Never believe in the tears of a woman.” On the verge of becoming one of Latin Americas leading intellectuals, José Ingenieros extracted this traditional wisdom from the tale of legendary gaucho Martín Fierro and incorporated it into his medical thesis.1 While Ingenieros did not usually quote from “the most expressive of the gauchesco poems,” he frequently interpreted other historical narratives to find a pattern for current events. In this case, Ingenieros was explaining that women had always lacked the physical strength with which to compete in the struggle for life, and therefore their evolutionary survival had depended on the refinement of fraudulent means to defend against the brute force of men. Of course, as social boundaries shifted amid the growth and mobility of turn-of-the-century Argentina, women were not the only group whose appearances might belie their true intentions. But as the warning suggests, they were a particularly troublesome group to positivist thinkers.

The positivist response to women has considerable interest because these writers were central to the project of modernizing a national ideology in the years after 1880.2 Often considered “the protagonists of a national conscience,” the Argentine positivists provided all political groups with an intellectual system capable of “organizing a nationality.”3 Although much of their work focused on the specific questions of their emerging disciplines, the most widely read authors engaged in more accessible ruminations, as part of a broader effort to invent what Hugo Biagini calls a caracterología argentina.4

This essay considers the female aspects of this caracterología as presented in the more popular works of three of the best-known Argentine positivists: José María Ramos Mejía, Carlos Octavio Bunge, and José Ingenieros. Such consideration affords many opportunities to contemplate these thinkers’ profound ambivalence about the place of women in the modern nation.

To read for gender in this literature is not simply to add sexism to the flaws of which the positivists already stand accused.5 Many of these men, and Ingenieros in particular, were champions of women’s rights. They took themselves seriously as bearers of progressive knowledge and paid studious attention to the “woman question,” particularly with respect to education and other social programs associated with the expansion of government responsibility.6 But their understanding of both social groups and political economy was based in biology and evolutionary Darwinism. They had faith in a science that served progress but also preserved inequalities as “natural, given, inescapable, and therefore moral.”7 The antiliberationist core of their knowledge could contradict their professed opinions. These contradictions are not only more interesting, but more revealing of their unsettled world, than the more predictably sexist aspects of their thought.

At stake, of course, was not only the future of the nation but the positions of intellectual leadership these thinkers hoped to consolidate. As Joan Wallach Scott has demonstrated, not only is gender an important aspect of social organization generally, but “meanings of sexual difference are invoked and contested as part of many kinds of struggles for power.”8 The positivists’ own struggle in this regard was no exception. In addition to creating knowledge that would orient policy, the positivists sought to create an institutional apparatus within the solidifying state from which to practice their professions and continue to influence government.9 They were devoted to science not only as a form of progressive knowledge, but also as the means to establish new forms of cultural power.10 Their efforts to make positivism into “an instrument of intellectual order,” capable of replacing religious views of reality, and scholasticism in particular, placed their own rational virility in opposition to a feminized Catholicism.11

The very structure of their arguments presupposed that the promise of modernity was masculine and the inertia of tradition was feminine. This was a significant distinction in Argentina, where the intellectuals of the Generation of 1880 were determined to build the new nation against the past rather than on its foundation, as Tulio Halperín Donghi has asserted.12 The church was weak in the mid-nineteenth century, but it remained a primary symbol of resistance to progress. And whereas in Europe positivism had resulted from the victories of natural positive science, in Latin America it anticipated and precipitated scientific culture.13 Thus it was with some urgency that the positivists contrasted their aggressively secular biologism with a doctrinal knowledge spread through the servile acceptance of irrational and static Catholic beliefs.

The positivists’ tendency to feminize the Catholic past was not, of course, solely the result of their desire to dominate sociocultural developments. It was hardly incidental that the vast majority of people who attended Mass were female. The historical loyalty of women to the church provided rich interpretive opportunities to blend the gender of knowledge with the gender of the group perceived as its primary believers. There was no shortage of real women who embodied commitment to a traditional order.

But if Spanish Catholicism, and quite often race mixture, were considered retrograde, they only partly explained the recurrent eruption of anarchy and disintegration that had plagued national politics since independence.14 The zealous search for a basis of national unity and political maturity was central to the positivists’ analysis of the insurrectionary excess of the historical “masses,” as it was also to their concerns about the governability of the contemporary popular classes.15 These analyses were guided by the belief that the laws of human physiology applied to social groups as well. This permitted positivists “to study social insanities as we would those of morbid individuals,” to use Ramos Mejía’s phrase.16 The concept of a body politic was not new, but its particular ungovernability in the Argentine case could be efficiently described with gendered images.

Again, Scott clarifies how “hierarchical structures rely on generalized understandings of the so-called natural relationships between male and female.”17 Because the positivists sought, in their historical works, to explain inappropriate hierarchies, they often made recourse to the unnatural relations between male and female. Their best example was the regime of the tyrant Juan Manuel de Rosas (1829–52). Positivist accounts of historical evolution often began in the ancient world, but it was Rosas who symbolized the caudillismo that needed to be overcome. It was Rosas who represented the historical difficulties of the transition from colonial subjection to independent nationhood, and it was Rosas whose undeniable popularity was attributed by some to the impassioned disorder of feminized popular groups in response to his abuse of a sexualized power.

Improperly channeled sexual passion also constituted a threat to contemporary society in the cities. The immigration of European laborers and the dramatic increase in prosperity had not automatically produced the desired social developments. Indeed, modernity did not always inspire complacence in evolutionary progress; it also inspired fears of degeneration. This was especially the case in Buenos Aires, where the sexual imbalance and unhealthy materialism linked with immigration were most evident. The disorder of the urban underclass might also be feminized in its failure to respond to the science of the institutions that positivists deemed the appropriate motors of social change.

Thus, as positivists considered their specific positions on questions of women’s education, married women’s rights, or women’s suffrage, they did so within a wider discourse. This discourse was rife with ambiguity, for female threats to scientific progress might be constituted as symbols either of the old order or of the present disorder. Gender, moreover, as a system of representation that marked progress, difference, and hierarchy, often merged with other systems of binary understanding.

The most Argentine of these dualisms was the opposition between civilization and barbarism, articulated so powerfully by Domingo Sarmiento at midcentury. The contrast between European civilization and the American gaucho was not directly reducible to male and female. Francine Masiello has shown how Sarmiento himself used female voices to raise questions about progress and tradition.18 As anarchism and working-class insurgency were increasingly associated with immigrants, the automatic connection between Europe and civilization lost salience. Even before this, however, Sarmiento’s final works, in the 1880s, had concentrated more on the unfavorable consequences of Spanish interbreeding with people of color.19 As the positivists took up this theme, their writing sometimes slipped into a curious kind of internal orientalism.

The desire to place Argentina in the evolving (rather than degenerating) branch of Western civilization was marked by criticism of any association with a fictive Asia. As Edward Said has characterized the common Western assumption in the nineteenth and twentieth centuries, “the Orient and everything in it was, if not patently inferior to, then in need of corrective study by the West.”20 In Argentina, this spirit of “corrective study” inspired the denigration of all things Eastern, sensual, or servile in order to precipitate the triumph of the Western, rational, and virile. Sometimes this was set up as the “Asian despotism” of the Catholic church, but more often it came into play with the “inferior races.” Carlos Bunge, for example, emphasized that the indigenous peoples of the Americas were survivors of a prehistoric Asian emigration. This accounted for the “Oriental fatalism” of the Aztecs and Incas, and also for the “Oriental cruelty” of the mixed-blood gaucho.21 Not even this tenuous contact with the East, moreover, was necessary to explain the servility and sensuality of Africans. Bunge was actually more tolerant of race mixture in women because it increased their sexual appeal—especially among the ligerísimamente amulatada22

The spirit of corrective study was also shaped in the Argentine case by the high incidence of medical men in the ranks of positivist writers. The work of Hugo Vezzetti is very convincing on this point. “Etiology, clinic and treatment, diagnosis and prognosis; the moments of medical analysis appear as the necessary steps in the intervention over the community and its conflicts. . .. The pathological reveals the normal.”23 This logic led the positivists to study all their interests (work, sexuality, functions of government, family harmony, and other bourgeois values) by examining the defects of idleness, vice, and uncontrolled passion in the past and present society.

While gender was part of a variety of systems that could signify difference, however, it was not simply a linguistic code with no meaning for women’s lives. On the one hand, writers used the feminine to convey meaning as it was shaped by their vision of the society in which they lived. It did not correspond to an unchanging standard (no matter how hard they worked to make it appear that way). On the other hand, the gendered images they constructed in their writing continued to produce knowledge about sexual difference for the readers of those accounts. The texts selected for this essay demonstrate, virtually without need for elucidation, the powerful way the Argentine positivists constructed the category of woman.

Gender in Discourse and Practice

Discussion of the impact of female society on positivist thought, however, would not have been possible before the recent work of several key scholars. Hugo Vezzetti is one. While gender is not central to his history of madness and the alienists whose work defined it, his work is richly suggestive of the ways the female, both real and fantastic, shaped the discourse and practice of the emerging professions concerned with mental illness and social hygiene. Social historians, however, have uncovered more knowledge about women’s lives. The work of Donna J. Guy constitutes a crucial foundation in this respect.

