Historicizing Black Left Feminism in Prerevolutionary Cuba

Students walk to Revolution Square, November 27, 2016, Havana, Cuba (Shutter Stock)

In April 1925, white feminist leaders invited tobacco stemmer Inocencia Valdés to speak before delegates of the Second National Women’s Congress in Havana, Cuba. Valdés, who spoke on behalf of the Havana Tobacco Workers’ Union, was one of two women of African descent to give speeches at the four-day event. She described how high unemployment rates and falling wages brought on by the current economic crisis forced already poor laborers to face starvation as they struggled to pay their rent. For Valdés, the main problem lay in the fact that women “had few open doors” beyond the tobacco and domestic service industries, which led poor women to become “casualties” of “their greedy employers.” She thus called upon congress delegates to help establish schools to prepare women for better paying positions and to “demonstrate that the Cuban woman is capable of doing the same as her sisters of other countries, countries where women shine at the same level as men.”1

Valdés’ speech provides insight into the evolution of Black left feminism in Cuba. Though she focused broadly on poor women, her activism on behalf of tobacco stemmers addressed the material concerns of workers from an industry predominated by African-descended women. These women, in turn, helped democratize Cuban politics. During the 1920s, radical Black activists like Valdés and educator Rosa Pastora Leclerc formed alliances with white feminists to demand women’s suffrage. They joined national organizations like the Women’s Labor Union, which denounced bourgeois capitalism and supported the establishment of a classless society. Their participation in the Communist Party and labor associations helped form a broad base of support that mobilized groups of youth, women, and persons of African descent. These factions helped challenge government corruption and U.S. imperialism. By the 1930s, radical women of African descent joined male communist leaders like Julio Antonio Mella and Serafín Portuondo in analyzing how Cuba’s economy relied on the division of the working-class along gendered and racial lines. Their speeches identified how employers relegated women and persons of African descent to lower-paying positions. This progression peaked with the 1933 Revolution that overthrew president-turned-dictator Gerardo Machado y Morales.

Elite feminists of African descent crossed paths with their radical counterparts through national women’s organizations. However, most belonged to a small Black professional class that prioritized education, confronting anti-black racism, and women’s participation in mainstream political parties over demands for economic reform. Among them, journalist Calixta María Hernández de Cervantes articulated a vision of feminism for readers of the Black magazine, Adelante in which women “were incorporated into the grooves of the electoral machine” as full citizens with suffrage rights. Writer Catalina Pozo Gato protested the discrimination that African-descended women faced in employment. She noted that many women who received training as dentists, pharmacists, lawyers, and doctors worked as dressmakers and earned a “vexing salary” that forced them to stay poor. She complained that even the most educated young Black women received positions in which they earned minimum wages as operators rather than managers. By explaining how women of African descent lacked the same employment opportunities as their “white sisters,” Pozo Gato formulated an intersectional critique of Cuban society that rooted Black women’s impoverishment in both racial and gender discrimination.2

By the late 1930s, African-descended women’s analyses that centered the Black female experience shaped national discussions. White communist feminist, Ofelia Domínguez Navarro focused on the “triple aggression” confronted by Black women during a speech for the Spanish civic society, El Pilar. The women’s branch of the Revolutionary Cuban Party called attention to “the rights of women of color, which our former constitution guarantees,” but which “have never been fulfilled in regards to their right to work in establishments, factories, and workshops.”3 Black women from both elite feminist and radical circles played a critical role in organizing the 1939 Third National Women’s Congress, which advocated for legal reforms on behalf of all women and highlighted the particular concerns of African-descended women.

The shifts initiated by Black women’s activism across the political spectrum helped mobilize Cuban women as a political constituency. Yet it was the Communist Party that succeeded in empowering women of African descent. Black women ran for office at all levels of the organization. Party members elected pharmacist Esperanza Sánchez Mastrapa to serve as a delegate to the 1940 Constitutional Assembly and later as the only woman of African descent to serve in congress. She proposed bills to enhance the educational system on behalf of women and children. Sánchez also called for maternity and healthcare benefits, and she advocated to have the civil code amended to protect married women. Her leadership brought her into contact with Black communist activists who included Teresa García, Consuelo Silveira, María Argüelles, and Felicita Ortiz. These women led grassroots campaigns that achieved increased wages, improved working conditions, and the establishment of maternity clinics, among other social services.

