Feministory: Luisa Capetillo
What do you know about Puerto Rican feminists? Not enough, right? Me either, which is why this week’s Feministory features a crucial feminist of the United States' often overlooked Commonwealth, Puerto Rico.
Luisa Capetillo was one of Puerto Rico’s best labor organizers at a time when women did not even have the right to vote. She was born in 1879 in the municipality of Arecibo to parents who encouraged her to have an active and critical mind. As a mother of two, Capetillo began working in the nascent textile industry in 1900. From there she became a reader, or lectora, in a tobacco factory. A lector or lectora would read aloud passages of the workers’ choosing (often the latest news of labor turmoil as well as political works) as they made the cigars on the factory floor. It was here that she was introduced to the labor politics and organizations that would become her life’s work.
Capetillo’s first union act was a farmworker’s strike with La Federacion Libre de Trabajadores (Free Federation of Labor, FLT) in 1901. A skilled and hard-working labor leader, she succeeded in making Arecibo the most unionized town in the country. Not content to work only in her hometown, Luisa traveled Puerto Rico educating and organizing women. Capetillo recognized the connection between labor and women’s rights, and in 1908 she made the revolutionary act of asking the FLT to include a policy of women’s suffrage in their goals for Puerto Rico. Through her efforts, a feminist proletarian movement developed as a vital and structural part of the labor rights movement. Although Capetillo was a fervent feminist she did not belong to any solely feminist organizations. She believed that women’s emancipation would arrive through labor movement achievements.
Capetillo put pen to paper and in 1909 she published her collection of essays Ensayos Libertarios as well as the thesis Mi opinión sobre las libertades, derechos y deberes de la mujer (My Opinion about the Liberties, Rights, and Responsibilities of Women). Luisa was the first woman in Puerto Rico to commit feminist ideas to print and Mi opinión was the first feminist thesis written in Puerto Rico. One of her controversial ideas was “free love.” Luisa clearly outlined in her essays the belief that women should have the right to love whomever they please without obstruction, including marriage. At the time, especially in Latin America, this was a radical idea (some even say it is today). Being the first to write and publish these works was quite a brave act!
Capetillo achieved a number of successful travels to the United States to organize workers. She first began in 1912, leaving for New York City where she organized both Puerto Rican and Cuban workers. After a year of labor she traveled to Tampa, Florida and once again became a lectora in the tobacco factories. Before returning to Puerto Rico, she stopped in Cuba to join a sugar cane worker’s strike where she was ordered to leave and ultimately arrested. Once home, Capetillo continued to organize and participate in worker strikes including the massive Sugar Cane Strike of 1916 in which there were over 40,000 participants.
Capetillo was active in the fight for labor rights up to her death in 1922 from tuberculosis. The amount of travel, work and true participation for labor rights she committed is staggering on its own, and even more so when considering the deep social and cultural barriers that existed for a single Puerto Rican woman in the early 1900’s.
Oh, and her reason for being arrested in Cuba? Wearing pants in public. Luisa was the first woman to wear pants in public in Cuba and Puerto Rico. Sorry Lady Gaga, but you and your meat dress have nothing on Capetillo.
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