Sex and Danger in Buenos Aires (1991) not only provides a concrete history of the efforts of positivist public officials to control women who existed outside family structures, but highlights other discursive formulations as well. Guy shows how, in a city on the verge of modernization, “prostitution became a metaphor for upper- and middle-class fears about the lower class and the future of the Argentine nation.”24 In their efforts to define women’s tasks as those of nurture and reproduction, elites ignored the relations between women’s work, the Argentine economy, and uncurbed male sexual desire. Female prostitution came to be seen as “the origin of urban disorder instead of its economic and social consequence.” The problem of controlling prostitution thereby was conflated with the more general issue of the potentially revolutionary working classes, and it formed the core of debates about political authority, gender, and class relations.25

Guy’s close attention to the ideas of the officials seeking to control this female disorder underscores how gender operated in their thought. The most telling example is that of physicians, who believed, even after the advent of germ theory, that they could eliminate venereal disease by treating women alone. Disregarding not only the existence of male prostitutes but also the evidence that customers infected female prostitutes, hygienists and politicians continued to pursue policies that contradicted their own medical logic. Similarly, many were unable to overcome gender-based moral judgments of women, rather than using the same scientific or class-based explanations that they applied to male criminals.26

In the same account, however, Guy discusses the willingness of some local positivists (including Ingenieros) to resist the theories of European criminologists, who believed that women’s desire to become prostitutes stemmed from inherent biological defects. Their faith in the ability of social science to cure the ills of Buenos Aires compelled them to consider the explanatory power of immigration and urbanization in understanding the difficulties of modern life, contrary to the biological determinism that characterized much of their thinking.27 Thus, Guy’s work emphasizes the interpretive power of gender, but also points out the ambiguities involved in this process.28

From a different disciplinary perspective, Francine Masiello has also examined what she calls the “national masculine imagination” by analyzing the “changing representation of women in the field of lettered culture.”29 As she hypothesizes,

When the state finds itself in transition from one form of government to another, or from a period of traditionalism to a more modernizing program, we find an alteration in the representation of gender. A different configuration of male and female emerges.30

In her discussion of the “creole gentlemen” of the Generation of ’80, Masiello calls attention to uses of the “pseudoscience of positivist thought” to explain the disruptions associated with modernization. These disruptions included both the disorder of new, largely immigrant popular groups and the entrance of women into wage labor and civil society. Not surprisingly, therefore, intellectuals seeking to control this combined threat theorized the means to inspect and eradicate social deviance in a discourse that idealized family unity.31 Masiello’s work builds on Guy’s in providing examples of how these discursive strategies came to focus on female excess, often associated with foreign prostitutes. Masiello is more concerned with literary fiction than with essays or official documents. But she demonstrates how “modernismo and fin-de-siècle positivism share a fear of the femme fatale.”32

According to Masiello, the positivists used “scientific discourse” to account for “divisions between public and private life, between domesticity and the workplace and market outside the home.”33 Had these divisions existed more concretely, men of letters would not have had to work so hard to create them. But the widespread ideological appeal of this division of labor to modern liberalism was also available to women. Masiello considers the variety of female writers who used the purported values of home and family to subvert the categorization of women as a lower step in the hierarchy of beings. Many of the period’s most articulate women offered scientific arguments that more emancipation would result in greater social progress. But some women writers also felt threatened by social unrest. Masiello’s analysis of the women’s periodical press includes examples of this “elite feminine culture [that] echoed the masculine voice, joined in unison to thwart the pending invasion of otherness.”34

Particularly interesting is the Peruvian-born novelist Clorinda Matto de Turner, who moved to Buenos Aires and founded a journal for women. Initially, El Búcaro Americano (1896–1901, 1905–8) endorsed science and technology to improve domesticity and to usher women into the modern age. Yet by 1906, Matto de Turner was devoting her paper to a more conservative motherhood, promising to glorify patrician women by

publishing portraits and biographies of those venerable matrons whose example should be represented to new generations to invigorate the ties of the Argentine family, in whose homes we should fan the holy flames of patriotic devotion.35

The institutional Catholic reaction to the changes associated with modern life also tended to conflate the role of women and the role of the masses. According to Sandra McGee Deutsch, “the two issues were so intertwined that the Catholic views of female status not only indicated attitudes about women but symbolized and expressed attitudes about the laborers’ ‘rightful’ lowly place in society.”36 Deutsch’s work on this period also shows, however, that many local clerics and lay thinkers endorsed a somewhat surprising range of activities for women, including wage work and the vote, because these activities did not necessarily interfere with a hierarchical organization of society. Although they often supported antidemocratic political groups, many local Catholic spokespersons viewed the situation of poor women “compassionately and, for the most part, realistically.”37

The church, moreover, in keeping with its vision of the family as the basis and model for all social hierarchies, did not ignore the power of mothers. Woman owed “honorable and dignified” obedience to her husband, “chief of the family and head of the wife,” but she, in turn, could expect love and obedience from sons and daughters.38 To what extent poor women, and especially single mothers, may have been empowered by such visions is very difficult to determine, but such pronouncements were a clear mandate to thousands of more privileged women, who organized into voluntary associations during the years after 1880 and especially after the financial crash of 1890. Such groups envisioned themselves as mothers and all the poor as children when they went about their redistributive and evangelical work. But the actual clients of such organizations were almost exclusively women.39

The obligation to charity was as old as Catholicism itself, but it had traditionally been the province of elite families. The matrons of the Beneficent Society had expanded the possibilities for public-spirited women, but relatively few emulated them until the late 1880s, when membership in Catholic women’s associations mushroomed. To take the most prominent, the first Conferencia de Señoras de San Vicente de Paul was founded in July 1889, and by December 1892, 52 others were operating, with a total of 7,800 members. By 1914, the capital alone would have 35 conferencias with 12,266 members.40 This movement can be understood best as a response to the immigrant-driven social changes occurring in the cities, especially Buenos Aires.

For the positivists, however, the activities of benevolent matrons bordered on anathema. They interpreted them as a completely inappropriate vestige of an archaic social doctrine. Nevertheless, the prestige these women enjoyed among wide sectors of the population and their relatively unrestricted access to the homes of the poor made them, and their definition of motherhood, difficult to ignore.

If foreign (anarchist) prostitutes functioned as potent symbols of social disorder, Catholic matrons (de buen apellido) were, to the positivists, equally potent symbols of a social order that was almost as abhorrent, and certainly more threatening to their own prestige. To embrace the family as a metaphor for the modern nation was, therefore, a more challenging strategy than it first appeared. Before they could endorse the family as a corrective therapy to the disorder of women (and of the popular classes more generally), the positivists had to empty the notion of motherhood in particular, and female in general, of any association with a kind of power that could be manipulated by women themselves.

Obviously, individual intellectuals organized their beliefs with different combinations of the elements in this social and symbolic universe. Ramos Mejía, Bunge, and Ingenieros by no means exhaust the range of possibilities, but they represent provocative variations on these themes. While this essay cannot do justice to the fullness of any of these men’s intellectual accomplishments, it tries to convey the flavor of their thought and their use of gender within it.

José María Ramos Mejía: Controlling the Power of Women

José María Ramos Mejía (1849–1914) was a key figure in the Generation of ‘80. Coming of age during the 1870s, he was active in organizing medical students at the Universidad de Buenos Aires, where he received his medical degree in 1879, and he continued to work tirelessly for the professionalization of medicine both in the university and in the expanding realm of public health. In the former area he also pioneered the study of nervous disease from the chair created for him by the Facultad de Medicina in 1887. In the latter area he created the Asistencia Pública of the municipality of Buenos Aires and served as its first director, beginning in 1883. His career combined intellectual pursuits, municipal and national politics, and directorships of prestigious public agencies.41 Widely respected as a leader in both science and letters, Ramos Mejía exercised a crucial influence in the practice of psychiatry and in the field of psychosociological history.

For Ramos Mejía during his formative years, el mundo era todavía criollo, as Hebe Clementi suggests.42 During the 1870s and 1880s, disorder associated with popular groups and urban growth began to assume troubling proportions, but the situation appeared to be as much a product of the Argentine past as of the problems of immigration. In much of his writing, he was concerned with diagnosing what he considered to be the pathological aspects of Spanish Catholicism and the political system of Rosas so that these might cease to jeopardize the health of the modern nation. While the Generation of ‘80 celebrated anticlericalism as a means for political unity, for Ramos Mejía anticlericalism remained central to his intellectual development.

Events during the 1880s helped to focus anticlerical attention on women. The most festive of these events was the demonstration by two hundred elite women before the national senate in 1883. The senators were debating the organization of primary education, including the stipulation that it should be secular. The señoras, justifying their unprecedented intervention in official politics by appealing to their higher calling as mothers, petitioned for the preservation of religious education for their children.43

Far more serious to Ramos Mejía and his hygienist colleagues, however, was the continuing dominance of the Sociedad de Beneficencia over government hospitals for women and children. This association of elite women appeared ill qualified to administer orphanages scientifically, much less medical institutions. Yet the Sociedad became part of the Ministry of the Interior in 1880, and with the cooperation of its own doctors, resisted the repeated incursions other hygienists mounted from the municipal base of the Asistencia Pública.

