Feminism in Bolivia: how did it begin and who were the first feminists?

Bolivia’s feminist movement was born in the 1920s. These women’s groups wanted to gain rights, including the right to vote. The pioneering feminists participated in the social, political and economic changes of the Bolivian reality: the Chaco War (1932-1935), the National Revolution and the arrival of the first democratic Constitution. In this article of the Latin American Feminisms section (in Spanish), we tell you who were Elssa Paredes, Ana Rosa Tornero, Mª Luisa Sánchez Bustamante

Table of contents:

When did Bolivian women start demanding the vote?

The ideas of equality before the law advocated by feminism arrived in Bolivia a little later than in other countries. The first wave emerged in 1920, something that also happened with the women’s movement in El Salvador and (a little further away) with initiatives in Japan. But why in this decade and not earlier?

  • The liberal period at the beginning of the 20th century brings educational projects to the country. A large percentage of the population did not know how to read or write in Spanish, they only communicated in native languages and orally.
  • In this way, a multitude of women were able to sit in primary, secondary and even university classrooms.
  • The foundation of the Escuela Normal Superior founded in Sucre (1909) and various Liceos de Señoritas, such as the Colegio Primario de Niñas founded in 1906
  • Once the degree was obtained, the graduates wanted to put their knowledge into practice. The professionalization of the ladies led them to broaden their horizons and ask themselves new questions.

As you can guess, access to higher education was only available to certain strata of society. Likewise, they were allowed to read books and learn the subjects, but skilled salaried jobs were not regulated in the case of Bolivian women. Argentina’s Cecilia Grierson was never able to take up a position as a surgeon, even though she had the necessary qualifications.

Cecilia Grierson fue la primera médica argentina. Consiguió la titulación de cirujana, pero nunca pudo ejercer este cargos. Dedicó su vida a la ginecología y otros campos de la medicina.
Cecilia Grierson was the first female doctor in Argentina. She qualified as a surgeon, but was never able to practice this position. She dedicated her life to gynecology and other medical fields.

Where did women meet to discuss their rights in Bolivia?

The meeting places for Bolivian women with progressive ideas were the women’s cultural centers. The upper and middle classes of the cities would go there and spend the afternoon talking, debating and sharing ideas about literature or art. Soon they moved from the more cultural level to political issues. The question they had to ask themselves was clear: why were there no women in the spheres of power that governed the country?

  • Who was considered a citizen? Those who could read and write. Women who went to the cultural centers of La Paz or Sucre fulfilled this requirement. However, and this will not come as a surprise, they could not vote or get elected in elections.
  • Women’s magazines were the loudspeaker they needed. Gallons of ink flowed to write about civil and political rights. Among the concerns of the time were free access to education and the protection of married women and minors.

Early feminist magazines and meeting places

The Centro Artístico e Intelectural de Señoritas de Oruro was founded by several Bolivian women: Laura de la Rosa, Betshabé Salmón de Beltrán (1899-1989) and Nelly López. They edited a magazine called Feminiflor, which was the first publishing house to hit the streets in 1921. They were not the only ones; publications written, edited and published by feminist women began to appear all over the country.

El Centro Artístico e intelectural de Señoritas de Oruro lo fundaron varias feministas bolivianas: Laura de la Rosa, Bethsabé Salmón de Beltrán y Nelly López.
Laura de La Rosa (right) with Nelly López (center) and Betshabé Salmón, (left). La Patria.
  1. Círculo de Bellas Artes de Cochabamba.
  2. Centro Juvenil de Señoritas del Beni.
  3. Centro Ideal Femenino de La Paz, which published the magazine Aspiración (1923).
  4. Ateneo Femenino de La Paz, which published the magazines Eco Femenino (1923) and Índice (1929).

The last of these, the Ateneo Femenino de La Paz, opened its doors in 1923. We owe the initiative to María Luisa Sánchez Bustamante, an upper-class woman who turned her project into the most influential cultural center in Bolivia. In fact, after the success of the institution, other women colleagues from Oruro, Sucre and Cochabamba made moves and opened Ateneos in their cities.

