October 23, 2017
Educational Portal of the Americas
 Printer Friendly Version  E-mail this Page  Rate this Page  Add this Page to My Favorites  Home Page 
New User? - Forgot your Password? - Registered User:     

Site Search

Collection: INTERAMER
Number: 33
Author: Elizabeth Horan
Title: Gabriela Mistral: An Artist and Her People




I. Historical Background: Common Origins

Chile experienced tremendous economic, political, and social change during Gabriela Mistral’s lifetime. As a writer and as a public servant she witnessed the rapid transition of an isolated and agrarian nation into the twentieth century. The circumstances of her life enabled her to comprehend that transformation and to discuss its effects, particularly on the lives of women. As an adolescent whose melancholy, introspective prose appeared in the local newspaper and, later, in small literary magazines, she had not yet found her audience. But as an itinerant teacher in various newly created schools throughout Chile (and later in Mexico), she began to learn who her contemporaries were and what they had in common. What she wrote, she wrote for her students, for the women of Chile and of Mexico, for the women of her race, as she puts it. This poetry and prose appeared in nationally distributed textbooks. Writing for these readers—we will examine later just exactly who they were—allowed her a certain freedom. As few others were able to do before her, she could address, as an equal, a community which had just begun to emerge, to come into an awareness of itself as middle-class, Latin American, enfranchised, literate.1

But the real power of this new audience was as yet unknown. Moreover, despite her identification with an ascendant sector of the public, she nonetheless remained a disenfranchised woman, dependent on the good graces of others more powerful for the right to speak.2 She presents herself as the perpetual outsider: “de la clase media campesina que lindaba con la tierra” [from the rural middle class that was at the edge of the land.] Moreover, despite her respect for “el pueblo, la mejor criatura verbal que Dios crió” [the people, the best speaking creature in God’s creation],3 she continuously defers to the social and cultural elite that permits her to speak. Failure to acknowledge their preeminence was unthinkable, especially in a woman (provincial, self-educated) for whom acquiescence (and self-doubt) is habit and mask, armor and uniform. The habit is the “sayas pardas” [drab frocks] of the “maestra rural” [country schoolteacher], “la maestra pura” [the pure schoolteacher.] Humility is a mask in a woman who asks, “Dame el ser más madre que las madres” [Let me be more motherly than the mothers] for children who are not “carne de mi carne” [flesh of my flesh.]4 The habit of humility protects her from attack; it is a uniform denoting the subordinate rank that she nominally accepts.

Mistral’s origins distinguish her from most Chilean writers of the previous century, members of a small Europe-oriented elite. Where their background was essentially aristocratic, she knew the customs, history, religion of a wide group of readers whom she could justly call “mis chilenos” [my Chileans.]5 It is from this knowledge that she speaks to them, teaching and inventing their myths. Even so, her real strength is in weakness. Paradoxically, her tie with the common people is a constant reminder that she is an isolated, powerless, provincial woman; it brings her back to her own subservience and dependency.

The Chilean Economy at the Turn of the Century

The historical conditions that led to the emergence of an audience that claimed “Gabriela Mistral” as its representative could begin with Chile’s victory in the War of the Pacific in 1884, when the national territory increased by one-third. Nitrate and silver-rich northern lands previously belonging to Bolivia and Peru were annexed just as the nitrate boom was really beginning. Until the development of synthetic nitrate in the United States and Germany during World War I, Chile provided 90 percent of the world’s nitrate—a vital ingredient in fertilizer and in gunpowder. The boom provided consistent tax revenues for the state, as well as jobs for the poor and enormous profits for the rich. The conversion of nitrate wealth into factories led, in turn, to a period of rapid industrialization and consequent urbanization.6 Rapid industrialization brought major demographic changes: 25 percent of the population resided in urban areas, in 1875; by 1907 this had increased to 43 percent.7 In all, it was during this period that Chile—previously a predominantly agrarian country—became an urban one.

Concurrent with the nitrate-based development of the north and the urbanization of the central valley, official policy was encouraging colonization in the south. Government agents had worked to bring immigrants and investors from Germany, Switzerland, and France into this previously unconquered territory. The construction of railways further reduced the native Mapuche to a fraction of their former strength, for their land was appropriated and divided into vast private farms. Government policy encouraged the establishment of permanent settlements in the furthest provinces, yet the general population continued to migrate towards the cities and towns: tenant farmers left the “haciendas” when they could; mineworkers, who were subject to the cyclical depressions of the nitrate industry, moved from city to city, or one mining area to another; women, then as now, left the poor towns of the south and came north, where those who could not find even underpaid and exploitative domestic employment lived on the streets.

The emergence of organized labor among mine workers in the north was an important development at this time. Governmental forces did all they could to suppress union activity, but despite the repeated use of troops and deportations, unionization spread south to the countryside and the cities. The misery of the Chilean masses in contrast to the opulence in which the elite lived drew the attention of a few Chilean novelists and short story writers immediately prior to Mistral’s generation, thus providing a model for outspoken social critique that the poet would follow, particularly in her journalistic prose. But as long as industry returned some of its enormous profits into the state treasury, liberal regimes of the late nineteenth century (such as those of Balmaceda, Santa María, and Riesco) spent freely on public works projects, thus providing a stop-gap on the economic and social reforms that the unions and a growing number of intellectuals were demanding. Railroad and telegraph networks were extended; ports were built up and sewer lines developed; the state educational system underwent phenomenal expansion. It was not until the collapse of the nitrate industry in the middle of World War I that the government had to face both the so-called “social problem” as well as the growing demands of women.

Chile’s rapid industrialization and demographic changes affected women’s lives differently than men’s. Men left their families in search of work, heading out to the frontier as well as moving from city to city. Then as now, men far outnumbered women in the outlying provinces. Work opportunities for women were limited both in the northern mining provinces and far to the south, in the lumber and cattle areas of recently settled Magallanes and Aysen. This is not to say that women were not transient: they were far more likely than men to migrate and stay in the cities and towns. It is no great surprise that in 1880 and even more markedly in 1907, the four provinces in which females outnumbered males were those which had been settled the longest: Santiago, Valparaíso, Chiloé, and Mistral’s native province of Coquimbo.

Women’s Extra-Domestic Employment

Estimating women’s contribution to the national economy in any country, a hundred years ago and even today, is a notoriously difficult task. Chilean census figures for these years exist, but inconsistent methods have been used, especially in describing the kind of work for which women received wages. In the census of 1875 we learn that 85 percent of all women reported as working were employed as cooks, servants, washerwomen, seamstresses, and weavers.8 Strangely, these job categories were not counted in later surveys. Moreover, the participation of women in the agricultural sector was not reported until 1920, even though there is abundant testimony, in Mistral’s writings as well as in the reminiscences of her contemporaries, that agricultural work was one of women’s chief sources of income. It is ironic that the work of women in agriculture begins to be counted only when this type of work declines in terms of its importance to the national economy.

In Chile, as in the United States, women’s extra-domestic employment is high at the onset of industrialization, and it drops off thereafter: in 1895, about 26 percent of Chile’s female population was employed for wages; in 1907, this figure declined to 22 percent.9 By 1920, only 18 percent of the female population was described as receiving wages outside of the home.10 In that same year, a peak 58 percent of working women were employed in industry, and 25 percent of students enrolled in the universities were women.11

In all, these figures suggest that women’s lives were much affected by the economic changes that Chile was undergoing. Given that women were much more likely to live in cities than men were, they eventually found employment in industry, especially as the country became more industrialized. Pereira argues that the increased involvement of women in industry was due to a combination of causes:

Un gran número de establecimientos fabriles y pequeños talleres obreros ocupan a la mujer a fines de siglo. Esto tuvo lugar debido a la expansión industrial producida con posterioridad a la Guerra del Pacífico, a las necesidades económicas de las familias y a la gran aceptación de la mano de obra femenina por parte de los empresarios, ya que les era posible pagar a las mujeres salarios inferiores a los cobrados por los hombres.

[A great number of factories and workshops employed women at the turn of the century. This took place because of the industrial expansion that occurred following the War of the Pacific, the economic necessities of families, and the widespread acceptance of women’s labor, on the part of business-owners, since it was possible to pay women lower salaries than those paid to men.]12

Moreover, as the percentage of women attending the universities (and normal schools) rose, the percentage of women reported as employed went down: this suggests that it was primarily young women whose contribution to the national economy had been counted in censuses. Those who were attending school were, for the most part, training to become teachers: from the end of the century onwards, teaching and service-oriented work were regarded as especially appropriate to women. Even as early as 1895, 4 percent of women who were employed held jobs as teachers.13 By 1920, 70 percent of the students at the Instituto Pedagógico [Pedagogical Institute] were female, thus indicating the degree to which teaching had become a woman’s profession in Chile.14

It seems that industrialization in Chile and in those parts of the United States where slavery was not practiced followed parallel lines of development: territorial expansion was coupled with the subjugation of the native peoples; the opening of factories and expanded trade markets led to increased immigration. Opportunities for women to work outside of the home, e.g., as “mill girls” may have expanded at first, but many jobs in the industrial sector were quickly apportioned to men. What had a more far-reaching impact on women’s lives was that industrialization created a need for a more educated and mobile work force. The increased attention given to education, specifically to the period of childhood, meant that mothers were increasingly enjoined to teach their children, and were expected to be educated themselves.

