The Historical and Contemporary Role of Women in Ecuadorian Society

Article 13.  Every Ecuadoran, man or woman, of twenty years of age who can read and write, is a citizen.
–Ecuador’s Constitution of 1929 (Flournoy 221)


By Hannah Poor

While Ecuador was the first Latin American country to grant women the right to vote in 1929, in practice Ecuadorian women have rarely enjoyed equal citizenship rights to men

When the Spanish colonized Ecuador, they brought with them the Catholic faith, which promulgated the cult of marianismo, or women’s emulation of the Virgin Mary.  According to this ideal, “Women are to be virginal and pure like Mary… Like Mary, they should accept the fate that is handed to them. In short, women are expected to be good wives and mothers, which typically includes self-sacrifice and putting one’s family and it’s survival above all else” (Stevens and Ehlers).  The arrival of Catholicism to Ecuador helped establish a patriarchal society where women were relegated to the domestic sphere and expected to submit to the will of their male relatives.

Catholic church in the Atahualpa parish, Ecuador (2010), courtesy of User Alfonfin

The patriarchal nature of Ecuadorian society was not diminished by the country’s independence from Spain. Marc Becker suggests that one reason for this heightened patriarchy in independent Ecuador was the exclusion of women from the Western democratic models on which Ecuador’s first constitution was based (Becker, “Citizens”). While only one of the nine constitutions adopted between 1830 and 1929 explicitly barred women from citizenship, their exclusion was implied in the rest.  Indeed, because of property and literacy requirements, suffrage was almost exclusively limited to elite white males; in 1830, only 2,825 people, or 0.3% of the population, were eligible to vote in national elections (Becker, “Citizens”).

Women and Indigenous Rights:

Women and Indians in Ecuador have often suffered from similar discriminatory practices employed by elite white males.  Both groups were subordinated under Catholic, patriarchal, colonial society; both were denied citizenship status and voting rights long after independence had been achieved, and both continue to face discrimination and under-representation despite nominal equality.  Because indigenous women are subject to discrimination because of both gender and race, as well as class, their lot is often referred to as the “triple burden” of indigenous women (Becker, “Citizens”).

The constitution of 1929 was adopted during the presidency of Isidro Ayora, who came to power in the junta established in 1926 (Cordero).  This constitution gave the vote to literate Ecuadorian women, although voting was not obligatory for women as it was for men.  While Ecuador was the first Latin American country to adopt such a policy, Becker insists that the new constitution did not, in fact, reflect liberal progressivism.  Rather, “women were associated with tradition, religion, and conservativism… The conservative political coalition which extended the vote to women in Ecuador in 1929 did so in order to create a bulwark against what they perceived as a growing socialist threat in society” (Becker, “Citizens”).  The move to allow women to vote was actually used to check more radical liberal forces in Ecuadorian society, including the growing feminist movement and the Communist Party; the latter included women and Indians in its leadership positions and pushed for citizenship rights for women, illiterate peasants, Indians, and urban workers (Becker, “Citizens”).  Furthermore, the continued stipulation in the 1929 constitution that citizens must be literate perpetuated the exclusion of most indigenous people from voting and other citizenship rights.

In 1944, an event called the May Revolution pushed women into the political arena.  The Revolution involved a popular movement against President Carlos Arroyo del Rio, and various women played important roles in this rebellion.  For example, Dolores Cacuango, an indigenous leader in Cayambe, organized an attack on a local army barracks; in Quito, white feminists arranged for protestors to circle the Government Palace; and following Arroyo’s resignation, white feminist Nela Martínez served as a minister of government for three days (Becker, “Citizens”).  However, when José María Velasco Ibarra became president shortly thereafter, he excluded women from his government and failed to acknowledge the contribution they made to the Revolution.  While the constitution drafted in 1945 incorporated many advances, including the elimination of child labor, the establishment of public education, and the recognition of workers’ right to strike, it did not grant further rights to women or Indians (Becker, “Citizens”).

In 1967, a constitution was drafted that made voting obligatory for Ecuadorian women as it already was for men (Hanratty).  Another constitution in 1979 dropped the literacy requirement for citizenship rights and forbade discrimination based on race or sex.  Nevertheless, women still played a very limited role in political life; in 1984 only 15% of congressional candidates were women, and only three women gained seats out of seventy-one congressional deputies (Hanratty).  In 1998, however, a new law came into force which declared that 30% of congressional candidates in 2000 must be women, and that by 2008 50% of candidates must be women (“Ecuador”). ).  A 1987 law also gave women equality with men in the areas of divorce, property rights, and inheritance rights.  Thus women in Ecuador have gained tremendous legal grounf in Ecuador in the last fifty years. Although, of course, law does not always translate into practice.

Indigenous female leaders have played important roles in the advancement of indigenous rights.