The Sociedad de Beneficencia had no official ties to the church (though the socias were certainly Catholic). Nevertheless, its detractors painted it as an obsolete remnant of Catholic charitable practice. Its opponents were repeatedly outraged when the agency received far more generous government funding than the struggling Asistencia Pública. Ramos Mejía was chronically chagrined that the women of the Sociedad not only refused to take orders from the Asistencia Pública but obstructed some hygienists’ access to many of the women they found medically or psychologically interesting.44

It is no surprise that Ramos Mejía’s historical works include some rather unappealing portraits of female leaders, but these were set in the context of the scientific questions that were his primary concern. His fascination with the potential for what he called “hereditary degeneration” led him to study the effects of madness among national leaders, as well as the development of mental disorders among entire peoples. In an early investigation of the Spanish national character, he examined the religious fanaticism of the sixteenth century as he would any other mental pathology. Nor was it a coincidence for him that this period of religious turmoil also witnessed an unusual number of powerful female rulers,

by whose hand and design the politics of the feminine sex stirred and shook all the peoples of Europe with their natural inclination to intrigue. . .. What those hysterics would not do with their exceptional virtuosity for intrigue and dramatic deceit!45

Although Ramos Mejía found evidence of madness in most of Europe’s ruling dynasties, he was most interested in how Hapsburg derangement had contributed to religious fanaticism in Spain. Thus, while his book features considerable discussion of Catherine de Medici, with her court of “neuropath women,” and Elizabeth I of England, whom he paints as a hysterical crypto-Catholic, the heart of the study deals with the Spanish Inquisition. Even in that context, however, Ramos Mejía devotes an inordinate amount of discussion to a dynamics of the Inquisition more germane to an analysis of gender.

The Santo Oficio could never have prospered, he asserts, without informers to denounce its victims, and the most important source of this activity was the convents for female religious. Ramos Mejía demonstrates a certain sympathy for the daughters of nobles who entered the convents without vocation and had to endure “the melancholy tedium of the afternoon,” though his professional opinion is that they represented “a very rich contingent of nervous pathology.”46 Their “only consolation” was in lesbian relationships and the gossip of the court for as long they had access to it. But with enclosure and other reforms imposed by the Council of Trent, the melancholy of the nuns was transformed into hysteria, and the convents came to “constitute the most abundant source of witnesses and informers sui generis in the process of the Holy Office,” even after they themselves came under suspicion.47

Ramos Mejía’s attention to the spiritual, and in some cases sexual, welfare of these cloistered women at first obscures that he is essentially blaming the “success” of the Inquisition on them. His characterization of “over-exalted feminine imaginations, which cannot be tranquilized except by denouncing,” cannot be attributed entirely to simple sexism, though of course it is that, too, and as such was widely shared by the sources on which he based his study.48 It also exhibits his belief in the ability of the subordinate to encourage the wrong leaders, even against their own best interests.

By making religion central to the analysis of women’s motives, however, Ramos Mejía went beyond the danger represented by women of the popular classes potentially to include all women. Piety escaped the confines of rational discourse in the same way sexuality did. They were likely, moreover, to appear together.

It will no doubt seem curious that mystic fervor, in its most exalted proportions naturally, may be a clinical equivalent of overexcited sexual instinct, as psychiatry seems to demonstrate. The history of fanaticism and of madness, philosophy and the clinic, teach that these two opposite feelings are frequently paired.49

For Ramos Mejía, the female nature of mystical belief was a natural phenomenon: “in the normal brain the tendency toward mysticism remains a simple tendency, and the warm devotion of the pious spirits of women and the simple souls of certain men is its most genuine expression.”50 He acknowledged that religious excess was possible among men, not only in the epileptic Great Inquisitor, Torquemada, but also among his minions, whose zeal led them to sexual abuse. But in various other situations, such as his discussion of multiple personalities, he was much more interested in prostitute-nuns. He was also fascinated with Teresa de Jesús, the mystical nun and writer of seventeenth-century Spain, in whose literary works the “celestial lines of the saint transform themselves, under a certain heated atmosphere, into those of a veiled hetaera who burns in the transports of sensual love.”51

Ramos Mejía was not alone in his fascination with the mixing of piety and sex. Much official concern fastened on the “repugnant mixture of fanaticism and licentiousness” exhibited by working women, especially prostitutes, who “often display in their rooms a multitude of religious images, rosaries, illuminated niches, etc. [and] . . . invoke the aid of the virgin and some saint of their devotion to favor them in certain acts of their licentious life.”52 But for Ramos Mejía, the disorder of women, especially among the poor, was possible even without religion.

Las multitudes argentinas (1899) returns to the problem of a people that adulates the wrong political leaders. This work, which adopted rather uncritically the doctrines of Gustave Le Bon on the mentality of crowds, was another in which Ramos Mejía’s use of social science strained the credulity of his peers. Ingenieros described Las multitudes as a “brilliant fantasy composed by a man of talent about an equivocal doctrine.”53 This equivocal “law of mental unity in crowds” posited that men in a multitude descend in their level of civilization to “pure instinct, almost animality ” which has nothing to do with the “calm and serene ratiocination that is the privilege of the thoughtful man.”54 As opposed to thoughtful men, the crowd is rather explicitly feminized.

Crowds are impressionable and inconstant like impassioned women, pure unconsdous; . . . lovers above all of violent sensation, of bright color, of noisy music, of handsome men of great stature; the multitude is sensual, rash, and lusts after the pleasures of the senses. It does not ratiocinate, it feels. It is hardly intelligent, reasons poorly, but imagines much and deforms; it wants everything grand, bombastic, because it lives in a perpetual moral gongorismo [baroque convolutions], amplifying and magnifying everything to megalomaniacal proportions. Enchanted with legends of bright colors, in its hands everything is transformed into a fairy tale or demented fantasy not because of artistic temperament or demanding aesthetic faculties, but rather because, lacking the ballast of the superior functions of the spirit, it surrenders everything to sensation and the tendency toward the superstitious grandeur . . . which its susceptible imagination conceives.55

This rather dramatically gendered characterization of a generic crowd is not uniformly invoked in Ramos Mejía’s accounts of Argentine history. Early uprisings during the colonial period were not feminine but rather “infantile” attempts. The more mature crowd that repulsed the British invasion of 1806–7 reflected the coming of age of an adolescent on the verge of manhood. This victory represented the “first virile effort” of a crowd that needed no encouragement to demonstrate its patriotism. Once the handsome Santiago de Liniers took charge of operations, however, the crowd, mujer al fin, was smitten by this man of the world. The problem for Ramos Mejía is not so much the submission of the crowd; the problem is that Liniers is the wrong man, admittedly charming but in no way great.56

The worst offender is not Liniers, of course, but rather “that man so beautiful, so white,” Rosas himself. For Ramos Mejía, the consistency with which the popular classes voted for Rosas is best explained by comparing them to a prostitute who has

finally met the handsome souteneur, who would rob her of the fruits of her labor, bloody her flesh between protests of strange love and the needs of their unconditional adhesion. For 25 years she surrendered to him the sap of her life, amid the cries and guffaws of the host of the tyranny, who also sought the smiles of his capricious victim. And when some pious countryman sought to liberate her from her beautiful victimario, with haughty anger and the impulses of a violent irritation she would raise herself up brutally proud and, why not say it, sometimes heroic, claiming the right and the pleasure to let her face be lashed by the heavy hand of her implacable master.57

Is this part of the brilliant fantasy to which Ingenieros referred? It is certainly a brilliant example of the gendered manner in which Ramos Mejía understood political dominance, and perhaps a “paradigm of the power desired by the oligarchy.”58 Clearly, Ramos Mejía had come to appreciate the style of Rosas well beyond the revisionist’s admiration for one who imposed order on anarchy. Elsewhere he confessed to preferring the “strange and peculiar beauty” of leaders like Rosas or Urquiza to the more prosaic Belgrano or Washington.59

More important than his admiration for Rosas, however, is his grudging respect for the crowd as lover. Ramos Mejía casts the actions of the popular groups as illegitimate, unconducive to the family of the nation. In this sense, the crowd can only be a whore, choosing illicit pleasure over quiet submission to a more appropriate husband. At the same time, however, this female has real power, even if she uses it to her own (and the country’s) detriment.

Ramos Mejía could be moved by the plight of the poor facing endless misery and injustice, but this did not qualify the downtrodden to choose their own leaders.60 He agreed with Ingenieros that sexual passion was a good thing, “absolutely necessary and natural, derived from an indispensable biological function.”61 But his readers, past and present, might also understand from his writing that women could not be trusted to manage their sexual energy in the best interests of the race, rather than choosing inappropriate partners or wasting their passion on religious excess.

