Brazilian biologist Bertha Lutz was one of the only four women to sign the UN charter

For a while, like most people, I had no idea what I wanted to do with my life. I’ve always loved to write but I also always loved history. When I chose to go to an art school to pursue writing, I was painfully aware that I was putting aside my opportunity to study history in a traditional sense. I thought that my writing would be relegated to the domains of journalism, personal essays, and short stories. It wasn’t until I took a historical nonfiction class and had the freedom to explore any topic I wanted for a blog assignment (which happened to lead to the creation of this blog earlier this year) that I realized I could merge both of my passions.

Bertha Lutz, a Brazilian zoologist who became one of the driving forces of women’s rights in politics, also managed to combine both of her passions of science and equality to create a powerhouse of a career. Her work in science helped her to regain her political rights in fascist Brazil, and her political prominence helped teach girls and women that it was okay to step outside of the home and take on careers in science and business.

Born in 1894 in São Paulo, Brazil, Bertha was exposed at an early age to science through her naturalist and physician father, Adolpho, who specialized in tropical medicine. The two would often travel together through rainforests, where Bertha began to study her favorite animal: tree frogs. She already had an extensive collection of specimens before she left for Paris to study biology at the Sorbonne.

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During her time in Europe, Bertha was exposed to the emerging suffrage movement in England. She did not think that their violent approach was the right answer, but she found that many of the cause’s ideas and those of the paralleling movement in the United States matched her own.

Unfortunately, they did not quite match those of the Brazilian government, who still believed that the only place for women was within the domestic sphere. In fact, Bertha found the popular sentiment when she returned home after graduating in 1918 was that the rights gained by women in both the United States and England would have no impact on Brazil.

She began to put out statements encouraging women to fight for their right to participate in society in other areas besides as a wife or mother, particularly in politics and business. “Women’s domain, all feminists agree, is in the home,” she said. “But nowadays the home no longer is just the space encompassed within four walls.”

As more and more women stepped forward to agree with her, she founded the Federação Brasileira polo Progresso Feminino (FBPF), or the Brazilian Federation for the Advancement of Women. While most of their initial aims applied mainly to upper-class, educated women, it was the first organization of its kind in Brazil and provided the first stride towards equality. One of the group’s biggest successes was persuading the government to admit girls into the Colégio Pedro II, the country’s most prestigious academy that groomed its students for positions of political power, allowing women to get a foot in the door.

From her work with the FBPF, she understood that, if she were to make some serious change, she would need to approach injustices from a legal standpoint in addition to a social one. She attended a law school in Rio de Janeiro in 1932 and then met with President Getúlio Vargas to negotiate the inclusion of women’s suffrage in his rewrite of Brazil’s electoral code. With her success, Brazil became the sixth country to allow women to vote.

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She went beyond suffrage and ensured the constitution recognized women’s rights, particularly the right to hold public office and earn equal pay, when she was appointed to the commission that rewrote the document in 1933. She drafted her “Thirteen Principles,” which served as a guide and reminder for the committee that women were the intellectual equals of men and that the constitution should reflect that in every way possible.

She was elected to Congress in 1936 and became the chair of the Special Congressional Commission on the Statute of Women. Unfortunately, the following year, President Vargas dissolved Congress with all other electoral politics as the start of his fascist dictatorship, referred to as the “Estado Novo,” or “New State.” Sure, women could still vote, but now there was nothing for them to vote for. Additionally, women’s rights were reduced to a clientelistic patronage system where organizations need to supply the national government with favors to earn support.

Surprisingly, her passion for science is what allowed her to not only rise above this new suppression but help to break it down. Vargas deemed art, science, and education necessary for the development of national culture, the cornerstone of his nationalistic Brazilian identity. Because of this, his government provided funds and support to art and science initiatives. Bertha, as an esteemed scientist, benefited from this, earning appointments to the National Museum as a naturalist in 1937 and to the Brazilian Inspections Council on Artistic and Scientific Expeditions in 1939.

In these positions, she received the opportunity to formulate environmental protection policies with other leading national and international minds in science. She also continued to study her beloved tree frogs, even discovering a new species, now known as the Lutz’s rapids frog. She published her research and scientific studies in scientific journals and helped to further women’s rights in science, even though women’s rights was a bit of a no-no in the Estado Novo.

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When delegates from countries belonging to the United Nations converged to sign the UN Charter in 1945, Vargas still had a tight grip on Brazil. However, he sent Bertha as one of Brazil’s delegates because of her many scientific accomplishments, allowing her passion of science to translate back into her desire for equality and gave her the ability to help prevent the return of international fascism. She signed the charter, one of four women to do so out of the 850 delegates, but she noticed that women were noticeable missing not only from the representatives present at the meeting but also from the language in the UN’s treaties.

She gathered a group of Latin American and Australian female representatives to include the following phrases in the Charter: “faith in fundamental human rights,” “the dignity and worth of the human person,” and “the equal rights of men and women.” After this, Bertha created the UN’s Commission on the Status of Women to ensure sufficient female representation.

She was met with disdain from an unlikely source: some of her fellow female delegates. These included Virginia Gildersleeve from the United States who told her “not to ask for anything for women in the Charter since that would be a very vulgar thing to do,” and Ellen Wilkinson from England who believed that gender inequality had already been solved by her appointment to the King’s Privy Council. Bertha told her, “I’m afraid not; it only means that you have arrived.”

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It’s odd that the very women who had inspired Bertha with their fights for suffrage were now dismissing her attempts for further progress. However, they were allowed to exercise their hard-fought right to vote while Brazil’s women had not. If you really want to motivate someone, take away the very thing she has fought their whole life to earn. She wrote in her memoirs, “the mantle is falling off the shoulders of the Anglo-Saxons. We [Latin-American women] shall have to do the next stage of battle for women.”

Her work in creating an international democratic framework that included a focus on women’s rights helped to weaken Brazil’s fascist rule, and Vargas was overthrown in a coup later in 1945. Bertha continued to work as an advocate for women’s place in both science and politics and representing Brazil and Latin American women at both a national and international level until her death in 1976.

While some might place Bertha’s exceptional work with tree frogs way down on the list of her accomplishments, I actually find it one of the most inspiring things about her. She made sure that, in between fighting for the rights of women to be whatever they want to be, she never lost sight of what she wanted to be. To me, there is nothing more rewarding than lending support to those in need while continuing to stay true to yourself.