Black women communists put forth a vision of social justice that connected Cuban women’s concerns to those of women globally. They protested World War II as an “imperialist war” that served the economic interests of wealthy businessmen. Sánchez and María Argüelles collaborated with white communist leader Edith García Buchaca to form the Cuban Federation of Democratic Women (FDMC). FDMC chapters held forums in defense of children, where they promoted youth education, healthcare, and disseminated information regarding the global women’s movement.

In 1948, the FDMC sent Sánchez to present at the Second International Women’s Congress in Budapest. Her speech focused on how recent democratic reforms remained limited in addressing the particular concerns of women on the island. The progressive 1940 Constitution granted free elections, universal suffrage, and the right to strike. Sánchez highlighted that Article 20 declared all Cubans to be “equal before the law,” and deemed “illegal and punishable any discrimination on grounds of sex, race, color, or class and any other offense to human dignity.” She acknowledged that the constitution allowed for “undeniable progress” for women to “exercise political and civil rights.” But she noted that the colonial-era civil codes placed women under the guardianship of a male patriarch and denied them legal rights. The contradictions between these two texts, she stated, undermined women’s equality.4

Sánchez incorporated an analysis of how racism contributed to African-descended women’s marginalization in Cuban society. As she explained, “Dark-skinned women, identified as Black or mulata, also suffer from disadvantages because they are women. Yet complete parity [between Black and white women] does not exist in our country due to their skin color. If [Black women] are also workers, they suffer a triple discrimination.” Echoing the concerns of elite Black feminists expressed by Catalina Pozo Gato during the previous decade, Sánchez lamented that women of African descent struggled to obtain positions as store clerks, typists, nurses, and in government employment. Discriminatory practices relegated most Black women who worked to low-paying positions as domestics, agricultural and factory workers, as well as within the informal sector. Sánchez determined that, even as the Constitution established equality among amazon all Cubans, employers continued to not hire those “struck by the color of their skin.”5

During the 1940s, radical Black women activists rarely publicly discussed the particular experiences of women of African descent. Instead, male activists spearheaded campaigns to achieve anti-racial discrimination legislation on behalf of both Black men and women. In her interviews and speeches, Sánchez declared her commitment to all working-class women. She asserted that the party fought for the rights of every Cuban citizen. Sánchez insisted that racial discrimination did not exist within the party’s ranks—a feat that had yet to be achieved by other political parties. Her attention to Black women’s experiences during her 1948 speech thus reflected a break from the approach she employed as a public figure.

Cuban national politics created a dynamic that shaped the approaches radical women of African descent took in addressing their particular needs. The island’s Communist Party provided rare opportunities for Black women from all economic backgrounds to hold formal leadership positions. In turn, most promoted a platform that generally defined women as workers. Their activism succeeded in obtaining material improvements in their daily lives—successes that led more African-descended workers to support the labor and communist movement over elite Black organizations and mainstream political parties. Further, it demonstrates possibilities for integrating Cuban women of African descent into the global history of Black left feminism.

  1. Inocencia Valdés, “El Trabajo femenino en la industria tabacalera,” Comisión Redactora de la Memoria del Segundo Congreso Nacional de Mujeres (1925): 194-6.
  2. Calixta María Hernández de Cervantes, “Feminismo: La mujer y la política,” Adelante September 1935; Catalina Pozo Gato, “La Negra cubana y la cultura: para el escritor Gerardo del Valle, en indagación,” Diario de la Marina, 30 November 1930.
  3. Ofelia Domínguez Navarro, “La mujer y los prejuicios raciales.” 3/28.1/1-29 Archivo del Instituto de Historia de Cuba (AIH); Declaration of the Federación de Mujeres Auténticas.
  4. Esperanza Sánchez Mastrapa, “Informe ante la Comisión de los Derechos de la Mujer” in the “El II Congreso Internacional de Mujeres” (1949). RB 24.9/92 AIH.
  5. Mastrapa, “Informe ante la Comisión de los Derechos de la Mujer.”
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Takkara Brunson

Takkara Brunson is Associate Professor of History at Texas A&M University, College Station. She is the author of Black Women, Citizenship, and the Making of Modern Cuba (University of Florida Press, 2021).