Columbia University and a Legacy of Chilean Feminists

March 06, 2021

By Claudia Heiss (GSAS’03), Head of Political Science of the Institute of Public Affairs at Universidad de Chile

The feminist movement in Chile reached one of its greatest advances with the approval in March 2020 of a parity rule for the Constitutional Convention that will draft the country’s new Constitution in 2021-2022. For the first time, there will be an official representative body composed of men and women in a proportion similar to Chile's demographic reality. The Congress currently in place, elected in 2017 using for the first time a gender quota, is composed of 23% women, a great improvement in descriptive gender representation compared to the previous legislature with only 15% of women.

Chile arrived relatively late to a regional and global trend of electoral gender quotas meant to reduce the representation gap between men and women. This gap results from long-established barriers to equitable access of women to positions of political power, including in this case a powerful elite more socially conservative than most of its population. In spite of this backwardness, however, the country has been an important source of feminist thought and symbolic struggles for gender equality.  The women’s movement against the Pinochet dictatorship during the 1980s was one such high point, a well-organized and ideologically broad structure that contributed to weaken the military regime. Julieta Kirkwood, a sociologist and forerunner of gender studies, provided substantive conceptual contents and triggered a new wave of Chilean feminism.

Before the intellectual and political feminist movement in the 1980s, women had begun to organize in the 19th century demanding social, economic and political rights. In addition, many fought to promote educational reforms to democratize access and improve quality. By the 1890s, the first female-led labor unions emerged and women began to access higher education. Eloisa Díaz graduated in 1887 from Universidad de Chile as the first medical doctor in the country, while Amanda Labarca, also from Universidad de Chile and later from Teachers College at Columbia, became an important promoter of equality in education in the advent of the 20th century.

Chilean women obtained the right to vote in municipal elections in 1934 but had to wait until 1949 to go to the polls in legislative and presidential elections. Some early champions of women’s rights managed to reach the most prestigious universities around the world. Columbia University became, for many such Chilean precursors of women’s rights, a gateway to accessing new horizons and expanding their political agenda, both through their initiative and political activism.

Amanda Labarca went to Teachers College (TC) in 1910 and then to the Sorbonne in France in 1912. Back in Chile, as a member of the Radical Party, she contributed to passing legislation to improve women’s civil, political, and legal rights. She also helped create the experimental lyceum Manuel de Salas to train future teachers. She founded the National Committee for Women’s Rights in 1933, and was appointed ambassador to the UN in 1946.

Corina Vargas graduated as an English teacher in 1920 at Universidad de Concepción. In 1924, she studied a three-year program in experimental psychology at Columbia University. In order to promote studies abroad, she contributed to the founding of the Chilean North-American Institute. In 1944 she was appointed Dean of the School of Literature and Philosophy at Universidad de Concepción, the first woman to become a University Dean in Latin America.

Irma Salas-Silva graduated from Universidad de Chile as an English teacher in 1924. She then became the first Chilean woman to earn a Ph.D. in education, after graduating from TC in 1930. Upon her return to Chile, she became director of the lyceum Manuel de Salas until 1943. She is best known for expanding higher education throughout the country, outside the area of Santiago. She worked with Amanda Labarca in the promotion of female access to higher education.

Ana Figueroa, another graduate from Universidad de Chile, studied TC in 1946. She is renowned as an educator, feminist, political activist, and government official. She worked as a teacher, was a general supervisor of the Chilean high school system and fought for universal suffrage, among other causes. As representative of Chile to the United Nations, she was the first woman to occupy several offices at the General Assembly, the Security Council and the International Labor Organization.

Olga Poblete, a teacher from Universidad de Chile, obtained an M.A. in Education from Columbia. Back in Chile, she created the Movement for Peace and the Movement for the Emancipation of Women in 1948.

Erika Himmel, a mathematics teacher from Universidad de Chile, obtained an M.A. from Columbia University in 1959, studying measurement and evaluation in psychology and education. Back in Chile, she introduced the first standardized test for selection to higher education, became a Dean and was awarded the National Prize in Education Sciences in 2011. She was named a Distinguished Alumni of TC in 2013, and she passed away last year.

Ximena Bunster, a teacher, anthropologist and feminist, became one of the first female anthropologists in the country and the first Latin American woman to win a Fulbright scholarship for graduate studies at Columbia. She obtained a Ph.D. at Columbia in 1968 with a thesis focused on the Mapuche culture, a subject she later taught at Oxford University. After the military coup in 1973, she returned to the United States as a professor.

Delia Vergara, a journalist from Universidad de Chile, obtained an M.A. in Communications at the Columbia Journalism School. She helped to create and directed the women’s magazine “Paula,” an innovative publication which positioned her as pioneer of feminist journalism. The magazine addressed such avant-garde topics as the contraceptive pill, abortion, and women in the workplace.

These eight Chilean women struggled against stereotypes and found in higher education a way to open new venues for themselves and for other women. The opportunity to study at Columbia University further enhanced their access to social esteem and positions of power required to advance the ambitious projects they carried out. In the face of Chile´s constitution-making process, this example reminds our future constituents of the importance of presence and power to advance rights and gain access to effective, not merely formal, freedom.