The revolutionary role of women in Cuba

Mar 1, 2007

“Revolution within the Revolution.” This is what Cuba calls the struggle for women’s equality. This phrase is used because even though the social system and economic conditions in Cuba were fundamentally transformed by the revolution, social relations could not be completely changed overnight.

“Revolution within the Revolution.” This is what Cuba calls the struggle for women’s equality. This phrase is used because even though the social system and economic conditions in Cuba were fundamentally transformed by the revolution, social relations could not be completely changed overnight.

Before the revolution in 1959, the situation facing Cuban women was dismal. Illiteracy, unemployment, sexism, racism and exploitation all bore down particularly heavily on women. 

Working-class and peasant women could only find work outside the home in demeaning, low-paying jobs. Organized childcare remained extremely limited. Illiterate peasant women in Cuba found themselves economically tied to the land they farmed, which was mainly owned by the U.S. corporations that dominated the Cuban economy.

Cuban women suffered the extreme oppression that is characteristic of countries dominated by imperialism. In 1959, unemployment was rampant; malnutrition and hunger were widespread. A large percent of the population lived in thatched huts, shacks or single-room slum housing without electricity or running water. 

When women worked, it was mostly as personal servants for the rich. Many others were forced into prostitution to survive and feed their families. Contraception was generally unavailable and abortion was illegal. The general lack of medical care meant that 80 percent of all babies were not born in hospitals. Many died at an early age. 

But these horrific conditions would soon change.

Revolutionary consciousness and a mass upsurge lead to a triumphant revolution in January 1959, which broke the bonds of economic exploitation and laid the groundwork for social liberation for all workers, men and women alike.

Women played a significant role in this historic endeavor. Not only did many women fight in the revolution, but many took leadership roles in it. Women such as Vilma Espín, Tete Puebla, Celia Sánchez, Melba Hernández and Haydée Santamaría were among the leaders and heroes of the revolution who fought in the guerilla movement with Fidel Castro and others. 

After the revolutionary movement seized power, the institutions of the capitalist state were discarded and a new revolutionary government took shape that made significant changes benefiting workers and, in particular, women. One of the first obstacles for the new government to tackle was illiteracy. More than half of Cubans were illiterate, disproportionately women. 

Women played leading roles in the revolution’s literacy brigades that were formed to combat widespread illiteracy in 1961. These brigades consisted of young women and girls between the ages of 10 and 18 who traveled throughout the countryside to teach the people how to read and write. Their slogan was, “You will learn more than you teach.” The hard work of the brigadistas and tens of thousands of other women and men created the most literate society in the Western hemisphere. 

Women in the labor force

Before the revolution, only 12 percent of women were employed and only 19.2 percent of the work force in 1953 were women. Prostitution was encouraged by the old, neocolonial Cuban government.

However, government-led social programs changed this dramatically. Before the revolution, there were only 2,000 nurses in the country. By 1999 there were close to 80,000 women nurses. In 1953, there were only 403 women physicians. In 1999, there were 34,600. Cuba educates more doctors than anywhere in Latin America—half of whom are women.

Today, women in Cuba are 44 percent of the labor force. They are 66.4 percent of all technicians, mid-level professionals and higher-degree professionals. They make up 72 percent of all education workers, 67 percent of health workers and 43 percent of all science workers. These figures demonstrate women’s independence and contribution to the economic development of the country.

The Federation of Cuban Women

Before 1959, laws addressing discrimination and women’s equal status in society were not enforced. It was not until the triumph of the revolution that a socialist-oriented leadership would implement democratic reforms promoting gender equality.

In 1960, Cuba’s revolutionary leadership saw the pressing need to form the Federation of Cuban Women (FMC) to address women’s issues and work toward genuine gender equality. The FMC is a non-governmental organization that has an advisory role in all Cuban affairs relating to women. It is an organization that is actively promoted and supported by all leaders of the revolution and by Cuban government. It has over 3.8 million members and represents 86 percent of Cuban women. 

The FMC has worked cooperatively with the Cuban government to establish laws and move toward true equality for women. It helped establish infant daycare centers as government-mandated institutions. 

The FMC also helped achieve paid maternity leave, whereby women were entitled to six months’ paid maternity leave after giving birth, as well as another six months of unpaid leave. Then, in 2003, paid maternity leave was extended to one full year and granted also to fathers. This is unimaginable in the United States, where the average working woman is lucky to get any paid leave at all.

In addition, the FMC has helped establish many of the things Cuban women enjoy today like free medical care, expanded educational opportunities and equal pay. Along with other mass organizations, like trade unions and others, the FMC has made it possible for women to enter every area of the workforce. In 1975, the FMC was instrumental in shaping Cuba’s Family Code, which made it the legal obligation of men to share in the housework and childrearing responsibilities. 

Cuba’s Penal Code is also progressive. It severely punishes crimes of violence, especially rape and sexual assault. 

In over four decades, the revolutionary government, led by the Communist Party of Cuba, has passed many laws and legal regulations assuring the human rights of all people. There has been a conscious effort to push forward equality for women. These include laws that protect women’s reproductive and sexual rights, rights to family planning, health, education and social security and assistance, rights to housing, jobs and more.

The Cuban Constitution is one of a few constitutions in the world that guarantees equal economic, social and political rights for women. 

Women’s representation in government positions is one of the highest in the world. Cuban women hold 47 percent of the Supreme Court and 49 percent of judgeships, comprise 60 percent of public prosecutors and hold 36 percent of the seats in Cuba’s National Assembly.

Women’s gains affected by blockade

The steady advance of women in Cuban society was seriously impacted during the 1990s, as it was for all Cuban society, by the collapse of the Soviet Union in 1991 and the intensified blockade by the United States. Massive public transport shortages meant long hours for workers to travel between home and work. Women, who still carry out most of the household work, had to find the means to feed their families in the midst of fuel and food shortages.

The government and FMC worked together to try to relieve women’s burden. The working day was cut to six hours for women, so women workers could return home earlier. Food was equitably rationed.

Despite the severe difficulties, the Cuban women and the FMC rallied during the Special Period to resist the hardship. Women’s role, in the workplace and the home, was particularly heroic.

As testament to women’s resolve to help increase production in all spheres of society to help grow the economy, women’s participation in the labor force actually grew during the Special Period. In 1990, women were 38.9% of the work force; in 2000 it was 43.4%.

It started with socialism

Cuba has been able to do so much toward the liberation of women only because the working class was able to smash the capitalist state and begin the reconstruction of society on a socialist basis. 

Eliminating the capitalist market and guaranteeing all workers—men and women—the basic right to a job, health care, housing and education has laid the economic foundation for ending sexism and all other forms of oppression that we see under capitalism. Equal pay for equal work for women has never been in dispute in the Cuban revolution.

The struggle to end oppression and inequality can never happen automatically. 

The Cuban revolution is an example to women around the world of how tearing down the capitalist system and building a society based on people’s needs is the first step in opening real opportunities for women to end thousands of years of exploitation.