Gabriela Mistral: Representative of the Rural Middle Class

The social, economic and historical circumstances that I have described strongly influenced the environment in which Lucila Godoy—later known as Gabriela Mistral—was growing up. She was born and raised in the rural Valle de Elqui, located in the section of Chile known as the “Norte Chico” [“Little North.”] Lying between the northern desert and Chile’s central valley, the economy in the Norte Chico is based on a mixture of agricultural activities and mining. It is one of the longest continuously inhabited provinces, and the proportion of women to men has always been high, with many female-headed households. Because of an inequitable distribution of irrigated land, young men have tended to leave to find better-paid work elsewhere, in the bigger mines to the north, or in the cities and larger-scale agriculture to the south, or at sea.15 The effect of this male mobility in the Norte Chico is manifest in many ways: the percentage of children born out of wedlock was, in 1900, extremely high in comparison to other parts of Chile—25 percent as compared to a national figure of 10 percent.

Gabriela Mistral’s immediate family bears witness to the demographic patterns that I have described: when her father left the family, looking for employment, he went north; he worked as a schoolteacher in communities where mining was the principal source of income; he moved south, taking an administrative position in a school in Santiago. He eventually died and is buried in Copiapó, farther north.16 When the poet’s father left, the rest of the family stayed behind in the valley. The mother contributed to the family income by working at harvest time; the older daughter, Emelina, was the mainstay.17 Her job as the only teacher in a small rural school brought a room and land adjacent to the schoolhouse along with a small salary: “el sueldo más la casa y habitación era el primero de los sueldos que una mujer podía ganar en Chile” [the wages plus the living quarters were the first among the salaries that a woman could earn in Chile.]18 When the family moved down from the country into the coastal city of La Serena, they did so in order that Lucila, the youngest, might also become a teacher. Moreover, the family’s economic prospects were somewhat better in La Serena, where the poet’s paternal grandmother, Isabel Villanueva, lived.

Coming as she did from a family of schoolteachers, it was natural and perhaps inevitable that the poet would likewise enter that profession, even though the educational preparation required constant sacrifices. The names of communities in which Mistral served as an itinerant schoolteacher after leaving Elqui and La Serena serve as an index to many of the changes which were taking place in Chile during these years.19 Her first important job was in Antofagasta, a major port on the edge of the desert, from which nitrate was shipped abroad.20 From there she was promoted to the post of “profesora” in geography and Spanish in Los Andes, which was and is an important agricultural and mining center fairly close to Santiago. After achieving some literary successes, and with the assistance of the Ministry of Education, she was promoted to the post of headmistress of the Girls’ “Liceo” [Public School] in Punta Arenas, in the strategically important province of Magallanes far to the south. This was another industrial center undergoing rapid development; its population increased 10 percent every year from 1885 to 1907, with a large immigrant community and great disproportion in the distribution of wealth.21 From there, Mistral lived and worked in the frontier town of Temuco when this area had been in the hands of white settlers for not much more than thirty years.22 Finally, at the peak of her career as an educator in Chile, she was named to head the prestigious Liceo de Niñas No.1 [Girls’ Public School No.1] in Santiago.

Putting aside the poet’s ability to satisfy her passion for travel, which would have been impossible for a woman of her grandmother’s generation, it is useful to compare the educational and employment opportunities that Mistral had with those available to her paternal grandmother, as an indication of how the availability of education and the growth of schools affected women’s lives.23 Isabel Villanueva’s interest and knowledge of the Bible earned her the nickname of “La Teóloga” [The Theologian] among her neighbors in La Serena. Even the name signals the limitations on women’s lives: were she a man, she might have been a priest. She could read and write at a time when only one woman in thirteen, and one man in ten, could do so. Had Isabel Villanueva been born in her granddaughter’s day, she might have been able to earn her living as a teacher. But primary schools in her generation were usually staffed by members of religious orders, and with the exception of three private establishments in Santiago and Valparaíso, secondary schools for girls did not exist. Exactly how the poet’s grandmother received her education can only be guessed at: she probably learned to read and write at home, with perhaps a few seasons at some kind of primary school. When her husband left the family, Isabel Villanueva became self-supporting in one of the few ways that a woman might. Her family being of “modestos recursos” [modest means], Isabel Villanueva is said to have paid for her three children’s private education by making altar cloths for the fourteen churches of La Serena; her daughters (though not her son) fulfilled their mother’s desire when they took religious orders.24

The Church-State Battle over Women’s Education

Education was a major battlefield for the great ideological debates of these last decades of the nineteenth century. The liberal and radical coalitions that dominated the Chilean government during the last years of the nineteenth and the beginning of the twentieth centuries rightly saw the establishment of secular education as one means of consolidating their power. That thrust included the secularization of cemeteries, civil marriages, and registry of births, in addition to a formal separation of Church and State. The Church, however, perceived secular education, technical education, the teaching of science, the concept of the “Estado Docente” [Teaching State] (later, epitomized in Aguirre Cerda’s campaign slogan “gobernar es educar” [to govern is to educate]), and particularly the education of women as a most alarming aspect of the general threat to its influence. Throughout the seventies and continuing past the turn of the century, the Church fought back from its position of entrenched privilege and the self-serving structure of class, wealth, and “good society.”

It was due to the success of the crusade to secularize education that Gabriela Mistral, unlike her grandmother, could attend public school.25 But that crusade was not wholly successful. In the church-dominated and rigidly class-conscious atmosphere in La Serena, the poet was not able to go on to secondary school. She was initially accepted at the Normal School there, but then was denied admission, for reasons that have never been completely clarified.26 But even though some local authorities seem to have regarded her with suspicion, this teenaged country girl, “Gabriela Mistral” (as she had begun to sign some of her pieces for the city paper) persevered. A number of factors worked in her favor: for one, her half-sister Emelina, sixteen years her senior, could tutor and train her as an assistant in the small school where she taught. Mistral at this time also enjoyed the protection of forward-thinking individuals, such as Bernardo Ossandón and Sra. Montt, members of a philanthropic society in La Serena which was designed to help needy young ladies with their education. Beyond all these reasons the most important was that the push to develop a nationwide educational system had created a tremendous shortage of qualified lay teachers. This shortage occurred just as teaching was only beginning to be recognized as a profession: certificates and training programs were not absolute requirements. Thus the young writer, with no formal schooling past the age of twelve, studied on her own to pass the examinations that qualified her to teach in the secondary schools.

The national educational system in which Gabriela Mistral served for eighteen years developed primarily in response to the country’s increasing need for a skilled labor force. Interest in women’s education was certainly strongest in the most prosperous, most industrialized areas: the first “liceo” for girls was opened in the thriving northern mining town of Copiapó, in 1877; three more girls’ “liceos” were opened in the major industrial centers of Valparaíso, Santiago, and Concepción over the next eight years. These establishments were attended by young women of the middle class.27 Yet the middle class—which scarcely existed until then—was not the driving force behind making education available to women. Rather, it was wealthy, well-educated businessmen who banded together to create groups such as the highly influential Sociedad de Fomento Fabril [Society for Industrial Expansion]: they founded the first public technical school for girls, in 1888, under the liberal government of Balmaceda.28 Private, “philanthropic” groups such as this one played a major role in advancing secular education in Chile generally, and providing an alternative to the convent-schools for women in particular.

The Battle Continues: Written Decrees, Informal Sanctions

Miguel Luis Amunátegui, Minister of Education under Balmaceda, was most influential in creating an atmosphere favorable to women’s education, thus paving the way for women’s eventual entry into politics and the professions. Amunátegui authored the 1877 governmental decree that created public secondary schools for girls and stipulated the admission of women to the university:

Las mujeres deben ser admitidas a rendir exámenes válidos para obtener títulos profesionales con tal que se sometan, para ello, a las mismas disposiciones a que están sujetos los hombres. Los considerandos de este decreto se indicaban así: 1. Que conviene estimular a las mujeres a que hagan estudios serios y sólidos. 2. Que ellas pueden ejercer con ventaja alguna de las profesiones denominadas científicas. 3. Que importa facilitarles los medios de subsistencia para sí mismas.

[Women should be admitted to sit for the examinations which are valid for obtaining professional titles as long as they are subject to the same rules as men. The reasoning behind this decree is as follows: 1. Women should be encouraged to engage in serious, solid study. 2. Women can perform advantageously in professions classified as scientific. 3. It is important to facilitate women’s means of self-subsistence.]29

The arguments in favor of women’s education, entailing “serious study” with an emphasis on scientific knowledge and on economic self-sufficiency, are typical of the best liberal thought of the time. This emphasis was borne out in that the earliest women who graduated from the University of Chile studied the sciences. The first women doctors in Latin America, Ernestina Pérez and Eloisa Díaz, were graduated from the University of Chile in 1884. Paulina Starr completed her studies in dentistry in 1884; Glafira Vargas, in pharmacy, in 1887; and Matilde Throup in law, in 1892. These women had attended secular private schools directed by women who had fought for years to have their examinations recognized as valid by the state.30

While these accomplishments put Chile on a par with the United States and England in creating opportunities for women’s education, major obstacles to literacy as well as professional development remained. The legislation would imply that any qualified woman might be admitted both into the university and the professions, but various biases effectively prevented all but a select few from doing so. One such bias was the notion of what girls should study. Thirty-one “liceos de niñas” [girls’ public schools] had been established by 1907, but because the curricula for these schools was not the same as for boys, women who wished to enter the university had either to attend one of the three expensive private schools for girls, or to enter the Liceo de Hombres. Thus, “a las mujeres, además de pedantes y marisabidillas, se les llamaba ‘zafadas’ ” [women, in addition to being considered pedantic and know-it-alls were called “shameless hussies.”]31 Girls born into the upper class had the tradition of convent-schools to contend with. Marta Vergara, born in 1898 into an impoverished although aristocratic Chilean family, who later became a journalist and feminist activist, describes in Memorias de una mujer irreverente the education that she received in one of these schools for “niñas bien” [girls from the upper class families.] At the end of her last term there—around the year 1912—she could have stayed on for another year, although few students actually did so:

el año final se estimaba, al parecer, algo así como un curso excepcional para las que ambicionaban especial sabiduría.

