An Outspoken Woman Ahead of her Time
Luisa Capetillo y Perone was born in Arecibo, Puerto Rico on October 28th, 1879 and died in Río Piedras, Puerto Rico on October 10th, 1922.
She was the only daughter of two immigrants, Luis Capetillo Echevarría and Luisa Margarita Perone.
With a Basque father and a French (Corsican) mother, Luisa received an unusual education for a 19th-century woman–very liberal and free-thinking. How many of her contemporaries have read Hugo, Zola, Malatesta, and Tolstoy? By eighteen?
My homeland is freedom. –Luisa Capetillo
Labor organizer, writer, factory worker, journalist, public speaker, suffragist, feminist, anarchist… Capetillo lived an interesting life and accomplished so much in forty-two years than most people. Her short and scandalous life was ahead of its time.
She only wrote four books and neither one became a best-seller. It would be decades later until feminists rediscovered her work, she became a role model.
She became infamous for wearing pants and even dressing like a man. Nineteenth and early twentieth-century society did not approve of cross-dressing.
Capetillo argued it was more comfortable, she was not trying to “be a man”.
She was arrested twice, once in Puerto Rico and another time in Cuba, for wearing pants. These episodes are the best-known in her biography. What people forget, is that she successfully argued in court the legality of wearing pants and still negotiated a union contract.
Or that she successfully organized the 1921 sugar cane workers strike, as well as organizing workers in Cuba, Tampa, and the Dominican Republic. She was not afraid of the law; she made the powerful afraid of her.
Those who do not suffer do not move forward. –Luisa Capetillo
Indeed, her whole life was a statement of what to do to anger polite society. Unwed mother of two? Check. Outspoken and intelligent? Check. Vegetarian? Check. Anarchist and pro-labor? Check. Man-dressing feminist? Check. Self-sufficient? Check.
No wonder this misunderstood, outrageous, shameful woman from over a century ago has become an icon and a champion for women. She fought for her rights and did not care about society’s opinion.
Can you imagine being a woman in late 19th-century Puerto Rico? Relegated to the house, cooking, raising children, reading, and writing a luxury at best, dependent on a male, without the right to vote or own property?
In a sense, she was not ahead of her time, she was what was needed at the time.
Common interest as currency, and as a motto, the truth. –Luisa Capetillo
Whereas in this series of famous Puerto Ricans I have written about lessons we can learn from them, for Luisa I want something different.
Since she was a polemicist, here are five dogmas she believed in and she would love for us to adopt.
Dogma #1: Love Should Be Free
You cannot put a price on love. Yet, what does she mean when she wrote about free love? Is she talking about orgies and swingers? No, not at all. Remember she lived at the end of the 19th century and the first two decades of the 20th century. Those were conservative times.
Love could not exist sincerely unless under condition of freedom. Without full liberty, love is turn into prostitution. –Luisa Capetillo
And yet, she defended sex workers and opposed the double standard that men could cheat on their wives but they should not.
She did not believe in marriage or social contracts (she was a single mother), and that love should be free among consenting adults.
She proposed that free love and sexual desire were not immoral but natural. Freedom was a necessary precondition for love. Something to give freely, without social or class pressure. United because of love, not convenience.
Similarly, if one of the lovers fell in love with someone else, the union should be dissolved amicably.
Likewise, she thought a woman should be able to leave an unfaithful husband. How ahead of her times (there was no divorce back then).
Dogma #2: Women Should Be Equal to Men
In Luisa Capetillo‘s philosophy, females were complete human beings, not an accessory or a servant. Neither should women pretend to be superior to men, just equal.
A woman, as an important factor of human civilization, is worth of obtaining freedom. –Luisa Capetillo
Equality meant equal opportunities in all social spaces like sports, work, politics, education, and home. She strongly opposed the stereotyped education of girls in school (i.e., some activities are for women only).
Gender stereotypes were no rules for her (hence her insistence on wearing pants).
Moreover, she fought for all women’s right to vote (the suffragist movement wanted the right to vote only for upper-class women back then). For Capetillo, a society where women were not equal to men was an unfair one.
Hence, she saw the education of women as the best way to reach equality because an educated woman would not need a man to subsist.
Dogma #3: True Christianity is Action
Luisa Capetillo strongly believed in anarchism. However, she broke tradition with the anarchist movement in one respect, she believed you could be an anarchist and spiritual. No, she was not Catholic and did not even baptize her children.
Useful hands are preferable to those simply beautiful. –Luisa Capetillo
Yes, she believed a good moral person does not need religion.
Still, her idea of religion was one of faith through action. For her true Christianity was to be formed in the eradication of oppression, poverty, and inequality.
Furthermore, she practiced the espiritista religion and thought that religious practice was not bad. In effect, religion could be coopted for social change and class struggle.
Dogma #4: Organized Labor is Undefeatable (and International)
Her success as a labor organizer gets lost in her feminist and anarchist writing. It should not.
Not only did she successfully organize several strikes and union contracts, including the Sugar Cane Worker’s Strike of 1916 by 40,000 workers which resulted in a 13% wage increase.
Tirany, like liberty, has no country. Neither the oppressors not the workers. –Luisa Capetillo
In her writings, she advocates for the working class to organize themselves and negotiate collectively, but also to form alliances with workers around the world (which would explain her constant travels abroad as a labor organizer).
If there is one area where Luisa was different than other famous Puerto Ricans is that she was not a strong advocate for Puerto Rico’s independence (or any other political status). She saw her pro-women and pro-labor struggle as an international, rather than a local fight.
Still, her work showed a whole generation that an organized collective of workers marching together is undefeatable.
Dogma #5: Live Life in Your Own Terms
Finally, no one who is familiar with Luisa Capetillo‘s biography would deny she lived her life on her terms. Like Julia de Burgos, she was her own route, she forged her own path.
Besides, why should others decide what clothes should I wear? Don’t I have the utmost right to think and choose as it suits my conscience? –Luisa Capetillo
You could argue she was born ahead of her time. Indeed, she would have fit perfectly in the 1960s. Nevertheless, she rose above the culture of her time and lived fully.
An outspoken woman who refused to take no for an answer or let society define her.
She never cared about “el que dirán” (what people may say). In this respect, she is a role model for all, not just women. We Puerto Ricans should listen more to what we want rather than be afraid of “el que dirán“.
Historians will say Luisa Capetillo wore pantalones (pants) and they are selling her short. I say she had cojones. Bigger than any man of her time.
That is her legacy. The freedom to be true to herself. What a great lesson.
Reader, what about Luisa Capetillo do you find more amazing?