Getúlio Vargas (1882-1954) took great pains to create for himself a course in life that was like the most glorious ever recorded in books, while trying to make it real on a day-to-day basis, especially when he became dictator in 1937. He established an efficient propaganda machine around his image through the Department of Press and Propaganda (DIP), inspired by Adolf Hitler and Benito Mussolini, the Italian Fascist leader and his declared idol. The heroic adventures of the politician, which the Ministry of Education used to regularly send to schools, became famous among children of the time. Then there were initiatives, like those of the editor Adolfo Aizen (1907-1991), a pioneer of cartoon stories in Brazil, who produced a cartoon book in the politician’s honor that sold on the newsstands in 1942. His biography, however, came to an end with his tragic suicide in August 1954.
It is not precisely known why Getúlio’s life managed to overshadow that of a person who was fundamental to his political success: Darcy Vargas, the only wife he had during his lifetime. This is an historic injustice that is now beginning to be corrected with the launch of Wife and politics – The life of First Lady, Darcy Vargas (1930-1945), by Editora Unesp, the result of a PhD thesis by Ivana Guilherme Simili, from the State University of Maringá, Paraná, carried out at Unesp between 2000 and 2004. Ivana focused her studies on the first Vargas mandate that extended from the Revolution of 1930 to the end of the Second World War in 1945, prolonged as it was by the setting up of the dictatorship of the New State.
The work goes beyond pure politics and Vargism. In the course of the narrative it maps out an important moment in female emancipation in the country, since Darcy brought women into national political life through solidarity-based mobilization – it has to be remembered that only in 1928 did women get the right to vote in Brazil, after a campaign that lasted 11 years. This was the year in which the first female mayor was elected in Brazil; Alzira Soriano de Souza, in the municipality of Lages (RN). This approximation would take a step forward in 1961, when the first female organizations to legitimize the military coup of 1964 arose, thanks to the family marches they organized, although this does not form part of Ivana’s research.
The personality revealed by the researcher built up her own history that ran parallel to that of her husband. Getúlio and Darcy were married in 1911 and had four children who were all born in the 1910s and have already died. The wife’s name began to become prominent nationally during the revolutionary movement that canceled the election of President Júlio Prestes and took her husband to power in October 1930. Darcy immediately, and even during the coup uprising, created the Charity Legion, an association of women who were to produce clothes for the revolutionaries and distribute food to the families of those who accompanied Vargas. Ivana’s conclusion is that over the next 15 years a good part of the political success obtained by the government of Vargas, considered by many as the greatest Brazilian statesman of all time, depended on the participation and the expressive nature of the social and charitable activities of Darcy Vargas.
In this context, in addition to tracing the personality of Darcy, the thesis points to her contribution in creating a model for female action in public life. Her most important gesture was the setting up of the Brazilian Assistance Legion (LBA), in 1942. According to the author, by involving herself with the social issues that occurred when the country entered the worldwide conflict she was responsible for making the first public assistance-based institution appear on the national stage and decisively marked her participation in the history of assistance-based policies. “We can also say that in the period between 1942 and 1945 the women who became volunteers for the LBA wrote an important chapter in the history of women in war” – one of the striking aspects of the book.
In 1938, with the Darcy Vargas Foundation and in 1942, with the LBA, she laid out her philanthropic and assistance-based course in life. The first lady’s initiatives, says Ivana, were always closely linked with the political undertakings of her husband. They also suggest how male struggles and conquests are factors that mobilize and involve women – wives, mothers and daughters. “In short, they were transformed into family issues.” The image we possibly get of Darcy in this context is that of a wife and mother dedicated to her family – to her husband and children. The first lady took the same degree of effort into the public arena that she showed in her private life, when she created and administered philanthropic and assistance-based entities to look after “others” – the list includes everything from small newspaper sellers to soldiers, mobilized by the war, and their families. “In her social and assistance-based undertakings she proved to be a woman who spared no effort when it came to achieving her objectives.”
As the author points out, Darcy Vargas’ power of mobilization is something to be highlighted. We only have to remember that she managed to involve important names from the social, cultural, political and artistic world of the time. She got them to participate in her achievements. She was able, therefore, to rely on the support and solidarity of women from the elite in her philanthropic and assistance-based projects, something unheard of at the time. “The power she had because of the place she occupied on the national stage allowed her to use the administrative machinery in the name of philanthropy.” Ivana says that she was undoubtedly a woman with a personality that comprised several traits: a diplomat when dealing with people to achieve what she wanted, determined in her undertakings and seductive in conquest in order to achieve her objectives. ‘The picture of Darcy Vargas that we get from the documentation consulted reveals she was a woman dominated by her husband. However, as Chartier says, there are some cracks in social and power relations that introduce possibilities for individuals to change the rules of the game.”
In the interplay between the couple and between the parents and their children, says the author, Darcy Vargas found room to influence and have her wishes granted. “Although it’s necessary to highlight that the family interplay that was brought to the surface are Getúlio and Alzira’s versions of the reported facts (especially consulted were the diaries of Vargas and his biography that was written by his daughter) we can give an example of the statement with the president’s confession in his diary that at a particular moment in time in the couple’s married life his wife asked for ‘separate beds’ and that in a family argument that was described by Alzira her mother’s opinion was fundamental for convincing her father to allow her to drive a car.” In her report Alzira uses the expression “the powerful support of her mother” when talking about maternal strength within the family environment. “As for the influence of the personality in political decisions if it happened it was not recorded.”