Ramos Mejía could write very disparagingly about women, whether they were heads of state or humbler individuals. But he also appreciated a certain potency in women as a category, and the “masses” as well, even as he worked to bring these groups under more secure control. Ramos Mejía never exalted motherhood, and never admitted the usefulness of any religion except his own faith in scientific institutions to rationalize society. He acknowledged the power of women, but did not conceive of it as constructive. To bolster the strength of women could only obstruct the progress of the nation. To control it was the only intelligent option.

Carlos Octavio Bunge: An Evolutionary Logic

Although conversant with scientific culture and particularly keen on Darwinism, Carlos Octavio Bunge (1875-1918) was neither a biologist nor a physician. This sets his thought apart from that of Ramos Mejía (and Ingenieros). Bunge did not follow Ramos Mejía in the clinical study of mental illness, but his ideas about psychology were vital to the way he applied evolutionary principles to his interests in law, art and literature, education, and government.

The Argentina in which Bunge began writing was a much different place from that of Ramos Mejía’s youth. Bunge’s ideas were part of a wider moral interrogation that Argentine elites undertook following the Baring Crisis of 1890. As Oscar Terán has suggested, the “flight toward moralism” was a symptom of the lack of alternatives to the economic program of the 1880s, which had actually precipitated the financial crash.62 Bunge came of age during a time when evolutionary notions of inevitable progress were challenged by the demonstrated ability of humans to turn prosperity into disaster.

The crisis also raised new questions about the ability of immigrants to accustom themselves to Argentine social and cultural mores. Over the next two decades, concern about immigrants would be shaped by fears of working-class organizing and anarchist sedition. This situation was exacerbated, moreover, by the government’s unwillingness to extend political participation to wider sectors; power continued to circulate among the elites. Bunge worried that scientific advances and material progress were in themselves insufficient bases for the organization of a nationality and the prevention of degeneration. “Where is it headed, this anemic contemporary humanity, vaguely degenerate and perhaps decadent? What new ethics will substitute for the old social ethics?” he asked.63

During the 1890s, womens benevolent associations seized considerable initiative in adapting “the old social ethics” to the exigencies of modern life. By 1900, not only was the Beneficent Society a fixture in the government, but the legislature also had begun to vote sizable subsidies to the steadily proliferating Catholic agencies.64

Cooperation between liberal government and Catholic philanthropy in pursuit of social cohesion was not unique to Argentina, but the almost exclusive reliance on women volunteers was. The speed with which privileged women organized indicated their eagerness to contribute to national peace and progress, but it also showed the extent to which the “social question” could be addressed in terms of family formation.

As the idea gained currency that the revolutionary potential of the urban, and especially the immigrant poor could be diffused by fomenting stabler family life among them, many male reformers began to acknowledge the role of elite women as important allies. To the extent that family was a workable metaphor for nation, women took on an increasing voice in defining the responsibilities of motherhood. After 1890, the potential for disorder among the popular classes was often represented by the numbers of women and children abandoned or working for wages. But elite women represented themselves as a force for order precisely because of their ability to assist these and other unfortunate individuals.

Generally, women’s presence was implicit in Bunge’s concept of “social psychology,” with which he elaborated his ideas about the psychic factors that induced humans to live in society (in addition to their instinct for the preservation of individuals and the species). One important factor that separated man from the animals was the aspiration toward improvement. The task of science was to facilitate this aspiration.65

Gender was useful, however, in helping to distinguish between societies of different levels in Bunge’s discussion of the limits racial composition had imposed on the development of the Americas. Bunge believed that particular psychic characteristics that he identified with each racial group were key to understanding the evolution of political pathologies throughout Latin America. He was particularly concerned that centuries of miscegenation had increased the likelihood of racial degeneration. His descriptions of persons of mixed blood often featured hermaphroditic characteristics, a penchant consistent with his orientalist tendency to feminize the nonwhite. Sometimes this ingredient was subtle, as in the representation of Rosas as “Spanish intellectualism” and his gaucho followers as “Malayan sensuality.”66

Sometimes it was less subtle, as in the fable Bunge offered to unlock the mysteries of local politics in his most widely read work, Nuestra América (1903). During the colonial period, this myth ran, there were three perfidious criollas, all daughters of the same father. One was a hispanoindia named Sloth, one a mulata named Arrogance, and one a zamba named Sorrow. All three were involved with black magic, and when their father, a proud gachupín, discovered this, he denounced them to the Inquisition in Lima. With the aid of the devil, they escaped to the jungle, but God cursed them through the mouth of the Gran Inquisidor, declaring that they were no longer worthy to be women, and thus, women they would cease to be. They would be incapable of love, infertile, and therefore neither wives nor mothers. After some difficulty, the sisters circumvented this anathema by adopting a newborn monkey and nursing her with their blood. The little creature prospered, inheriting all the worst characteristics of the women who raised her, until one day Satan showed up, announcing that he had come for the baptism of his goddaughter. As padrino, he got to select her name, which was, of course, Política Criolla. He blessed her with a long and glorious life.67

This fable is particularly Bungian in the way it assigns certain personality traits to racial categories and in its feminization of mixed races in a subordinate position to the pure-blooded Spanish male. But it also touches on themes that recur throughout the positivist literature: that política criolla was based in the illegitimate relations of domination perpetrated by the Spanish conquerors; that women tended to escape the bounds of this relationship through religious excess—in this case, black magic; and that society could slip perilously back down the evolutionary ladder if it persisted in these behaviors.68 For Bunge, Rosas was a bad caudillo (emulating the gachupín and the Gran Inquisidor) for encouraging a political arrangement based on reciprocal arrogance and sloth. Bunge’s hero was Porfirio Díaz, who brought order to Mexico with science and the northern European respect for work.

What is singular about Bunge, however, is how his attention to the social construction of gender (though he did not call it that) coexisted with his racial determinism and orientalist style. Like most positivists, Bunge assigned crucial importance to education as the key to progress.69 It was in his research and theorization of education that he demonstrated an understanding, unusual among the group, of how male-authored texts misrepresented or overlooked women.

Bunge’s historical account of women in Western civilization included a discussion of how differently the great social and intellectual movements had affected women and men. This distinguished him from the majority of his contemporaries, who saw steady liberation for women as concomitant with the progress of the West. The typical view was that no matter what the problems of Christianity, it lifted women out of the abject servility of the ancient Near East; the Renaissance released them from spiritual slavery to their confessors, and so forth.70

Bunge, in contrast, believed that social options for women, and men’s ideas about them, expanded during feudalism, but that the “feminist tendency of the Middle Ages was counteracted by the humanism of the Renaissance,” a charge from which he exempts only Vives and Erasmus.71 The Enlightenment, too, failed women, though Bunge gives feminist credit to several philosophers during this period and concentrates his critique on Jean-Jacques Rousseau.72 The socialism of the Second International represented “absolute feminism,” with the belief that women would be emancipated only with a complete reorganization of society. Bunge himself, however, espoused a more “relative feminism,” closer to what the socialists called bourgeois and which he characterized as “moderate, practical, and opportunist.73

Besides taking issue with universalist historical narratives, Bunge argued that contemporary social analysis was distorted by the operation of gender. Characteristics attributed to the male were prized more highly because males had more power and could therefore reward those traits. In a related and crucial way, men’s near-monopoly on writing created characteristics for women that did not correspond to the personalities of the vast majority of females, but instead reflected the “masculine invention of the mujer poetizable.”74 This kind of analysis was rare enough in early twentieth-century texts that it would seem exceptional on its own account, even among authors who did not write short stories with such titles as “Feminine Perfidy.”75 In Bunge s writing, however, the power of these ideas is circumscribed by the pivotal importance he places on the “natural” differences between men and women. Thus his discussion proceeds in a way at once familiar and surreal to the postmodern reader. Unaware of the woman’s evolutionary need to defend against violence with fraud,

theologians have created an “ethics of truth” that prizes such things as sincerity, generosity, and loyalty, and labels as “perverse” the “feminine” aptitude for fraud. . . . Let us suppose for a moment that the woman was normally stronger than the male. . . . Let us suppose as well that, in spite of being stronger she still possessed her feminine aptitude for fraud.. . . Which would be the ethic that predominated in human society? We admit—the feminine, the ethics of fraud. Truth, loyalty, initiative would become “perverse” conditions; the man would be perverse. Only the effeminate man—like today’s manly woman—would be exempt from original sin. The peccatum originale would not be the ruse of Eve, but rather the impulse of Adam.76

As Bunge rendered the well-known positivist concern, “the aptitude of the female in fortifying herself with beguiling appearances constitutes her best means of subsistence and victory.”77 So pronounced was this idea that Bunge could imagine women superior but not trustworthy. His prescription for the improvement of society was not to improve the climate for honest women by reducing the violence of men, however. For the “relative feminist” Bunge, such a prescription was unthinkable, because sexual difference and the evolutionary behaviors associated with it were vital to the propagation of the species.

