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Journal of Women's History 15.3 (2003) 124-128

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Flora Tristan and Peruvian Feminists in the Twentieth Century

Erika Busse

This paper explores the ways in which Peruvian feminists appropriated the early-nineteenth-century French activist Flora Tristan as their symbol at two historical moments. In the 1940s, Magda Portal, a political activist and writer, claimed Tristan as a precursor for Latin American feminisms, in particular because of her ideas regarding poor conditions of the working class, as well as on women's subordination. Later, in 1979, a group of women, led by Virginia Vargas, founded the NGO "Centro de la Mujer Peruana Flora Tristan" (Center of the Peruvian Woman Flora Tristan or CMP FT), 1 once again claiming Tristan as a symbol for Peruvian women. This group presented itself as feminist and has focused on women's issues since its founding. In this article, I summarize my theoretical and methodological approach for the analysis of Tristan as a symbol. Then, I introduce Tristan and her ideas. Finally, I turn to Peruvian feminists in the twentieth century, and discuss their motivation for taking Tristan as a symbol.

In their studies of French women's biographies, Jo Burr Margadant and Susan Grogan suggest ways of interpreting Tristan's performance in the public sphere, emphasizing that Tristan borrowed elements of available cultural repertoires to justify her activism. 2 I argue that Magda Portal and Virginia Vargas, in turn, similarly appropriated available cultural symbols to justify public activity and to raise questions of women's subordination through their activism. The symbol they used was Flora Tristan. My analysis draws on Portal's biography of Tristan entitled Flora Tristan: Precursor and on an interview I conducted with Vargas who was the most visible leader of one sector of the Peruvian feminist movement in the 1970s. 3

Flora Tristan: The Historical Character

Flora Tristan was born in France in 1803, during the Napoleonic period. Because of her father's origin (he was a Peruvian aristocrat), she was considered part of the French elite, despite the poverty she experienced after her father's death. Tristan married but later abandoned her husband (divorce was not possible at that time). To make ends meet, she sought employment as a maid. These experiences made her aware of workers' and women's oppression, particularly thesubjugated position of married women. [End Page 124]

In 1833, Tristan contacted her father's family and then traveled to Peru to claim her share of the paternal inheritance. A year later, she returned to France with neither the money nor family support she sought in her trip. In 1838, she published entitled The Peregrinations of a Pariah, in which she detailed her trip and offered a sharp critique of Peruvian society. 4 In France, she contacted feminists and socialists, and began publishing tracts and fiction outlining proposals for change. At the same time, she became active in the public arena—for example, she went on speaking tours—and defied the barriers against women in the male political sphere. 5

Tristan and Peruvian Feminists

Magda Portal was active in politics and in the first women's movement in Peru, in the first half of the twentieth century. She was a founder of the Alianza Popular Revolucionaria Americana (1928) known as the APRA Peruvian party, and was an active member of the organizing committee. The APRA represents the "great family" in traditional terms—the militant is the "father", and the "aprista mother" (also militant) must support her husband and look after their children. 6 By asking for women's voices to be heard, a woman such as Portal was a dissonant voice within the harmonic family. As a result, she received hostile treatment from her own comrades, ending in her removal from office in 1948. Shortly thereafter, Portal resigned from the party and focused on her poetry and writings, for which she received many awards before her death in 1989.

In 1944, while Portal was in exile in Chile, Chilean socialist women asked her to write about Tristan for a political conference. Her paper...


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