Puerto Rican Feminist Luisa Capetillo Fought to Redefine Labor, Gender Equality

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Bread and Roses by Araceli Cruz, for Teen Vogue, is a series exploring the growing interest in socialism among young people who are seeking alternatives to recovery in this pivotal historical moment.

When we speak of iconic Latina feminists, a handful of women quickly come to mind: Dolores Huerta, Rigoberta Menchú, Sylvia Rivera, Eva Perón, the Mirabal Sisters, Frida Kahlo, Julia de Burgos.

One Latina that has been lost in this conversation is Luisa Capetillo (1879-1922). Years before Kahlo made a defiant stance by wearing a pantsuit in a family photo or De Burgos published a single word, Capetillo stood as one of the first Puerto Rican feminist writers who challenged gender norms, advocated for union laborers, and lived a life according to the words she preached. Yet not even a century after her death, Capetillo’s ideas and accomplishments remain largely unacknowledged.

Capetillo’s contributions as a feminist and union organizer were remarkable for their time. She wrote numerous renowned essays, published a newspaper, and authored four books that centered around gender equality, the harmfulness of the institution of marriage, and the injustice of social class. She even proudly went to jail for the crime of wearing men’s clothing. So how did Capetillo grow into such a rebel and vocal anarchist? She was encouraged by her parents.

Born to Spanish and French expats on October 28, 1879, Capetillo spent her teen years in the midst of a sharp cultural shift in Puerto Rico. After the United States acquired Puerto Rico as a territory in 1898 at the end of the Spanish-American War, American attitudes on ownership, authority, and family structure proliferated. Capetillo dared to question these structures at their core. However, her achievements and radical ideas would have been completely erased and forgotten had it not been for contemporary scholars who’ve begun to uncover her legacy.

Capetillo was 32 when her most important work, Mi Opinión (1911), was published. In the introduction to its English translation, Félix V. Matos Rodríguez explains that Capetillo is laying out the first feminist exposition in Puerto Rico and one of the very first in Latin America and the Caribbean. In the book, Capetillo writes about the urgent need to make drastic changes in “all structures of social and economic domination so women could be truly liberated,” including in the areas of work, education, marriage, and religion, Rodriguez noted. Capetillo highlighted the importance of women’s roles in society and in the home, arguing that women don’t have to choose between being homemakers and their civic involvement. Capetillo’s impassioned stance on the importance of gender equality and women’s suffrage appeared almost 20 years before Puerto Rico allowed all women, regardless of their literacy level, to vote.

Long before Capetillo published Mi Opinión, her development as an intellectual and supporter of the working class was nurtured by her parents. Despite never having a formal education, Capetillo was educated at home, where her mother and father taught her to read and write and also speak French. Both of her parents had been well educated in their home countries and joined intellectual circles after moving to Puerto Rico.

Capetillo’s upbringing in the city of Arecibo was unique for its day. She was an only child, and witnessed firsthand that romantic relationships could be united while also allowing each member to remain independent. Her parents never married, and Capetillo carried on that tradition by never marrying the men she had children with.

While having children out of wedlock wasn’t completely unheard of at the time, it was frowned upon. Jorell Meléndez-Badillo, a historian of Puerto Rico, the Caribbean, and Latin America and a Dartmouth Mellon faculty fellow in history, explains that Capetillo’s family likely faced less scrutiny because of their European heritage and education.

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