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Women's Organizations and Imperial Ideology under the Estado Novo.

One of the major concerns of Salazar's Estado Novo in Portugal, after the institutionalization of the regime by the Constitution of 1933, and the creation in the same year of the political police (PVDE), the Secretariat for National Propaganda (SPN) and the first structures of the corporative system, was the desire to organize sections of the population by age and sex.

In 1936, therefore, during a period of fascist recrudescence related to the beginning of the Spanish Civil War, a paramilitary militia, the so-called Portuguese Legion (LP), and women's and youth organizations were created: Obra das Maes pela Educacao Nacional (OMEN), Mocidade Portuguesa (MP), and Mocidade Portuguesa Feminina (MPF).


OMEN was established by the education minister, Carneiro Pacheco, with the express intention of bringing together Portuguese women in order to 'congregar as mulheres portugues[as]', to 'estimular a accao educativa da famylia', 'assegurar a cooperacao entre esta e a Escola', 'preparar melhor as geracoes femininas para os seus futuros deveres maternais, domesticos e sociais', and 'contribuir de todas as formas para a plena realizacao da educacao nacionalista da juventude portuguesa'. (1)

In line with the regime's policies on national regeneration, the responsibilities of women's organizations fell into four main areas of intervention: a programme of 'social action' sought the education of mothers in the domestic sphere in matters concerning motherhood and child rearing; a programme of 'maternal action' was designed to promote conception through the propaganda of 'mother's weeks' and the award of prizes for large families, but was equally concerned with the more practical task of assisting in home births and reducing infant mortality; the promotion of formal learning by the creation of incentives for school attendance, such as the setting up of school canteens; and the education of young girls through the Mocidade Portuguesa Feminina.

OMEN lasted some time but was not very efficient. In fact, it was characterized by indecision, mainly because its functions were ill defined. Some among the regime's supporters felt that it should be restricted to charity work, while the leaders of various women organizations never considered OMEN as a social instrument for national education.

The first directorate of OMEN, initially headed by Isabel d'Albignac Bandeira de Melo (Countess of Rilvas), included women from different groups of the small female elite of the regime. The first group was formed by mothers from the aristocracy and by upper-class women, who were actively involved in Catholic associations providing charity. A second group included the wives and female relatives of the men from the regime, thus transforming the organization into a female parallel to the regime. A third group was formed by graduate women. Many of these were young leaders of the women's organization Accao Catolica.

None of the initial aims of OMEN were ever achieved. Most disappointing was the failure to revive the nation through female re-education. Instead of transforming the attitudes of women and their families, it was only able to reach some of them through a few domestic classes and propaganda sessions on the need for larger families and charity events.

There were other failed objectives: co-operation in the education and assistance of poor women and their children; removing working class women from the labour market; contributing to the maintenance of the high birth rate within marriage, and the reduction of child mortality and illegitimate births.

In fact, the network of nursery schools was never created, there were few canteens and courses of hygiene and childcare were replaced by those on morals and religion. And working-class women did not entirely return to the home.

By itself the reduction of infant mortality cannot be related to the incentive provided by the award of a few prizes for large families, but the general improvement in living conditions during the 1950s. On the other hand, during this same period a reduction in the birth rate was also observed, which reveals the lack of success of birth rate propaganda promoted by the Obra das Maes organization.

However, OMEN continued to play a political role. Created by the Minister of Education, the organization had other goals: to form and organize the female elite of the Estado Novo; to benefit from the skills of some women, relatives of the regime's elite, to neutralize the actions of other women's associations; and partially to remove women and youth organizations and the education monopoly from the church, without open hostility.

Like other instruments of the regime, OMEN had a role in the promotion of nationalist ideology and Christian religion and morality among women. Being a potential rival of the Catholic church, OMEN was nevertheless able to maintain a friendly rivalry. Besides, they shared some of the same leaders.

