Benedita da Silva, Brazil’s First Black Woman Senator and Governor

Benedita da Silva speaks to a Plenary Session of the National Congress of Brazil on International Women’s Day in 2015. (Photo: Senado Federal / Wikimedia Commons)

Female politicians are underrepresented in their leadership and their participation, and their contributions and successes in national, local, and civil politics are overlooked, undervalued, and often ignored. This political diminishment is exacerbated for Black women politicians, who in their efforts to catalyze political reform and policies are met with white supremacist, racialized-gendered hierarchies and hostilities that render their lives and their work inferior.

This is true for many Black women in politics in the African diaspora. In Brazil, the racialized order of rejecting Blackness comes with machismo, class oppression, and Eurocentric, colonial, and sexual stereotypes that relegate Afro-Brazilian women to subalternity. While much media attention was given to Dilma Rousseff, Brazil’s first female president, who was impeached in 2016, it is Benedita Souza da Silva Sampaio, the first Afro-Brazilian woman senator and governor in the country’s history, who paved the way for Rousseff and serves as an exemplar for Black Brazilian women political hopefuls.

Da Silva was born on March 11, 1943 in the favela (slum) of Praia do Pinto and grew up in Chapéu Mangueira, another favela along the coastline of Copacabana in Rio de Janeiro. Known as “Bené,” she lived in poverty most of her life.1 Her childhood was shaped by the socio-political and economic antagonisms that transnationally plague Afro-diasporic people: anti-blackness, Afro-Pessimism, police brutality, poverty, gender-based violence, educational and health inequities, and more. The great-granddaughter of a former slave, da Silva watched her mother and father struggle to raise her and her thirteen brothers and sisters by washing clothes and cars. Just like many other Brazilian children in poverty, she was a street kid and worked all day long, waking up early to shine shoes and sell candy on the streets before and after school, and later, working as an in-house maid. A survivor of sexual violence, in her autobiography, da Silva noted she “learned early on the prejudices against girls” and also experienced racism young as well, as “kids would pull [her] hair and call [her] a nega maluca, a crazy ni***r.” Her adolescent intersectional struggles with racism, sexism, and classism were also encountered during her political leadership. Despite such obstacles, she would later receive her degree in social work.

While still living in Chapéu Mangueira, she became actively involved in her community’s neighborhood association, where she organized for women’s rights, for political parity for Black Brazilians, to eradicate illiteracy, and to improve health and sanitation conditions. In 1958, at the age of 16, she became the secretary of the association. During the military coup of 1964, the police wielded unrelenting repression and violence against faveladas (slum dwellers), prevented political mobilization, and conducted brutal evictions. Even in the wake of police oppression, da Silva continued to organize. In 1978, she was elected as the president of the association. Through her work and activism, she would build a health and dental center and an elementary school in Chapéu.

As one of the key figureheads in creating the Partido dos Trabalhadores (the Workers’ Party–PT), which was founded in 1980, da Silva ran for City Council in 1982 and became the first Workers’ Party councilwoman in Rio. During her time as city councilor, she introduced several projects including the Tribuna Popular, where she advocated for community leaders to meet and discuss issues with city council members and the Neighborhood Rights project, which restricted the number of high rise buildings in Rio. In 1987, she was elected to Congress and became the “first black woman to reach the Chamber of Deputies in Brazil’s history.” During her tenure as senator she still lived in the favela. In 1992, she became the first Black woman to run for mayor, but did not win the election. In 1994, she was elected to the Senate and became the first Black woman senator and in 1998, she became the Vice-Governor of the State of Rio. In 2002, she became the first Afro-Brazilian and woman to become Governor of the State of Rio. She also served as the Minister of Social Action during then-President Luiz Inácio Lula da Silva’s first administration.

Speaking out against Brazil’s myth of racial democracy, da Silva endured countless racist and sexist epithets by other city council members and residents, including being called illiterate, incompetent, and told to go back to the kitchen and pick bananas. In spite of such prejudice, she was able to add amendments to the 1988 Constitution to introduce legislation for domestic workers, including minimum pay, paid vacations, three months of paid maternity leave, and retirement benefits. Da Silva also fought to have the “rights of incarcerated women to breastfeed while in jail and a bill that made it illegal for employers for proof of sterilization for women applying for jobs.” Bringing attention to violence against women and human trafficking, da Silva spoke out against the racialized, state-sanctioned violence that was enacted on Afro-Brazilian women because “they are poor, mostly black women who are not only seen as prostitutes but as criminals. They are also victims of police violence, even more so than the boys because of sexual abuse.”

In order to promote Black Brazilian cultural history, she initiated the National Awareness Day of Black Consciousness to recognize Zumbi, an Afro-Brazilian military leader of anti-colonial resistance of a quilombo (maroon community) in Palmares. She helped to pass initiatives to designate lands that were once quilombos into national historical sites. Da Silva, along with members of the Black movement in Brazil, also “managed to pass an amendment that made racial prejudice a crime without bail and with no statute of limitation.” She worked to create commercial and political relationships with African countries, in particular Angola and Mozambique, and built ties between Blacks in the United States and Brazil. In 1991, she was part of a committee that brought Nelson Mandela to Brazil. She was pivotal in passing the Law No.10.639/03, which “made the teaching of African and Afro-Brazilian culture and history obligatory in Brazilian schools.”

A devout Evangelical, in an interview with the New York Times, da Silva expressed that because she is “three times a minority…as a black, a woman, and a favelada, I have a special responsibility to speak out on the subjects that I know about – against racial discrimination, against the unequal rights of women, and against the injustices suffered by the poor.” Even at the age of seventy-five, da Silva continues to advocate for racial, gender, and class equity and increased political power of Black Brazilians. It is imperative her work, her activism, and her advocacy are recognized not only in Brazilian politics but in Pan-African political leadership and thought.

  1.  While some articles or publications have cited that da Silva’s birthday is April 26, 1942, she states that she was born on March 11, 1943. See Benedita da Silva, Medea Benjamin and Maria Lisa Mendonça, Benedita da Silva: An Afro-Brazilian Woman’s Story of Politics and Love (London: Latin America Bureau, 1997), 5. She discusses the discrepancy of her birth date stating “when I was born, my family didn’t have money to pay for the birth certificate, so they had to wait. This is very common among poor people in Brazil” (page 7).
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Jaimee A. Swift

Jaimee A. Swift is a Ph.D candidate at Howard University. Her research focuses on how Afro-Brazilian women activists counter racialized-gendered state-sanctioned violence and LGBTQ+ violence in Salvador da Bahia, Brazil. Her writings have appeared in several media outlets including AfroPunk, Salon.com, HuffPost, The Grio, and For Harriet. Follow her on Twitter @JaimeeSwift.