By Colleen Bain
Argentina has had a very interesting philanthropic history, particularly regarding the involvement of women (most notably, Eva Peron). This article will look at three major charities in Argentinean history; the Sisters of Charity, the Society of Beneficence, and the Eva Peron Foundation.
First, the Sisters of Charity was founded in 1727 by Don Juan Alonso Gonzalez, and was made up of leading activists of the colonial period. They received the support of the church and private donations from the upper classes, because they combined religious evangelisation with social assistance. The social service provided by the Sisters of Charity was based on moral precepts, and the members undertook active roles as nurses and social workers. Women mostly worked in the domestic sphere at the time, and were only allowed to participate in the public world through religious arguments.
The Argentinean Revolution 1810 gave the country independence, and the result was secularization and centralisation through a “progressive transference of religious institutions to ‘lay’ organisations under state control” (Thompson and Viladrich, p. 337). By 1820 the church had “lost most of its public subsidies and control of its hospitals, schools, asylums and other institutions” (Thompson and Viladrich, p. 337). However, the church did not lose all its power, because new alliances were created between state and church, and the Sisters of Charity and upper-class women. They set aside their differences and worked together against the possibility of social problems such as famine and lack of shelter giving rise to future social conflicts fuelled by revolutionary influences coming from Europe. Thus, their philanthropic work helped the poor not for the poor’s sake, but to quell unwanted problems.
This alliance between church and state created class solidarities, as aristocratic woman and men worked together (women participating in philanthropic activities, and their husbands’ involvement in public welfare) towards the same goals. This trend in gender roles continued on in the other two major influential organizations that will be examined here.
The next important organization in Argentina’s philanthropic history is the Society of Beneficence (Sociedad de Beneficencia). It was created in 1824 by Bernardino Rivadavia, then minister of government to the Buenos Aires governor, Martin Rodriguez (Thompson and Viladrich, p. 337), who became Argentina’s first president in 1826 (University of Notre Dam, 2002). It was a “quasi-public institution run by wealthy women,” which “became the largest and most important institution for public assistance in Argentina” (Thompson and Viladrich, p. 338). Approximately 90 percent of the Society’s annual budget came from state subsidies to fund activities for the population’s most vulnerable segments, especially widows, orphans, and manual labourers.
The activities of the Society “allowed elite women considerable leeway for participation in the public sphere,” and “by working as administrators of public charity, aristocratic women “symbolised the union between state and church” (Thompson and Viladrich, p. 338). Part of Rivadavia’s inspiration to create the Society was “‘liberal’ ideas related to the intellectual progress of women through their participation in the labour market” (Thompson and Viladrich, p. 339).
The Society’s impact formalised three aspects of Argentina’s social action activities: “the mesh between public and private interventions; the centralisation of services to address social needs; and the entrance of lay women (instead of members of religious orders) as managers of social services” (Thompson and Viladrich, p. 339). However, due to a lack of economic resources, the Society ceased operations in 1838, and it returned in 1852 directing and inspecting girls’ schools.
The final philanthropic institution in Argentina that will be examined in this article is the Eva Peron Foundation, as well as Evita Peron’s influence. In his presidency, Juan Peron brought in a populist welfare state, and substituted foreign imports for domestic products, creating a ‘golden age’ in the Argentinean economy (Thompson and Viladrich, p. 344). Argentina’s economy also grew rapidly through “providing corn and meat to European countries whose economies had been devastated by the destruction of the Second World War” (Thompson and Viladrich, p. 344). Peron’s capitalist ideology rejected the socialist and communist models (which developed a strong base in some work sectors) and was based on economic independence. This ideology was accepted and promoted by Evita in her philanthropic work, continuing the Argentinean tradition of women supporting the politics of their husbands through charity work.
Evita did not want to be a passive first lady, so she decided to “act as a ‘bridge’ between the people and government, playing the role of mother, martyr and angel of revenge for her descamisados, particularly against the aristocratic and ageing Society of Benificence” (Thompson and Viladrich, p. 344). “Descamisado” means vindictive poor, and exemplified Evita’s new concept of social action; “an idea which lay between charity and social justice and which was aimed at constructing a new model of social assistance and political power based on new types of relationships between the public and the private spheres” (Thompson and Viladrich, p. 343).
