Women in pre-Revolutionary Cuba had achieved a more respectable status vis-à-vis men than women in any other Latin American country, with the possible exceptions of Argentina and Uruguay. With regard to political rights, Cuban women received the vote in 1934. Among the Latin American states only women in Uruguay, Brazil, and Ecuador obtained voting rights earlier. Rates of abortion and divorce in pre-Revolutionary Cuba were among the highest in Latin America. In education the percentage of female students from ages five to fifteen approximately equaled that of male students. According to Cuba's 1953 census, the percentage of illiterate males (26 percent) exceeded that of illiterate females (21 percent). Within Latin America only Argentina and Chile had higher female literacy rates (85 percent and 79 percent respectively). With regard to work positions and social status, the percentages of Cuban women working outside the home, attending school, and practicing birth control surpassed the corresponding percentages in nearly every other Latin American country.
Before the Revolution women had been elected to Cuba's House of Representatives and Senate. They had served as mayors, judges, cabinet members, municipal counselors, and members of the Cuban foreign service. The Constitution of 1940, one of the most progressive in the Western Hemisphere with regard to women's status, prohibited discrimination on the basis of sex and called for equal pay for equal work.
Susan Kaufman Purcell has attributed the relatively higher status of pre-Revolutionary Cuban women, when compared to women in most other Latin American countries, to three factors. First, the Catholic Church played a lesser role in the colonization of Cuba and remained less powerful and influential on the island than throughout the rest of Spanish America. The patriarchal traditions of the Church, particularly in the nineteenth century and before, tended to subordinate women and confine them to childbearing and child rearing in the home. Such an influence proved to be somewhat less important in Cuba than in neighboring Latin American countries.
Second, unlike most other Latin American countries, Cuba never developed a dominant hacienda system emphasizing traditional patriarchal authority. Rather, Cuban plantations employed a wage-earning labor force. This agricultural structure engendered a stronger, more independent role for women in society. Finally, the island's proximity and economic ties to the United States substantially influenced Cuban culture. North American social mores, which have been considerably more sexually egalitarian than those of much of Latin America, affected significantly Cuban social mores, especially in the urban areas.
To be sure, prerevolutionary society retained certain extreme inequalities between the sexes. Despite the early date in obtaining relatively advanced legal rights, prerevolutionary women were far from equal partners in governing the state. Women "seldom [ran] for office nor [did] they appear often as members of boards, commissions, or other appointive positions at the policy-making level." Nearly all women in politics or public office found themselves relegated chiefly to subordinate roles.
Moreover, although Cuba was less influenced by the Catholic Church and somewhat more socially egalitarian than other Latin American states, an authoritarian and patriarchal family structure, part of the island's Hispanic legacy, did indeed influence society to a considerable degree. This was particularly the case in the isolated, rural areas, which encompassed more than 43 percent of the population. Within the Cuban family a double standard prevailed that required "good" women to demonstrate unquestioned fidelity, while allowing, indeed encouraging, infidelity among men. Cuban society taught young boys to demonstrate their machismo: a Latin notion of male superiority and aggressiveness demonstrated by virility, strength, confidence, courage, and power. Young girls, however, were expected to be gracious, attractive, retiring, virtuous, and virgin.
Prior to the Revolution most Cubans believe that the woman's place should center on the home. Although in practice only upper-class women had the security necessary to focus all their attention on the family, middle-class women tended to emulate this ideal whenever possible. By the late 1940's however, Cuban society had accepted the idea that upper-class and upper-middle class women might choose to work in the absence of financial need, provided the labor occurred in a 'respectable" professional or bureaucratic setting. At the same time lower-class women, who often had to perform low-status menial labor outside the home, could rarely afford what was seen as the luxury of unemployment. Organized child care in prerevolutionary Cuba remained extremely limited. Often, lower-class working women took their older daughters out of school to supervise younger children and, in essence, to serve as surrogate mothers. This contributed to a high drop-out rate among girls.
Unquestionably, women in pre-Revolutionary Cuba held an inferior position in the labor force. In 1943, for example, women comprised only 10 percent of this force. Ten years later the figure had increased to 13.7 percent. Thereafter it grew steadily, though slowly; by 1956 to 14 percent and by 1959 to 17 percent. Although dramatically underrepresented in white-collar and blue-collar jobs, women did account for approximately 46 percent of Cuba's professionals and semiprofessionals. Of course, 60 percent of these women worked in the traditional occupations of nurse and teacher. In 1957 women filled more than 48 percent of jobs in the service sector. About one quarter of working women were employed as domestic servants. Indeed, more than 90 percent of all domestic workers were female. Fewer than 3 percent of Cuban women, however, worked in agricultural, fishing, construction, and transport industries.
As was true throughout the region, most Cubans tended to view higher paying positions as male jobs. Nevertheless, in 1956/57 Cuban women did enjoy more job security and stability than men and were less affected by unemployment. On the eve of the Revolution the number of women in the work force was increasing steadily. And the legal status of women had improved substantially beyond that of women in many other Latin American countries.