Dolores Cacuango, courtesy of Wikimujeres

The most important of these is Dolores Cacuango (1881-1971).  Cacuango, who led attacks on army barracks during the May Revolution of 1944, was also one of the founders of the Ecuadorian Federation of Indians (FEI), which attempts to promote economic development, cultural awareness, and unity among Ecuadorian Indians (Becker, “Race, Gender, and Protest in Ecuador,” 134). Born on an hacienda in 1881 in northern Ecuador, Cacuango worked as a servant in Quito from the age of 15, and later returned to the hacienda where she was born to advocate for indigenous rights (Becker, “Race,” 129).  Although illiterate, she helped set up the first Quechua-Spanish bilingual schools in Ecuador’s indigenous communities, organized hacienda workers in the fight for land rights and the end of the diezmos and huasicama systems, and served on the central committee of the Ecuadorian Communist Party along with white feminists such as Luisa Gómez de la Torre and Nela Martínez (Becker, “Race,” 129-130).

Tránsito Amaguaña, courtesy of Natalia Cartolini

Tránsito Amaguaña (1909-2009) is another woman who rose to prominence in the field of indigenous rights.  A mother by the age of 15, she nevertheless made over 25 trips on foot to Quito to bring indigenous demands to the central government, traveled to Cuba and the Soviet Union as a representative of Ecuadorian Indians in 1962, and became heavily involved in leftist politics (Becker, “Race,” 130-131).  She also helped to organize some of the first unions of agricultural workers and participated in the first strike of these workers in 1931 (“Tránsito Amaguaña”).  Despite the burdens of class, race, and gender, Amaguaña became an important voice for Ecuadorian Indians both in Ecuador and in the rest of the world.

Urban White Feminist Leaders:

Several white feminists in Quito also played important roles in forwarding women’s rights. Among the most influential was Nela Martínez (1912-2004), the daughter of an upper-class landholding family from southern Ecuador (Becker, “Race,” 131).  Born in 1912, she was an active member of the Communist Party from 1934 to 1956, and became one of its important leaders (“Nela Martínez. Un capítulo de la historia ecuatoriana”).  Along with other upper-class women in Quito, she helped found the Alianza Femenina Ecuatoriana (AFE) in 1939; this organization aimed to promote world peace and to help women become leaders in anti-government movements (Becker, “Race,” 131-132).  She also assisted Dolores Cacuango in the formation of the Ecuadorian Federation of Indians (FEI), and served as a Minister of Government for three days in the aftermath of the 1944 May Revolution (Becker, “Citizens”). In 1945 she participated in the National Assembly as a representative of the working class; in this position she advocated for women’s rights and sought to end gender discrimination in political and social life (Becker, “Race,” 131).  Martínez was also a skilled writer and wrote various poems and stories, as well as hundreds of articles about the condition of women in Ecuador and in support of the Cuban Revolution (“Nela Martínez”).  Throughout her life she forwarded the cause of Ecuadorian women both through her advocacy work and by serving as an example of a capable female leader.

Working alongside Nela Martínez was her older contemporary María Luisa Gómez de la Torre (1887-1976), more commonly known as “Lucha” (Becker, “Race” 132).  Born in Quito, she, like Martínez, was involved in the Communist Party, Alianza Femenina Ecuatoriana (AFE), and the Ecaudorian Federation of Indians (FEI); she also helped found the Ecuadorian Socialist Party in 1926 (Becker, “Race,” 132).  However, she is best known as a teacher; she became the first woman to teach at the prestigious all-male school Colegio Mejía in Quito, and also worked at the school Diez de Agosto, which served girls from poor families (“Maria Luisa Gomez De La Torre”).  Like other female leaders during this time period, she helped to break down centuries-old gender boundaries

Contemporary Issues Facing Ecuadorian Women:

Despite the many legal advances that Ecuadorian women have gained over the past century, many social problems continue to face women in Ecuador today, especially in rural areas.  Examples of such problems include high fertility rates, lack of access to contraceptives and prenatal care, sexual harassment in the workplace, and domestic violence (Ecuador Gender Review).  Domestic violence is a particularly pervasive problem; 42-60% of Ecuadorian women have been victims of domestic violence, despite the 1995 Law Against Violence Affecting Women and Children, which criminalized spousal abuse, created family courts, and gave legal support to victims of sexual harassment in the workplace (“Ecuador”).  Additionally, women receive only 65% of the pay received by men for equal work (“Ecuador”).

However, many advances have also been made.  The establishment of comisarias de la mujer, or police stations for women, has provided women with an alternative to remaining in an abusive home (Ecuador Gender Review).  In 2004 the U.S. State Department also identified over 320 organizations in Ecuador focusing on the economic, social, and political advancement of women.  The most prominent of these, the government-sponsored National Commission on Women (CONAMU), focuses on equal opportunities, public policy toward women, and providing loans for women-owned businesses (“Ecuador”).


