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‘As we gather, we encounter our force, our power, our ability to live’: Black mothers and the struggle for Black life in Salvador, Bahia, Brazil

Alysia Mann Carey, PhD Student, Political Science 

“To be a mother is a gift from God. A child is inside you and there is pain when they are born, but you are happy and you kiss their arms and legs. But when this happens, when you lose your child in such a tragic way, it is a pain and sadness that is unexplainable. You carry it with you. And more so when it is like my case, or Ana’s case, which is about a people and about security and those people that are supposed to give security are creating more misery and death for human beings, it is hard. When I heard pa-pa-pa-pa I looked around for my son. Where is My Son! It was then that I felt the hand of the government in my womb. And it is still there.” (Dona. Santana, Mother of one of the victims/Militant—React or Die! Campaign)

“The pilgrimage from the Police Station-Hospital-morgue, or Police Station-Hospital-morgue-Child and Adolescent Foundation (FUNDAC), or Police Station-Hospital-Morgue-Cemetery, has been the routine for Black families headed by Black women.” (Andreia Beatriz dos Santos, Coordinator/Militant—React or Die! Campaign)

The above quotes from Dona. Santana (pseudonym), a mother-activist who lost her son in what has come to be known as the Cabula Massacre, and Andreia Beatriz, coordinator/militant for the React or Die Campaign, represent important starting points for theorizing state violence against Black women. This is a theme that my research directly engages. Both of these women’s narratives demonstrate that state violence penetrates intimate spaces for Black women: the body (through the womb, through the cries over the death of a child, through walking to and from various sites that signify death and violence) and the family (through no longer being able to mother a child, or young children growing up without a loved one). It is in this context that my research takes a Black feminist approach (i.) to understanding how state violence impacts Black women in intimate ways. Thus, using ethnographic approaches, I examine how Black women describe, understand, and navigate state violence, and other forms of violence in their daily lives. Further, I investigate how Black women also lead movements that connect and confront different forms of violence in their lives and communities.

Five months after the Cabula massacre, I traveled to Salvador, Bahia for the second time to conduct pre-dissertation fieldwork in June 2015. During this time, I met with organizers from the React or Die Campaign as well as the mothers or partners of those who were killed in the massacre. On Friday, February 6, 2015 military police officers from RONDESP (Special Military Operations Forces (ii) raided the working class, majority Black neighborhood of Cabula in Salvador, Bahia in Brazil. The officers maintained that they entered into a gun battle with 30 men who were hoarding arms and criminal paraphernalia. However, witnesses claimed that they were unarmed.  In the end, police killed 12 Black boys and young men between the ages of 16 and 27. A separate investigation found that the police entered the community, rounded up the boys on a small plot of land, used as a soccer field by neighborhood youth, and executed them one by one (iii).

On Monday, August 24, 2015, React or Die held its 3rd Annual (Inter)National March against the Genocide of Black People. The March represented a culmination of yearlong organizing efforts, community work, and familial support for victims killed by state violence. The march was scheduled to commence in front of the Public Security Building downtown, but early on that Monday morning, around 9 a.m. I watched over 200 people gather outside of the State University of Bahia, located in Cabula. Organizers, supporters, mothers, family members, and loved ones were to walk through the streets of Cabula, to the community of Villa Moisés, where a memorial service was held for the victims of the Cabula Massacre, on the very plot of land that their lives were taken.

Preparations for the memorial stone in Villa Moisés, August 24, 2015. Activists from the React or Die Campaign took these photos. I was given permission to include them in this blog post.

Forming two lines, organizers, mothers, friends, and other family members walked through the street chanting, “Against the Genocide of Black People, no step back” and “We want Justice.” Upon arrival in Villa Moisés, we stopped just before descending into the community. Around us, there were many two-story townhome-like structures. Hearing the chants for Black life and the demands for justice, an older woman came out and stood on her patio, looking over the rail. At that time, one of the coordinators of the React or Die Campaign took the megaphone to greet the community members: “Good Morning Villa Moisés. We are here in memory of the dead. We are marching today for our lives. Villa Moisés will not be forgotten.” The woman who stood out on her patio responded by raising her fist in support, giving us a blessing to enter.

