Gender & Politics

I. Introduction

Initially, I set out to research the statehood movement and the opinions Puerto Ricans had about it. I came across several polls and a sociological study, which examined political preferences. These early findings provided the historical background to political preferences and exposed a lack of inquiry into the opinions of Puerto Rican women. The impact of gender on political preference seemed to be merely mentioned and not fully researched. My research question, then, shifted away from statehood and centered on the nature of Puerto Rican women’s role in politics.

How have Puerto Rican women been involved in politics and how has their involvement been discussed or minimized within Puerto Rican research/history?

As I explored this research question, I faced many obstacles. My first searches provided a lot of information on the birth control movement, which heavily critiqued the work of Puerto Rican feminists as being counterproductive and maintaining the masculinist nationalist status quo.  In addition, many scholars provided literary analyses, which were highly theoretical and not easily accessible to most readers. However, after thorough examination, the active and creative role of Puerto Rican women within political movements rose to the surface.

II. Empirical Findings/Historical Context



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III. Scholary Findings

The main areas of research, which focused on women’s role in politics were the birth control movement, New York settlements, literary analyses of Julia de Burgos and the Interwar Period, and the Young Lords Party. Some of these sources emphasized the role of Puerto Rican women within politics. Others criticized the dominant masculinist and nationalist narrative within Puerto Rican historiography and literature. All together, the sources examined in this project provided the historical, political, and cultural contexts which influenced Puerto Rican women’s involvement with political activism.

In the first area, the relationship between nationalism and the birth control movement, the birth control movement differed greatly between the mainland and the island.  On the island, Puerto Rican women were fighting for access to birth control while on the mainland, Puerto Rican women focused on what they perceived as sterilization abuse on the island.  Certain political groups framed the birth control movement in whichever way best fit their agenda.  On the island, conservatives opposed it and saw women’s reproduction as part of its nationalist project.  Puerto Rican feminists in the U.S. opposed sterilization and framed it as a form of genocide.  This movement was strongly examined and critiqued by scholars like Laura Briggs. She also determined that the popular claim of sterilization abuse as a form of genocide lacked evidence and victimized Puerto Rican women, which undermined Puerto Rican feminism on the island. Other scholars like Azize-Vargas and Nelson discussed the lack of access to safe abortions and quality reproductive health care. They examined the factors surrounding the disparity, which included race, class, and lack of education. Lastly Colon-Warren, Alegria-Ortega, and Nelson acknowledged the political movements led by women, which addressed these issues. These political movements included the Young Lords Party, Organizacion Puertorriqueña de la Mujer Trabajadora, and Taller Salud. Moreover, Puerto Rican women mobilized and lobbied for legal reform, which made them active political participants.


In the second area examined, settlements in New York City were sites where Puerto Rican women created grass root systems and networks of information. Following waves of migration of Puerto Ricans to the New York, ethnic enclaves arose.  Rodriguez, Korrol, and Alers investigated the ways Puerto Rican women acted as transnational links and preserved Puerto Rican culture. These authors analyzed data from the1925 Census and 75 oral interviews. Their study illuminated the significance of Puerto Rican women’s role in establishing community networks and the usage of interviews as data. However, the authors did not categorize the mobilization and creation of these networks as a form of political involvement. Gold added to their discussion by focusing on the New York City tenant movement in the 1960s and 1970s which coincided with the women’s liberation movement. She explored the contributions of the Young Lords and the racial and class differences among various political organizations of the time. Most importantly, Gold acknowledged women’s ability to mobilize despite these differences.

The third area of research looked at literary analyses of Julia de Burgos, a famous Puerto Rican nationalist poet.  She lived from 1914 to 1953.  She was an advocated for Puerto Rican independence.  She was an activist who fought for the rights of Afro Caribbean writers.  Two of these essays were comparative analyses of Julia de Burgos and other nationalist icons and poets. Arroyo provided a lot of information about the ways de Burgos and Lebron were represented within academia and the news. She gave a thorough political and historical background of each poet’s life and work. Arroyo effectively acknowledged the political contributions of these women and how they influenced Puerto Rican literature, history, and culture. However, she failed to critically examine traditional representations of women within literature which engaged nationalist agendas. Rangel, on the other hand, employed a Transatlantic reading of poetry by de Burgos and de Castro in order to frame a feminist critique of nationalist conceptions of authenticity and motherhood. She analyzed ways Puerto Rican women writers were represented and the political and historical contexts that influenced them. She examined de Burgo’s support for gender equality and multiracial identities. Perez-Rosario focused de Burgos’ contributions to the press through her work as the editor of Pueblos Hispanos. She observed that de Burgos educated Latino migrants and served as a transnational link. More formally, but in the same way as the women in the NYC settlements, de Burgos engaged in political activism through her writing. In addition, Rangle highlights class privilege due to the Spanish press catering to the middle class Hispanic bourgeoisie. Lastly, Feinsod analyzed the FBI’s interpretations and categorization of de Burgos’ poetry. The FBI deemed it politically subversive and terminated her federal employment. Feinsod does an effective job at critiquing the translations of her poetry which were rich in cultural lexicons of race and class, which the FBI missed. Therefore, his essay exposed the importance of cultural context to accurate translations of poetry.