Regarding its relations with the family, it aspired to educationally interfere, ideologically penetrate and to enjoy effective social and moral control. However, the results of its actions were negligible. OMEN was only able to reach a small number of mothers, to practice an elitist and moralistic charity, and to occupy some ladies of the aristocracy and the wives of state leaders. Eventually, the lack of any effective family assistance was seen as reflecting the Estado Novo's antipathy to a welfare state.

In the 1950s OMEN was discontented with the modernization, industrialization and urbanization of the country and turned its attention to rural areas, which were considered the only places representing its model of society. Instead of being the proclaimed national and educational organization, it only operated in some rural areas, providing courses on family education that were not very different from those of private charities. Even its leadership was changing. From the 1960s, its leaders were exclusively professional social and family educators, badly paid and not highly regarded in society.


After the foundation of Obra das Maes and Mocidade Portuguesa (MP), Carneiro Pacheco approved the written constitution of Mocidade Portuguesa Feminina (MPF) in December 1937. Initially it was subordinate to OMEN. While military instruction was one of the major concerns of the Mocidade Portuguesa, the MPF were expected to 'ter em conta as circunstancias especiais de sexo'. (2)

The MPF, with its leadership staffed by women, proposed to educate girls through 'educacao moral, cyvica, fysica e social'. (3) As the education minister would say, 'a cada um o seu lugar'. (4) Youth organizations were also segregated by sex in this way. Young girls were therefore circumscribed in a female world, apart from a brief period during childhood. The MF made explicit the different natures of the two organizations, female and male:

A Mocidade Portuguesa Feminina nasceu do mesmo grande pensamento patrio tico que criou a Mocidade Portuguesa masculina; mas, sendo irmas sao diferentes; cada uma destas organizacoes tem as suas finalidades. [...] enquanto a MP adestra na sua instrucao pre-militar defensores para a Patria, [...] prepara com a sua educacao polytica e social colaboradores activos dos homens do Estado, a MPF habilita-se para prestar a sua colaboracao dentro do lar, da famylia que o seu amor, o seu trabalho e o seu espyrito cristao tornarao a base so lida do Estado Novo. (5)

As its charter of 1937 stipulated, the MPF was intended to include the youth of the entire empire, from ages seven to fourteen. However, the MPF was only established in the Portuguese colonies in 1961, and only in urban centres provided with primary and secondary schools.

Besides demanding subscription and attendance at their activities by all girls of primary and secondary level, the MPF tried to establish itself more securely at school level: in 1942, every youth association was required to submit its regulations to the Mocidade Portuguesa for approval.

Compulsory affiliation was somewhat undermined by the lack of centres at many schools. The scheme became more effective after 1946 with the integration of youth organizations' activities in schools. Since 1947 girls have been obliged to attend activities related to physical education, choral singing, female choirs and moral and nationalist education.

Physical education was the subject of controversy in the early days of the MPF, since many leaders of the regime were against physical sports and military style parades that included females, fearing that young Portuguese women would lose their femininity. The first regulation of the MPF was the result of a compromise, with the elimination of the 'competicoes ou exibicoes de yndole atletica, e os desportos prejudiciais a' missao natural da mulher e tudo o que possa ofender a delicadeza do pudor feminino'. (6)

In what respect was choral singing, the main focus of the organization, to 'orfeanizar a nacao inteira'? It was expected that, while singing, young Portuguese women would develop a sense of the spirit of group participation along with nationalist ideology.

'Formacao moral e nacionalista' was certainly the most important activity in the first years of the MPF. In 1942 the organization defined the central ideas that would be taught to girls: the idea of the necessity of creating a patriotic 'new woman', who would contribute to the restoration of the nation; the idea of the 'equilibrado' nationalism of the Estado Novo, as opposed to the aggressive 'nacionalismos, de esquerda como de direita'; devotion to Salazar, who was responsible for the restoration of the nation, with its social, corporate and colonial policies and an organic doctrine based on the family; and the celebration of women using historical female role models who had achieved great power, and were also wives and mothers or dedicated to God. (7)

The MPF aimed to create the future woman--Catholic and Portuguese, an educator and social worker, a prolific mother and obedient wife--and find her specific place in the nation. That place was in the family, the nucleus of the Estado Novo and of Portugal's rebirth. The history of Portugal, as interpreted by the regime, was used to lead Portuguese women towards the goals of the nation and regime. And the inculcation of nationalist ideology was based on the construction of myths surrounding male and female heroes of the past.