The procession proceeded down into Villa Moisés. Upon arriving at the site where the 12 boys and young men were killed, four straight lines were formed. Mothers, sisters, aunts, fathers, supporters, organizers came to the front to present themselves and to speak the names of those killed. After each person was named the galera (crowd) in unison yelled “presente (present):

Ricardo Matos, Presente! Júnior, Presente! Anjos, Presente! Adailton, Presente! Alessandra, Presente ! Fatima, Presente! Amarildo, Presente! Maria Vitoria, Presente!

One by one, family members, mothers, partners spoke up about their fight

“As we gather, we encounter our force, our power, our ability to live. We have become the voices for our sons and daughters, and we won’t allow the continued murder of young Blacks to destroy our lives. Their blood is not so cheap that we allow their murders.”

“We cannot go one step back! We can’t let this tragedy continue. Every single day, we encounter another mother grieving, another body laying dead in the street — we will not let this happen any longer. We have to fight, we have to react…While there is even one little voice screaming deep down there, in the end, that voice will be representing all of our dead. (Ana Paula)

The words of Ana Paula resonated with me, and reminded me of the first time I read Audre Lorde’s poem “A Litany of Survival” in Lyndon Gill’s course on Erotic Subjectivities. As a Black Caribbean Feminist, Lorde tells Black women throughout the diaspora that we must speak, “remembering we were never meant to survive.” The words of Ana Paula and Audre Lorde speak to the transnational dimension of Black women’s power: Ana Paula’s words were a response to the poem, a continuation of a conversation across space and time. Andreia echoed the same conversation: “Our pain is transnational. Our fight is transnationalJoquielson, Presente! Jonathan, Presente! Rakia Boyd, Presente! Tony Robinson, Presente! Aiyana Jones, Presente! Everson, Presente! Kaique, Presente! Sandra Bland, Presente! Jackson Cavalho, Presente! Trayvon Martin, Presente! Mike Brown, Presente!”

The mothers and family members who spoke are experts in their own right—they have searched for children when they were disappeared, unidentified in city morgues, or located in clandestine graves in the outskirts of the city. These Black mother activists vocalized their criticisms of governmental impunity and necropolitics throughout Brazil. They exposed the particular experiences of Black mothers, a theme explored in the literature on gendered racial violence in the Americas (v.).

For me, it became clear that even in the face of government indifference and attacks, these women created a network of support and autonomous organizing, creating a grassroots organization fighting against a genocidal state responsible for the deaths of their children and thousands of others.  At the end of the memorial, people gathered around a plaque in memory of victims of state violence. The memorial stone read “’We continue to live and fight for Black people in the diaspora’ Campaign React or Die!” This inscription reminded me of Patricia Hill Collins’ words: “motherhood can serve as a site where Black women express and learn the power of self-definition, the importance of valuing and respecting [themselves], the necessity of self-reliance and independence, and a belief in Black women’s empowerment.” (vi).

As the memorial came to an end, everyone walked to Engomadeira, a nearby community where some of the surviving family members of the Cabula massacre lived, to have lunch.  Around two o’clock in the afternoon, we made our way to the headquarters of the Military Police, where the march itself would commence. More than 5,000 people gathered on the street. The march would end outside of the Office of the Secretary of Public Security for the State of Bahia. The beginning and end of this march were significant for many reasons. The women of Reaja directly confronted the state and the “official story,” not only of Cabula, but of other cases of anti-Black violence across Brazil, and throughout the African diaspora. Their physical presence in front of the Military Police Headquarters and the Public Security office was a practice of unveiling the intimate violence and suffering perpetrated against them, their families, their sisters, and their communities. Their presence highlights the central place that Black women occupy in the history of organizing, (vii.) making visible the pain, suffering, and violence that the state, reporting, and news media ridiculed and made to be a spectacle. Mothers were holding large signs depicting their slain children. Women spoke the names that the state tried to erase. Shouts erupted from the crowd, such as “They try to deny our humanity,” and “the dead too have a voice.”