[the last year was apparently regarded as something of a special course for the girls who had ambitions for a particular type of knowledge.]32

However, since her father was moving to Valparaíso in his search for employment, he decided to enroll her there in a liceo. Here the scant value of the standard convent education of young ladies was revealed:

En el examen de admisión fui calificada apta sólo para el primer año de humanidades... ¡Todos los evangelios memorizados, todas mis brillantes recitaciones poéticas habían sido inútiles!

[In the admissions exam I qualified only for the first year of Humanities... All those memorized gospels, all my brilliant poetry recitals had been useless.]33

If the more conservative and traditional sectors of society could have their way, there would be no practical education for women at all:

... se temió en los sectores católicos que el gran desarrollo de los liceos fiscales acentuaría una tendencia hacia la ilustración científica y laica de la mujer en desmedro de una formación religiosa y más centrada en sus labores de hogar.

[it was feared in the Catholic sectors that the great development of public schools would accentuate a tendency towards scientific and secular learning in women to the detriment of a religious preparation which concentrated more on household chores.]34

The clergy were among the most vocal opponents of women’s education: they saw women’s study of the sciences as particularly threatening to their power. Women’s religiosity and feminine concentration on the home are paired together against lay education, which, it was hinted, would render women unfit as wives. Martina Barros, who translated John Stuart Mill’s The Subjection of Women in 1915, recounts in her autobiography how the threat of becoming an old maid was used to dissuade women from study:

Niña, no leas esos libros, porque si alguien te ve, pensará que eres una marisabidilla ... nadie querrá casarse contigo ...

[Girl, don’t read those books, because if someone sees you, they’ll think you’re a know-it-all ... no one will want to marry you ...]35

There were less subtle means of humiliating those girls who did have the support of their parents and thus might pay little heed to such threats. Ostracism was the ultimate means for enforcing male privilege:

A una señorita que estudiaba en un Instituto, los muchachos la apedreaban, gritándole: ‘la estudianta, la estudianta’, porque era la única mujer que asistía a los cursos.

[The boys threw stones at a young woman who was studying in an Institute, shouting at her ‘the girl-student, the girl-student’ because she was the only woman who attended classes.]36

Secular Education and Middle-Class Women

It should be clear that those women who were attending the “liceos” and the universities were not from the upper classes. As for the lower classes, they could not even attend primary school, for the law of Enseñanza Básica Obligatoria [Compulsory Basic Education], making primary school instruction free and obligatory, was not passed until 1920. While theoretically any child might attend any of the schools run by charitable organizations or religious orders, students nonetheless had to cover the cost of books, uniforms and supplies—just as they have to do in 1987, in both private as well as in “tuition-free” public schools. Given the circumstances at the turn of the century, with poverty facing one class, and the opposition of the Church the other, only the new middle class was able to take advantage of educational opportunity, and to develop as professionals. It was this audience to whom Mistral initially addressed herself. She was one of them.

Despite these difficulties, literacy figures indicate that secular education was having an effect. Among Gabriela Mistral’s contemporaries 38 percent of women and 41 percent of men could read and write. With the spread of “liceos,” women’s education became more acceptable. The terms were strictly defined: young ladies—especially those of the upper class—should be kept as close as possible to home and church. Some audacious, persevering, urban girls from well-to-do but nontraditional families might study medicine or law; others in the middle class might hope, with brains and with luck, to become teachers in the public school system.

This second category of female professionals would be constrained by powerful social forces. They would have to avoid the censure of the conservative and traditional Church. The curriculum they taught would have to placate fears that women were going to desert family and home. Their personal behavior would be a matter of public scrutiny. As public servants, they would be the official representatives of an absentee national government. They would begin by teaching hygiene, as Mistral did. They would work without libraries, in squalid, unheated buildings with demoralized colleagues. In all, during these first years of the twentieth century, there were probably few areas that were more challenging in Chile than women’s education. It would be a remarkable testing ground.

For all the constraints that their involvement in secular education put on the lives of middle-class women, they exercised far greater autonomy than did those who worked as day laborers and domestics. Moreover, lay-educated women of the middle class can be distinguished from their aristocratic counterparts in that the latter were extremely susceptible to Church sanctions which protected a status quo that had minimal interest in women’s self-sufficiency. Thus it comes as no surprise that many benevolent associations, like some present-day women’s “social welfare” groups, would overlook the obvious connections between a woman’s education and the well-being of her family.

Despite the differences of family and social standing which separated women such as Marta Vergara, Inés Echeverría, or Amanda Labarca from the young Lucila Godoy, one factor brought them together: at some point each of these women began to think for herself and to seek out the support of other women rather than to depend on male-constituted authority. As Palma Guillén notes in reminiscing on Mistral in 1922, she was “consummately Chilean,” “una chilena cabal, es decir, que creía en la unidad esencial de la América Latina y la sentía no sólo en la Historia y en la lengua, sino también en la sangre y en la tierra que nos liga y nos identifica” [a Chilean in the full sense of the word; that is, one who believed in the essential unity of Latin America and felt it not only through its history and language, but also in the blood and the earth that binds us and identifies us.]37 For Mistral, as well as for her contemporaries, this “essential unity” of blood and earth, of history and language, had to contend with the divisive forces of family and class, ties as likely to pull women apart as to bring them together.


II. Women’s Reading and Political Action Groups

Beginnings of Feminism in Chile

Educated middle-class women set a precedent for a women’s movement in Chile by forming the “Círculos de Lectura de Señoras” [Ladies’ Reading Circles] in 1915. This group differed from earlier Church-sponsored benevolent associations, as well as from the independent salons and “tertulias” [informal gatherings] which accepted women. The benevolent associations, which worked on behalf of orphans and impoverished children, usually by putting them to work in the homes of the wealthy class, were formed by upper-class women under Church sponsorship. The “Círculos,” on the other hand, were founded by Amanda Labarca—educator, writer, radical party militant—and other lay women with similar interests. Organized following the model of “Reading Clubs” in the United States and in England, the “Círculos” attracted women motivated by a desire to know more about culture, to become a part of, and to know the world.38

As a women’s group created beyond the pale of the Church, the “Círculos de Lectura” inspired others by their example: the upper-class “Club de Señoras” [Ladies’ Club] commenced a few months later. Members of these groups could ask questions forbidden to women in Church-sponsored organizations. During one session, Inés Echeverría Larraín de Bello, who wrote under the pseudonym “Iris,” proposed the following:

‘¿Cuales han sido los peores enemigos de la evolución de la mujer?’ Y contaba: ‘naturalmente, los que creían ser despojados de su dominio secular; es decir, los hombres en su calidad de Clérigo, de Padre o de Maridos’.

[‘Who have been the worst enemies of woman’s evolution?’ And she answered: ‘naturally, those who believed themselves robbed of their secular dominion; that is, men in their status as Clergy, Fathers, or Husbands.’]39

How the “Círculos de lectura” [Reading Circles] Differed from the Salons

“Iris” helped organize both the “Círculos” and the “Club.” Her membership in the upper class, as well as her financial independence, permitted her a greater license of speech than middle class educators enjoyed. Her steady orientation toward Europe and her aristocratic station might seem more typical of a salonier than of a fighter for women’s rights. There were, however, major differences between the women who belonged to turn-of-the-century salons, and the women who, along with Iris, organized these new women’s groups:

El salón sólo tuvo un pequeño grupo de mujeres, verdaderamente bien dotadas y destacadas, mientras que las fundadoras de los grupos de mujeres después de 1915 desearon llegar a muchas más mujeres y despertarlas a una vida más activa en sentido cultural e intelectual, y más tarde social y político.

[The salon had only a small group of truly gifted, outstanding women, while those who founded the women’s groups after 1915 sought to reach many more women and to awaken them to active lives in a cultural and intellectual sense, and later on in a social and political sense.]40

Where the women’s groups represented an expanding, feminine public, the salons were a static coterie, a handful of unusual men and women. The salons were exclusive by definition: an individual’s access depended on one’s “talent” or “style,” then, as now, virtues more easily within the reach of the leisured classes. As an outlet for intellectual and personal eccentricity, salons and “tertulias” allowed women to maintain the appearance of propriety. However daring a woman’s ideas, however outrageous her behavior, what was confined to the four walls of the salon or the “tertulia” complied with appearances, with the custom of “puertas adentro” [behind closed doors.]41 Saloniers remained in the private realm; their cultural and artistic pursuits supposed a familiar, limited audience of intimates in a home or home-like setting. Centered on specific individuals, salons and “tertulias” were attended by members of both sexes who were often in search of romance. In short, the tertulia and the salon were safety valves for a privileged few.

