Courtney Campbell on women revolutionaries in Brazil

We kicked off the new semester with a closer look at the history of Brazil’s “rebellious” and “revolutionary” women. Courtney Campbell (Birmingham) was there to help us navigate this complex and understudied field, and her talk was a perfect way to escape from a particularly blustery Edinburgh evening. Joe Gazeley sends this report.

A picture of Dilma Rousseff when she was a young revolutionary.

In this exciting seminar, we got a sneak-peak at a developing project that explores the narratives surrounding revolutionary female figures in the Brazilian popular imagination. In particular, it looks at how these narratives often mirror the evolving national identity of Brazil itself

Courtney began by outlining the lack of space in Brazilian popular media for complex depictions of revolutionary women. She showed two clips from the film O Que É Isso, Companheiro? (Four Days In September), which tells the story of Vera Sílvia Magalhães, a member of the group Movimento Revolucionário 8 de Outubro (MR-8). She became publicly known due to her involvement in several high-profile bank robberies where her use of two .45-calibre pistols and a blonde wig earned her the nickname ‘Blonde 90’.

The poster for the film O Que E Isso Companheiro?

Whilst Magalhães was undoubtedly a strong character for whom revolution was a part of her life in the MR-8, she was also a slight and attractive woman who had to navigate a patriarchal society. In the film, the filmmakers could not reconcile these two aspects of her personality. Instead, they created the new character of the slight and girlish Renée to more easily fit the complexity of the real-life Magalhães into established stereotypes about women. For the purposes of the narrative presented in the film, Magalhães could be the fierce revolutionary or the feminine seductress but not both.

This example served as the jumping-off point for Courtney’s discussion of how legendary women in Brazilian popular culture have been interpreted over time, and how those interpretations shifted along with the developing idea of the Brazilian nation itself.

She explained that her project will be broken down into sections exploring these revolutionary women by category. These include:

    • Indigenous women such as the fictional Iracema who has been symbolically adopted as the mother of the Brazilian nation.
    • Enslaved women such as Chica de Silva who, in the popular imagination, escaped the restrictions of her place in society through marrying her slave-owner to achieve freedom and wealth
    • Religious rebels such as Jacobina Mentz Maurer, who led an unsuccessful revolt against the state and was seen by her followers as the reincarnation of Jesus Christ.
    • Soldiers and bandits such as Maria Bonita, a notorious bandit who fought the Brazilian police and authorities throughout the 1920s and 1930s.
    • Sex symbols such as the singer Carmen Miranda.
    • Politicians such as Dilma Rousseff, who was a part of the Marxist revolutionary group Comando de Libertação Nacional (COLINA). She was arrested and tortured by the state, before going on to a career in politics eventually serving as President of Brazil from 2011 until she was impeached in 2015.

Courtney also explained that initial impetus for this project was the story of German-Brazilian icon Olga Benário Prestes. She was a Jewish, German, Communist revolutionary who was trained by the COMINTERN in Moscow before being sent to Brazil with the leader of the Brazilian Communist Party, Luís Carlos Prestes, in 1934 to assist him with the anticipated uprising.

She and Prestes went into hiding together after the failure of their attempted revolution in 1935 and she was arrested in 1936. Pregnant with the child of Prestes, her lawyers attempted to prevent here extradition through arguing that her unborn child was a Brazilian citizen and therefore could not be extradited under any circumstances. However, this argument was rejected and in September 1936 she was extradited to Nazi Germany where she was imprisoned until the birth of her child, which was returned to the Prestes family after 14 months.

Olga was then transferred to a concentration camp in 1938 and then a death camp in 1942 where she was murdered by the Nazi regime. She went on to become a well-known figure in Brazil and East Germany where she has streets named after her and appeared on stamps as a hero of the revolution.

Courtney concluded her talk by considering the tragic nature of most of these stories of female revolutionaries who, despite their later status and acclaim, often suffered greatly and died violently after witnessing the failure of their political projects. This contrast between how these women are regarded now and how they were regarded in their own time is important in understanding their evolving legacy and the extent to which these legacies have been interwoven with the grand narrative of Brazilian nationhood itself.

Jake Blanc (Edinburgh) offered a short comment, which reflected on the importance of this work for the overall field, given the relative decline of work on Latin American revolutionary women from a high point in the 1990s and early 2000s.

Amongst other things, he suggested that Courtney’s innovative approach has much to contribute to a revival of work in this field. Using gender as a lens to take in the broad sweep of Brazilian history is an ambitious but important and necessary contribution. By looking at snapshots of these women’s lives, and then tracing the developing narratives that surround these women over time, it will be possible to compare their image in the popular imagination with the snapshot of their lives to see how they have been represented and for what purpose.

Joe Gazeley is a PhD student in Politics working on the historical foreign and security policy relationship between Mali and Europe. His research focuses on recontextualising the 2013 military intervention in Mali and moving beyond ideas of state weakness by exploring the historical agency of a supposedly ‘weak’ state within an extraverted foreign policy relationship. He is a CSMCH steering committee member.