Mothers marching in front of the Military Police Headquarters, August 24, 2015

Just like the land upon which the young people were killed in Cabula, the streets in front of the buildings were transformed into spaces of resistance against genocide. Through occupation of the streets, the courtrooms, government offices, Black women disrupted these spaces, reconfiguring them as sites for collective grieving. Their activism disrupts a narrative of “what (whose) life is worth, a narrative that says that Black life is worth less and that life itself can be valued based on race, economic status, gender, etc. (viii.) During the memorial ceremony, one of the family members said, “Their blood is not so cheap that we allow their murders.” “As we gather, we encounter our force, our power, our ability to live.” The acts of re-membering their loved ones, collective grieving and making public the pain and suffering at the hands of the state, provide a language (whether verbal, emotional, or embodied) for these women to articulate their experiences and to take political action. Organizing, activism, re/memory and grief are engaged as central, pivotal, and diasporic sites for theorizing Black politics and liberation (ix.).



i. This approach draws on and contributes to scholarship that situates Black women’s organizing as key sites for the production of theory and knowledge. See for example, Cardoso, Cláudia Pons. “Amefricanizando o feminismo: o pensamento de Lélia Gonzalez.” Revista Estudos Feministas 22, no. 3 (2014): 965-986; Perry, Keisha-Khan Y. Black Women against the Land Grab. University of Minnesota Press, 2013; Smith, Christen A. “Facing the Dragon: Black Mothering, Sequelae, and Gendered Necropolitics in the Americas.” Transforming Anthropology 24, no. 1 (2016): 31-48; Collective, Combahee River. ‘A Black Feminist Statement’. na, 1982.

ii. Similar to S.W.A.T in the US.

iii. Data released by the prosecutors in an interview to the press, published on May 12, 2015. (  Also see; According to Bahia’s Government article ( Information released exclusively by El Pais newspaper   (

iv. Activists from the React or Die Campaign took these photos. I was given permission to include them in this blog post.

v. Perry, Keisha-Khan Y. Black Women against the Land Grab; Smith, Christen A. “Facing the Dragon; Rocha, Luciane de Oliveira. “Outraged mothering: black women, racial violence, and the power of emotions in Rio de Janeiro’s African Diaspora.” PhD diss., 2014; Rocha, Luciane de Oliveira. “Black mothers’ experiences of violence in Rio de Janeiro.” Cultural Dynamics 24, no. 1 (2012): 59-73; Smith, Christen A. Afro-Paradise: Blackness, Violence, and Performance in Brazil. University of Illinois Press, 2016.; Also see the Transforming Anthropology special edition (24, no. 1) “Sorrow as Artifact: Radical Black Mothering in Times of Terror.

vi. Collins, Patricia Hill. Black feminist thought: Knowledge, consciousness, and the politics of empowerment. Routledge, 2002.

vii. James, Joy. Shadowboxing: Representations of Black feminist politics. St. Martin’s Press, 1999; Perry, Keisha-Khan Y. Black Women against the Land Grab;

viii. Gumbs, Alexis Pauline. “We Can Learn to Mother Ourselves: The Queer Survival of Black Feminism 1968-1996.” PhD diss., Duke University, 2010, 50

ix. Cardoso, Cláudia Pons. Amefricanizando o feminismo; Perry, Keisha-Khan Y. Black Women against the Land Grab; Smith, Christen A. “Facing the Dragon; Collective, Combahee River. ‘A Black Feminist Statement’; Rocha, Luciane de Oliveira. “Outraged mothering”

On May 25, CLAS will cosponsor “Grief as Resistance: Racialized State Violence and the Politics of Black Motherhood in the Americas,” a transnational conversation with Black mothers who have lost children to state violence. Mother-activists from the US, Brazil, and Colombia share their struggles and strategies of resistance against police violence, mass incarceration, and the unrelenting injustices facing Black communities around the world.

