When I was a high school student in Panama, history was one of my least favorite subjects. I’m not sure if the textbook was bland or the lectures were unengaging or I just didn’t like memorizing so many dates, but I feel like I only retained the basics of Panamanian history:
1. We separated from Colombia on November 3rd, 1903.
2. We struggled for true sovereignty for 97 years since the United States controlled the Panama Canal Zone until the end of 1999. When I graduated from high school in 2006, history class for seniors was still called “Relationship between Panama and the United States” because most of Panamanian history is in reaction to this situation.
3. And here we are today.
I went to college in the United States, and I also had to take a few history classes about world and American history. Again the subject just did not engage me. It was not until I took my first class in gender that I began to see history as an interesting and useful subject. The class was on gender and communication, so we dealt mainly with media representations of gender, but it helped me come across books that dealt with women’s rights and exposed me to the incredible women in the history of the United States. I devoured Gail Collins’ “When Everything Changed: The Amazing Journey of American Women from 1960 to the Present” and then its predecessor, “America’s Women: 400 Years of Dolls, Drudges, Helpmates, and Heroines.” I felt captivated by the stories of women shaping their lives and by extension the direction of the country. Of course, two books could not possibly capture the entirety of all women’s experiences over hundreds of years, but they were the push I needed for history to no longer seemed dry and distant. Instead, I began to view history as a compilation of lessons from the past and a reminder that we should not take our rights for granted. While reading these books it also became clear to me that every history course I had ever taken focused on men’s accomplishments and, at best, glossed over women’s contributions.
Unfortunately, I cannot say that I’ve had the opportunity to read as extensively about the history of women in my own country. I have periodical bouts of an all-encompassing, gnawing curiosity about the topic, and I will begin to look for resources online abou feminism in Panama, but this doesn’t draw many results. About three months ago I decided to take a different approach, thinking that maybe the language I was using to search for information was the issue. Instead, I decided to search for women’s right to vote in Panama, since the only thing I knew was that women were granted the right to vote in 1941. This has turned out to be a much more promising gateway.
Women were not granted the right to vote in Panama at the time of our separation from Colombia over a technicality. Spanish is a much more gendered language than English, and while the constitution read that “todos los ciudadanos mayores de 21 años” (“all citizens over the age of 21”) were granted the right to vote, lawmakers debated whether “los ciudadanos,” a phrase written in its masculine form, encompassed all Panamanians or only male Panamanians. For thirty-eight years Panamanian women could not vote because of the phrasing of the constitution, proving that language can indeed be a powerful tool of oppression. The situation took a turn for the worse in 1941 when then-president Arnulfo Arias modified the constitution to read that only male Panamanians over the age of 21 were automatically considered citizens (ironically, in 1999 his widow, Mireya Moscoso, became Panama’s first female president and erected a statue in his honor, a man who disapproved of women’s suffrage and would have no doubt also disapproved of a female president). The Panamanian history I learned in school simply stated that women gained the right to vote in 1941 under president Arnulfo Arias, and made no mention of Panama’s biggest organizer for women’s suffrage, Clara González de Behringer.
González de Behringer was Panama’s first female lawyer and founder of the Partido Nacional Feminista in 1923 (National Feminist Party). Upon receiving her law degree in 1922, she had to fight to pass a law to allow women to practice law in Panama, and then subsequently fight to include Panamanian women in the term “todos los ciudadanos.” I could not believe my luck when I found that in 2007, historian Yolanda Marco wrote her biography. Marco was inspired to write about a prominent woman in Panamanian history since as a female historian, she found the lack of women in history textbooks to be jarring. Marco recognizes that history is typically viewed through the lens of battles and governments, an angle that excludes women because women did not enter the public sphere until recently, so she strives to look at history through a broader lens. Battles and politics are an important part of history, but they are not all of history.
Unfortunately, I have not yet had the chance to read Marco’s book. Online bookstores have failed me, and sending my mother on a wild goose chase through Panama’s major bookstores did not work, either. It saddens me that Marco’s efforts to bring a more inclusive perspective to Panamanian history cannot be appreciated since the book does not seem to be very accessible. But knowing that there are people out there who want to shed light on women in history motivates me to keep looking for my country’s herstory.
As I read in a review of Marco’s book, feminism is the passion of knowing that a different world is possible, and stories of women who have changed their world in the past are evidence that we too have the power to make a change. This year, my resolution is to learn about women’s experiences in Panama, in the United States, in the world, both in history and in their current situations. In fact, I’ll make that a lifelong resolution.
Are you a history buff? Are there any resources that you have found especially useful for learning about women in history? Share with me in the comments below!
Written by Sully Moreno
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