On the one hand, the worship of male figures, such as Nuno A lvares Pereira, was intended to promote the idea among women that while men had to fight wars in the public arena women fought wars in the private one:

As filiadas da MPF nao poderao imitar o Santo Condestavel ganhando batalhas e tambemnao e provavel que, como o Beato Joao de Brito, tenham de confessar a sua fe, com o sacrifycio da propria vida. Mas devem aprender com estes dois grandes portugueses a fazer do servico de Deus e da Patria o seu mais alto ideal! (8)

On the other hand, virtuous female heroines were models to follow in aspects such as future dedication to the family and to religious, social and educational service. Besides the Holy Mary, the MPF was devoted to the Portuguese queens Leonor, who established the 'Miserico rdias' (Christian institutions of charity and social service), and Filipa de Lencastre, (a mother who offered the life of her own sons to the nation).

The commemoration of paradigmatic dates led to mythical historical events such as the 'birth of the nation', Portuguese 'discoveries', 'restoration' of independence (1640), which culminated with the 'rebirth' of the nation in 1933 (the establishment of the Estado Novo).

In this sense, Portuguese identity was incorporated in a triple bond of Latin blood, land and language, the origins of the foundation of the country in 1140; in the moral values of the Portuguese navigators who discovered new continents in the sixteenth century, not to explore their wealth but to spread the Catholic religion, matrix of the Portuguese nation; in the desire for the independence of Portuguese aristocrats who had fought against Spanish oppression in 1640; and finally, in Salazar for restoring the lost greatness of the nation. (9)

Through this mythical circle of restoration and through the identification of historical periods with the seasons of the year, the idea of a natural historical evolution was spread and the worship of its leaders was promoted. Salazar embodied the nation itself, which almost always appeared personified and transformed in a 'collective individual'. Portugal appeared often as a very old man of eight hundred years or as a sick man healed by the intervention of a charitable doctor (Salazar) and nurses (the MPF).


The imperial policy of the Estado Novo was part of the nationalist propaganda of the MPF from the beginning of the fifties, and hardly even considered OMEN. The Acto Colonial, the document that defined the centralized and imperial nature of Portuguese colonial policy, had been mentioned in print. It was known that one of the first concerns of Salazar, even before becoming head of government, was the centralized nationalization of the Portuguese colonies, subordinating the colonized people to metropolitan interests.

Salazar considered the Portuguese colonial empire as a single multiracial nation, spread across the world. But at the same time he considered Portugal separate from the rest of the empire, which was conceived as subjected territories that could be exploited on the political and economical behalf of the metropolis and, consequently, on behalf of the white colonists. According to Salazar, 'inferior races' should be forced to work, while the Estado Novo and the Catholic church should occupy themselves civilizing and evangelizing local peoples and assuring the multi-racial and pluri-continental integrity of the empire.

While the MP educated boys for the military and colonial defence of the empire, the MPF educated girls to work with missionaries in the Christianization of the 'pretinhos' (the paternalistic term used by the MPF to refer to the people of the African colonies). However, the establishment of the MPF in the colonies was almost non-existent until the 1960s.

In 1940, the Obra Feminina Para a Educacao Social (OFES) was created in Angola. It was a private association, with voluntary affiliation. It aimed to co-operate with the MP and to develop a nationalist culture and social interaction between white people and the assimilated. The first centre of scholarship directly connected to the MPF was inaugurated in November 1947, at the Luanda National High School.

