San José, Costa Rica, since 1956

When Women Won the Right to Vote

MARCH 8 is International Women’s Day.Costa Rica’s women didn’t get to vote in a national electionuntil 1953, but that doesn’t mean they were slow in agitating fortheir rights – or that they won them easily.The night of Aug. 2, 1947, is still remembered by many. Earlierthat day, 8,000 women dressed in black marched to the CasaPresidencial to petition their right to vote. There, they decided torally at the Parque Nacional, and stay all night if necessary, untiltheir demands were met. But at 11:30 p.m. the lights in the areawere turned off, creating panic. In the dark, police started shootingin the air; they caused no injuries but scattered the women – andstrengthened their resolve.Although some election reforms were discussed and passed inthe Assembly the next day, they did not favor the women. The early1940s was an era of social turmoil, and a national work stoppage,la huelga de brazos caídos (“the strike of lowered arms”), was followedby government oppression that did not stop people from agitatingfor reforms.IN 1948, the national election was annulled, and a civil warensued. It wasn’t until June 1949, more than a year after the civilwar, that the interim government headed by Pepe Figueresapproved a change in election laws allowing women to vote in thenext national election.A few women got a taste of the ballot box earlier. On July 30,1950, 349 women in the districts of La Fortuna and La Tigra, in theNorthern Zone, voted in a referendum to separate from the cantonof San Ramón and form the canton of San Carlos. They were thefirst of their sex to vote in Costa Rica.FOR the 1953 special election, women organized to sign upother women for cédulas, or identity cards, so that they could vote.Sister Miriam Keith, whose mother and aunt had participated inmarches for women’s rights, was a teenager at the time and wentwith a neighbor to the Cooperativo Victoria in Grecia.“This was in the summer of ‘49 or ‘50. The women were waitingin a line when we got there,” she reported. “But some were concernedabout what their husbands would say. One woman said herhusband told her only prostitutes had cédulas.”FORMER ambassador to Israel and Minister of Culture,Carmen Naranjo, was another teenager who helped get out thevote, passing out literature door to door.“Some people laughed at us,” she recalled. “Others were sympathetic,but nobody insulted us. At the time, some people felt itwas giving men two votes because the women would vote the waytheir husbands told them, like an order. But that didn’t happen. Yousaw cars with one party flag on the driver’s side and a differentparty flag on the passenger side.”According to Naranjo, women accompanied each other to thepolls, where there were women poll watchers. No record exists ofhow many women voted; breakdowns by sex were not recordeduntil 1986.THERE have always been outspoken women in Costa Rica’shistory. Pancha Carrasco’s use of a flintlock rifle in the campaignof 1856 helped Tico troops win the battle of Rivas, and womentook to the street to protest strongman General Morazán’s rule inthe 1840s. In the 1890s, women’s organizations were active inclaiming the right to elect – not an easy task, given the small andscattered population. President José Joaquín Rodríguez promotedthe voto feminino (women’s vote), but it wasn’t taken seriously.In 1917, deputy Álvaro Quirós proposed that a woman “over21, known to be honest, (who) had finished grade school or hadmeans of ¢3,000 or more, or (who) was a widow with at least fivechildren, be given the vote.” Of 36 deputies, 20 voted against it.By the 1920s, organizations led by educator and author Dr.Emma Gamboa, Costa Rica’s first woman lawyer, Ángela AcuñaBrown, and political activist and author Carmen Lyra activelysought the vote with marches, rallies, pamphlets and speeches thatwere not popular with the press.One cartoon showed a woman sitting and reading while herhusband tried to manage a pair of neglected children. A conservativegroup claimed “political participation was a symbol of thedegradation of the appropriate attributes of women,” and anotherwrote “the home is the exclusive space for women and (they)should be happy with domesticity.” Presidential candidate for1924, Jorge Volio, proposed female suffrage but lost the election.Even winning the vote did not guarantee equality for women,said Naranjo. When she became Minister of Culture in 1974, shewas only the third woman in government.“That’s why we needed the law for equality for women,” she said.

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