For more information please visit:


The contents of this blog do not necessarily reflect the views of the Center for Latin American Studies or the University of Chicago.

Dissertation Dive: Salvador, Brazil

Keshia L. Harris, Ph.D. Candidate, Department of Comparative Human Development

Traveling to Brazil to begin my dissertation reminded me a lot of skydiving.  Before arriving here, I was anxious because I didn’t know exactly what to expect in terms of data collection.  As often as I embark on these journeys, I always find it challenging to leave home for an extended period of time.  As I began to reflect on how things have progressed since I arrived in Brazil, I remembered ascending into the sky on the small plane to go skydiving a few years ago.  Similar to having been in Brazil before but this time starting my dissertation, I was accustomed to flying in an airplane but had never experienced jumping out of one.  I was so nervous before making the jump that I was sure my heart would explode out of my chest.  Then we jumped and it was the most amazing experience I’d ever had in my life.  Starting my dissertation in Brazil has surpassed that experience.

Taken at a Saturday English Learning Course in Itacaranha (suburb of Salvador)Taken at a Saturday English Learning Course in Itacaranha (suburb of Salvador)

As I write this, I am in Salvador, a city with a population of approximately 3 million residents, located in Northeast Brazil. During this productive and life-inspiring 10 weeks, I’ve been fortunate to conduct research at five high schools located throughout the city of Salvador.

The goal of my dissertation is to answer the following questions: (1) how do postsecondary goals and perceptions of educational equality vary by skin color and socioeconomic status among Brazilian and Colombian adolescents, and (2) what role does perceived discrimination play in shaping postsecondary goals?   To respond to these questions, I am conducting a mixed methods study in Salvador, Brazil and Cartagena, Colombia.  The mixed methods approach includes quantified survey questions and qualitative interview questions.  The survey responses will be analyzed by quantitative regression analyses to measure effects of factors such as perceived discrimination and skin tone differences on academic achievement and postsecondary goals.  Interviews provide the opportunity to explore reasons why adolescents are choosing future educational paths and what factors have contributed to their decisions.

Why these two cities?  Besides the fact that they’re absolutely beautiful places to conduct research, they have similar histories of political and economic influence within their countries and illustrate divergent conceptions of what it means to be of African descent in their nations.

Salvador is located in the poorest region of Brazil, the Northeast.  The city was founded as the first capital of Brazil in 1549.  The city’s location on the coast of the northeast region made it a prime port of entry for the importation of African slaves during the colonial period (1500-1822).  The city flourished as the country’s economic center due to slave work on tobacco and sugar plantations in the 1800s.  It was the country’s richest and most highly populated city.  Salvador remained the capital of Brazil until 1763, when the nation’s wealth shifted to a new capital, Rio de Janeiro. Salvador is the present capital of the state of Bahia and is currently the third largest city in Brazil with a population of 2.9 million (2013 census).   Although Salvador has the highest population of the country’s African descendants, Brazilians with European physical features make up the city’s elite population (Perry, 2013).

Cartagena is also situated in one of the nation’s poorest regions, located on the northern coast of Colombia.  The city was founded on June 1, 1553.  Cartagena was the first Colombian city authorized for the trade of African slaves.  During its colonial era from 1533–1717, the city’s coastal location made it a primary trading port for gold, silver, and African slaves; hence, its current high population of African descendants (Telles, 2014).  It is currently the fifth largest city in Colombia with a population of 988,000 (2011 Census).  Cartagena is the capital of the Bolívar state of Colombia.

While Cartagena and Salvador have similar colonial pasts, present day discourses of multiculturalism are quite distinct.  The political language of African descent culture is more dominant in Salvador than any other Brazilian city (Perry, 2013; Pinho 2008).  Residents of Salvador associate pride with African heritage while still appreciating the country’s multiethnic national discourse (Pinho, 2015).  However, many Cartagena residents who are physically representative of African-descended populations frequently identify as mulatto or mixed race despite having one of the highest African descent populations in the nation (Lasso, 2006; Streicker 1995).  Thus, I explore how social inequalities and skin color stratification in education are understood differently among youth in two cities with similar histories and economic inequalities, but with divergent discourses of racial difference.