En la primera ola del feminismo de Bolivia, las mujeres empezaron a publicar revistas (Eco Femenino, Aspiración, Feminiflor...) con artículos en los que defendían el derecho al voto.
The first feminist magazines of Bolivia.

The Ateneo Femenino de La Paz was the reference organization for the defense of Bolivian women’s rights in the 1920s and 1940s. It was the first to design activist campaigns.

First feminist organization in Bolivia

The first Bolivian Feminist Convention

The first Bolivian Feminist Convention was organized in 1925. And what did they talk about? They focused on the analysis of the Constitution and the possibility of obtaining the vote for women who could read and write. Of course, under these requirements, the popular classes and the original peoples -as is the case of the cholitas– were expelled from the equation.

El Sindicato de Culinarias formaba parte del FOF y organizaron las huelgas feministas más conocidas de Bolivia.
The Sindicato de Culinarias was part of the FOF and organized the best known feminist strikes in Bolivia.
  • A few years later, in 1929, the First Women’s Convention was convened with the participation of the Federación Obrera del Trabajo (FOT), the Federación Obrera Femenina (FOF) and the Sindicato Femenino de Oficios Varios.
  • However, no major agreements were reached because there were discrepancies between the trade unionists and the women from the wealthier classes who were the beneficiaries of the cultural centers. The two groups had different priorities.
IntellectualsUnion members
They demanded the vote for women who could read and write.8-hour workdays, laws for working women and children or the right to strike.
What were the differences between upper-class and working-class feminists?

Were feminist organizations in Bolivia isolated? No. The Ateneo Femenino was in charge of organizing International Congresses around Latin America. For example, Ana Rosa Tornero and Eduviges de Hertzog participated in the Segundo Congreso Panamericano de Mujeres en Lima (1924). If you want to know in what circumstances were the feminists in Peru, we invite you to read Sen Enderezo’s article.

The Spanish-speaking feminist movement was not only in Latin America. Ana Rosa Tornero attended the Congress of the Iberian-Hispanic-American League of Women in Mexico (1925) and met with Spanish feminists and representatives of Portuguese feminism.

Do you remember the magazine Eco Femenino? The European correspondent was Carmen Sánchez Bustamante. In addition, close ties were maintained with fellow activists in Chile or feminists in Argentina.

How far did Bolivia’s feminist magazines go?

1st wave of Bolivian feminism and the Chaco War (1932-1935)

The consequences of the disastrous Chaco War (1932-1935) are innumerable, but I will only throw out one fact: 25% of Bolivia’s population died during the conflict. Thousands of young men lost their lives in front of the guns and the economic recession affected the whole country, so it seems sensible that part of the society questioned the decisions of the oligarchy. Among those opposition groups were the Bolivian feminists of the first wave.

La Guerra del Chaco (1932-1935) enfrentó a Bolivia y Paraguay. Los problemas fronterizos venían de mucho antes, tal y como se indica en este mapa.
Border problems around Chaco.

The Bolivian population was divided into four major social categories:

Middle class*
Working class
Bolivian natives
The native peoples had no political representation and had no say in public affairs. However, in the middle class, groups of intellectuals and young people emerged who wanted to change the course of Bolivia.

* The intellectual middle class is known under the name of «Chaco generation». They criticized and attacked the behavior of the oligarchic society, which ceased to rule in 1952 with the National Revolution.

Let us focus again on the role of women. As in the European world wars, it was women who had to take over the jobs of their husbands and other men. In this way, they were able to feed their families thanks to the small salary they received. Bolivia’s economy and food industry continued to function during the conflict because women rolled up their sleeves.

  • Collection of economic and food resources.
  • Support to soldiers.
  • In charge of associations of assistance to war orphans.
  • Participation as spies.

«The vigor acquired by the female public presence during the war contributed to strengthen the public presence of the women’s movement as a new political, social and economic subject.»

Marcela Revollo Quiroga

In the 1920s, except for the Socialist Workers Party of Bolivia, no party supported women’s suffrage. It was not debated in Congress until 1938, and only a few years earlier, the Liberal Party was open to dialogue when it opened the Registro de Sugrafio Femenino (1934). The best move was to review the Constitution and nowhere did it explicitly prohibit women’s political participation.