The “Círculos,” on the other hand, drew their membership and support from the widening community of educated middle-class women that I have described. In their capacity as readers, the women of the book groups might be perceived as less threatening than the handful of women who had been trained in the preeminently male domain of the sciences. As evident in Marta Vergara’s account of her education, memorizing poetry and the study of the humanities in general was deemed far more fitting to young women than memorizing the multiplication tables; a smattering of French, embroidery and singing were more important emblems of feminine accomplishment than a knowledge of medicine might be, for the latter could undermine feminine modesty as well as the authority of male doctors.

Aside from class background, the chief difference between the women who had frequented the salons as opposed to the reading groups is that the latter women lived and worked in the public realm. The names of teacher-administrators such as Amanda Labarca, Brígida Walker,42 and Gabriela Mistral are repeatedly associated with the book groups and later, professional organizations, rather than with salons. The superficial resemblance between the “Círculos” and the salons is that both were discussion groups oriented toward educational and cultural activities.43 Most striking about the “Círculos” is that they were established by and for women for intellectual ends. It was only natural that their discussions would gravitate towards women’s rights. Unlike the mixed-gender salons and “tertulias,” their interests were not centered on specific individuals; unlike the benevolent societies, they did not pretend to be either altruistic or disinterested. Rather than passing time in benevolent do-goodery, or in “finding themselves” as individuals, women in the “Círculos” began to examine and think of improving their own lot, as women. If an idea begins when people meet to talk about it, then a women’s movement in Chile dates from the first meetings of the “Círculos” in 1915. Independent political parties for women began operating only four years later.

Opposition towards the “Círculos de lectura de mujeres”
[Women’s Reading Circles]

Because they publicly challenged the influence of the Church and because their membership was less exclusive, drawing from a wider segment of society than any previous women’s groups had done, the “Círculos” and their successors posed a palpable threat to the status quo. The national press depicted them as madwomen, dismissing them with the same scorn that it used to attack feminists outside Chile, characterizing their efforts as “descabelladas locuras antinaturales” [wild, unnatural craziness.]44 At the time, even a woman such as Marta Vergara, who was not particularly pious or traditional, was influenced by this propaganda. Vergara later became one of Chile’s most outspoken feminists; but describing herself during these earlier years, she writes that she regarded feminists with profound distaste:

Abominaba de las feministas por antipoéticas... Los derechos de la mujer me tenían sin cuidado. Como producto auténtico de mi época, hacía furiosamente el juego de los hombres.

[I abhorred the feminists as unpoetic...I did not care about women’s rights. As an authentic product of my times, I worked furiously hard at the men’s game.]45

Class Division and Hostility among Women’s Groups in Chile

Although their groups were met with indiscriminate hostility (“el ataque hacia ellas fue violento, no importando cuán alta fuese su clase” [the attack towards them was violent, no matter how high their class]),46 many differences divided these women among themselves. Such differences continue to divide Chileans today: an individual’s social class is indelibly expressed in terms of family status, and political affiliations closely follow the lines of class interests. From before the turn of the century to the present, the class system has become increasingly stratified, creating boundaries that make alignments among women of different classes difficult and even impossible. Thus, a leftist, working-class association, such as the “Centros Belén de Zarraga” [Centers named for “Belén de Zarraga,” the famous anarcho-syndicalist lecturer], aligned itself with the male-dominated Socialist Party rather than with the middle- and upper-class “Círculos” and “Club,” miles and worlds away in Santiago.47 And even though contemporary historians have described as “cordial” the relations between the latter two groups, closer examination speaks otherwise. In a speech at the first meeting of the “Club de Señoras,” the writer “Iris” reveals that upper-class women organized the “Club de Señoras” as an act of class allegiance. As a group they perceived the “maestritas” [little teachers] of the “Círculos de Lectura” as outsiders whose education and accomplishments menaced their own privileges:

Para gran sorpresa nuestra, apareció en Chile una clase media que no teníamos idea de que existiera...con mujeres perfectamente educadas, con títulos académicos en las profesiones y la enseñanza, mientras que nosotras, las mujeres de la clase alta, apenas conocíamos los misterios del rosario.

[To our great surprise, there appeared in Chile a middle class whose existence we had never even suspected...with well-educated women who held university degrees in the professions and in teaching, while we, the women of the upper class, scarcely understood the mysteries of the rosary.]48

Although educated, professional women might make them acutely self-conscious, mere awareness of their ignorance would not inspire upper-class women to action. After attacking the restrictive influence of the Church on one flank, “Iris” then moved to work on their sense of duty as mothers and grandmothers:

Entonces sentimos el terror de que si la ignorancia de nuestra clase se mantenía dos generaciones más, nuestros nietos caerían al pueblo y viceversa.

[We then feared that if the ignorance of our class persisted for another two generations, our grandchildren would fall into the masses and vice versa.]49

Iris was willing to abandon her class allegiance to the extent of challenging the Church for having a negative influence on women’s lives (“apenas conocíamos los misterios del rosario” [we scarcely understood the mysteries of the rosary]); she was also willing to fault marriage, or specifically husbands, as major obstacles to women’s rights, but insofar as she regarded as sacred women’s role within the family as mothers, she reveals that her interests do not lie with women in general, but with the women of her class. For Iris as for the audience of women that she addressed, what power they did have was based in their position within upper-class families. Her speech sadly reveals that the feminism which she and her audience sought was entrenched in class privilege.

Evidence of class division between women is manifest in the commonplace of “the evil feminist” as a self-indulgent, frivolous upper-middle or upper-class urban woman who finds child care distasteful. This caricature, and its opposite, the hard-working, industrious, good woman of the soil, who suffers constant mistreatment at the hands of men, recurs in women’s magazines and throughout Mistral’s work. In the magazine Acción Femenina women with high social positions are singled out for attacks such as these: “ ‘Esas otras’ que, festejadas por su belleza o posición social...cifran su orgullo...en una vida necia e insensata” [“Those others” who, celebrated for their beauty or rank in society...base their pride...in a petty and senseless life.]50 However Acción Femenina and its readers might identify themselves with a worldwide community of women, their moral position is clear: easier for a camel to pass through the eye of a needle than for a rich woman to join in solidarity. By contrast, the middle-class readers of Acción Femenina patronize women of the working classes, who are neither proud nor stupid: “Las mujeres pobres que abrumadas por trabajos rudos... no disponen de tiempo para reflexionar” [The impoverished women who, overwhelmed by hard work,...don’t have time for reflection.]51 The implication is that the middle-class readers and writers of Acción Femenina understand the working-class woman’s experience of oppression and will do her thinking for her, a tendency also manifest among white feminists in the United States.52

Mistral on Women’s Rights, Wrongs and Responsibilities to Children

Mistral joins in condemning women who prefer the diversions of dances, salons, and fashionable public demonstrations to the responsibilities of child care: a woman who does not know her child, in Mistral’s moral code, does not know herself.

La mujer nueva quien baila y agita en la plaza y en el salón y apenas conoce el hijo que ella llevó, clavado en su entraña.

[The new woman who dances and demonstrates in the plaza and in the salon and scarcely knows the child that she carried, deep in her womb.]53

The poet’s criticism of women who pass their responsibilities for child care onto others recurs throughout Mistral’s work. I would argue that this recurring theme is not a criticism of feminists or of feminism, even though readers who ignore the interrelatedness of gender and class in Mistral’s thinking might mistakenly regard the poet as anti-feminist. Looking closely at the poet’s criticisms, it is wealthy women, depicted as shallow and vain, who are the objects of her scorn, because they ignore what Mistral views as the first priority: the education of their children:

Con aquella legión de madres ricas, que han entregado sus niños a todos los extraños para que hagan de ellos lo que les plazca, a la niñera, a la maestra mala, a la calle todopoderosa, con tal de seguir los espectáculos estúpidos de la estación y hacer la ‘gran dama 1950,’ con ésa no hay nada que hacer; fue una máquina que, a su pesar, entregó un niño, pero que no muda el niño en hijo.

[With that legion of rich mothers who have handed over their children to all sorts of alien persons to do with as they please, to the nanny, to the bad schoolteacher, to the all-powerful street, so that they can follow the stupid shows currently fashionable and play at being ‘a fashionable woman, 1950-style’—there’s nothing to be done with this kind of woman; she was a machine that, despite herself, brought forth a child, but who doesn’t transform that child into her child.]54

Like “Iris,” Mistral recognized that a woman’s only legitimated access to power lay in being a “good mother.” Unlike “Iris,” Mistral is addressing the middle class, who can take additional pride in their work toward the goal of self-suffiency. The poet is careful to distinguish between women who “hacer la gran dama” [play at being “a fashionable woman”] and the women of “nuestra clase media” [our middle class].

... mujer de nuestra clase media que no puede permitirse el lujo de ser una eximida de trabajo; como, Gracias a Dios, el 60 por ciento de estas mujeres ha de ganarse la vida.

[woman of our middle class who cannot afford the luxury of being exempt from work; as, thank God, sixty percent of these women have to earn a living.]55

Mistral is especially critical of social climbing: the mere fact of working for a living is not sufficient justification for women whose preoccupation with their own status leads them to treat others with disdain:

...los mocetones de la escuela, los que bien me quisieron, dándome cierta defensa contra la voz tronada de la Jefe y su gran desdén de mujer bien vestida hacia su ayudante de blusa fea y zapatos gordos.

