Women against dictatorship – History item of the month

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Rato, Rita. Mulheres e resistência: Novas Cartas Portuguesas e outras lutas. Lisboa: Tinta da China, 2023.

When I had this book in my hands to be classified, I really didn’t know what to do. Whenever I’m not sure of where a book should go on the library shelves, as this is what classifying is (here we use the Dewey Decimal Classification) I have to dig deeper into its content, and that’s how I discovered the story of the so-called three Marias, who fought against dictatorship in Portugal only with their writing. In their case, their pen really was mightier than the sword.

Mulheres e resistência is a small book published by Tinta da China, a Lisbon-based press, whose new publications I periodically check because of the historical subjects they cover and also for the clever design of their books. This one is a catalogue for an exhibition held in 2021 at the Museu do Aljube Resistência e Liberdade in Lisbon about the female struggle against the Estado Novo, the corporatist Portuguese state inspired by conservative and autocratic ideologies installed in 1933 and ended on 25 April 1974, with the Carnation Revolution.

Even though the Library does not usually acquire exhibition catalogues, this one is particularly interesting as it includes some material that paints a full picture of the condition of Portuguese women during those years. As Teresa Pizarro Beleza put it, “the Woman doesn’t exist in the Estado Novo”. Women were subjected to the will of their fathers or husbands, could not own a passport without permission, could not exercise parental responsibility, could not divorce, and the State did not protect them with any law, even from domestic violence.

This book includes the reproduction of the Manifesto de Caxias, a set of letters addressed to democratic organisations around the world, sent by thirteen women imprisoned in Caxias Prison, in May 1961; the letters aimed to report the conditions of their incarceration and the torture to which they had been subjected. There are also profiles of women who challenged the Portuguese State and a comprehensive list of protests, strikes and other events led by women from 1936 to 1974.

Finally, the main focus of the exhibition and of the book is the story of Maria Teresa Horta, Maria Isabel Barreno, and Maria Velho da Costa, who, between 1969 and 1971 wrote novels and poems to expose the condition of women. Following these publications, they were threatened and, in the case of Maria Teresa Horta, beaten by three unknown man in the street. “If a small woman causes this much trouble, buzz and scandal”, said Maria Velho da Costa, “what would happen if there were three?”

This is how the Novas Carta Portuguesas were born. In October 1971 these three friends published a collection of poems, essays and letters exposing the discrimination of women. Novas Cartas Portuguesas was censored only three days after its publication, and the authors went under trial, while some copies managed to reach Simone de Beauvoir in France. Very soon, protests were organised around the world in solidarity with the “three Marias”, a documentary was produced and the book was translated in French, Italian and German.

I eventually classified Mulheres e resistência at 869.842, together with two books that I ordered afterwards: Barreno, Maria Isabel, Maria Teresa Horta, and Maria Velho da Costa. Novas cartas portuguesas: edição anotada. Edited by Ana Luísa Amaral. 3.a edição anotada (11.a edição do texto). Alfragide: Dom Quixote, 2017 and Freitas, Marinela, and Ana Luísa Amaral, eds. Novas cartas portuguesas: entre Portugal e o mundo. Alfragide: Dom Quixote, 2015.