Between the Society of Beneficence’s return in 1852 and Evita becoming Argentina’s first lady, economic growth led the organization to become more powerful and better organized. In the past, the first lady would be appointed the Society’s honorary president, but the members were concerned Evita’s underprivileged upbringing, and her former career as an actress (Berenty, 2010), and thus refused to give her the position. Evita retaliated by destroying the Society; launching her own organization, and diverting all government sponsorship from the Society to the Eva Peron Foundation (Berenty, 2010). She used the slogan “the crusade of social aid” for her mission to alleviate poverty, rejecting traditional approached to charity, “arguing that beneficence was an insult to the dignity of the poor that only relieved the guilty consciences of the rich” (Thompson and Viladrich, p. 344).
Before forming her Foundation, Evita went on a trip to Europe, to learn from Old World traditions of social security and charity, and was not impressed by the way organizations in World War II devastated countries were organized, still under the control of aristocrats and influenced by the Catholic church.
The Eva Peron Foundation’s official program intended to “provide monetary or in-kind assistance to the ‘deserving’ poor; build houses for indigent families; build educational establishments, hospitals, homes and other establishments; and contribute to the creation of jobs for the less privileged” (Thompson and Viladrich, p. 345).
The foundation was very closely tied to the state, and even took on many activities previously organized by government departments. Evita worked to solve a plethora of social problems, and expected loyalty and obedience to Peron in return, “embodying Argentina’s long-standing alliance between women’s charities and male political power” (Thompson and Viladrich, p. 346).
The “direct help methodology” whereby Evita had a very close relationship to her descamisados was replaced by indirect assistance when the Foundation grew and became more demanding. An almost military force of female social workers was created by Evita to visit remote places to “alleviate poverty, developing a social political and recreational network all around the country” (Thompson and Viladrich, p. 346).
The Foundation engaged in extortion for political support, which tarnished its charitable standing. However, it was of great benefit to society, as Evita built twelve modern hospitals with highly-paid doctors and some of the best surgical equipment in the world, and changed the mentality of public care in Argentina; created a free nursing school for women all over the country; awarded scholarships; built homes, and other welfare establishments such as 1,000 modern schools in the poorest area of Buenos Aires; and employed 14,000 workers on a permanent basis (Thompson and Viladrich, p. 347).
The Eva Peron Foundation is a controversial example of philanthropy, as it had the same authoritarian influence as Juan Peron’s “new Argentina,” and Evita was criticized for wastefulness and “solved only some of the symptoms of poverty rather than its root causes” (Thompson and Viladrich, p. 347). The main difference between Evita’s approach to charity and the previous examples in Argentina is where they laid blame for social problems. In the latter, poverty was believed to be the result of individual failings and that social standings were natural and could not be changed, though the privileged had a duty to help the poor. In the former, poverty was “not a natural state of affairs but rather the result of the historical exploitation of people,” and Eva Peron “argued that the poor should change their social conditions by fighting the aristocracy” (Thompson and Viladrich, p. 347). However, though her Foundation had a lot of positive effects, Evita became an aristocrat that did little to empower the poor and instead strengthened her own family’s power in society while performing charitable acts.
Berenty, Brian. (2010). “Mystery and Mayhem in the Death and Afterlife of Eva Peron.” Suite101.com. http://www.suite101.com/content/mystery-and-mayhem-in-the-death-and-afterlife-of-eva-peron-a288787
Thompson, Andres A. and Viladrich, Anahi. (1996). “Women and Philanthropy in Argentina: From the Society of Beneficence to Eva Perón,” in Voluntas, Especial Issue: Women and Philanthropy, 7(4):336-349.
University of Notre Dame. (2002). “Biographies: Bernardino Rivadavia.” Power and Politics in the 19th-Century River Plate: Books & Manuscripts from the O’Grady Collection at that University of Notre Dame. Department of Special Collections: Notre Dame, IN.