Thus far, in Salvador, I’ve administered 338 surveys and conducted 40 interviews with high school seniors attending schools in working, middle, and upper class neighborhoods in order to obtain a variety of socioeconomic experiences. My research mentor here, who is a professor of psychology at the Universidade Federal da Bahia (UFBA), connected me with some of his graduate students who have either taught or done volunteer work at high schools throughout the city.  Additionally, I established contact with the principal of the private school in my sample through my host mother’s son, who is a former student.  Networking has been a huge contribution to my progress.  After I contact the high school principals or coordinators, I enter the schools, meet the staff, get a tour of the school, and either schedule the start date for data collection or immediately enter the classrooms to administer surveys (interviews come after I’ve spent more than one week in the schools, in order to build rapport with students).  For the most part the data collection process has been a more positive experience than challenging.  However, some of the challenges that I have experienced were not being allowed to collect data at a few private schools and having to reschedule data collection periods due to weekly school administrative strikes in all of the public schools in my sample.

There is absolutely no way that I could discuss the progress of my research without mentioning the current state of the country. Since I arrived, the nation has voted to impeach its first female president, multiple protests have erupted all over the country, the prices of oil and food products have drastically increased, and job loss and business closings are at an all time high.  This is all occurring in the midst of economic recovery from the 2014 World Cup and preparation for the 2016 Olympics.  On a positive note, I’ve been able to incorporate these topics into my interviews, which the participants have been more than willing and enthusiastic to discuss.  While many Brazilians with whom I’ve spoken, including those of various ages not participating in my study, have expressed feelings of discouragement, distrust, and demoralization, a remarkable number remain hopeful that their country will improve with time.  I end with an expression that I learned from one of the girls who participated in my study:  “A esperança é a última que morre” (Hope is the last to die).

Taken at Two of the Five Research SitesTaken at Two of the Five Research Sites




Perry, K-K. Y. (2013).  Black women against the land grab: The fight for racial justice in brazil. Minneapolis, MN: The University of Minnesota Press.

Pinho, P. (2015). Bahia is a closer africa: Brazilian slavery and heritage in african american roots tourism.  In African Heritage and Memories of Slavery in Brazil and the South Atlantic World. Cambria Press.

Pinho, P. (2008). African-American roots tourism in brazil. Latin American Perspectives, 35(3), 70-86.

Streicker, J. (1995). Policing boundaries: Race, class, and gender in Cartagena, Colombia. American Ethologist, 22, 54-74.

Telles, E. (2014). Pigmentocracies: Ethnicity, Race, and Color in Latin America.  Chapel Hill, North Carolina: University of North Carolina Press.


The contents of this blog do not necessarily reflect the views of the Center for Latin American Studies or the University of Chicago.

On the Current Brazilian Housing Program

By Marcella de Araujo Silva I  Visiting Brazilian PhD student at CLAS

In 2009, the Brazilian government announced the creation of a new housing program. After a three-decade gap in public policy, Minha Casa Minha Vida (My Home My Life) promised the greatest provision of housing funding for historically marginalized populations. Families whose monthly income was up to R$5000 (around US$1200) could finally apply for different types of grants according to their income brackets. They are three: bracket one comprising families whose incomes vary between R$0 and R$1600; bracket two, R$1601–R$3275; and bracket three, R$3275–R$5000. Bracket one is also known as the “social interest bracket” and subsidies go up to 95% of housing cost.

The social dimension of such a program is better understood if we take into account the depth of the Brazilian housing deficit. According to Fundação João Pinheiro’s national statistics, there is a lack of 7 million housing units nationwide. The numbers are even worse if we consider living standards such as urban infrastructure, house densification, inadequate shelter, inadequate landing, and bathroom-less houses. Ninety percent of the Brazilian housing deficit—either quantitative or qualitative—involves the poorest families whose meager earnings do not exceed R$1600 (approx. US$400) monthly (1).