Bunge found the solution to his concurrent desires for propagation and social ethics in the writing of Charles Darwin. Darwin asserted that in all species, males tend toward greater variability and females toward greater stability. In the male, the “Law of the Individual Formation, or of Evolution” prevails, whereas in the female it is the “Law of Heredity.” According to Bunge, “in all species the female looks more toward the past than the male, and the male more toward the future than the female.” And after measuring the positive and negative aspects of the human female, Bunge concluded that while “the male is superior to the woman in the great arts of progress, [he is] inferior in the no less great art of conservation of the species.”78

Bunge thus provided the evolutionary logic underlying a belief in the importance of women for maintaining social order. While the “eternal feminine” is “instinctive and organic in the woman, it is necessary to cultivate it, to intensify it, to refine it.” This was to occur through the educational system. He did not believe that women wishing to imitate men should be barred from higher education, but in the mass of women it was crucial to conserve the type “de la mujer mera esposa y madre, de la mujer hembra mamífera, de la mujer mujer.”79

Thus every woman, no matter what her eventual professional involvements might include, must be educated to know her natural primordial place in the home, “el punto céntrico del círculo de la familia.” All women must know everything about how to run a household and how to educate small children. It is a sign of Bunge’s dismay with contemporary leadership that he recommended that this education begin among the close directora, and proceed down through the other social strata.80

Bunge was not the most optimistic of philosophers, and his faith in progress was tempered by the need to regulate its pace. On the one hand, white men were to lead, with their impulse and initiative for work, away from the stagnant society of the Spanish colony. But on the other hand, excess materialism and the will to decadence needed to be counteracted by reinventing family life with women as the punto céntrico, to prevent the degeneration of the species. Men were to ensure this outcome by instructing all girls in the socially necessary doctrines of sexual difference.

Once women understood their responsibilities to the species, there was, in Bunge’s estimation, no reason to limit other educational opportunities. In some professions (such as gynecology and the teaching of young children), female professionals might well bring greater progress. As for unduly disrupting the time-honored division of labor in other fields, the tiny numbers of women attempting to do so did not alarm Bunge. He was prepared to leave the matter to natural selection, and he advised against state intervention, in the form of disqualifying women for admission to university or to professional practice.81

Bunge s endorsement of women s entering higher education was progressive, even if he preferred that this occur after all women were safely schooled in the requirements of sexual difference, a branch of learning with no counterpart for men. Hygienists throughout this period made sharper demands for special gendered education for girls, usually in connection with other measures to reduce infant mortality.

It would be preferable that a woman . . . of humble condition, destined by her social position to sustain and aid the family with her personal work, have less knowledge of arithmetic, literature, and astronomy, and in contrast, know more about hygiene.82

The irony, of course, was that such education was available only in Catholic schools (and not to hygienist specifications), because the National Council of Education continued to endorse one curriculum for both sexes. In the final analysis, Bunge falls well within the mainstream argument, endorsed by conservative and feminist women alike during this era, that women needed to be educated to ensure their success as mothers of the future citizens of the nation.

The fascinating thing about Bunge, however, is the path of his logic. The idea that women, properly instructed in their responsibilities as mothers, might form the bulwark of the social order was one espoused by much of the administrative elite. For Bunge to provide scientific support for this idea, however, was not as simple as it might seem, because he had to account for smaller crania and other observable evidence of women’s supposed inferiority. Yet he believed in this inferiority, in spite of his thoughtful consideration of gender as a social construction and his discussions of the historical origins of social limitations placed on women. Given the velocity of social change in turn-of-the-century Buenos Aires, it is understandable that philosophers might hold fast to the evolutionary importance of sexual difference as they adjusted to women’s new social roles in the marketplace and even the university.

José Ingenieros: The Virility of the Mind

José Ingenieros (1877-1925), by contrast, appeared more comfortable with the concept of changing roles for women. Although he was almost an exact contemporary of Bunge, the crisis of the early 1890s bred in him a more pronounced radicalism. If Bunge classified himself as a proponent of “relative feminism,” surely Ingenieros could be identified with “absolute feminism.” During the late 1890s, his views on women, as well as his views on worker activism, differed not only from those of Bunge but from those of the principal strategists of the Socialist Party, such as Juan B. Justo.83 His complete rejection of monogamous marriage was much closer to the views of many anarchist thinkers.84 Given a political climate in which it was impossible to legislate even divorce, the views of the young Ingenieros were daring indeed.

Like Bunge, Ingenieros provided a historical trajectory to support his ideas about women and marriage, but his emphasis was much different. Rather than following the evolution of philosophical writing, Ingenieros placed women’s economic dependency at the center of his analysis. Women were slaves in the ancient world, vassals under feudalism, and asalariadas under capitalism. Juridical equality between men and women was therefore “subordinate to the leveling of their social and economic conditions.”85 On the basis of this logic, Ingenieros imagined that socialism would include an amorous liberation that would usher in a system he called afectividad multiple. Individuals would

emancipate themselves from the yoke of monogamy, extending themselves fully in their affective potential over one or more individuals of the opposite sex and uniting sexually with them in mutual consent and for the time that their affinity lasted.86

As in the anarchist utopia, this would require the socialized care of children.

Ingenieros believed that psychic differences between the sexes were not innate but acquired, though he limited the implications of this proposal to the idea that both sexes experienced “affective emotions of a sexual character toward various individuals of the opposite sex.” Afectividad multiple would produce the best situation for natural selection, and thus for the species. Clearly, by prizing the evolutionary value of sexual desire over the conservationist value of marriage, he was much bolder than Bunge. But in suggesting that women’s amorous capacities were equal to those of men he was in a class of his own.87

The young Ingenieros was also able to blend his Social Darwinism with a defense of the downtrodden. According to his analysis, Argentina exhibited an economic system in which workers—those who produced—were exploited by a class that did not produce and was therefore parasitic. The directing class lived not only in idleness but through authoritarian excesses that prevented the popular sectors from obtaining the information they needed to revolt. Posed this way, capitalism obstructed the free development of aptitudes demanded by the natural laws of science.

For Ingenieros, the “most fit” in the struggle for life, and therefore the people most important to the future of the race, were not the rich but the minority who possessed knowledge.88 Although a lifetime of social analysis would alter many of the convictions he held as a young man, the importance of the minorías activas remained constant throughout his work. This group had a duty to shape politics and government, based on their proximity to knowledge and their consequently greater ability to interpret social change.89

Such advocacy of an intellectual minority was entirely consistent with the larger phenomenon of the professionalization of writing during this period, as a new generation sought entry into elite circles through the mobility provided by the university.90 Ingenieros was unquestionably a key figure in this movement, and to some extent this distinguished him from both Ramos Mejía and Bunge. But for the purposes of this article, the more important point is that his minorías activas were always imagined as male.

In the first decade of the new century, Ingenieros reached a steadier accommodation with the intellectual bureaucracy as a student in the Facultad de Medicina under the mentorship of Francisco de Veyga and José María Ramos Mejía. Oscar Terán has best described how the biological principles that medical men brought to sociology combined, in Ingenieros’ case, with the materialist understanding of history. Like Ramos Mejía, Ingenieros investigated the pathological to reveal the normal, with all the usual parallels between disease and social crisis. But the language in which Ingenieros communicated his bioeconomismo took on a much more scientific precision, and often reads in a more neutral way than the prurient ardor of Ramos Mejía or the orientalist labeling of Bunge. (Ingenieros’s potential for orientalism was reduced by his overt contempt for people of color. In his mind, the “Argentine race” was white.)91

Ingenieros also enjoyed a far better developed structure of opportunity than had the youthful Ramos Mejía. By the time he wrote his thesis in 1900, Ingenieros had moved away from his insurrectionary impulses to a more nuanced understanding of the “social question.” Government and its analysts needed to identify and discipline the “social parasitism of the degenerate” among the urban poor, on the one hand, and on the other provide for the “just protection of the working classes.”92 By 1901, Ingenieros was employed as a doctor in the Servicio de Observación de Alienados run by the Buenos Aires police, and he served as the Servicios director from 1904 to 1911. In addition, he became director of the Instituto de Criminología in 1907. Not only had the field of psychology developed in 20 years, but the discipline of criminology offered seemingly unlimited opportunities to a man like Ingenieros.93 Again, unlike the young Ramos Mejía, Ingenieros did not have to compete with the Beneficent Society for government funding, because the matrons’ administrative authority did not extend to correctional institutions.

Nor did the disorder of working-class females alarm him unduly. The number of women arrested even for petty crime was very small compared to the number of men. While most of those arrested were prostitutes, the liberality of Ingenieros’ views on sex were such that he did not consider prostitution a criminal act.94 If he felt strongly about other kinds of wage labor for women, he chose not to reveal this in his commentary on the Ley González of 1904, which proposed to limit the number of hours and kinds of employment available to women workers. Evidently woman’s “psychic equality” for sexual desire did not extend into the workplace, where she required protection “not only because of her physical constitution and her procreative destiny, but also for her role in the family of the worker, the indispensable base of its social and moral elevation.”95

Any female potential for providing social order was also unlikely to appear in Ingenieros’s writing, for he believed that progress for the family would come as the state took over more responsibility for the socialization of children. Although his espousal of afectividad multiple mellowed considerably over the years, his views on marriage could never have supported the framework essential to Bunge’s notions of woman as the punto céntrico of the family. Ingenieros acknowledged the importance of the “maternal instinct,” the ensemble of habits with which all species protected and ensured the development of their descendants. But this instinct was called maternal only because it was “generally better developed in the spouse that lays the eggs, the mother.”96 In contemporary human society, the training of offspring was a much more complicated affair; and to the extent that the current form of the family had developed to carry this out, it sacrificed the interests of the parents in favor of the children. The patriarchal, monogamous family was an institution Ingenieros wished to reform.

