In the practically colonial Santiago of 1872, Diego Barros Arana’s niece decided to translate John Stuart Mill’s The Subjection of Women, and in a bout of insolence, changed “subjection” to “enslavement”. She was repudiated by nearly all of Santiago’s high-society, but she carried on and lived to witness the first time women got to vote in municipal elections, in 1935. The voice of Martina—who late in life authored a valuable memoir—was an important precursor and a pioneer who has not been fully appreciated.
Mend. That was one of the lessons taught by Miss Whitelock, the British founder of Martina Barros’ childhood school. This lesson was considered unworthy by some of the aristocratic families whose children were enrolled there, and they let the school know how they felt. But young Martina didn’t have a problem with picking up thread and needle to learn how to darn. As recalled in her memoir, Memories of My Life: “And it certainly served me well, because in a house with an impoverished husband and so many kids, there was a lot to darn throughout my life!”
But Martina Barros Borgoño was putting together and mending ideas in her head as she helped run the school with Miss Whitelock, “who imbibed me with admiration for everything English”. Her perfect grasp of that language allowed her to translate John Stuart Mill’s The Subjection of Women into Spanish at the age of 22. Therein, the Scottish philosopher and economist argued that women’s lack of freedoms and rights, relative to men, was an archaic system based on prejudice that hindered social progress.
Her interest in Mill—and her translation of his book just three years after it was published in Europe—was not fleeting. Two different, and interesting, influences converged in Martina Barros’ intellectual formation, which made her an atypical member of Santiago’s economic and social elite. For one, the death of her father led to her having a strong bond with her uncle, the celebrated liberal historian Diego Barros Arana, who cared for her as if she were his own daughter, and took an interest in her education and intellectual development. Thanks to her closeness to Barros Arana, Martina met figures such as Jean Gustave Courcelle-Seneuil, Rodulfo Phillipi, Ignacio Domeyko, and Claudio Gay—“in his golden years, Gay delighted me with his stories about travelling to Arauco, and the parties and customs of the Indians there”.
“… the death of her father led to her having a strong bond with her uncle, the celebrated liberal historian Diego Barros Arana, who cared for her as if she were his own daughter, and took an interest in her education and intellectual development. Thanks to her closeness to Barros Arana, Martina met figures such as Jean Gustave Courcelle-Seneuil, Rodulfo Phillipi, Ignacio Domeyko, and Claudio Gay…”
For two, her boyfriend and later husband, Augusto Orrego Luco, came from a distinguished, liberal, progressive, and secular family. Augusto’s brothers shined in different worlds: Luis was a writer and the author of Casa Grande, while Alberto was a renowned painter. Though perhaps Augusto was the most distinguished, as a pioneer of neurology in Chile. He studied under Charcot, the celebrated French neurologist, and had a portrait of him in his house; he was professor of Neurological Disorders at the University of Chile; a congressman, a state minister on two different occasions; and editor of a number of different publications.
Martina Barros notes in her memoir that, “I owe my enlightenment to my uncle, Diego, who fostered it when I was single, and once I was married, it was my husband, an exceptional spirit, who cultivated it. And some small part of it was due to my own drive”. Despite these modest claims, it’s clear from her memoirs that she was a self-starting woman and an intellectual equal to Orrego Luco. “Augusto and I grew up reading John Stuart Mill”, she wrote, adding that as a couple they would discuss each chapter of Stuart Mill’s main work, On Liberty—which makes the philosophical case for freedom of expression. When Augusto Orrego Luco and his friend Fanor Velasco founded Revista de Santiago, Martina Barros decided she wanted to help. “My desire to contribute something to that enterprise led me to translation work. At the time, Guillermo Matta had lent me Stuart Mill’s The Subjection of Women, which interested me greatly. Encouraged by Augusto, I decided to translate it for publication in the magazine.”
“In the prologue of her translation, Martina Barros labels Mill’s book as a work of ‘demolition and reconstruction’, that seeks ‘to give women the same freedom men have to use their faculties as they deem best, that is to say, to give women the freedom to learn and the freedom to do something with what they have learned.’”
The Classical liberal school of thought in England, of which John Stuart Mill was a part, greatly influenced the elite of Chile’s liberal “renaissance generation”, of which Martina Barros and Augusto Orrego Luco were a part. This generation was shaped by Mill’s concept of liberty, which he tied to individual freedom, defined by the extent to which people could make their own decisions. According to Mill, men and women should always be free to make decisions regarding important matters, so long as they didn’t inflict harm on others—but women had been precluded from the benefits of liberty by “the despotism of custom”. As Mill noted in the very first paragraph of his book, “… the legal subordination of one sex to the other—is wrong in itself, and now one of the chief hindrances to human improvement.” For Mill, the input of free women enriched the worlds of family, work, and all society.