Despite its undeniable social purpose, Minha Casa Minha Vida was also created with an economic goal. The program was conceived in the aftermath of the 2008 crisis as an anti-cyclical measure. On the one hand, the Brazilian government would finance building contractors, expanding the market and creating thousands of jobs. According to the president of Câmara Brasileira de Construção Civil (Brazilian Chamber of Building Construction), by November 2014, there were 500,000 workers whose jobs were on Minha Casa Minha Vida building sites (2). In addition, the federal government would help millions of poor families’ dreams of owning a house come true, as Banco do Brasil (Bank of Brazil) repeatedly advertised on television. Financing production and granting consumption was for at least four years the class-conciliation strategy of economic growth with social redistribution fostered by the Partido dos Trabalhadores’ (Workers Party). Minha Casa Minha Vida promptly became the second most important social policy in the country, right after Bolsa Família, the government’s poverty eradication program.

Minha Casa Minha Vida Popular.jpgMinha Casa Minha Vida popular condominium in Colônia Juliano Moreira, Jacarepaguá neighborhood, West Zone, Rio de Janeiro. Photo by Samantha Gifalli.

Notwithstanding, since its release, social movements and urban researchers have scrutinized Minha Casa Minha Vida’s apparent success. Even though the program addresses an old social demand, its mode of production, the form and physical quality of the new apartment buildings, and its territorial and social effects are objects of criticism (3).

Among architects and urban planners, Minha Casa Minha Vida’s most criticized aspect is its institutional framework. Enrollment varies according to income bracket. For brackets two and three, the dynamics are exactly the same as any regular real estate market. The negative outcomes are predictable. Since there is more credit, apartment prices increase enormously, sometimes making it nearly impossible for families to afford a new house. Since 2008, skyrocketed rents—97% higher in São Paulo and 144% in Rio—have pushed families from central areas towards more distant ones. For the social interest bracket, the enrollment procedure is two-fold: families might enroll themselves or they might be registered by social workers, according to maps of natural disaster risk areas. The outcomes are highly controversial and conflicting: depending on risk areas’ geographical limits, higher-income families unwilling to leave their houses for tiny apartments are registered, and extremely poor families who have lost shelter and belongings countless times are not.

Bypassing Ministério das Cidades’ (Ministry of Cities) intersectorial perspective of housing, sewage, and urban mobility programs, Minha Casa Minha Vida does not address sustainable urban infrastructure. For instance, in the metropolitan area of Rio de Janeiro alone, between 2010 and 2012, almost 100,000 apartments were built, most of them in areas with limited access to public transportation and bereft of urban and social facilities. Hence architects and urban planners perceive the program as a massive production of housing units, rather than urban planning.

Not only does the project consist of building great numbers of units, but it does so in highly concentrated spaces. In the city of Rio, 27,000 units are distributed among only 82 condominiums. Each of them is shaped as an enclave, with high security bars, controlled entrances, and inner recreational areas of poor quality—a housing type until now more common among upper classes gated communities. Once they are handed over to the new residents, they become private spaces, privately managed. The extra expenses caused by this privatization make the housing scheme unaffordable to social interest bracket families.

Finally, these popular condominiums are distributed across cities according to the income brackets they encompass. In Rio’s most valued areas—the South Zone, nearby downtown, and near North Zone—where urban land prices are higher, barely any Minha Casa Minha Vida housing can be found. However, in the West Zone, unfairly known as the hinterlands of the city, there is great concentration of low-income condominiums. Thus, two modes of segregation overlap: the center-periphery and the gated-community.

As we can see, the current Brazilian housing program is highly controversial and it poses important challenges to sociological inquiry. What roles do these apartments play in poor families’ economic strategies and housing trajectories? How are these popular condominiums inscribed in the urban fabric? What kind of city is under construction? Only good qualitative and ethnographic research can unfold these processes and shed light into how people are coping with their dilemmas.