[...the big boys in the school, who cared for me very much, giving me a certain defense against the thundering voice of the Boss and the great disdain of a well-dressed woman towards her assistant with an ugly blouse and thick shoes.]56

For Mistral, as for the upper-class matrons whom Iris addressed in the “Club de Señoras,” as for the mine-worker’s wives of the “Centros Belén de Zarraga,” allegiances of social class overrode declarations of solidarity with other women. The poet allowed an important exception to this, however: time and again she declared that rural women were oppressed by the alcoholism and profligacy of their spouses. Her strongest sympathies are not simply with those of the same class as she, but with the exploited and suffering women of that class and eventually any class.57

These examples should clarify a number of points about Chilean women’s organizations in the first decades of the twentieth century. First, it is important to recognize that women organized along class lines, and there was probably a good deal of factionalism even within their organizations. One of the ways that women in the middle class distinguished themselves from those of the upper class was in the assertion of moral superiority—that they were better mothers, and that they contributed more to society by way of their work. What at first glance appears in Mistral’s writing to be a condemnation needs to be considered within this particular moral vision, in which the poet identifies herself with those who cannot or will not attend to fashion, and argues that the economic self-sufficiency of women is “un bien indiscutible” [an incontestably good thing.]58 There is also Mistral’s perspective as an educator who has little patience for parents, be they status-conscious mothers or profligate fathers, who fail to attend to their children’s needs. Still, Mistral’s appeal to her audience resembles Iris’s to hers: pride in motherhood is specific to class pride and class identity.

Radical Resistance and the Appeal of Purity

As class interests divided women, so did politics. Middle-class feminists were particularly susceptible to political co-optation: they supported liberal and radical candidates such as radical Pedro Aguirre Cerda, of the Popular Front (President of Chile from 1938-1941), who promised women the vote, only to rescind that promise on coming to power. Aguirre Cerda maintained that women had to be educated before getting the vote; what he meant was that they needed to be educated to vote for the Radical Party. Like most moderate and left-wing politicians, he feared that women would simply vote as the Church or their husbands told them, thus constituting a basis of support for conservative and even reactionary candidates.

Educated women such as Mistral’s colleague Amanda Labarca, the central figure in the 35-year fight for women’s suffrage, were sympathetic to this reasoning.59 Mistral, who counted Aguirre Cerda as one of her earliest and most loyal patrons, also stated her opposition to universal female suffrage.60 Her reference to the “horror of the illiterate male vote” tacitly acknowledges the countless times that votes were bought by the truckload in rural districts. The Conservatives’ eagerness on behalf of female suffrage (they sponsored the first bill for female suffrage, in Congress, in 1917) is an expression of their confidence that women would vote in their favor. In fact, in 1952, when women voted for the first time in a presidential election, the right wing regime of Ibáñez came to power.61

While women from the middle class opposed universal female suffrage, they did band together to work on behalf of their own political interests. The year 1919 saw the creation of two overtly political women’s organizations: the Consejo Nacional de Mujeres [National Women’s Council] and the Partido Cívico Femenino [Civic Feminist Party.] Kirkwood describes the qualities of the first group as characteristic of the entire Chilean feminist movement: “la atribución de cualidades mesiánicas, depuradoras, a la acción ‘incontaminada’ de las mujeres en la política” [the attribution of messianic, purifying qualities, to the “uncontaminated” activity of women in politics.]62 When the first petitions of the Partido Cívico Feminino appeared in 1922, Mistral, writing in Mexico, reiterated their stance in terms indicating her sensitivity to the criticism that women remain within the home: “Para mí, la forma del patriotismo femenino es la maternidad perfecta” [For me, the form of feminine patriotism is perfect maternity.]63 Rather than court attacks, she implies that women are best off at home, yet at no point does she argue that women should stay out of politics. Instead, she asserts that women’s political engagement is an extension of her familial role. This idea was registered by women in other countries too, as in the “Social Housekeeping” movement in the United States at this time.

Kirkwood remarks on the extraordinary humility that characterizes Chilean feminists’ petitions to the President for the right to vote in municipal elections: “a modo de campo de experimentación al sufragio cívico... que les permitiría paulatinamente su aprendizaje en materias políticas..., puesto que la intervención de la mujer en política es depuradora y nobilísima” [something of a testing ground for civic suffrage...that might very gradually permit them an apprenticeship in political matters..., since the intervention of woman in politics is purifying and quite noble.]64 The humble petition to be heard by a powerful man is a form in which Mistral was an expert, as the close readings of her poetry and prose in the next chapter will indicate. “Una humildad absoluta,” she wrote, “sólo de mujer podía venir” [An absolute humility only could come from a woman.]65 Assuming an attitude of humility is a necessary requisite for those who have not spoken before, to be granted the license to speak.

A Messianic Agenda

The 1922 agenda of the Partido Cívico Femenino expresses preoccupations virtually identical to Mistral’s positions on social action and the rights of women and children, thus indicating how the poet’s concerns were typical of other Chilean women of the time. Their slogan, “first educate, then decide,” sums up much of Mistral’s writing on politics. Kirkwood’s description of the women of the Feminist Party is echoed in the many present-day descriptions of Mistral as a prototypical Christian Democrat:

Muchas de ellas son radicales (laicas) o de un catolicismo muy moderado, cristiano moderno, por así decirlo.

[Many of them are radicals (laymen) or of a very moderate Catholicism, modern Christians, in a manner of speaking.]66

Mistral’s writing is congruent with her contemporaries’ positions on women’s suffrage; like them, she declares herself independent of the political and clerical arenas. Most importantly, she is like them in cannily adopting a position of extreme humility when representing herself and her aims to individuals who were in power. Just as these groups eventually made women as a “working class” their first priority, so did Mistral constantly portray, value and defend women in their capacity as workers. The platform of the MEMCH (“Movimiento de Emancipación de la Mujer Chilena” [Chilean Women’s Emancipation Movement], founded 1935, an umbrella organization for the earlier political groups) encapsulates many of Mistral’s key concerns: “the woman laborer, the woman farmworker, are vindicated; the misery of the mother and the child; the necessity of a popular government that acknowledges these demands.” The Partido Cívico Femenino achieved its first political victories in the area of women’s work, which is likewise a touchstone in Mistral’s writing throughout her life. Her work ethic, like theirs, values women’s economic independence, but with the consideration that women “not give themselves to labor that atrophies their femininity... that kills vital qualities... that do not place her on the same plane of force and resistance as a man’s.”67

On the Periphery: Mistral and the Feminists

These similarities between the poet’s social thought and the agenda of the political groups which evolved from the “Círculos” brings us directly to the question of Gabriela Mistral’s involvement with the women’s movement in Chile. Historians have only begun paying attention to these groups and their aims. It is somewhat understandable, then, if some scholars have regarded Mistral as an anomalous genius rather than as a product of the times and places in which she lived. While she decidedly concurred with other women of her time, in terms of her political ideas, and her methods for getting her way, there is some truth to the myth that during her years in Chile she lived in a kind of social isolation. As a provincial, unmarried, childless, lower-middle-class woman, she certainly stands outside of Santiago-based, family-oriented, male-centered power as conventional historians have understood it. That picture, however, is permanently altered by restoring women’s perspectives to it. What distinguishes her from other prominent women is that she stubbornly clung to her identity as an outsider. This is evident in the earliest stages of her career, when she states that she prefers contact by correspondence to the pressures of social obligations:

Tengo correspondencia con algunas señoras, pero no voy a verlas. Me es antipático hacer de trepadora.

[I exchange letters with some ladies, but I don’t visit them. I find it very disagreeable to play the social climber.]68

Her dislike of playing the “trepadora” [social climber], and of clinging to status, combines with her depiction of herself as preferring to live apart from the world, as in her description of an obligatory social visit to the Bishop, apparently when she was living in Temuco:

...una visita al Obispo, quien me habló de mi mala práctica de no hacer vida social, con lo cual pierde el colegio... Le dije: ‘Nunca, ni por situación más encumbrada, haré concesiones al mundo... Pregunte S.S. lo que ha ocurrido con mis antecesoras que hicieron vida de plaza y salones’.

[a visit to the Bishop, who spoke to me about my bad habit of not engaging in social life, to the detriment of the school... I told him: ‘Never, not even for the highest position, will I make concessions to the world... Your Holiness may ask himself, what has happened to my predecessors who had a life of plazas and salons.’]69

There is no apparent reason to doubt the poet’s sincerity in these letters. Her description of her predecessors (“que hicieron vida de plazas y de salones” [who had a life of plazas and salons]) militate against her having been an enthusiastic participant in the “Círculos.” The atmosphere in which the chic, educated women of Santiago lived would have been incompatible with the world that she had created for herself, as a self-educated woman who frequently remarked that she was ugly and whose persistent refusal to dress stylishly or to wear makeup has been repeatedly observed by friends and foes alike.

Given Mistral’s self-depiction as a social recluse, it is hard to imagine her feeling comfortable in the social whirl of Santiago women. It is difficult to know what to make, then, of the fact that women who were the poet’s correspondents, friends, colleagues and superiors are constantly named in connection with all of the groups that I mentioned.70 To answer the question of whether or not Mistral was a feminist, I would argue that Mistral shared all of their interests and most of their priorities, without sharing the class identification that permeated Chilean feminism. Groups such as the “Círculos” drew their support from women of the urban-middle and upper-middle class: women like Mistral who identified with the lower-middle class apparently had no place to go. Charitable organizations sponsored by the Church served the consciences of the well-to-do, who “redeemed” the poor by employing them as domestics. The militant socialism of the “Centros Belén de Zarraga” was a short-lived alternative for mine-workers’ wives in the north. Mistral’s much-vaunted interest in Theosophy during these years may be less a symptom of religious inquietude than of the desire for human companionship in a setting where intelligent women might be treated with both affection and respect.

