On the centenary of Evita’s birth, Jill Hedges revisits the remarkable life of the most controversial woman in Argentinean history. From theatre stages to Casa Rosada, Evita contributed enormously to shaping women’s political and public roles, becoming a figure still widely esteemed by the current generation of female politicians and activists. Read on for a timely insight into her legacy.
On 7 May 2019 María Eva Duarte de Perón, better known as Eva Perón or just Evita, would have turned 100 years old. Although she has been dead for nearly 67 of those years, she remains a strong presence in Argentina – still widely loved and hated (although perhaps less hated as memories fade and her international fame flatters many of her compatriots), still an icon of beauty and fashion as well as activism, still in many ways a blueprint for the woman in politics, and still, for better or worse, a tourist attraction.
While Evita’s public life can be something of an object lesson in the perils of untrammelled power and its sometimes arbitrary and capricious use, she also remains relevant today in many other ways. Her ubiquitous image still appears on posters, buildings, banknotes and political propaganda (opposition to the present conservative president, Mauricio Macri, is often boiled down to the slogan “Evita or Macri”), as well as the face of the #niunamenos (not one woman less) campaign against femicide and violence against women that claims hundreds of lives a year. That frequent use is of course self-interested on the part of those co-opting the image, but it is notable that her image still carries such weight so long after her death, in particular as someone who fought for women’s rights – if not as a feminist in the more familiar sense, as someone who herself said “I demanded more rights for women, because I know what women had to put up with”.
Evita knew that better than most. By the norms of her time, she was not supposed to be anybody. When she was born in the environs of Los Toldos, an isolated village in the Pampas in 1919, she was illegitimate, poor and female – any one of which alone was a significant handicap. With a determined, energetic mother who raised five children alone and was determined to see them advance socially and economically (in which she was remarkably successful), Eva had ambition but few examples to guide it, as well as the innate obstacles of her gender and social position. The fact that she attained considerable success as an actress, despite being no more talented or beautiful than many others, is a tribute to her persistence but did nothing to improve her standing in the eyes of society, which viewed most actresses as promiscuous and vulgarly attention-seeking.
Yet however ambitious she was, she could never have imagined herself married to Argentina’s most powerful man, Juan Domingo Perón, or becoming first lady of the land. Yet she did, and with no previous example to look to for inspiration – Argentine first ladies had hitherto been unimpeachably respectable and occupied only a minimal public role – she would reinvent the role and become a one-woman social action force. Although she was not the real instigator of women’s suffrage – middle-class feminists, often socialists and among Argentina’s then few professional women – she would adopt the issue as her own and would give it a relevance for her admirers that it had previously lacked. She not only came from a class they could identify with, but she had given form to the concept of a woman’s political role – one that, admittedly, focused on supporting a man (Perón), but one that saw the formation of the Peronist Women’s Party, the establishment of local offices to provide both political education and organisation, on the one hand, and broader education and services, on the other. By 1951, there would be 3,600 such offices across the country, 3.8 million women voted, and 29 entered Congress for the Peronist party. One of them would later note that Evita ‘introduced women to politics, … elevated their role as mothers and wives to political life on a par with men’.
At the same time, the Eva Perón Foundation, run more or less single-handed by its eponymous leader, built hundreds of schools, hospitals and low-cost housing projects across the country, distributed millions of dollars in social aid and founded a nursing school to expand and professionalise the field. Eva was often accused of undertaking these activities unsystematically and wastefully, but she carefully consulted doctors and nurses concerning what was needed in hospitals and in training (including British-trained nurses at the British Hospital, to ensure that the standards being set were the best they could be). If the Foundation’s activities were sometimes scattershot and inefficient, arguably the greatest waste was committed by the military government that overthrew Perón in 1955 and undertook to destroy much of the infrastructure it had left in place.
With her many virtues and defects, Evita remains relevant as a political woman who wielded enormous power and at times did so with a shrewd sense of how to improve lives and a passionate belief in the need to do so. She is also still relevant because she is seen to be so by the current generation of politicians – a figure still regarded by many as the only political leader who has genuinely cared about the poorest and most vulnerable. That mantle is one that many would like to inherit, not least coming up to elections against an incumbent whose economic record has thus far been marred by recession and a new uptick in poverty. In this respect, 100 years after Evita’s birth, there is still a long way to go.
Jill Hedges is Deputy Director of Analysis at Oxford Analytica and Senior Analyst for Latin America since 2001. She holds a PhD and MA in Latin American Studies from the University of Liverpool, specialising in Argentine politics. Her books Argentina: A Modern History and Evita: The Life of Eva Perón were published by I.B. Tauris in July 2011 and October 2016.