Culture

Herstory: 12 Brazilian Women Who Changed the Course of History

Lead Photo: Art by Stephany Torres for Remezcla
Art by Stephany Torres for Remezcla

Latinas in the U.S. come from a long line of influential, barrier-breaking, rebel Latin American women. Through Remezcla’s Herstory series, we introduce readers to the women warriors and pioneers whose legacies we carry on.

In Brazil, centuries-old historical figures continue to make headlines today. Last year, controversy erupted when two important Black women from the colonial era — Dandara and Luisa Mahin — were inscribed in the Book of Heroes, a national list that commemorates historical figures. The debate centered on the veracity of their existence but opened up discussions on Black representation in Brazilian history, the state’s debt to millions for slavery and genocide and much-needed efforts to rescue stories lost to obscurity.

A quick sweep through Brazil’s recorded history will reveal a dearth of information on women of color, particularly Indigenous women. Much more scholarship is needed to reconstruct the biographies of Indigenous and Black women and their contributions. The impact these histories have today shows why these stories matter. Afro-Brazilian leaders, such as the politician Érica Malunguinho, have learned from the resistance of quilombos, settlements of runaway enslaved Africans, and quilombo warriors such as Dandara to build radical political movements and spaces.

In this installment of the Herstory series, we recount stories of Brazilian women who were warriors, activists, spiritual priestesses, educators, artists and politicians. These are women that, despite the hostile political climate of the current presidency, continue to live on through the people that remember and find inspiration in them today.

1

Dandara

Dandara is a controversial figure in Brazil. She is said to have been a fierce capoeira warrior in Quilombo dos Palmares, the largest settlement of runaway enslaved Africans in Brazil that at one point reached 11,000 inhabitants and endured for 100 years until its demise in 1695. According to legend, she was the wife of Zumbi Dos Palmares, the last king of the quilombo. But Dandara’s inclusion last year in the Book of Heroes, a list of historical figures commemorated in a large cenotaph in Brasilia, received backlash from some historians who argued Dandara was a fictional character. Others defended her existence, alleging historians had yet to seriously analyze oral stories that spoke of Dandara.

2

Madalena Caramuru

Madalena Caramaru, the daughter of a Portuguese trader and an Indigenous Tupinambás woman, became the first literate woman in Brazil. Caramaru learned to read and write with the instruction of either her father or husband. Letters she later wrote to the regional Catholic missionary, Father Manuel de Nóbrega, urged the Church to abandon its maltreatment of Indigenous children and to support educational access for women. These petitions, although well-received by the Father, were ultimately denied by the Portuguese royalty.

3

Maria Quitéria de Jesus

Born in 1792, Quitéria never attended school, but she learned to ride horses, hunt and operate firearms in the Bahia farm where she grew up. These skills would later prove useful when she joined pro-revolutionary troops in 1822. She cut her hair and dressed herself in men’s clothes to hide her real identity. Her higher-ups eventually discovered her secret, but they permitted her to stay in the army due to her strength and skills as a fighter. In 1823, she rose to the rank of cadet and then to lieutenant. The Brazilian government recognized her bravery in 1996 when she was proclaimed an army patron.

4

Maria Firmina dos Reis

Almost 30 years before slavery was banned in 1888, the Afro-Brazilian author Maria Firmina dos Reis wrote the first abolitionist novel, Ursula. A clear-eyed depiction of life under slavery, the novel is written from the perspective of a young African girl who is kidnapped from her hometown and subjected to a lifetime of cruelty. Ursula is also considered the first novel written by a Brazilian woman. Born to a free African man and a white woman, Firmina published critical essays, poems, short stories and abolitionist songs. She also founded the first free and racially mixed school in Brazil before the abolition of slavery.