In 1950, new charters of the MP insisted on the organization of Mocidades in the colonies, although new rulings for the MPF did not consider similar expansion of activities in the colonies. In the same year, while constitutional revision would transform the 'colonial empire' and the 'colonies' into 'overseas' and 'overseas provinces', the MPF organized a cruise to Africa with a hundred affiliates and some of its leaders to Sao Tome, Angola, Mozambique, the then Belgian Congo and Rhodesia, and South Africa. (10)

In Angola, the MPF delegation contemplated one of the most impressive ceremonies of the journey, the baptism of fifty-two little Africans, to whom they were made godmothers. In Mozambique, the objective of the cruise was clear: to prepare the way for the establishment of the MPF in Africa. This goal was referred to by the Comissario Nacional of the MP, Luys Pinto Coelho, in a speech so that 'os valores femininos que contamos em terras mocambicanas' would not be wasted.

The report of the journey, written by a leader of the MPF, stated that the cruise had brought 'a consciencia da nossa grandeza como nacao'. It had also shown that 'sem este prolongamento magnyfico, a pequena casa lusitana seria bem pobrezinha', and that 'o nosso espyrito colonizador foi sempre humano e cristao'. Moreover, the report defended the cruise because it had revealed that the 'portugueses eram irmaos de todos os homens independentemente da cor, da raca e da religiao', and that it had generated between white colonists the 'sinceras manifestacoes de patriotismo'. (11)

However, not every member of the regime was of the same opinion. On 20 November 1952 the deputy, Jacinto Ferreira, stated that the MPF had been guilty of 'exhibitionism' on its cruise to the colonies. (12) According to him 'a mentalidade imperial' was 'suficientemente mascula' for women to 'nela [vir] a exercer influencia digna de registo'. Men should initiate any activities of a patriotic or cultural nature in the life of the metropolis or in overseas territories. In response the MPF leader, Maria Guardiola, reminded him that the cruise had been proof of the rejuvenation of the nation under the Estado Novo and a living lesson of the glorious past of Portugal in Africa.

In 1953, the year the Lei Organica do Ultramar Portugues was promulgated, the MPF promoted a campaign called Vocacao Missionaria dos portugueses, promoting Portugal's imperial vocation, including one called 'Africa calls for you', which determined all activities of the MPF in 1958.

Although the MP's application for the organization of branches was accepted in 1954, that for the overseas branches of the MPF was only approved in 1960 and set up in the colonies in the following year. A co-commissioner responsible for the organization overseas was created, with an annual subsidy granted by the Ministerio do Ultramar and, by 1962, the MPF had organized provincial branches in Sao Tome, Cape Verde, Macau, Timor, Angola and Mozambique.

The year 1961--annus horribilis of the Estado Novo--began with riots, violently suppressed, of black cotton workers in the Baixa do Cassange, in Malange (Angola), protesting against forced labour conditions. It continued with assaults on Luanda's jails by three nationalist movements, on 4 February, and on white colonists in the north of Angola by the UPA, in March. Salazar decided to send troops to Angola 'rapidamente e em forca', thus beginning the Portuguese colonial war that would spread in 1963 to Guinea and, in 1964, to Mozambique. The year ended with the invasion of Goa, Damao and Diu by the 'Indian Union'.

In MPF publications, articles about the colonial war encouraged young women to support the elite and law and order, and learn to fight and die for a Portugal that was shamefully attacked abroad and betrayed at home. (13) In an evaluation of its activities, in 1963, the MPF referred to how it was integrated into the Estado Novo's colonial politics, and how it was teaching young women to defend and honour Portugal while young men defended the nation bearing arms:

Desde os primeiros assaltos a' India Portuguesa e, depois, ao desencadear-se no Norte de Angola a onda de terrorismo que ameacou a nossa Patria, a MPF esteve e continua em atenta vigylia: nas preces pu blicas, nos movimentos de auxylio a's vytimas, na consolacao e no amor espalhados pelas famylias, no Natal e na Pascoa dos soldados portugueses que se batem no Ultramar, nas missas do 'Dia da Mae', a MPF reserva lugar de honra a's maes dolorosas que fizeram a' Patria o maior dos sacrifycios. (14)