As historian Ana María Stuven put it, “in her crusade on behalf of women, Martina Barros made the case for freedom as ‘… the only solution to this social ill’. That freedom must be the same that men have regarding the use of one’s faculties, focusing on the potential for intellectual development, the benefits of which will complement those of men, as women have abilities that ‘men do not possess independently’. From there came her advocacy of allowing women to access higher education”.
The translation was published in the Revista de Santiago episodically in 1872 and 1873, prefaced with a fiery prologue signed by Martina Barros Borgoño. Therein, Martina opened by noting that the translation’s title, The Enslavement of Women, could theoretically have a “seditious implication”, but that this is not the case due to Mill’s “serene and elevated” thinking.
In the prologue of her translation, Martina Barros labels Mill’s book as a work of “demolition and reconstruction”, that seeks “to give women the same freedom men have to use their faculties as they deem best, that is to say, to give women the freedom to learn and the freedom to do something with what they have learned”. According to Barros, “no matter the point of view it is considered from, the education of women has to be seen as a step towards justice and civilizational progress, opposed only by narrow-minded and petty characters”. Barros emphasized the importance of women gaining “social rights”, before political ones.
The title chosen by Martina Barros for her translation—The Enslavement of Women—is a choice that has generated many different interpretations. For some academics, such as Alejandra Castillo, it is noteworthy that Martina Barros chose the word “slavery” instead of using the more mild “subjection” as in the case of the original. [Translator’s Note: John Stuart Mill’s book uses the word “subjection” in its original title. In Spanish, that word translates best to sujecion or sumisión.] For Castillo, this constitutes a “feminist gesture that marks a point of departure”. The same word would be used in a later translation of the same book, carried out in 1879 by the Spanish writer Emilia Pardo Bazán, who was a pioneer of Spanish feminism, and someone whom Martina Barros would commend in a later trip to Europe.
“Full equality between the sexes was not on the horizon. Even during her conference on women’s suffrage, she recognized ‘the fact that men are superior to women not only in physical strength, but also in intellectual ability’, but, she added that women, ‘have never been surpassed in the art of governance.’”
As Martina herself would admit in an interesting interview given at the end of her life in her home on Cathedral street (published in the magazine Zig-Zag, May 12, 1935), the act of publishing that prologue and translation was hard, made more so because of her young age at the time. She received congratulations from a few liberal figures, such as Vicuña Mackenna and Miguel Luis Amunátegui (“she saved both letters with not a little pride”), but these were just a few points of light in the dark web of her widespread repudiation, especially from high-society women. “Many women looked at me with dismay because of the ideas about independence I had spelled out in the prologue and translation, and girls, my own peers, kept their distance from me because they considered me dangerous. Later on, when I worked for women’s suffrage, I once again heard plenty of indignant dissent”.
The corollary to this ordeal is the phrase she uses in her memoir to describe her state of mind after the translation: “I was not born to fight”. Martina Barros never again published new translations of, or prologues to, “rebellious” material. But she did maintain for the rest of her life that it was of crucial importance that women receive a good education and the right to vote. To that end, in Ana María Stuven’s view, Martin Barras, “was a feminist in the context of the traditions and social conditions of her time, but with a complete awareness that women were living in a transitional era, headed towards the necessary acknowledgement of their talents and the granting of their rights”.
The Social Factor
A key reason for why Barros’ ideas about women spread across the country was her active social life. “I have always thought that they day belongs to everybody and the night belongs to me, that’s why I always made sure I had a good time”. For Martina Barros, mother to five children, the hours after sunset were a precious time both for reading and for “those late night social gatherings I enjoy so much”. Through that, Martina became an important figure in Santiago’s night owl intellectual circles. She and her husband hosted get-togethers in their home, though those organized by Orrego Luco tended to me more political and earlier (the doctor worked mornings) while those of his wife were more literary and later.
Martina herself spoke of how over the course of her life she had occasion to converse with, “every President of Chile, from Manuel Montt to Arturo Alessandri”. She was also friends with the Argentine exiles Sarmiento and Mitre, and Peruvian ex-president Manuel Pardo. The Mattas, the Gallos, the Amunáteguis, and the Blest Ganas were all regular guests in her home. So were Domingo Santa María, Ramón Sotomayor, the artist Pedro Lira, Enrique Mac Iver, Joaquín Walker Martínez, José Victorino Lastarria, Ramón Corbalán, Jenaro Prieto, Ricardo Latcham, Gonzalo Bulnes, José Tomás Urmeneta, Fernando Lazcano, Juan Enrique Tocornal, and Carlos Morla.
Some of the most interesting parts of Memories of My Life are the descriptions of the topics, authors, and political happenings that were discussed during these late night dinner parties. Men were in the majority at these gatherings, but there were women as well, such as the writer Inés Echeverría—“she showed up like a meteor”—and the beautiful Laura Cazotte (wife of Carlos Antúnez), who Barros described as one of the most brilliant hostesses in in the city. Practically all of them were members of the economic and cultural elite, though Barros mentions in her memoirs many times the need for thrift in her daily life. “Augusto and I have never been rich, the family lives exclusively from Augusto’s work”.