Despite Mistral’s self-described antipathy to politicking, there are those who claim that she was an important figure in the women’s movement of the twenties. Her name appears in a list of individual women who “initiated at this time (1900-1935) a public struggle.”71 She is also named as belonging to the first governing board of the “Club Social de Profesoras” [Social Club of Female Teachers], in 1924, even though she was travelling in Europe and not living in Chile at the time.72 It seems likely that some friend corresponded with her and that she allowed her name to be used. Then there is the suggestion of Raúl Silva Castro, a well-known literary historian, whose 1935 book, Estudios sobre Gabriela Mistral, infuriated the poet. In a volume published in the year after Mistral died, Silva Castro cites a letter that the poet had addressed to “Iris” in 1915. Mentioning “Iris” only in passing, ignoring Amanda Labarca, making no distinctions between the memberships of the “Círculos” and the “Club,” lacking any conclusive evidence showing that Mistral actively participated in either of the two groups, Silva Castro credits Mistral with the role of muse:

En esta carta parece encontrarse el origen de la institución llamada Círculo de Lectura de Señoras que se fundó dentro del mismo año 1915 en Santiago y que dio origen, meses después, al Club de Señoras.

[In this letter there is mention of what appears to be the origin of the institution called “Women’s Reading Circle” which was founded in that same year of 1915 in Santiago and was, in turn, the origin, some months later, of the ‘Women’s Club.’]73

While Silva Castro does well both to mention the Círculos and to draw attention to the letter (which he quotes in full), he neglects the most striking and revealing aspect of this correspondence between Mistral and Iris. In the text of the letter, the poet encourages the formation of such groups while carefully remaining silent on the subject of her own participation. She jealously guards her isolation from Santiago society, as well as from other poets, both by flattering her correspondent, saying that only Iris was sufficiently advanced to lead this movement, as well as by depicting herself as a nobody.

“Una desconocida de provincia”
[An unknown woman from the provinces]

As part of the myth of personal obscurity, the poet’s insistence on her status as a “nobody” is a function of her relationship with the person to whom her letter is addressed. It is not a statement of fact: the poet was hardly a nobody at the time, though as we shall see, she would have found it to her advantage to present herself in this way. Just a few months previously, in December of 1914, she had taken first prize in the “Juegos Florales” [Floral Games], a national poetry competition. Between December of 1915 and March of 1915, when she wrote to “Iris,” she had been prolific in publishing her work: five pieces in the Revista de Educación Nacional; one poem apiece in Ideales, edited in Concepción and the Pacífico Magazine; three poems in the prestigious Zig-Zag magazine, in Santiago. Living in the small city of Los Andes, less than a half-day’s journey to the north of Santiago, provided the poet with some of these new opportunities, new friends, new correspondents, books and magazines to read.74

It is moving to imagine how Gabriela Mistral might have felt in initiating a correspondence with Inés Echeverría Larraín de Bello, one of the most famous women in the country, a woman whose surnames indicated her close relations, by birth and by marriage, with Chile’s political, economic, and intellectual aristocracy. It is no surprise that Mistral would begin by describing herself as having been hesitant to write on account of her lowly status: “siendo yo nadie, mi palabra se perdería” [Being a nobody, my word would be lost.]75 The implication is that her correspondent is somebody on whom words are not lost, who might hear her and thus make certain that the poet’s words are preserved. This profession of dependence is to be expected in the opening of a letter requesting an important person to take some sort of action. What is unusual is that the poet’s self-description indicates a degree of barely hidden pride in her humble origins, and confidence in the power of her voice—insofar as it is passionate and anonymous: “Esta voz ardorosa que le llega a usted desde una desconocida de provincia...” [This ardent voice that comes to you from an unknown woman from the provinces.]76

The poet’s association of anonymity with power is similarly manifest in a private letter written that same year, to another friend, Eugenio Labarca, describing her anger at Iris for the unauthorized publication of her correspondence. Writing to Labarca, she complains that she had addressed her appeal to “Iris, escritora espiritualista, de mis mismos pensares religiosos, no a doña Inés Echeverría, gran dama, que no me interesa en absoluto en este carácter... soy una maestra sin nada de arribista” [Iris, spiritualist writer, of my same religious persuasion, not to doña Inés Echeverría, grande dame, who does not interest me in the least... I am a schoolteacher and am not at all a status seeker.]77 The distinction is an important one for Mistral, for it is “Iris,” the winged messenger of the gods, the pseudonym of a writer and traveller interested in theosophy, whom she treats with respect, adulation and a degree of flattery. The poet apparently did not want to be known as a friend of the society woman who founded clubs and published her personal correspondence. The language of their common interest—spiritualism—allows her to acknowledge “Iris” as her spiritual superior while evading direct allusions to social prominence. While describing Iris as a great leader, Mistral retains an air of mystery about her own identity:

Usted y sólo usted puede y debe ponerse a la bella empresa. Hay mil almas indecisas; pero llenas de buena voluntad, prontas al llamado, que irán hacia usted. No le hablo de mí que nada significo; le hablo de muchas gentes en que estas cosas despiertan como una alba inmensa y dorada, y que usted reunirá a su sombra para trabajar... la simple insinuación de sus proyectos prendieron entusiasmo y cariño en muchos espíritus. Cariño por usted que quiere prestigiar estas ideas con su luminoso nombre, por todos respetado.

[You and only you can and should undertake the beautiful task. There are a thousand indecisive souls, but they are full of good will, they will go towards you, quick to the call. I don’t speak of myself, I am nothing; I speak to you of many people in whom these things awaken like an immense golden dawn, and which you will call under your shadow in order to work...the mere insinuation of your projects led to enthusiasm and affection in many spirits. Affection for you who want to lend prestige to these ideas with your luminous name, respected by all.]78

The imagery that the writer uses to express admiration for her addressee strongly reflects the assertions of feminists of the time, who emphasized women’s messianic potentials and their ability to get work done. “Iris” is portrayed as a purifying, uplifting influence who will pull literature and art out of the “barros pesados,” the heavy mud into which it has sunk. The appeal to Iris’s “spiritual” leadership seems a veiled acknowledgement of her high social rank, especially in the references to the “mil almas indecisas” [a thousand indecisive souls], and “muchas gentes” [many people] who await her awakening them to a luminous “golden dawn.” This elaborately respectful petition almost obscures the curious fact that the author excludes herself from the “mil almas” [a thousand souls] who fall under the shadow of Iris. It is others, not herself, who need leaders and will be “quick to the call.” Her modest disqualification, “no le hablo de mi, que nada significo” [I don’t speak of myself, I am nothing], indicates that she will not aspire to Iris’s position as a leader—but neither will she be counted among the followers. She remains an anonymous outsider who recognizes that there is an audience available, even though she is not one of them.



1. Mistral counted as heroes and saints the few others before her who had addressed this audience as equals. She glorified figures as diverse as Emily Brontë, José Martí, and Tagore, writers who were born, as Mistral was, into the newly emerged provincial middle class. Her stunning piece on Brontë, “Emilia Brontë: La familia del Reverendo Brontë” in Gabriela piensa en..., ed. Roque Esteban Scarpa (Santiago: Editorial Andrés Bello, 1979) 25-36, indicates her close affinity for Brontë. Tagore was an important figure for her as for many other Latin American women (see her “Comentarios sobre Rabindrath Tagore,” included in Desolación [1922; Santiago: Andrés Bello, 1926]). Finally, Mistral’s complex, lifelong admiration for Martí (also documented in Gabriela piensa en... ) is a promising area for further research.

2. Universal male suffrage was decreed in Chile under the regime of Santa María. Women did not get the vote until 1949.

3. Mistral uses this phrase and a similar expression, “el niño o Juan Pueblo, criaturas poéticas cabales” [the boy or Juan Pueblo, true poetic creatures], in her “Notas” to the volume Tala (1938), reprinted in her Poesías completas (1958; Madrid: Aguilar, Colección Premios Nobel, 1970) 807.

4. Gabriela Mistral, “Oración de la maestra”, Desolación 103.

5. José Enrique Délano, Sobre todo Madrid (Santiago: Editorial Universitaria, Ediciones Cormorán, 1969) 16, describes the poet’s habitual use of the possessive “mi” [my] (“mis indios” [my Indians]) in referring to groups with whom she felt close.

6. Forty percent of Chilean factories in 1895 dated from no earlier than 1890. Almost 60 percent of these new factories were located in Santiago or Valparaíso. See Brian Loveman, Chile: The Legacy of Hispanic Capitalism (New York: Oxford University Press, 1979) 210.

7. Loveman 38.

8. See Loveman; also see Teresa Pereira, “La mujer en el siglo XIX”, Tres ensayos sobre la mujer chilena: Siglos xviii-xix-xx, ed. Lucía Santa Cruz et al. (Santiago: Editorial Universitaria, 1978). Pages 156-162 deal specifically with women’s work.

9. In 1907 there were 1,625,058 women in Chile; 361,012 were employed, according to census data in Zegers and Maino, “La mujer chilena en el siglo XX”, Tres ensayos 247-255.

10. In 1920, there were 1,887,972 women, of whom some 346,936 were reported as receiving wages outside the home. Zegers and Maino 250-251.