Other articles called for young women from the MPF to join with the MNF, allegedly created by the spontaneous initiative of women from all ranks in April 1961. It was an independent and apolitical association intended to gather together all Portuguese women willing to give moral and material support to those who were fighting for the integrity of the nation. Led by Cecylia Supico Pinto, the wife of a high-profile member of the government, the MNF contributed to psychological warfare and propaganda, backing up the government's war effort with charitable works in aid of soldiers and their families-undertaken in a spirit of paternalism and from an elitist point of view.

The Servico Nacional de Madrinhas (SNM) recruited 'godmothers' to write to soldiers. The Servico de Embarque escorted recruits to the quay, on their departure for Africa, offering them packets of tobacco. The Servico de Aerogramas provided a telegram service so that soldiers could communicate with their families at home. Through 'Natal dos Soldados' and 'Natal das Familias' divisions, the MNF collected and delivered supplies and gifts for the 'boys' and for impoverished families, as well as organizing masses for the dead, and instructing the oBcers' wives who accompanied their husbands overseas.

Besides the MNF, the women's section of the Red Cross (CVF), created in 1947 but only operational in 1961, was involved in similar activities, but in a less political way. Also directed by the wife of a member of the regime, Maria Amelia Pitta e Cunha, the women's division of the Portuguese Red Cross became one of the support services of the colonial war effort. It began by organizing a delivery service to Angola, and by receiving and caring for those injured in the war. It promoted weekend and Christmas visits to patients in military hospitals, delivered food and clothing to the families of enlisted men, raised funds by organizing high society charity teas, and was engaged in the construction of housing for the war-wounded and their families.


Studying Portuguese women's organizations of the Estado Novo allows us to characterize the regime itself, a task I shall now try to do.

Tyrannical, though not totalitarian, even if it harboured some totalitarian ambitions in the 1930s, the Estado Novo was in continual conflict with institutions which preserved the autonomy of the private sphere, and its potential reserve of opposition. Let us look at only a few examples of strained relations connected with the life of the MPF and with the state on the one hand, and church, school and family on the other.

The foundation of the organization resulted in tensions with the church relating to tutelage and the education of youth, family and women that reflected the conflict between church and state. One of the reasons for this unease between the regime and the Catholic church was the frustrated attempt, led by the Minister of Education, to abolish the Catholic scouts movement. But while creating this initial mistrust within the church, Carneiro Pacheco succeeded in attracting Catholic leaders to the MPF, who approved the participation of the church and introduced the same educational project of re-Christianization.

The conflict between church and state was eventually overcome through the coexistence of the MPF and Accao Cato lica Portuguesa, both associations sharing the same mission of re-evangelization and the same religious and moral doctrine. Some leaders that were recruited into these organizations would later also play a prominent role in Catholic associations.

Concerning its relations with the family, the regime of Salazar struggled with a contradiction. It presented the family as the ideological foundation of the Estado Novo, while at the same time placing the education of girls partially in the control of the state. But the role ascribed to women by the MPF was essentially domestic and familial, and some families learned to take advantage of this contradiction, resisting attempts to bind their daughters to the political/ideological ideals of the state.

Some young women welcomed MPF activities as a means of socializing and of emancipation from more conservative families, or to have access to the elitist sport activities promoted by the organization. Others witnessed the real misery of other people's lives through charitable works. Some were chosen by the MPF to be future leaders, learning the methods of leadership and how to regard reality from a social and political point of view, even if it was through the distorted vision of Salazar's ideology.

Politicization or indoctrination did not reach all aspects of young people's private lives, particularly those in the MPF, as women were not intended for public life, but expected to inhabit a sphere of domestic activity instead. But by shaping boys and girls to separate spheres, the Estado Novo would unwittingly produce a subversive (perverso) effect, breeding an elite, even if a small one, of proficient women.