These social hours and the roles she played in cultural events and institutes, such as the Catholic University’s nascent Academy of Letters, was how Martina Barros delivered her increasingly urgent message about women’s rights and suffrage. These beliefs had reached Europe in the second half of the 19th century, but in Chile they were still audacious. A crucial moment in this push was a conference called, “The Female Vote” which Martina held in 1917 in the Lady’s Club (founded by her admired friend Delia Matte de Izquierdo). There, Martina declared that women’s suffrage was “the only way to make ourselves heard, and move from just words to accomplishments”.
On that occasion she commented on her bitterness over the fact that Chile’s 1884 electoral reform law explicitly denied women the right to vote, putting women “in the honorable company of the insane, domestic servants, violent felons, and scam artists”. Later adding, “What qualification does the most humble of men have, just because they are men, that we can never obtain?” Finally, Barros added that, “it is understood that women have the necessary abilities to pick a husband who will represent and direct them their whole lives, but it is denied that she has these same abilities when it comes to making a less serious and less transcendental choice”.
Like a Queen
In her talk at the Women’s Club, she also mentioned liberal opposition to women getting the vote. As researcher Erika Maza has shown, anti-clerical political parties had a lot to do with the obstruction of women’s suffrage, as they thought the female vote would overwhelmingly support conservative causes. To this state of affairs, Martina Barros responded, “It does the liberal spirit of this country no good to prioritize its petty and temporary interests over the demands of avowed justice”. She then went on to deny the prediction that women would abandon their homes and families if given the vote: “I uphold the conviction that women, who have until now only been taught to love, will know how act as able politicians, just as we have seen in those monarchies which by chance, have let women rule. Both then and now, women will certainly not neglect the responsibilities of motherhood, or let prestige come before her own children”.
As she grew older, Martina Barros regained the faith that her skeptical environment had disabused her of. In the memoir she wrote at the end of her life, she continued to ponder the importance of women’s roles as mothers and homemakers. Full equality between the sexes was not on the horizon. Even during her conference on women’s suffrage, she recognized “the fact that men are superior to women not only in physical strength, but also in intellectual ability”, but, she added that women, “have never been surpassed in the art of governance. Whether it be in the humble chore of governing a house and its family, or in the highest and most complicated obligations that come with governing a state; women—throughout time—have equaled the greatest achievements of even the most able men”.
It must be noted that Barros showed a romantic affinity for queens throughout history, in which she saw proof that women were capable of “good government”. With that in mind she cited Cleopatra, Isabella I of Castile, Maria Theresa of Spain, and England’s Queen Victoria. In Memories of My Life, she reminisces about meeting the Spanish queens Maria Christina and Victoria Eugenie, encounters that left her “overwhelmed and speechless”.
In her memoirs, Martina Barros lists the various points of progress Chile had made, relative to how it was during her childhood. Over the course of a few pages she goes over the social and material improvements, remembering, for example, that, “When I was a girl, the trip to Valparaiso took two days by stagecoach, today it takes three hours by train or car across elegant roads”. She noted that, “the only light I knew as a child came from oil-burning candles and lamps, the only heat from coal- or wood-burning stoves, and coal-burning chimneys, which were few and far between. Today we have electric lights and central heat… I have been able to enjoy the telephone and the radio”.
Regardless, she claimed the most transcendental changes—a perhaps overly optimistic view—were those that impacted women. In the final paragraphs of Memories of My Life, she wrote, “In terms of moral progress, none has been as big as the changes in the lives of women. First total subjection to the father, then to the husband, which though certainly better at times, still wasn’t a choice, and was accepted blindly and without considering their rights. Today women work from a young age if they need to, regardless of social status, which gives them moral and economic independence and builds their character”.
Ana María Stuven, Alejandra Castillo, Erika Maza, and Javiera Errázuriz are a few of the historians and academics who have studied Martina Barros as a historical figure ahead of her times, but there is still much research to be done (her memoirs are a goldmine). De Los Diez Editions has recently published the brief memoirs of other women from that era, such as Maipina de la Barra and Isabel Espejo. These interesting figures—the latter of whom died giving birth to her first child—were liberal and secular as well, and deserve to be studied.
Martin Barros was not a belligerent or revolutionary feminist, particularly “at the dusk of her life”, as can be observed from the kind but scintillating prose of her memoir. But she was a harbinger of, and a pioneer for, women’s rights in Chile. Her boldness, lucidity, and open and reflective spirit were all particularly significant given the times she lived in and the social environment she travelled in. Mill’s translator overcame her bitter social repudiation with elegance. Throughout her life’s travails, nobody managed to tarnish her persevering attitude or her confidence that the future for women was bright.