It goes almost without saying that Ingenieros had little use for the Catholic matrons, whose ability to impart to poor women the essential components of Argentine motherhood brought them respect from other quarters. Indeed, Ingenieros wrote more disparagingly of philanthropic enterprise than most of his colleagues dared. Nor was he content to dwell on its alleged economic inefficiency, but instead he went straight to the heart of the Christian ethic. According to Ingenieros, Christ had preached a “morality of slaves,” which exalted the aptitudes of the servile; “humanity, resignation, piety, compassion, and charity” formed an ethics of the weak that countermanded evolutionary principles. Jesus “triumphed with his tears, not with his power.”97

Early in the new century, Ingenieros was more taken with Nietzsche’s morality of the strong, which he believed to be “in harmony with the fundamental laws of biology; . . . [it] aspired to an evolution of live species that surpassed man, currently the superior form.”98 In this respect, too, he differed from Bunge, who identified Nietzsche with a “religion of degenerates.”99 Ingenieros adopted a more subdued philosophy of ethics in his later works, but it never extended to a reconsideration of philanthropy.

In 1911, Ingenieros resigned from the Instituto de Criminología and left the country because President Roque Saenz Peña failed to appoint him to a faculty chair, which his biographers agree he deserved.100 After that break, his writings moved toward a broader consideration of the ethical, along with the intellectual criteria he considered necessary for successful government. Beginning with El hombre mediocre (1913), Ingenieros distanced himself not only from the conservative and Catholic elements of the Argentine elite, but increasingly from its reformist element as well. In this examination of the differences between superior and mediocre beings, the aspect of his value system critics mention most often is its adherence to the vigor and ideals of youth. Its relentless masculinism has received less attention.101

In this work, “domestication” signals the worst that can befall a nation. Ingenieros cast doubt on the future of a country that denied able young men access to the state apparatus, which continued to be colonized by old, mediocre leaders. He was alarmed by the dangers inherent in “the systematic submission to the will of the powerful . . . which reinforced domestication and had the inevitable consequence of servility.”102 The “habit of servitude brought sentiments of domesticity, in courtesans just as in peoples.”103 A submissive people feared virtuous leaders because they threatened custom. Such people were not men but shadows.

Shadows, covered with egalitarian mold, live with the yearning to castrate firm characters and decapitate winged thinkers, unable to pardon them the luxury of being virile or having minds. The lack of virility is praised as a refinement, the same as with caballos de paseo. Ignorance seems a coquetry, like the elegant doubt that troubles certain fanatics without ideals.104

Ingenieros never went as far as Ramos Mejía did in sexualizing the “courtesan peoples,” but his minorías activas undoubtedly were men. The constant association of virility with the mind is more important to a gender analysis of his work than his occasional lapses into more overt sexism.105 Domestication carried a feminine stigma, but in his discussions of marriage, Ingenieros made it clear that he wished to release women from the unsuitable aspects of domestic life as much as he wished this for men. This desire is very clear in the collection of his later writings published in 1925 as Tratado del amor, and nothing matches Ingenieros’s vision of utopian marriage. But he never theorized women’s existence outside of marriage. He never imagined what they would do once the state took over. He never imagined them as capable of joining men in the important work of the century, as potential candidates for the intellectual elite that was such an important component of all his thought.

Tratado begins with his ruminations on creation myths among the ancient Greeks. According to Ingenieros, Eros was the most ancient of the Greek gods and the creator of all the rest. “Eros dominates the intelligence and the wisdom in the breasts of all men and all gods. He is, in the end, the most beautiful of the gods.” Aphrodite, in contrast, came from the East, and after her arrival Eros ceded mythical importance before the “cult of the new goddess of Love.” For Ingenieros this meant that “the speculative symbol of a metaphoric force gave way to the concrete representation of a natural force,” though he admitted that Aphrodite “brought a smile to Olympus . . . with all the charm of her inextinguishable voluptuousness.” Still, he reports with more than a tinge of regret how poets attuned to a growing popular audience “imported Aphrodite from the Semitic Orient. . . supplanting the cosmogonic myth of Aryan origin.”106

Modern readers have every reason to celebrate the inextinguishable voluptuousness of Aphrodite along with Ingenieros, and to mark his belief in women’s capacity for and right to sexual pleasure on a par with men, as well as his ideas for how marriage might be reorganized in a contractual way that would make it possible for both men and women to indulge their sexual desires and unite solely on the basis of love. But most of his discussion of sex and marriage is also conceived in terms of the mass of people and the possibilities for natural selection among the species. Above this mass of people stands a masculine elite that pursues the life of the mind. In his exhaustive attention to this elite, the female disappears altogether.

Final Thoughts

In the decades after 1880, the modern nation of Argentina took shape out of the considerable social turbulence of this vital transition period. The nation’s economic and demographic growth was accompanied by equally dramatic changes in the possibilities for women’s lives as they made inroads into new areas of employment, education, the professions, and politics. For the most part, the positivists understood the expanding opportunities for women as essential to the country’s modernization, especially in terms of education. At the same time, however, the positivists disseminated knowledge about sexual differences that provided crucial reinforcement to the old hierarchical understanding of relations between men and women.

Their proposals to lead the nation into the modern world depended on positive natural science to supplant Catholicism as an organizing cultural construct. Like the much-admired Herbert Spencer, Argentine positivists scoffed at the religious justifications for the subordination of women even as they reinscribed gender hierarchies “in nature.” The exigencies of heredity, natural selection, and the future of the race provided the discursive field in which the positivists most often encountered the female. Yet the conclusions reached by different thinkers reflect not only the fluidity of the social order but the flexibility of the scientific method.

For Bunge, domestication represented the pinnacle of women’s development and the guarantee against racial degeneration, while for the more adventurous Ingenieros, domestication represented the path to mediocrity and worse. Despite these important variations, however, the consistent message was that women were most important to society in their capacity as breeders, and most likely to succeed in this capacity when their “natural” inclinations were guided by the “serene ratiocination” of men.

While this message was sometimes stated directly, as in Bunge’s work on education, it was also conveyed in the gendered images used to fix the meaning of other social hierarchies, especially political culture. The political situation of the early twentieth century represented a considerable advance over the caudillismo of the Rosas period, but the “people” still could not be trusted. It is just possible that both Ramos Mejía and Ingenieros had more respect for the spirited whore whose perverse loyalty sustained Rosas than for the domesticated courtesan who failed to object to the mediocrity of Saenz Peña. That Saenz Peña sponsored a long-awaited electoral reform did not absolve him of his support for Catholicism or his failure to recognize the intellectual superiority of Ingenieros.

It would be an oversimplification to draw a straight line from the spirited (if occasionally hysterical) women evoked by Ramos Mejía through the species-saving women of Bunge to the women of Ingenieros, who disappear completely outside the discussion of love and marriage. But such a line is useful to keep in mind in contemplating the line that crosses it, the one that runs from Ramos Mejía’s refusal of any authority to women, through Bunge’s qualified endorsement of higher education for women, to Ingenieros’s favorable position on the improvement of married women’s legal rights, including divorce. Women’s expectations changed as the organizing principle of society shifted from that of the family to that of individual rights.

The positivists were not the only thinkers whose work recorded the contradictions of gender in a changing world, but their ideas remained central to other philosophical systems. These thinkers probably did not even consider the possibility of social equality for women; they were not, after all, theorists of democracy but of a scientific basis for leadership. Unfortunately, the variety of ways in which positivists demonstrated that it was “natural,” and even necessary, for men to lead were imported into other ideologies that did proclaim a more democratic outlook. The most obvious example of this is the Socialist Party, which combined similarly progressive platforms with a firmly hierarchical gender structure.107

At the same time, the positivists provided only limited incentives for women to leave the church given their overt competition with Catholic culture and their perception of women’s importance to the maintenance of that culture. Motherhood was the defining characteristic of womanhood, and the positivists reinforced this even as they sought better control over the prerogatives of mothers. Women undoubtedly benefited from improved medical care, and middle- and upper-class women embraced the notion of “domestic science.” But motherhood remained a risky business, and Catholic discourse offered women a certain mystery and symbolism more powerful than the punto céntrico. It also offered compassion to those for whom motherhood was a hardship. Fearing the disorder of female sexuality and piety, the positivists left proponents of the traditional order in a very advantageous position to bid for women’s loyalty.