11. Zegers and Maino 220-221, 253.

12. Pereira 160.

13. Pereira 162.

14. Zegers and Maino 221.

15. According to Loveman, land holdings in this area are divided into “comunidades”—large farms owned in common by a few families which use all the available water to irrigate only 4 percent of the land. Loveman also notes that “... the Norte Chico has played a disproportionate role in shaping the class consciousness of Chilean workers” (Loveman 21). The people, land, and customs of this relatively small area are one of Mistral’s favorite topics, but scholars have not looked further into connections between her writing and the “class consciousness of Chilean workers.” It is an area well worth studying: there are good leads in Fernando Alegría, “Gabriela Mistral’s Ideology,” Women in Hispanic Literature: Icons and Fallen Idols, ed. Beth Miller (Berkeley: University of California Press, 1985).

16. The final page of Oriel Álvarez Gómez, Jerónimo Godoy V., Padre de Gabriela (pamphlet, n.d., no place of publication given) includes copies of the baptismal and death certificates of Jerónimo Godoy. Fernando Moraga, staff writer on the La Serena newspaper El Día, has photographs of the poet’s father’s burial niche in Copiapó.

17. Marta Elena Samatán, Gabriela Mistral, campesina del valle de Elqui (Buenos Aires: Instituto Amigos del Libro Argentino, 1969).

18. Pereira 159.

19. Julio Saavedra Molina (Prólogo, Gabriela Mistral, poesías completas [1958; Madrid: Aguilar, 1962] iv) suggests that the poet’s wanderings were a neurotic reaction to the suicide of Romelio Urreta. An equally, perhaps more credible explanation is that with each move, she obtained a promotion; to remain in one place, particularly in the provinces, far from Santiago, would have retarded both her literary and educational careers.

20. Mistral was assigned to teach in Antofagasta in 1911. Significant labor-organizing activity was taking place in this mining and shipping community at the time. In 1913, Antofagasta became one of the cities in which the anarchist “Centros Belén de Zarrraga” were most active in bringing together working-class women, who worked in group kitchens without salaries, to participate in strikes. These groups were, in effect, the first feminist women’s organizations in Chile, predating the middle- and upper-class “Clubs” in Santiago by at least two years. See Julieta Kirkwood, “Feminismo y participación política en Chile”, La otra mitad de Chile, ed. María Angélica Meza (Santiago: Instituto para el Nuevo Chile, Ediciones CESOC, 1986). For a study of Mistral’s stay in Antofagasta, see Mario Bahamonde, Gabriela Mistral en Antofagasta: Años de forja y valentía (Santiago: Editorial Nascimento, 1980).

21. Roque Esteban Scarpa, in La desterrada en su patria: Gabriela Mistral en Magallanes 1918-1920, 2 vols. (Santiago: Editorial Nascimento, 1977), has established the model for all socio-historical studies of Mistral and her work; I am deeply indebted to this detailed and fascinating account of the poet’s years in Punta Arenas set into the context of a history of this territory.

22. For a description of Temuco during these years, as well as a few anecdotes about the poet as seen through the eyes of Pablo Neruda, who knew her when he was a boy, see Neruda’s memoirs, Confieso que he vivido: Memorias (Barcelona: Círculo de Lectores, 1974) 24, 282, 292, 305, 306, 318, 323.

23. The most complete, best-documented account of the life of this woman and her son, the poet’s father, can be found in an undated, privately printed pamphlet entitled Jerónimo Godoy V.: Padre de Gabriela, by the journalist Oriel Álvarez Gómez, who lives (1986) in Copiapó or Vallenar, in the Valle de Huasco, Chile. (Information from personal interview with Fernando Moraga, Nov. 15, 1985).

24. Marta Samatán, Gabriela Mistral, campesina del valle de Elqui 45. Isabel Villanueva evidently hoped that her son and two daughters would enter the service of the church. The son—Gabriela Mistral’s father—attended seminary for a while, but left, and became a schoolteacher.

25. During the 1870s (in Mistral’s father’s generation) there were a handful of privately run, non religious secondary schools for girls in the major cities of Santiago, Talca, Valparaíso and Concepción. Various state-run secondary schools for girls were founded in 1880s, again in the major cities. The Chilean government had begun to take an interest in education during the regime of Manuel Montt: in 1860, the law of primary instruction was passed, making such instruction free, and establishing at least one such school for every 2,000 inhabitants. Those schools might be administered either by publicly paid teachers, or, what was more likely, by religious orders within the Church. Thus, the Montt government created and partially funded the Normal School for Women, but it was administered by the Sisters of the Sacred Heart until 1889—the year of Mistral’s birth.

26. Doris Dana, Gabriela Mistral’s executrix and close friend during the last ten years of the poet’s life, states that Mistral was unable to continue her schooling because Adelaida Olivares, the poet’s godmother and a teacher in the town of Vicuña, classified the poet as a “débil mental” [mentally deficient] because she stammered as a child. (Doris Dana, personal interview, New York, July 1983). What seems to be the most factual account of the episode with Sra. Olivares is in Samatán, Gabriela Mistral, campesina del valle de Elqui 107-109.

Fernando Moraga, writer for the La Serena newspaper El Día, suggests that the chaplain of the “Liceo” found her suspect for the forward-thinking pieces on education, philosophy, and morals that she had published in the local radical newspaper. The view that the poet had earned the dislike of the headmistress of another local school where she had worked is corroborated by Roque Esteban Scarpa in Una mujer nada de tonta (Santiago: Editorial Universitaria, 1976) 32-34. Marie-Lise Gazarian-Gautier, Gabriela Mistral: The Teacher from the Valley of Elqui (Chicago: Franciscan Herald Press, 1975) adds that the young Lucila Godoy was dismissed from her post as school clerk in 1905: “Her deep Christian spirit rebelled against the separation of classes, and because she accepted some young girls from modest homes and defended their equal rights she was forced to leave” (13).

Moraga asserts that the headmistress, Mistral’s immediate supervisor in that job which she had been asked to leave, was a native of Germany whose difficulty with written Spanish earned her the poet’s contempt, and that the mere fact of being fired from the post of school clerk made it impossible for her to continue her education in La Serena. Fernando Moraga states: “Basta conocer su ubicación de pensamiento, sus escritos y todo lo hecho en la ciudad para considerar que Gabriela Mistral en 1906 es demasiado avanzada a su época. El rechazo y el haber dejado la secretaria e inspectora liceana no la amilanan”. [It’s enough to be aware of the general slant of her thinking, her writings, and everything done in the city, to consider that Gabriela Mistral in 1906 is too far ahead of her times. Rejection and having left the post of secretary and inspector in the Liceo did not frighten her.] (Personal interview, La Serena, Chile, 24 Dec. 1985).

27. Pereira 129.

28. Loveman pays the most attention to the “Sociedad de Fomento Fabril,” arguing that they represented a lay-educated elite. By present-day standards, their ideas about what women should study seem quite conservative: the girls who attended the “Liceo Técnico” [Technical Public High School], free of charge, took courses in commerce, fashion, the linen trade, embroidery and cooking. Luis Galdames (A History of Chile, tr. and ed. Isaac Hoslin Cox, [Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 1941]) states that “the objective was to permit young women to make a living with their work and to complete their education for the home.”

29. Pereira 131.

30. The more conservative and aristocratic Catholic University of Chile did not begin admitting women until many years later, in 1932.

31. Felicitas Klimpel, La mujer chilena: El aporte femenino al progreso de Chile 1910-1960 (Santiago: Andrés Bello, 1962) 88.

32. Marta Vergara, Memorias de una mujer irreverente (1969; Santiago: Editorial Gabriela Mistral, 1974) 11.

33. Vergara 11.

34. Pereira 131. Years later, in her “Introduction” to Lecturas para mujeres, written in Mexico during a similar period of discord between Church and State over which had the right to teach, Mistral brilliantly anticipates the objections to the secular and “technical” education of women by stating that the primary object of such an education is to prepare them for their work in the home. At the same time, she argues that the economic independence of women is absolutely desirable, and that women must be encouraged to engage in serious study of those subjects which concern them. Otherwise, she warns, addressing both liberal-radicals, and conservatives, “we undermine the race in its very foundations.” She is deliberately vague about what subjects are most appropriate to women.

35. Martina Barros, cited in Julieta Kirkwood, Ser política en Chile: Las feministas y los partidos (Santiago: Flacso, 1986) 87.

36. Kirkwood, Ser política 87.

37. Palma Guillén de Nicolau, “Gabriela Mistral 1922-1924", Lecturas para mujeres, ed. Gabriela Mistral (1922; México: Porrúa, 1976).

38. Kirkwood, Ser política 104.

39. “Iris,” cited in Kirkwood, Ser política 105-106.

40. Elsa M. Chaney, Supermadre: La mujer dentro de la política en América Latina, trans. Mariluz Caso (1979; México: Fondo de Cultura Económica, 1983) 126.

41. Tamayo Vargas, cited in Chaney 85. The exaggerated extent to which the salon complied with “la mujer en la casa, el hombre en la calle” [the woman at home, the man in the street] is exemplified in Marta Vergara’s profile of Santiago salonier Sara Hubner. Her death-worship, so characteristic of modernismo, represents a brilliant adaptation of women’s confinement to house and pedestal. “...Crushed by love, she frequently took to bed in order to evade that her heart stop beating. She would shine as the most poetic and seductive image of an invalid imaginable. She wouldn’t eat: but she hardly ate when she was well... It alarmed us to see her laid out for days on end, but we were consoled by the certainty that ‘the event’ would never surprise her looking ill-kept, or in any of the inferior tasks of all human beings. She wouldn’t be alone, either. Her court surrounded her exquisitely appointed bed” (Vergara, Memorias 33, author’s translation).

