Paulina Luisi

Paulina Luisi was a leader of the feminist movement in the country of Uruguay. In 1909, she was the first woman in the country to obtain a medical degree and was highly respected. She represented Uruguay in international women’s conferences and traveled throughout Europe. She voiced her opinion on women's rights, and in 1919, Paulina started the force for women's rights in Uruguay. By 1922, the Pan-American Conference of Women named Paulina Luisi an honorary vice president of the meeting and she continued to be an activist until Uruguay gave women the right to vote.


Paulina Luisi was born in Argentina in 1875. Her mother, Maria Teresa Josefina Janicki was of Polish descent and her father, Angel Luisi was believed to have come from an Italian ancestry. Paulina Luisi was the first Uruguayan woman to receive a bachelor’s degree in 1899 and later the first female physician and surgeon that graduated from the Medicine School of the Universidad de la República (University of Uruguay, 1908). She was not only a physician but also a teacher and the primary editor of the magazine Acción Femenina. Throughout her career she held various positions and achieved more than any woman in her country had ever strived for.


The primary figures that Paulina Luisi drew aspiration from and who provided her with undivided support were her parents Angel and Maria. Her mother Maria encouraged her daughter to pursue her dreams despite the social stigma placed on women at the time. Her father, Angel, an educator and socialist, instilled in her “an uncontainable desire for justice and liberty.” Thus, throughout her life, Luisi recognized herself as a socialist and her attention was mainly focused on getting people to practice moral unity. By this she meant that all people should be aware of their responsibilities in a society. In her case, the main purpose of moral unity was to restrain the practice of prostitution, to check the spread of venereal disease, to protect the future of the human race, and to elevate motherhood from the realm of lust to that of progenitor and guardian of the species (Luisi, 1950: 30-31, 55-56; 1948: 37-39 in Little 1975: 391). Josephine Butler, a famous nineteenth century English moral reformer, had powerful influence on Luisi as well. Her fight against the Contagious Disease Act of 1864, and her founding of the International Abolitionist Federation in Geneva, Switzerland to curb the white slave trade (Chataway, 1962, in Little, 1975: 391) served as a continual source of inspiration for Luisi (Luisi, 1948: 24-26, in Little 1975: 391). Luisi’s feminist ideas were primarily built upon other movements occurring around the twentieth century. While Luisi was still a student, Argentine liberal feminist Petrona Eyle wrote to her, in her capacity as president of the Universitarias Argentinas (Argentine Association of University Women, affiliated with the American Association of University Women, or AAUW), recruiting her to join the organization. In a letter dated 1 May 1907, Eyle encouraged Luisi and her female colleagues in the university to form a Uruguayan branch of the Universitarias, stating that “although there aren’t many of you now, you will always be the nucleus around which others will come together” (Ehrick, 410). It appears that Luisi and others accepted this invitation and joined with their Argentine counterparts in 1907. Important also to Luisi’s insertion into Pan-American liberal feminist networks and in her propulsion to the leadership of still germinating Uruguayan liberal feminism was her participation in the Women’s Congress (Congreso Femenino) held in Buenos Aires in 1910 (Little 1975: 391). There she became acquainted with prominent Argentine feminists such as Alicia Moreau y Justo and Cecilia Gierson (Drier, 1920 in Little 1975: 391). Organized by the Universitarias, the conference brought together more than 200 women, representing Argentina, Uruguay, Peru, Paraguay, and Chile. It seems likely that it was at this conference that Luisi first came into contact with many of the leaders (or soon-to-be leaders) of liberal feminism in South America, and where she would establish her contacts and friendships what would endure for decades afterwards (Ehrick, 410). Trips to Europe brought her into contact with women such as Avril Saint Croix, president of the moral unity committee of the International Council of Women, and Jules Siegfried, president of the French National Council of Women (Acción femenina, 1917: 134 in Little 1975, 391) Feminism In 1917, Luisi published a definition of feminism in the magazine “Acción Femenina” stating: …demonstrating that woman is something more than material created to serve and obey man like a slave, that she is more than a machine to produce children and care for the home; that women have feelings and intellect; that it is their mission to perpetuate the species and this must be done with more than the entrails and the breasts; it must be done with a mind and a heart prepared to be a mother and an educator; that she must be the man’s partner and counselor not hi slave (Acción femenina, 1917: 48 in Little 1975: 387)

Achievements and Involvements

Paulina Luisi was the first Latin American woman that participated in the League of Nations as a government representative. She acted as Delegate of the Uruguayan Government to the Commission for the Protection of children and youth and for the fight against women and children trade. She was also a member of the Technical Commission and she was responsible of the examination of the women trade question. Besides being actively involved in government, Luisi was also involved in the classroom. She worked as a teacher at the Teacher's Training College for Women and as an advocate reaching out for social hygiene related to the teaching profession. Her lectures and arguments were specifically designed to introduce prophylaxis as a subject within the teachers' training syllabus. A controversial aspect of Luisi’s moral reform platform was obligatory sex-health education programs in the public school system (Little 1975: 394). She suggested having these programs first introduced in the primary schools and then continuing on to the secondary level. She defined sex education as the pedagogic tool to teach the individual to subject sexual drives to the will of an instructed, conscientious, and responsible intellect (Luisi 1950: 82-83 in Little 1975: 394). Classes in sex education would emphasize the need for will power and self-discipline, regular moderate physical exercise to burn up sexual energy, and the desirability of avoiding sexually stimulating entertainments (Little 1975: 395). As opposed to sex education, health education classes would focus more on the scientific aspects of reproduction of the species, natural history, anatomy, personal hygiene, and the prevention of venereal diseases (Little 1975: 395). Due to these suggestions, Luisi was called an anarchist and a revolutionary. She was also accused of wanting to teach students how to become prostitutes. However, in 1944, her suggestions about sex-health education were finally incorporated into the Uruguayan public school system. Luisi is also known for writing several papers addressed to students, as well as, to the general public which were included in magazines, brochures, and even in Congresses' acts. Some of these articles were: Prophylaxis of contagious diseases; Hygiene in human growth; Eugenics; Open air schools; Improvement of hereditary qualities, Social diseases; White slave trade and Regulations - a social disgrace; Regulations on prostitution; Fight against venereal diseases; Uruguayan women; Women and mothers' rights- l9l9 International Convention of Washington. Her articles even reached the American nations and many of them dealt with issues involving women liberation. Through her inspiring writing, Luisi was able to become the founder and primary editor of the magazine "Acción Femenina" (Feminine Action), which was primarily focused on topics revolving around women. She was fondly appreciative towards poetry and drama. Luisi is also known for being the chief figure in starting the Movement of women's liberation in Uruguay. First in a practical way, by developing new domains of activity for women, and later by organizing the first feminist associations in the country. She founded the Consejo Nacional de Mujeres (National Women Council), the Alianza de Mujeres para los Derechos Femeninos (Women alliance for women's rights), and the Uruguayan and Argentine branches of the International Abolitionist Federation. The two first feminine trade unions that ever existed in Uruguay - "Unión de Telefonistas" (Telephone Operators Union) and the "Costureras de sastrerías" (Seamstresses from Tailor's shops) were created by Luisi, and thanks to their action, many benefits were obtained for their members. As the secretary of the Abolitionist Committee of the River Plate, she made a significative contribution to reform the dispositions regulating prostitution in Buenos Aires. She not only organized but also chaired the University Women Association. In her later years, although retired from active life, she kept conscious of and attentive to social developments. At 65 years of age Paulina died in Montevideo. The Medicine School of Montevideo named one of the library pavilions of the Faculty after her.


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