The positivists counted on public education to wean women away from “superstition” toward their own approach to reality. The flow of new ideas, however, was more likely to have an impact on women who reached secondary and university levels, which required considerable effort even from those who could afford it. An important majority of feminists were schoolteachers and university graduates, but they were still a small minority of women.108 The feminist Ernestina López had no use for the church or the beliefs it inspired in women, but she admitted that “if women take refuge too frequently in the church, it is because other doors that lead to the pleasures of the spirit have been closed to them.”109

It is not clear that the positivists moved far enough from Sarmiento to believe women capable of absorbing such pleasures of the spirit. Sarmiento wrote, “Woman has been born to believe and not to doubt or to investigate, and it would be sad to bring uncertainty or doubt to her mind, which is impotent to embrace abstract truths”; or so he was quoted by Rosario Vera Peñaloza, who went on to compliment him for “opening the doors of the school” to girls anyway.110

The positivists’ work, moreover, contains little to undermine the belief that intellectual women were “unnatural.” But their commitment to educating women in the modern world helped ensure women’s opportunity to decide for themselves, and to discover the flaws in the positivists’ arguments.

Research for this article was undertaken with the financial assistance of the Interdisciplinary Humanities Center of the University of California at Santa Barbara. I am grateful to the center and to Mané Lagos, David Rock, Brad Brown, Devaughn Williams, and the HAHR reviewers for their helpful criticism and advice.


It is Fierro’s second son who receives this advice from the Viejo Vizcacha in La vuelta del Martín Fierro, by José Hernández, 1879. “Y menudeando los tragos / aquel viejo como cerro / no olvidés, me decía, Fierro / que el hombre nunca ha de creer / en lágrimas de mujer / ni en la renguera del perro.” Quoted in José Ingenieros, La simulación en la lucha por la vida, 15th ed. (Buenos Aires: Losada, 1961 [1900]), 106.


See Oscar Terán, Positivismo y nación en la Argentina (Buenos Aires: Puntosur, 1987); Carlos A. Mayo and Fernando García Molina, El positivismo en la política argentina (1880–1906) (Buenos Aires: Centro Editor de América Latina, 1988), 5; Hugo Vezzetti, El nacimiento de la psicología en la Argentina. Pensamiento psicológico y positivismo (Buenos Aires: Puntosur, 1988), 12–18. See also Charles A. Hale, “Political and Social Ideas in Latin America, 1870–1930,” in The Cambridge History of Latin America, ed, Leslie Bethell (Cambridge Univ. Press, 1986), 4:367–96.


Arturo Ardao, “Assimilation and Transformation of Positivism in Latin America,” in Positivism in Latin America, 1850–3900: Are Order and Progress Reconcilable? ed. Ralph Lee Woodward, Jr. (Lexington, Mass.: D. C. Heath, 1971), 14.


Hugo Edgardo Biagini, “Presentación,” in El movimiento positivista argentino, ed. Biagini (Buenos Aires: Belgrano, 1985), 17.


Biagini’s list includes determinism, empiricism, biologism, ethnocentrism, cosmopolitanism, agnosticism, and reliance on the principles of “the struggle for existence.” Ibid., 18.


On positivists and government activism, see Oscar Terán, En busca de la ideología argentina (Buenos Aires: Catálogos, 1986), 15–23; and Vezzetti, El nacimiento de la psicología, 13.


See Donna J. Haraway, Simians, Cyborgs, and Women: The Reinvention of Nature (New York: Routledge, 1991), 8. Though Haraway concentrates principally on the United States, her discussions of the “invention and reinvention of nature” as a “crucial cultural practice” provide interesting parallels.


Joan Wallach Scott, Gender and the Politics of History (New York: Columbia Univ. Press, 1988), 6.


Hugo Vezzetti, La locura en la Argentina (Buenos Aires: Folios, 1983), esp. chap. 1.


See Nancy Leys Stepan, “The Hour of Eugenics”: Race, Gender, and Nation in Latin America (Ithaca: Cornell Univ. Press, 1991), 41. See also Vezzetti, La locura en la Argentina.


For positivism in the struggle against scholasticism, see Leopoldo Zea, The Latin American Mind, trans. James H. Abbott and Lowell Dunham (Norman: Univ. of Oklahoma Press, 1963), 27.


Tulio Halperín Donghi, “1880: Un nuevo clima de ideas,” in El espejo de la historia. Problemas argentinos y perspectivas latinoamericanas (Buenos Aires: Sudamericana, 1987).


Ardao, “Assimilation and Transformation,” 12.


A particularly useful discussion of nineteenth-century ideas about race in Argentina is Eduardo A. Zimmermann, “Racial Ideas and Social Reform: Argentina, 1890–1916,” HAHR 72:1 (Feb. 1992), 23–46.


Vezzetti, “El nacimiento de la psicología,” 19.


José María Ramos Mejía, La locura en la historia (Buenos Aires: L. J. Rosso, 1933 [1895]), 126.


Scott, Gender and the Politics of History, 48.


Francine Masiello, Between Civilization and Barbarism: Women, Nation, and Literary Culture in Modern Argentina (Lincoln: Univ. of Nebraska Press, 1992), 25–27.


See Domingo F. Sarmiento, Conflicto y armonías de las razas en América (Buenos Aires: La Cultura Argentina, 1915 [1883]).


Edward W. Said, Orientalism, 1st Vintage Books ed. (New York: Vintage Books, 1979 [1978]), 40.


Carlos Octavio Bunge, Nuestra América (ensayo de psicología social), 6th ed. (Buenos Aires: Casa Vaccaro, 1918 [1903]), 123.


Ibid., 241.


Vezzetti, La locura en la Argentina, 15.


Donna J. Guy, Sex and Danger in Buenos Aires: Prostitution, Family, and Nation in Argentina (Lincoln: Univ. of Nebraska Press, 1991), 44.


Ibid., 75.


Ibid., chap. 3; idem, “White Slavery, Public Health, and the Socialist Position on Legalized Prostitution in Argentina, 1913–1936,” Latin American Research Review 28:3 (1988), 60–80.


Guy, Sex and Danger, 91–94.


For a slightly later period, see Guy’s discussion of the parallel manner in which prostitution and marriage structured international debates on the national citizenship of women, in “ ‘White Slavery,’ Citizenship, and Nationality in Argentina,” in Nationalisms and Sexualities, ed. Andrew Parker et al. (New York: Routledge, 1992), 201–17.


Masiello, Between Civilization and Barbarism, 2.


Ibid., 8.


Ibid., 88.


Ibid., 91.


Ibid., 88.


Ibid., 102.


Clorinda Matto de Turner, Editorial, El Búcaro Americano 6:43 (June 15, 1906), 622, quoted in Masiello, Between Civilization and Barbarism, 101.


Sandra McGee Deutsch, “The Catholic Church, Work, and Womanhood in Argentina, 1890–1930,” Gender and History 3:3 (1991), 320.


Ibid., 319.


Quotations from Pope Leo XIII, Arcanum divinae sapientiae, encyclical, 1880, in Deutsch, “Catholic Church,” 309.


See Karen Mead, “Oligarchs, Doctors, and Nuns: Public Health and Beneficence in Buenos Aires, 1880–1914” (Ph.D. diss., Univ. of California, Santa Barbara, 1994), chaps. 2–3.


See Las Conferencias de Señoras de la Sociedad de San Vicente de Paul en la República Argentina. En el 250 aniversario de la fundación del Consejo General, 1889–1914 (Buenos Aires: Compañía Sud-Americana de Billetes de Banco, 1914).


Ramos Mejía was a national deputy (1888–92), president of the National Department of Hygiene (1893–98), and president of the National Council of Education (1908–13). Ingenieros wrote perhaps the warmest biographical sketch of him as the prologue to Ramos Mejía’s Neurosis de los hombres célebres en la historia argentina, 3d ed. [2d re-edition] (Buenos Aires: L. J. Rosso, 1927).


Hebe Clementi, “José María Ramos Mejía (1849–1914),” in Biagini, El movimiento positivista, 397.


“Crónica parlamentaria. Principios de la cuestión religiosa,” and “Manifestación de damas,” La Prensa (Buenos Aires), Aug. 26, 1883. A synthesized account of these events is in Mead, “Oligarchs, Doctors, and Nuns,” 34–41.


The Sociedad flies from the 1880s contain many letters from Ramos Mejía demanding such things as medicines from the Sociedad’s pharmacy (1883), orphans on which to try animal vaccines (1884), and cadavers for the Facultad de Medicina (1886). Libro de Actas, Sociedad de Beneficencia, Archivo General de la Nación, Buenos Aires, leg. 8, fols. 374, 387, and leg. 9, fol. 113, respectively.


Ramos Mejía, La locum en la historia, 219.


Ibid., 331–34.


Ibid., 335, 340–43.


Ibid., 340. Here Ramos Mejía is quoting from Juan Antonio Llorente, Historia crítica de la Inquisición de España [Madrid: Imprento del Censor, 1822].


Ramos Mejía, La locura en la historia, 276.


Ibid., 174.


José María Ramos Mejía, Los simuladores del talento en las luchas por la personalidad y la vida (Buenos Aires: Félix Lajouane, 1904), 99–105; quotation p. 101.


Emilio R. Coni and Lucio Meléndez, Consideraciones sobre la estadística de la enajenación mental en la provincia de Buenos Aires (Buenos Aires: Pablo Coni, 1880), a report prepared for the provincial government in 1879, quoted in José Ingenieros’ historical study La locura en la Argentina (Buenos Aires: Tor, 1955 [1918]), 160. Ingenieros’ work quotes extensively from that report.