42. As head of the “Escuela Nacional de Preceptoras” [National Teacher’s School], Walker held one of the most influential posts available to a woman in Chile. Her friendship with Gabriela Mistral began when the poet came to Santiago to take exams allowing her to teach at the secondary level. When Walker learned that the young schoolteacher was a poet, she suggested that Mistral write her Botany exam in verse. Later, Mistral dedicated the version of her poem “La encina” [The Oak] that was published in Desolación to Walker.

43. Chilean historians are divided with respect to the primary objectives of both the “Círculos” and the “Club.” Zegers and Maino state that the “Círculos de Lectura fought for women’s liberation” (Zegers and Maino 236). Chaney’s study sides with Zegers and Maino: she cites as evidence of the revolutionary intentions of the “Círculos” their perseverance in the face of the opposition by the Church, “the masculine element,” and “other, more conservative women.” See Chaney 125-126; Zegers and Maino 234. Kirkwood’s more recent analysis, “Feminismo y participación política en Chile” (in La otra mitad de Chile, ed. María Angélica Meza [Santiago: Instituto para el Nuevo Chile, 1986] 17), argues that the orientation of both groups was cultural and educational, and that the political platform that they eventually developed was reformist rather than revolutionary.

44. Kirkwood, “Participación” 18.

45. Vergara 45.

46. Kirkwood, “Participación” 22.

47. By aligning themselves with the socialist left, the “Centros” cease to exist for “mainstream” historians: Kirkwood is the only writer on Chilean women’s history to mention them.

48. “Iris” cited by Juan de Soiza Reilly in Chaney, 126.

49. “Iris” cited in Felicitas Klimpel, La mujer chilena (Santiago: Editorial Andrés Bello, 1962) 237.

50. Revista Acción Femenina, cited in Kirkwood, Ser política 109.

51. Kirkwood, Ser política 109.

52. See Bell Hooks, From Margin to Center (Boston: South End Press, 1985).

53. Gabriela Mistral, cited in Virgilio Figueroa, La divina Gabriela (Santiago: Impresor “El Esfuerzo”, 1935).

54. Gabriela Mistral, “La escuela nueva en nuestra América”, Magisterio y niño, ed. Roque Esteban Scarpa (1928; Santiago: Editorial Andrés Bello, 1979) 183.

55. “La enseñanza, una de las más altas poesías” (probably written in 1917), cited by Roque Esteban Scarpa, Prólogo, Mistral, Magisterio y niño 274.

56. See Roque Esteban Scarpa’s important attention to this point in Mistral, Magisterio y niño 15.

57. See Fernando Alegría’s description of what he sees as Mistral’s exaggerated and unrealistic insistence on the irresponsibility and cruelty of Chilean men, in Alegría, Genio y figura de Gabriela Mistral (Buenos Aires: Editorial Universitaria, 1966) 20.

58. Gabriela Mistral, Introducción, Lecturas para mujeres, with a Preface by Palma Guillén de Nicolau (1923; México: Editorial Porrúa, 1976) xvi.

59. Bernardo Gentilini, Acerca del feminismo (Santiago: Apostolado de la Prensa, 1929) 88-91, cited in Zegers and Maino 237; See also Labarca, Feminismo contemporáneo (Santiago: Zig-Zag, 1947).

60. Mistral’s views on female suffrage changed over time. For passages in which she favors the vote for women, see Virgilio Figueroa, “Su verdadera actitud ante el feminismo”, La divina Gabriela (Santiago: Impresor “El Esfuerzo”, 1933) 256-262. Mistral’s reservations about universal suffrage are evident in her sympathetic portrayal of Spanish social worker, prison reformer and parliamentarian Victoria Kent. “Victoria Kent resistió la embriaguez de vino generoso o de café negro que es la demagogia sufragista sajona o latina; sabe que no se trata solamente de que las mujeres votemos, sino de que no lleguemos hasta este campo tremendo del sufragio universal a duplicar el horror del voto masculino analfabeto”. [Victoria Kent resisted the drunkenness of generous wine or black coffee which is the saxon or latin suffragist demagoguery; she knows that it’s not only a matter of us women voting, but also of not finding ourselves in this tremendous field of universal suffrage only to duplicate the horror of illiterate male voters.] Mistral shares the fears of her ex-colleagues Labarca Hubertson and Aguirre Cerda in this article, written at the time of the surprising Spanish elections of 1936, in which women voted against the left: “La mujer española, en gran parte, votó contra la República que le regaló el voto, y esta frase ya corre acuñada llevando consigo una realidad alarmante”. [The women of Spain in large part voted against the Republic that granted them the vote, and this phrase has by now acquired currency, bringing with it an alarming reality.] Gabriela Mistral, “Victoria Kent” in Gabriela piensa en ..., ed. Roque Esteban Scarpa (Santiago: Andrés Bello, 1978) 75-83.

61. See Kirkwood, Ser política, Chapter IV. The tendency of Chilean women to support candidates from the center to the right is a subject of continuing debate among scholars, and has yet to be resolved.

62. Kirkwood, Ser política 107.

63. Mistral’s insistence on women’s participation in public life is voiced more strongly in her introduction to Lecturas para mujeres, xix: “lo que nuestra América necesita con una urgencia que a veces llega a parecerme trágica: generaciones con sentido moral, ciudadanos y mujeres puros y vigorosos e individuos en los cuales la cultura se haga militante, al vivificarse con la acción: se vuelva servicio”. [What our America needs with an urgency that at times seems to me tragic: generations with moral sense, pure and vigorous citizens and women and individuals in whom culture becomes militant, that when it comes to life it becomes action: it turns into service.] Gabriela Mistral, Introducción, Lecturas para mujeres.

64. Acción Femenina 2 (1922), cited in Kirkwood, Ser política 107.

65. Gabriela Mistral, “Tiene setenta años Selma Lagerloff”, Gabriela piensa en... 23.

66. Kirkwood, Ser política 108. The question of the poet’s religious identification is a complicated one. Martin Taylor makes a serious attempt to define it and to trace the changes in her religious attitudes in Sensibilidad religiosa de Gabriela Mistral (Madrid: Editorial Gredos, 1975). The poet in 1920, as she was leaving Chile, was probably as far from the Church, as an institution, as she ever had been. The extreme anticlericism of the post-revolutionary Mexican government probably aroused her sympathy on behalf of the teaching orders, but for her entire life she remained strongly committed to the separation of Church and State. Her writing in Italy from 1923 to 1925 (see, for example, Gabriela Mistral, Elogio de las cosas de la tierra [Santiago: Andrés Bello, 1977]) suggests a conversion experience. In the notes to Tala she describes herself as having undergone a spiritual crisis following the death of her mother in 1929.

Mistral joined the third (lay) order of Franciscans around 1925 (see Figueroa, La divina Gabriela 159-161) but continued to describe herself as “católica, a mi manera.” Matilde Ladrón de Guevara (La rebelde Gabriela, vol I [Santiago: Empresa Editora Araucaria, 1984] 62-63) quotes the poet as saying “Yo no voy a misa... mis padres de la Orden de San Francisco aceptan que yo lo sea, sin obligaciones litúrgicas, por mi salud. Soy cristiana, pero tengo una concepción muy personal sobre la religión. No se debe hablar de esto. Sólo sé decirle que no soy dogmática y que le rezo a Dios, es decir, le hablo a Dios muy a mi manera”. [I don’t go to mass....my fathers in the Order of Saint Francis accept that I’m like this, without liturgical obligations, on account of my health. I am a Christian, but I have a very personal conceptualization of religion. One ought not to speak of this. I can only tell you that I am not dogmatic and that I pray to God, that is, I speak to God in my very own way.]

The best way to address this subject of the poet’s religious identification is in her own writings on religion, compiled with an excellent preface by Luis Vargas Saavedra, Prosa religiosa de Gabriela Mistral (Santiago: Andrés Bello, 1978). For details and documents surrounding Mistral’s personal and spiritual crisis in her later life, see Luis Vargas Saavedra, El otro suicidio de Gabriela Mistral (Santiago: Ediciones Universidad Católica de Chile, 1985).

67. Kirkwood, Ser política 111.

68. Letter from Gabriela Mistral to Eugenio Labarca, cited in Sergio Fernández Larraín, Cartas de amor de Gabriela Mistral 46 (Santiago: Andrés Bello, 1978) 205.

69. Gabriela Mistral to the poet Magallanes Moure, included in Sergio Fernández Larraín 166.

70. See especially Zegers and Maino 230-238 for descriptions of those who were most involved in women’s groups of this time.

71. Jorge Solís de Ovando, Los derechos de la mujer (Santiago: Imprenta de la Penitenciaria, 1921) 26-27; cited by Zegers and Maino, 231.

72. Zegers and Maino 235.

73. Raúl Silva Castro, Producción de Gabriela Mistral de 1912 a 1918, Ediciones Anales Universidad de Chile, Serie Roja, 11 (Santiago: Universo, S.A., 1957) 67.

74. See Raúl Silva Castro, Producción 48-65.

75. Letter from Gabriela Mistral to “Iris,” in Raúl Silva Castro, Producción 65-67.

76. Silva Castro, Producción 65-66.

77. Letter, Gabriela Mistral to Eugenio Labarca, 1927, reprinted in Ladrón de Guevara, Rebelde, vol. II, 51.

78. Cited in Silva Castro, Producción 65-66.