Women and the Cuban Revolution

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This article is part of Canvas’ International Women’s Week mini-issue.

In 1959, the 26th of July Movement (lead by Fidel Castro) successfully overthrew the American-sponsored Batista regime. Although the ‘woman question’ was never central to their revolutionary struggle, their accomplishments regarding gender equality are amongst their most impressive.[1] Under Fidel and Raúl Castro, women finally achieved the right to an education, a job, paid maternity leave, and abortion on demand. However, progress concerning the culture of machismo and the burden of domesticity has been less than convincing. Despite the sincere endeavours of Castro, oppression pervades ‘in almost every aspect of a Cuban woman’s life’.[2] The distinction between the casa (home) and the calle (street) persists, with the home considered the woman’s sphere, where she is responsible for nurturing her children and caring for her husband.

In the immediate aftermath of the Revolution, Fidel pledged that Cuba would become free of illiteracy. This campaign was a triumph for women, who constituted over half of the volunteers and ’55 percent of those who learned to read and write’.[3] It successfully challenged the prevailing gender norm that women “belonged” in their home. In 1953, one in five women could neither read nor write, and of all those over the age of twenty-five, only one in 100 had a university-level education.[4] As the most marginalised in pre-revolutionary society, women were the principal beneficiaries of the expansion of education. The transformation of the educational system was remarkable in scope, as well as content. The Cuban Revolution was determined to remove any underlying discrimination from the curriculum. For example, courses in woodwork and home economics were unified, with children taught identical skills regardless of gender expectations.[5]  A highly skilled workforce emerged of ‘previously home-bound women’. [6]Alongside the education overhaul, the Cuban Revolution initiated a transformation of healthcare and social services. Amendments to healthcare contributed to ‘improvements in women’s reproductive health’, including rural maternal facilities and a program of pap smears.[7] In control of their reproduction, Cuban women have the freedom to enter the labour force, defying expectations of motherhood and domesticity. Furthermore, services were implemented catering to the working mother, to encourage the pursuit of external employment. These included straightforward daycare centres and laundries, and the innovative Plan Jaba whereby working women were given ‘preferential treatment in grocery stores’.[8] The Revolution was committed to incorporating women into production, and as a result of Castro’s far-reaching policies, the female workforce more than doubled between 1960 and 1980.[9]

However, the entrance of women into the workforce alone ‘cannot give her equality’.[10] A broader transformation of society is required to combat gender discrimination and maschismo. It is more complicated than merely implementing legislation, for it ‘stems from the deepest part of Cuban culture’.[11] While the Cuban Revolution successfully encouraged women’s participation in the workforce and the public sphere, it manifestly failed to tackle such divisions within the home. Conscious of widespread gender discrimination, Castro introduced legislation to rebalance the pre-1959 tension between the casa and the calle. The Código de la Familia (Family Code) was implemented in 1975 and appealed for equal participation in domestic chores. However, the Family Code was interpreted as a ‘set of desirable objectives’ rather than ‘enforceable laws’, and it failed to improve family dynamics.[12] Women continue to bear the responsibilities of home; after finishing an eight-hour shift in formal employment, women are expected to fulfill the sobrecargo (second shift), consisting of domestic chores and child-rearing. As in many developmed and industrial countries, the integration of women into the workforce has not been accompanied with a ‘paradigm shift in the way men perceive their household responsibilities’.[13] A “triple-day” is all-too familiar for Cuban women, who are expected to participate in community and party activities atop their paid employment and domestic labour.

The Cuban Revolution’s accomplishments regarding women’s equality have been noteworthy; women can finally enjoy an education and training, reproductive rights, and employment opportunities. However, they have not been fully liberated from the constraints of household management and the perseverance of machismo. More must be done to confront the continuing belief that women “belong” in the home.

Article by Heather Lawless

[1] Lutjens, SL (1995). Reading Between the Lines: Women, the State, and Rectification in Cuba – Latin American Perspectives Vol. 22, No. 2. P. 102

[2] Bengelsdorf, C & Hageman, A (1978). Emerging from Underdevelopment: Women and Work in Cuba – Race Class Vol. 19, No. 4. P. 361

[3] Lopez-Vigil, M (2000). Cuban Women from Cuba: Neither Heaven Nor Hell. P. 151

[4] Bengelsdorf, C & Hageman, A (1978). Emerging from Underdevelopment. P. 366

[5] Randall, M (1975). “We Need a Government of Men and Women…!” Notes on the Second National Congress of the Federación de MujeresCubanos – Latin American Perspectives Vol. 2, No. 4. P. 116

[6] Bengelsdorf, C & Hageman, A (1978). Emerging from Underdevelopment. P. 367

[7] Lutjens, SL (1995). Reading Between the Lines. P. 105

[8] King, M (1977). Cuba’s Attack on Women’s Second Shift 1974-1976 – Latin American Perspectives Vol. 4, No. 1 / 2. P. 107

[9] Lopez-Vigil, M (2000). Cuban Women. P. 152

[10] King, M (1977). Cuba’s Attack on Women’s Second Shift. P. 113

[11] Lopez-Vigil, M (2000). Cuban Women. P. 148

[12] Pertierra, AC (2008). En Casa: Women and Households in Post-Soviet Cuba – Journal of Latin American Studies Vol. 40, No. 4. P. 749

[13] Facio, E. Roschelle, AR & Toro-Morn, MI (2002). Gender, Work, and Family in Cuba: The Challenges of the     Special Period – Journal of Developing Societies Vol. 18, No. 2 / 3. PP. 50-1