accommodation with assaults which is a perplexing and troubling aspect of our culture. I mean why do we in Brazil put up with so much bad stuff…..but when I go down this road I can’t help think that I am sounding like a paternalistic gringo. I think you know what I mean. The final point you raise about men is also generous to me and you perhaps give me more slack on this then I deserve, but men are not voting for Aecio because he is the guy in the race. That is kind of interesting. On the other hand, men still tend to treat women poorly if they can get away with it.

      Colltales, thanks for the read and the thoughts. I appreciate it. Grande abraco.


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