5

Iyá Nassô

In the 1830s, Iyá Nassô, a freed African slave, co-founded the first temple devoted to the Afro-Brazilian spiritual tradition of Candomblé. The house of worship known as Casa Branca do Engenho Velho would help spread Candomblé throughout Brazil as priestesses initiated there opened their own temples. It is believed that Nassô and her fellow co-founders Iyá Adetá and Iyá Acalá were priestesses from the towns of Ketu and Oyo, located in present-day Nigeria. Not much is known about her life. Some research indicates Nassô eventually returned to Africa to research the cult of Orishas, while others say she fled persecution from the Malê slave revolt, in which her son was implicated. More than 150 years later, the Candomblé house still stands in Salvador, Bahia.

6

Bertha Lutz

The daughter of a Swiss-Brazilian physician and a British nurse, Bertha Lutz became a pioneer of the women’s suffrage movement in Brazil. Her feminist manifesto published in Revista da Semana in 1918 is credited with prompting a rise in women’s rights organizations, mostly comprised of literate, white women. She founded the Brazilian Federation for the Advancement of Women in 1922, which helped to secure women’s right to vote in a decade. Still, women’s suffrage was restricted by the same literacy tests men were subjected to. 

7

Laudelina de Campos Melo

A housekeeper since the age of seven, Laudelina de Campos Melo knew firsthand the abuses domestic workers faced and founded the first association of domestic workers in Brazil in 1936. During these years, she was also active in the Communist Party and the Black Brazilian Front, the largest federation of Black rights organizations in Brazil. In the 1970s, her activism helped domestic workers win the right to a work permit and social security.

8

Taís Araújo

When Black representation on mainstream Brazilian television remained slim, Taís Araújo played the first Black woman protagonist in a telenovela in 1996. The 231-episode series told the story of Xica Silva, an enslaved African who became one of the wealthiest women in the region because of her relationship with a Portuguese knight. She went on to play various leading roles, including one that made her the first Black woman to star in a primetime telenovela. 

9

Dilma Rousseff

Decades before Dilma Rousseff became Brazil’s first woman president, the young militant joined urban Marxist guerrilla groups that rebelled against the military dictatorship that took over after the 1964 coup d’etat. She was eventually captured, tortured and served three years in prison for her guerrilla activities. When she was released, Rousseff dedicated herself to politics, reorganizing the Brazilian Labor Party. After serving in various presidential cabinets, she held the presidency in 2011 until she was impeached in 2016 on charges of criminal administrative misconduct and disregard for the federal budget. 

10

Maria da Penha

Maria da Penha, a womens’ rights activist, helped to pass a law that increased punishments for domestic abuse offenders, created specialized courts for these crimes and opened 24-hour shelters for survivors. Her activism stems from the two homicide attempts she suffered that left her paraplegic. Her ex-husband, the culprit in the attacks, eluded prison for more than 19 years due to systemic faults in the judicial systems that favored the perpetrators in domestic abuse cases. He ultimately served one year in jail. Da Penha took her case to the Inter-American Commission on Human Rights, which ruled in her favor. In 2006, the Maria da Penha law passed.

11

Marielle Franco

A Black, bisexual woman raised in Rio de Janeiro’s Maré favela, Marielle Franco campaigned against gender violence, police brutality, militarization and for reproductive rights as an activist and city council member. She was killed by unknown assailants in March 2018 in an attack that prompted mass protests throughout Brazil and the world. It’s believed her homicide could be linked to her work denouncing police violence in the favelas and paramilitary groups made up of retired and off-duty police. Two former police officers were arrested last year in connection to her murder and five people — including two police officers — were accused of obstruction to justice.

12

Érica Malunguinho

Érica Malunguinho is the first transgender politician to be elected in state congress. Born in Recife in 1981, Malunguinho moved to São Paulo at the age of 19 and started to transition. She immersed herself in arts, culture and politics, eventually opening up a cultural center she called an urban quilombo in reference to the Black freetowns created during slavery. When Marielle Franco was assassinated, Malunguinho, then a well-regarded Afro-Brazilian and LGBTQ leader, decided to run for state congress as a member of the Socialism and Liberty Party, the political party that Franco represented.