After the Chaco War

1935Foundation of the Women’s Legion of Popular Education America (LFEPA). They were dedicated to humanitarian work, educational and cultural projects.
1935Union of American Women (UMA). The general secretary was Zoila Viganó de Antezana. It was born with the objective of repatriating Bolivian prisoners imprisoned in Paraguay.
1938Unión Femenina Universitaria, with Elssa Paredes Candia (1918-2013) and Marina Lijerón Baldivia.
1938Permanent Committee for Women’s Political Rights, led by Marina Lijerón Baldivia.

In terms of advances in the law, we highlight the 1936 regulations, which recognized certain civil rights for women: to exercise a profession, to be a witness in a trial, a certain independence…. However, these measures remained on paper and were never applied.

The drafting of a new Constitution began in 1938, in response to the demands of certain groups. Critics saw no logic in abiding by the laws of a legal text drafted in 1880, since Bolivian society had completely changed. The reference model was the Constitution of Mexico (1917).

Some of the most sexist comments on women’s political participation:

  • They will «moralize politics».
  • They will be influenced by the Catholic Church.
  • They will destroy the family structure.

In Spain, similar conclusions were heard during the Second Republic, when Victoria Kent and other women debated the approval of women’s suffrage. After the 1945 Constitution, women with primary education and over 21 years of age were allowed to vote in municipal elections and some time later, after the National Revolution of 1952, universal suffrage for men and women was recognized. We owe this success to the LFEPA and the alliances between the unions.

The attempt of the oligarchy to return to power and the National Revolution of 1952

El Sexenio (1947-1949) es un período histórico marcado por la represión de los partidos de izquierda de Bolivia, en especial el MNR, los campesinos y obreros. La masacre de Catavi son el peor episodio, que casi termina en guerra civil. La sociedad oligárquica quería continuar teniendo poder sobre las instituciones y propuso dos gobiernos, hasta que finalmente la ciudadanía se unió en la Revolución Nacional de 1952 y hubo grandes cambios.

The Sexenio (1947-1949) is a historical period marked by the repression of leftist parties in Bolivia, especially the MNR, peasants and workers. The Catavi massacre was the worst episode, which almost ended in civil war. The oligarchic society wanted to continue having power over the institutions and proposed two governments, until finally the citizenry united in the National Revolution of 1952 and there were great changes.

  • The MRN won the elections in 1951. Criticism was constant, since they were linked to the Communist Party.
  • And so came the self-coup, the «Mamertazo» of Mamerto Urriolagoitia, who illegally transferred the presidency to the head of the Army. What was the first thing they did? Invalidate the election results and declare the MNR illegal.

On April 9, 1952, an revolt in La Paz was ready to recover the Constitution and the rights of all Bolivians (including those of women). Three days later, Ballivián was no longer president and the Revolution had triumphed.

Bolivia returned to pay attention to:

Lidia Gueiler fue una de las mujeres integrantes del MRN de Bolivia.
Lidia Gueiler (1921) was one of the women members of the Bolivian MRN.
  1. Universal suffrage. Prior to this, only 6.78% of the population could vote.
  2. Nationalization of the mines.
  3. Agrarian reform.

In the female command of the MNR, we would like to highlight two women: Lidia Gueiler and Rosa Lema Dolz.

It took me weeks to compile all the data on the first wave of feminism in Bolivia. The truth is that there is little bibliography and little accessible, so I hope this article is fair with the herstory of this Latin American country. Bolivian women began to vote in 1945 and without restrictions from 1952, although there is much more to tell. Besides, in Sen Enderezo we never forget the indigenous women (on this occasion, we have given pinzaladas, but we will get into their herstory another day).

And now is when I wonder:

  • Did you know all this history of women in the Chaco War?
  • The feminist associations that existed around Bolivia?
  • Or did you know the role of intellectuals in achieving civil and political rights?
  • You have the comments section at your disposal!
Feminism in Bolivia is gaining more and more importance. Here is a poster for the rallies of the 8M.


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