The fourth area of examination explored another field of literary analysis, which investigated the Interwar Period. This period consisted of dominant narratives produced by historians and writers about Puerto Rican identity which reduced women to their reproductive function, erased women, and doubted women’s capacity to understand national issues. Martinez-San Miguel effectively provided female counternarratives which challenged these primarily white Hispanic male narratives. Her analysis examined the ways class and race intersected regarding perspectives about women’s autonomy over their body and sexuality. Jimenez-Munoz researched the poetic works of Colon Pellot and Puerto Rican historiography. She explored the intersection of race and gender and how Colon Pellot navigated multiple identities as a writer. For example, Jimenez-Munoz argued that Colon Pellot identified as a mulata despite being categorized as black by other authors at the time due to her desire to engage with a masculinist and racist national discourse which rendered white criollo intellectuals more legitimate sources. She also discussed the ways race impacted sexuality because mulatas were hypersexualized and pressured to control their sexuality. In addition, Jimenez-Munoz effectively critiqued Puerto Rican historiography and outlines its limits.

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The fifth area of research focused on the Young Lords Party, which was a radical and diverse political movement during the late 1960’s and early 1970’s.  The Young Lords emerged from Chicago and moved to NYC.  Members addressed issues faced by the Puerto Ricans and modeled their organization after the Black Panthers and the women’s liberation movement.  Certain scholars acknowledged the extensive role of women leadership within the organization while others minimize this great achievement. For example, Enck-Wanzer mentioned their anti-sexist ideology but did not discuss the history of its development. Scholars like Nelson, however, expand on the development which was led by female leaders after strategically gaining power to restructure the platform of the party. Moreover, female young lord members reclaimed the term machismo and reframed as revolutionary. Negron-Mutaner centered her analysis of the Young Lords on their style and performance through a masculine perspective of aesthetics, strategies, and symbols of power. For example, she deemed leather jackets and guns as masculine attributes, which were influenced by the Black Panther Party.

Employing this maculinist perspective minimized the triumph of female intervention, which allowed the movement to become radical and accepting towards multiple identities at its peak. She also effectively explored the pro-independence agenda which led to the party’s demise.

IV. Suggestions for further research

Many of the scholars reviewed in this research project suggested areas for improvement including gendered analyses of data and feminist critiques of literature, history, and politics. Some scholars also suggested further research into the intersection of gender, class, and race within Puerto Rican history and literature since women of color are largely ignored within these disciplines. Moreover, categorizations of what qualify as political activism need to be critically examined because it minimizes the important work of Puerto Rican women within New York City settlements and other communities. In addition, past and current feminist organizations need to be researched in further depth outside of the birth control movement to provide a broader perspective on the issues women have confronted. Only one article I found provided an extensive list and historical contributions of feminist movements from the 1930s-1990s.

Since my first searches were polls which had little response from Puerto Rican women, scholars did not aim to question this lack of response or participation.  More importantly, just because women do not respond to polls, it does not mean they do not have a politics. How can we improve these data collecting methods? Different ways of collecting data such as oral interviews or ethnographic research might be necessary to understand the diversity and complexity of Puerto Rican women’s participation within and opinions about politics.  Stories and research, which comes from Puerto Rican women themselves is crucial to gaining a better understanding of the issues they face.  How can scholars ensure Puerto Rican women’s diverse voices are heard? Intersectionality and national identity are necessary factors due to the diasporic nature of Puerto Rican experiences.  Scholars often ignore the impacts of race and gender on subjectivity.  In other words, the issues that affect Afro-Puerto Rican women are different from the issues faced by White Puerto Rican women.  Likewise, class is another factor, which raises new issues.  Poor Puerto Rican women face certain obstacles regardless of race, but race can compound issues due to poverty.  How can current feminist organizations provide scholars with information?  Scholars can explore what current feminist organizations are lobbying for which might provide more details into the political issues women are concerned about. Lastly, information that is accessible to working class Puerto Rican women is essential in order to educate a broader range of political activists. How can scholars work with feminist organizations to accomplish this?  Perhaps scholars can turn to feminist organizations and ask them what their opinions are.  Most scholars have not utilized information from current and past  feminist organizations to supplement their research.  A politically engaged scholarship might be more productive to addressing the issues of Puerto Rican women.

I interviewed a Puerto Rican woman as part of this research project.  I employed this method because I wanted to provide an example of how anthropologists and scholars can discuss Puerto Rican identity and issues with Puerto Rican women themselves.  In less than 10 minutes, Kim provided me with information about her identity, her thoughts on independence, political activism, and voting.  She identifies as an Afro-Caribbean Puerto Rican woman and she acknowledges how race has impacted her experiences and relationship to the island.  In addition, while Kim votes because she believes it is her right, she does not confide in the political system as a whole.  Kim also stated that she feels more politically represented in New York, where there are more Puerto Ricans politically involved.  She, also, discussed how the women in her life growing up were strong and inspired her to be vocal about issues.  Kim concluded by talking about how Puerto Rican women are limited by machismo and gender roles, which emphasize importance on family and marriage.  Kim, instead, encourages parents to influence their Puerto Rican daughters to aspire to be more and to counter dominant narratives about what Puerto Rican women are capable of or should do.

I believe this method can be used by scholars to address questions, which up until now remain barely answered.

Puerto Rican women are diverse. Puerto Rican women have thoughts and opinions.  Puerto Rican women vote and engage in activism.  All that is needed is for scholars to acknowledge them and include them in their own discourse.

Cynthia Rubi Cortes is a senior at Rutgers University.  She is a Latino and Hispanic Caribbean Studies and Cultural Anthropology double major.  She will graduate in 2016 and plans on attending graduate school for Public Policy.  Her dream is to create a non-profit organization that helps address issues such as domestic violence, poverty, and education within the Latin@ community.  She is Mexican and hopes to return to her homeland after she has made a difference in the U.S.


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