José Ingenieros, “Crítica sociológico,” in Sociología argentina, 7th ed. (Buenos Aires: L. J. Rosso, 1918 [1906]), 123.


José María Ramos Mejía, Las multitudes argentinas (Buenos Aires: Tor, 1956 [1899]), 9.


Ibid., 12. Emphasis original. Gongorismo refers to the poet Luis de Góngora y Argote (1561–1627), known for similar phrasing.


Ibid., 70–71.


Ibid., 176.


Vezzetti, La locura en la Argentina, 120.


Ramos Mejía, Simuladores del talento, 164.


See, e.g., ibid., 256–62, where Ramos Mejía describes sympathetically a visit to the local montepío. Yet this passage is set in a work that proclaims the “legitimate” privilege of enlightenment and talent above all else.


José María Ramos Mejía and José Ingenieros, El amor y la incapacidad civil (Buenos Aires: La Semana Médica, 1909), 43. This small book reprints an article that appeared in the journal La Semana Médica, vol. 43 (1909).


Terán, En busca de la ideología, 53.


Carlos Octavio Bunge, La educación (tratado general de pedagogía), vol. 3; Teoría de la educación, 6th ed. (Buenos Aires: La Cultura Argentina, 1920 [1901]), 185.


Mead, “Oligarchs, Doctors, and Nuns,” chaps. 3-4. See also Eduardo O. Ciafardo, “La práctica benéfica y el control de los sectores populares de la ciudad de Buenos Aires, 1890-1910,” Revista de Indias 54 (May-Aug. 1994), 383-408.


For a short but useful summary of Bunge’s intellectual accomplishments, see Eduardo José Cárdenas and Carlos Manuel Payá, “Carlos Octavio Bunge (1875-1918),” in Biagini, El movimiento positivista, 519-26. See also Vezzetti, La locura en la Argentina, 160-70, 210.


Bunge, Nuestra América, 241.


Ibid., 221-23.


For a discussion of witchcraft and the Inquisition, see Ruth Behar, “Sexual Witchcraft, Colonialism, and Women’s Powers: Views from the Mexican Inquisition,” in Sexuality and Marriage in Colonial Latin America, ed. Asunción Lavrin (Lincoln: Univ. of Nebraska Press, 1989), 178-208.


An important group of positivists, who focused more on education than the generalists studied here, were associated with the Normal School of Paraná and were central to the elaboration of public education in Argentina. See Juan Carlos Tedesco, “La instancia educativa,” in Biagini, El movimiento positivista, 333-61.


This was also the case in women’s writing, although it usually served to set up an argument about the natural evolution of feminism, which should obviously continue. See, e.g., Ernestina López de Nelson, “El movimiento feminista” (Doctoral thesis, Univ. de Buenos Aires, 1901), chap. 2. Also interesting in this regard is López’ appreciation of the “virile” qualities of the women she admires, such as Cleopatra and the Roman matrons. This implies no danger to feminity: “sería tanto más mujer cuanto más virilmente haya sido educada.” Ibid., 85.


Bunge, La educación, vol. 1, La evolución de la educación, 135-36.


Ibid., 138. For a feminist reading of Rousseau, see Joan B. Landes, Women and the Public Sphere in the Age of the French Revolution (Ithaca: Cornell Univ. Press, 1988), 66-89.


Bunge, La educación, 1:139.


Ibid., 3:117.


In Carlos O. Bunge, Viaje a través de la estirpe y otras narraciones (Buenos Aires: La Nación, 1908). In this story, three male students from each of the Facultades de Filosofía, Derecho, y Medicina discuss, from the perspectives of their respective disciplines, the inherent flaws of females.


Bunge, La educación, 3:118. Emphasis original.


Ibid., 120.


Ibid., 108-13.


Ibid., 121.


Ibid., 122.


Ibid., 126.


Intendencia Municipal, Patronato y asistencia de la infancia en la capital de la república. Trabajos de la Comisión Especial (Buenos Aires: “El Censor,” 1892), 274.


Oscar Terán, José Ingenieros: pensar la nación, antología de textos (Buenos Aires: Alianza, 1986), 17-27. See also Jorge E. Dotti, Las vetas del texto. Una lectura filosófica de Alberdi, los positivistas, Juan B. Justo (Buenos Aires: Puntosur, 1990).


See Dora Barrancos, “Anarquismo y sexualidad,” in Mundo urbano y cultura popular. Estudios de historia social argentina, ed. Diego Armus (Buenos Aires: Sudamericana, 1990), 15-38.


José Ingenieros, “Bases del feminismo científico,” first published in El Mercurio de América (Buenos Aires), Nov. 1898, quoted in Sergio Bagú, Vida ejemplar de José Ingenieros. Juventud y plenitud (Buenos Aires: Claridad, 1936), 64.


Ingenieros, “Bases del feminismo.” See also the discussion in Hugo Vezzetti, “Los ensayos sobre el amor en los primeros escritos de José Ingenieros,” Anuario de Investigaciones (Facultad de Psicología, Universidad de Buenos Aires, 1989), 218-19.


Vezzetti, “Ensayos sobre amor,” 219.


Terán, En busca de la ideología, 55-58.


Terán, José Ingenieros: pensar la nación, 18.


On the professionalization of intellectuals, see Angel Rama, La ciudad letrada (Hanover, N.H.: Ediciones del Norte, 1984), chaps. 4-5; Carlos Altamirano and Beatriz Sarlo, “La Argentina del centenario: campo intelectual, vida literaria y temas ideológicos,” in Ensayos argentinos. De Sarmiento a la vanguardia (Buenos Aires: Centro Editor de América Latina, 1983). 69-106; David Viñas, Literatura argentina y realidad política (Buenos Aires: Centro Editor de América Latina, 1982), 229-70.


At his most generous, he tolerated the idea of protective measures for the indigenous “para asegurarles una extinción dulce,” but otherwise was certain that Indians and Africans were inferior and unadaptable. Ingenieros, “Socialismo y legislación del trabajo,” in Sociología argentina, 420.


Ingenieros, La simulación, 130.


For a more general discussion, see Ricardo D. Salvatore, “Criminology, Prison Reform, and the Buenos Aires Working Class,” Journal of Interdisciplinary History 22:2 (Fall 1992), 279-99.


See Guy, Sex and Danger, 91-94; idem, “Prostitution and Female Criminality in Buenos Aires, 1875-1937,” in The Problem of Order in Changing Societies: Essays on Crime and Policing in Argentina and Uruguay, 1750-1940, ed. Lyman L. Johnson (Albuquerque: Univ. of New Mexico Press, 1990).


Ingenieros, “Socialismo y legislación del trabajo,” 385. This was the language of the proposed law, which Ingenieros believed to be “one of the best coordinated titles of the law.” Ibid., 419. See also María del Carmen Feijóo, “Las trabajadoras porteñas a comienzos del siglo,” in Mundo urbano y cultura popular. Estudios de historia social argentina, ed. Diego Armus (Buenos Aires: Editorial Sudamericana, 1990), 281-312; and Asunción Lavrin, “Women, Labor, and the Left: Argentina and Chile, 1890-1925,” Journal of Women’s History 1 (1989), 88-116.


José Ingenieros, “Eliminación social del amor,” in Tratado del amor, 3d ed. (Buenos Aires: Losada, 1970 [1925]), 78-82.


José Ingenieros, “Jesús y Federicoí (1905), in Crónicas de viaje, 1905-1906, 6th ed. (Buenos Aires: L. J. Rosso, 1919), 122-25.


Ibid., 122.


Vezzetti, La locura en la Argentina, 162.


Bagú, Vida ejemplar, 132-47; Terán, Tensar la nación, 56-58.


Luis Farré mentions that Ingenieros used a “fraseología viril e impulsante,” but only by way of contrast; it was also “muy pobre de contenido ideológico.” “La ética de José Ingenieros,” in Biagini, Movimiento positivista, 562.


José Ingenieros, El hombre mediocre (Buenos Aires: Renacimiento, 1913), 169.


Ibid., 168.


Ibid., 178.


See his discussion of beauty and envy in ibid., 203-5.


José Ingenieros, “La metafísica del amor,” in Tratado del amor, 16-23.


See Lavrin, “Women, Labor, and the Left.” See also the analysis by María Silvia Di Liscia and Ana María Rodríguez, “El socialismo y la iglesia. Aportes sobre la condición femenina, 1918-1929,” in La mitad del país. La mujer en la sociedad argentina, ed. Lidia Knecher and Marta Panaia (Buenos Aires: Centro Editor de América Latina, 1994), 341-53.


Asunción Lavrin, Women, Feminism, and Social Change in Argentina, Chile, and Uruguay, 1890-1940 (Lincoln: Univ. of Nebraska Press, 1995), 20.


Ernestina A. López, “La mujer argentina y la obra social,” in Suplemental especial, special centenary supplement to La Nación (Buenos Aires, 1910), 152.


See Consejo Nacional de Mujeres, “Acción concurrente de la mujer en la instrucción del pueblo. Medios que puede aun poner en práctica,” Primer Congreso Patriótica de Señoras en América del Sud (Buenos Aires, 1910), 131.