(1) Fundação João Pinheiro (2012). Déficit habitacional no Brasil 2009 / Fundação João Pinheiro, Centro de Estatística e Informações. – Belo Horizonte.


(3) All recent publications on Minha Casa Minha Vida and other urban-related themes can be found on this website


Defeminizing Diplomacy

Defeminizing Diplomacy

Rogério de Souza Farias I Associate Member at CLAS (*)

“Diplomacy is essentially a feminine art”, wrote Brazilian feminist Elizabeth Bastos in February 1935 (1). She was an active participant in the defense of divorce, of the right to abortion and of the professional freedom for women. Working as a typist in the conservative Ministry of Foreign Affairs, she waged a particular war to open the diplomatic career for women.

Diplomatic history is currently a minor field in the discipline of history. It is usually associated with antiquated methods and démodé historiographical approaches. In the last decades, however, the area is undergoing internal criticism and renewal. Particularly important is how a new generation of students are bringing fresh and imaginative theoretical frameworks, sources and questions to the forefront of a renewed and vibrant area (2).

I see my research as a small contribution in this larger historiographical trend. Since I arrived at the University of Chicago as an Associate Member to CLAS, I have been studying not the substance of diplomatic history itself, but diplomats as a social group. They have a privileged standing between the dynamics of transnational cultural forces, international society and national politics. My main focus has been on Brazilian diplomats.

One particular aspect of this research agenda is the rise of the Brazilian female diplomat. Until 1918 the Brazilian Ministry of Foreign Affairs did not have a single female employee either at its headquarters in Rio de Janeiro or at any of its posts abroad; almost one hundred years later, they comprise less than 20% of the diplomatic career. Change in this field, therefore, occurred (and still happens) too late and too slow. Why?

We can answer this question by examining the origins of the diplomatic profession. Its tenets were shaped in Renaissance Italy, Louis XIV’s France and European 19th century courts. It was a male profession. But not for all. Only a privileged minority had any chance to be a part of it.

A diplomat was not just a representative of its home country abroad; he embodied the state itself. As a consequence, he behaved according to a set of ideas about what image should be portrayed to others. This was broadly defined by beliefs that placed a premium on manners, politeness, chivalry and protocol — all aspects influenced by European aristocratic values.

New Picture_1_0.png

Photo 1. A traditional diplomat, wearing fancy clothes in an ostentatious room, is told by the Minister of Foreign Affairs (Nilo Peçanha) that he needs to relinquish his posh possessions and start working in a commercial desk. This transition reinforced gender discrimination. O Malho. 1918.

   This had, however, critical consequences in terms of gender relations, as they carried with them anxiety about effeminacy in a male-dominated world. It was this aspect that Elizabeth Bastos and other feminists tried to explore in their quest to open the career to Brazilian women. Tactically, they accepted the idea of differences based on gender to argue that the diplomatic profession was associated with female values. A proper representative of the Brazilian state in international politics, in this opinion, had to be elegant, polite, and discrete; and also have tact, manners, astuteness, a keen eye to detail and a refined taste in clothes (3).

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Photo 2. Above (center): Maria José Mendes, the first women to sit for a Ministry of Foreign Affairs exam in 1918. She succeeded and was the only female among seventy-three employees. In the photo below the exam committee. Careta. 1918.

   What Bastos and other feminists failed to appreciate at that time was how the diplomatic profession was evolving away from those values. After the First World War, democracies around the world blamed traditional diplomacy for the crisis in international politics. Intellectuals started to use a new model of maleness. They portrayed the diplomat in a pattern of hegemonic masculinity to transcend the old diplomacy, now associated with female traits (4).

