Elevate Difference

Women Build the Welfare State: Performing Charity and Creating Rights in Argentina, 1880-1955

Donna J. Guy is a distinguished Argentinean historian, and her book on women’s role in the welfare state (1880-1955) could not be timelier. In the past decades, human rights have often been thwarted in Argentina, producing the need for a reevaluation of women’s rights in South America. Women Build the Welfare State offers some tools to understand the movements that developed in contemporary Argentina by explaining the context and traditions that existed there.

In recent Argentine history, women played key roles in the demand for rights. Startling cases of systemic abuse are prevalent in the country; for example, the country’s “disappeared” and the adoption scandals stemming from the 1976 military coup and ensuing Dirty War Period. In the former, around 30,000 citizens were “disappeared” as suspected political activists in one of the deadliest sweeps in the Argentinean history of bloody dictatorships. In the latter—and as a consequence of the former—pro-government couples adopted around 500 infants born of imprisoned activist women. The Official Story, a film fictionalizing one woman’s discovery of one such adoption, won an Oscar for Best Foreign Film in 1985. 

Among key groups of demonstrators against the country’s egregious crimes were famous women’s groups including Mothers of the Plaza de Mayo and the Grandmothers, some of the same mothers of these desaparecidos who began to search for their illegally adopted grandchildren. Eighty-eight children, now in their thirties, have been identified thus far. The development of these women’s movements is extensively studied; however, the context for the emergence of the activities is not.

Guy's study thus fills this vacuum by returning to the last century and the history of orphans and mothers. Although her title limits the study to 1880, Guy brings readers back to Argentina’s 1816 independence in order to construct the different movements and women’s involvement in these. She successfully synthesizes the historic, popular, and academic debates surrounding charity, welfare, women, social class, and children’s rights in Argentina. Guy claims to be taking a “child-centered gendered approach,” but the study can only be one of women’s history of rights since, as she demonstrates, women were the primary actors in the establishment of the philanthropic movement of that epoch.

Perhaps because of my academic background in women’s studies, Guy’s use of the original expression “performance of charity” was a bit disconcerting. The term “performance” at its most basic is something “acted” and not necessarily lived. Its most complex connotation is that of Judith Butler’s theory of socially constructed gender roles. Both definitions could seem to weaken Guy’s argument about the stake that women had in the charitable work and could imply, following a Butlerian analysis, that women only had this vocation because it was considered a “feminine” endeavor. My confusion about her use of this term came to its zenith when Guy analyzed Evita Peron’s “performance of charity” since Guy seems to stress the pictorial nature of her philanthropy. Was Evita doing “good” for political advancement or was her social engagement founded in true charitable values? This has been a long-standing historical debate of Perón’s ambiguous role in her (husband’s) political success.

Sidestepping these important questions, Guy defines her expression as one of women’s empowerment because of women’s “accrual of social status and community recognition, along with an opportunity to perform good works outside the home.” While reading, I had to constantly remind myself of Guy’s definition. More shocking to me was the use of the term “retarded” by the author, one I (mistakenly) thought had been banned forevermore from scholarly writing.

Nevertheless, one can only admire the amount of research that went into synthesizing the enormous quantity of data and testimonials that Guy includes in her excellent historical study. She incorporates an analysis of both religious and secular charitable organizations, including notable Jewish and Catholic associations. Although her study centers on Buenos Aires (where most of the organizations were based), she makes every effort to include data from the provinces. Guy’s study is a noteworthy contribution to the field of women’s studies and history in Latin America.

Written by: Sophie M. Lavoie, July 6th 2009

Thanks for a superb review, Sophie, of this book that I'll surely get. Donna's other book about prostitution and sexual networking has pride of place in my extensive collection of works about such, and that work, was extremely well researched and just as well written.

Donna, point taken regarding the use of offensive terms, which is an extremely difficult lesson to get across to students today, without appearing to "excuse" them just because they'd been used "long ago" (say, 1985 . . . ).

I look forward to reading your book, thanks due to Sophie's fine review.


Sophie, Loved your review. BTW, I use retarded because those were the words used by the institutions--they do not reflect my own views, and that is the way all historical writers should approach their sources. That way, the use of the language is even more shocking!