When the colonial war began the Estado Novo, relying on the idea of separating the areas of responsibility of men and women, and not neglecting its propaganda on colonial policy, reserved the frontline for men, assigning the support position to women. Similarly, the MP trained young men to their future role of serving the nation as soldiers, while the MPF prepared girls to help the Catholic missions in the colonies, and later to help soldiers and their families.

One can consider obligatory affiliation to an organization as totalitarian control over youth, but this affiliation was only compulsory for schoolgirls up to a certain age. Prescriptive rules and the fascist model that influenced the MPF up until the end of World War II began to be questioned inside the regime. From 1957 schoolgirls over the age of thirteen were no longer required to join the MPF, and in 1971 it was abolished.

Eventually, the Estado Novo allowed the participation of Mocidades within schools, with increasing powers, including interfering in curriculum planning. In 1936, the Minister of Education, Carneiro Pacheco, considered that the MPs should co-operate not only with the 'crisis in the family' due to years of uncontrolled liberalism, but also with the schools, that had been tainted with 'vicios jacobinos' before being regenerated by the Estado Novo. However, in 1966, the schools triumphed over the state-controlled organizations, obtaining responsibility for extra-curriculum activities that had previously been under the control of the MP.

As a general rule, the regime of Salazar was in permanent conflict between the attitudes expressed by OMEN and the MPF: between conservative elitism and social corporate vision; between mobilizing women and youth, on one hand, and the failure to address and attain the political indoctrination of the masses, on the other; between the rejection of collectivism, industrial society, urbanization and modernization, and the pragmatism required to deal with those developments; between the support of individual initiative and public interventionism; and between the rejection of totalitarianism and the state's will to create a 'new man' and to frame the different segments of population.

By keeping these conflicting forces in balance, and frequently choosing a third way or leaning in one direction or the other at appropriate times, without ever excluding either of them, the Estado Novo knew how to survive. But to survive ultimately it had to impose a single ideological, moral and religious order, and for this the state and women's organizations relied on a strong ally, the Catholic church. (15)


(1) Estatutos da OMEN, Decreto-Lei no. 26,893, de 15 de Agosto de 1936.

(2) Discurso de Carneiro Pacheco na Sociedade de Geografia, 24/5/1936.

(3) Regulamento da MPF, Decreto-Lei no. 28,262, 8 December 1937.

(4) Antonio Maria Zorro, Carneiro Pacheco. Um Homem de Fe ... (Lisbon: Panorama, 1966), p. 28.

(5) Mocidade Portuguesa Feminina, ilustracoes de Mitza (Lisbon: CN, [n.d.]).

(6) Regulamento da MPF, Decreto-Lei no. 28,262, 8 December 1937.

(7) Boletim da MPF (1942).

(8) Boletim da MPF (1940).

(9) Boletim da MPF (1940). Artigo de Rodrigues Carvalheiro.

(10) 'O Cruzeiro a' A frica da MPF', presentation by Maria Joana Mendes Leal at the Sociedade de Geografia, Lisbon, 1 December 1950.

(11) 'O Cruzeiro a' A frica da MPF'.

(12) Diario das Sessoes da Assembleia Nacional, 20 November 1952.

(13) Menina e Moca, 1961 e 1962.

(14) 25 anos de Actividades da MPF (Lisbon: MPF, 1963).

(15) This article is based on my paper presented at a conference on 'Men's Tropics/Feminine Tropes: Women, Colonialism and the Portuguese Empire, 1914-75', at the Institute of Romance Studies, University of London, on 25 May 2001.
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Title Annotation:1930-60s Portuguese political groups
Author:Pimentel, Irene
Publication:Portuguese Studies
Geographic Code:4EUPR
Date:Jan 1, 2002
Previous Article:Public Memory and Power in Portugal (1880-1960).
Next Article:Empire, Colonial Wars and Post-Colonialism in the Portuguese contemporary imagination.

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