When she focused on the life of the personality what drew Ivana’s attention was the way in which marriage can be a differentiating element for women, in such a way as to create a mechanism for social and political ascendancy. The history of Darcy Vargas is an example of this. In the words of the author, because of her marriage she entered the world of politics and because of the couple’s relationship she was led to participate in the power scene. “There’s no doubt that in public and political games the first lady was strategic for Vargas when it came to creating images and representations of the government and the governor but she also knew how to take advantage of the benefits offered by power.” Photographs show how, between the time she arrived in Rio de Janeiro in 1930 until 1945, her appearance changed as she transformed herself into a well-dressed and fashionable woman. “With her philanthropic and assistance-based creations she created a model of action and participation for wives in politics.”
During the course of her life the ways in which segments of the elite could become active and participate in the development of those projects and programs dedicated to motherhood and infancy that were promoted by the first lady were also laid down. The author has no doubt when she states: “In other words Darcy Vargas may be considered the representative of the presence of motherhood in the construction of the Brazilian State and public policies for women, children and adolescents. Finally, we have to remember how, under the administration of the first lady, the LBA contributed towards making the country’s social service more professional”.
Ivana’s thesis began to take shape in 1997, influenced by her reading of works by historians who wrote about women and gender. That is when her wish to work with issues relating to women in politics appeared. She first thought of studying Ruth Cardoso and her Solidarity-based Community Program which appeared in the 1990s. What she read began to indicate that there was a relationship between the Brazilian Assistance Legion, which was abolished by Fernando Henrique Cardoso in 1995, and the Ruth Cardoso program launched immediately after by the president’s wife. “So I started a comparative study of the two first ladies – Darcy Vargas and Ruth Cardoso. In the course of the investigation I saw that there was a gap to be explored in the history of the women and in Brazilian political history, which had to do with the role performed by Darcy in political history, particularly assistance-based history.”
The bibliography she consulted contributed towards the researcher defining what she wanted to do. She was helped in this by the few mentions of the personality in historical literature covering topics, people and the issues of government and who governs; the way in which the first lady was described when she appeared in reports, particularly in the biographies written about her, which talked about her dedication to assistance-based actions that started in 1930, with the Charity Legion, which was replaced by the Darcy Vargas Foundation (1938); the start of the Brazilian Assistance Legion (1942) and finally the social assistance studies that linked her participation to assistance-based policy when she created the Brazilian Assistance Legion, the first public social assistance institution to appear on the scene with the aim of “protecting enlisted soldiers and their families” when the country entered the Second World War. All this confirmed the impression that the first lady’s path in life would be able to clarify important aspects about the relationship between women and politics.
In the work Ivana did for her PhD thesis on Darcy Vargas she tried to find out about the winding path trodden by Vargas in her relationship with Getúlio and his “politics”. One of the questions was what significance did her marriage to Getúlio Vargas have on her life, or how had she lived with the political career of the public man. The author also questioned the way politics played a part in her life and to what extent she participated in the life of Vargas and his “politics”. “In short, I tried to discover the difference that marriage and living with Getúlio had made in her life, by creating ways for her to act and participate in Brazilian public life.”
The first lady cult
Ivana believes that her study produced a story of the personality which allows for an understanding of the significant aspects of the actions of first ladies and consequently the process for constructing the first lady cult in Brazil and the participation of the wives of public men in the circuits of power. The main difficulty encountered when carrying out the work was with regard to sources. Darcy Vargas left nothing or almost nothing that she had personally written. The author found only one hand-written letter of hers, which dealt with aspects relating to one of the most painful moments in her life: the death of her son, Getulinho, in 1943, when he was 26 years old. In press and memorial archives it was possible to find the personality. “She was in the news and memorial archives, in photographs and in written documents of various types and styles (minutes, bulletins and reports). However, the way in which she presented herself and was presented fascinated and caused concern. I can say that the silence and the impenetrable manner in which Darcy Vargas revealed herself in documentation were transformed during the research.”
To get around problems of source information Ivana developed some narrative strategies, such as, for example, the composition of scenarios using the bibliography about women and politics in their multiple perspectives. She explains that the difference in the information obtained from the consultation sources were also a determining factor in the narrative. In Getúlio’s diary and in the book Getúlio my father written by his daughter, Alzira Vargas do Amaral Peixoto, she captured a way of representing mother and daughter; press material, photographs and other documents supplied the clues for tracking down the first lady in the many ways in which she acted as a public woman – as a wife and president of institutions. “The book offers its readers the history that was possible to write about the life of this personality.”
Darcy Vargas died in Rio de Janeiro in 1968. After the suicide of her husband in 1954 she continued living in Rio de Janeiro, administering the foundation that bore her name. In the year of the death of the person whose brainchild the entity was, her daughter Alzira Vargas took her place as director. In 1992, when Alzira died Vargas’ granddaughter, Edith, Jandira’s daughter took over the work and still answers for the institution today.