One writer, for example, criticized the “frivolity of a diplomatic life purely representational, ridden by vanities, capricious and affected attitudes” in order to defend a more business-oriented approach to foreign policy (5). Another lambasted a recruitment process privileging “elegance”, which resulted in hiring “brainless idiots with greasy hair and flashy gaiters” (6). Diplomats themselves worried about their images and strived to adopt a new model of manliness and refute the association with values considered feminines. Guerra Duval was one of them. He complained about diplomats being portrayed as “venerable old ladies with trousers” and also the compliments — like, “He is a perfect diplomat.  He is a gentlewoman!” (7)

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Photo 3. The diplomat Barros Moreira wearing a traditional diplomatic uniform. He was described as displaying a noble presence, having gestures of restrained grace and muttering gallant and soft words. It was this kind of professional that proponents of diplomatic reform criticized. Careta. 1910

   The route for defeminizing diplomacy was particularly associated with trade promotion. The profile of a perfect diplomat, therefore, was the blunt, pragmatic and practical businessman who worked hard and did not embrace European aristocratic values (8). Lofty and refined manners now morphed into a work ethic suited to the Darwinian struggle in international markets. In this new rhetoric, a gendered division of labor in diplomacy was reinforced.

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Photo 4. The Ministry of Foreign Affairs’ Commercial Services in 1929. It was the model for a new diplomacy, which would replace the traditional “effeminate” traits of the profession. In the center, a female typist. Revista Fon Fon.

   We live in a world with unprecedented equality in gender relations. But as this case demonstrates, the social construction of sexual difference can adapt and change in order to sustain discrimination.Today, there are no restrictions on female engagement in diplomacy in Brazil; the phase of tearing down the legal framework which entrenched gender discrimination is over. There is, nonetheless, the battle to change a discriminatory culture.


1- Elisabeth Bastos. A mulher na diplomacia. Jornal do Brasil. 1º de fevereiro de 1935.

2-Karl W. Schweizer and Matt J. Schumann, ‘The revitalization of diplomatic history: renewed reflections’, Diplomacy and Statecraft, v. 19, nº 2 (2008), 149-186; Stephen E. Pelz, ‘A taxonomy for American diplomatic history’, Journal of Interdisciplinary History, v. 19, nº 2 (1988), 259-276; Thomas W. Zeiler, ‘The diplomatic history bandwagon: a state of the field’, The Journal of American History, v. 95, nº 4 (2009), 1053-1073; Charles S. Maier, ‘Marking time: the historiography of international relations’ in: (ed), The Past before Us: Contemporary Historical Writing in the United States (New York: Cornell University Press, 1980), 355-387.

3-About the values associated to Brazilian diplomats until the First World War see Maria Helena Castro Azevedo, Um senhor modernista: biografia de Graça Aranha. (Rio de Janeiro: Academia Brasileira de Letras, 2002), 42; Gilberto Freire, Ordem e progresso [6ª edição]. (São Paulo: Global Editora, 2004), 584-585; Afonso Arinos De Melo Franco, A alma do tempo. Memórias (formação e mocidade). (Rio de Janeiro: José Olympio, 1961), 91-92.

4- Tim Carrigan, et al., ‘Toward a new sociology of masculinity’, Theory and society, v. 14, nº 5 (1985), 551-604; Robert W. Connell and James W. Messerschmidt, ‘Hegemonic masculinity rethinking the concept’, Gender & society, v. 19, nº 6 (2005), 829-859,

5- A obra econômica do Itamaraty. Crítica. 26 de setembro de 1929.

6- Ricardo Pinto. Falta capacidade. Crítica. 27 de agosto de 1929.

7- Adalberto Guerra Duval, ‘A diplomacia no Estado Novo’, Revista do Serviço Público, v. III, nº 3 (1938), 10-11, 10

8- É necessário ver com olhos brasileiros os problemas nacionais. A Noite. 11 de março de 1929; Diplomacia prática. Gazeta de Notícias. 7 de fevereiro de 1930; A reforma do Itamaraty. Correio da Manhã. 22 de outubro de 1938; O Itamarati e o acordo com a Grã-Bretanha. Correio da Manhã. 22 de março de 1950.

(*) I would like to acknowledge the corrections kindly made by Dain Borges. All errors remain my own.

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