While Ecuadorian women have come a long way in the last hundred years in the social, economic, and political spheres, they still face many problems in each of these areas.  Legal rights have not always translated to practical freedoms, and rural women are disproportionately affected by these issues.  However, as Ecuadorian women increasingly hold political office, work outside of the home, and seek redress for the problems that oppress them, there is hope that they will attain greater equality and influence in the future.


Annotated Works Cited:

Becker, Marc. “Citizens, Indians, and Women: The Politics of Exclusion in Ecuador.” Thesis. Gettysburg College, 1999. Web. 4 Apr. 2010. <>.

This article, which was prepared by Becker for presentation at the Conference on Latin American History in 1999, offers an overview of Ecuadorean citizenship requirements from the colonial period to the twentieth century.  The author focuses on the exclusion of Indians and women from Ecuadorean politics and gives details about the barriers and events that prevented them from enjoying full participation in political and social life.


Becker, Marc. “Race, Gender, and Protest in Ecuador.” Work, Protest, and Identity in Twentieth-Century Latin America. Ed. Vincent C. Peloso. Wilmington, DE: Scholarly Resources Inc, 2003. 125-39. Print

This chapter from a book on various issues in Latin America deals with the rights of women and indigenous peoples in Ecuador throughout the country’s history, focusing particularly on the first half of the twentieth century.


Cordero, Simón Espinosa. “Isidro Ayora.” EduFuturo. 2006. Web. 27 Apr. 2010. <>.

This article comes from the Spanish-language website EduFuturo, which contains information about Latin American historical figures, culture, and important events.


“Ecuador.” U.S. Department of State. 28 Feb. 2005. Web. 05 Apr. 2010. <>.

This lengthy overview of human rights issues in Ecuador was published by the U.S. State Department in 2005.  It provides basic information about Ecuador’s government and economy, and then delves into Ecuador’s record on human rights concerns, such as torture and disappearance, arbitrary arrest and fair trials, civil liberties, political rights, rights of women, rights of children, rights of disabled persons, rights of indigenous peoples, and worker rights.


Ecuador Gender Review: Issues and Recommendations. Washington, D.C: International Bank for Reconstruction and Development, 2000. Print.

This country study issued by the World Bank in 2000 examines in detail gender issues in Ecuador, particularly focusing on social and health issues such as domestic violence, lack of access to reproductive healthcare, and education.  It offers a variety of statistical data.


Flournoy, Richard W., and Manley Ottmer Hudson. “Ecuador.” A Collection of Nationality Laws of Various Countries. Concord, NH: Carnegie Endowment for International Peace, 1930. 221-24. Google Books. Google. Web. 26 Apr. 2010.  <>.

This book contains portions of important legal documents from a variety of countries.  The four-page section on Ecuador includes parts of the Constitution of 1929 and the Law of October 18, 1921.


Hanratty, Dennis M. Ecuador. GPO for the Library of Congress, 1989. Web. 26 Apr. 2010. <>.

This website contains a 1989 U.S. government country study of Ecuador.  It is an accessible compilation of information about Ecuadorian history, geography and climate, society, population, religion, economy, government, and politics.


“Maria Luisa Gomez De La Torre.” Fundacion De Campesinos Maria Luisa Gomez De La Torre. Fundacion De Campesinos Maria Luisa Gomez De La Torre. Web. 7 May 2010. <>.

This is the website for a development organization named after María Luisa Gómez de la Torre.  It offers information about her life and particularly about her role in advancing the lot of women and indigenous peoples. It is written in Spanish.

“Nela Martínez. Un capítulo de la historia ecuatoriana.” Los Andes. 13 Sept. 2006. Web. 7 May 2010. <>.

This article is from the Ecuadorian Spanish-language newspaper Los Andes, which contains national news about politics, sports, education, important events, and editorials.

O’Connor, Erin. Gender, Indian, Nation. Tuscon: University of Arizona, 2007. Print.

In this book the author examines patriarchy and liberalism in Ecuador from the time of its independence to the present.  She focuses especially on issues facing indigenous peoples in Ecuador and gender relations within these groups, but she also explores more generally the role of women in a patriarchal Ecuadorian society.


Stevens, Evelyn, and Tracy Ehlers. “The Marianismo Ideal.” Grinell College. Web. 26 Apr. 2010. <>.

This article examines the role of the Catholic Church and the cult of marianismo in Latin America, as well as women’s role in the Sandinista revolution.


“Tránsito Amaguaña.” EduFuturo. 2006. Web. 27 Apr. 2010. <>.

This article comes from the Spanish-language website EduFuturo, which contains information about Latin American historical figures, culture, and important events.


Women’s Empowerment Issues in Ecuador.” Foundation for Sustainable Development | Grassroots International Development | Intern, Volunteer, Donate. Web. 05 Apr. 2010. <>.

This website for the Foundation for Sustainable Development delineates many issues facing Ecuadorean women in the modern day and explains the foundation’s work in Ecuador to promote the empowerment of women.