The transforming role of women in Brazilian society during the twentieth century is well known, including important achievements such as the right to vote, divorce, work, and study. What is now becoming clear is that these changes have also stimulated a process of female emancipation in the family context, particularly regarding financial autonomy and declining fertility rates, which have been falling steadily since the 1960s. In recent years, several researchers have analyzed this phenomenon. One of the most recent studies was conducted by sociologist Nathalie Reis Itaboraí, a postdoctoral fellow at the Institute of Social and Political Studies of the State University of Rio de Janeiro (IESP-UERJ).
Based on data from the National Household Survey taken by the Brazilian Institute of Geography and Statistics (PNAD-IBGE), she analyzed the process of female emancipation in Brazilian families between 1976 and 2012 from the perspective of class and gender. The period was marked by transformations of female status, encouraged by structural changes in production, more education and employment opportunities, and the diffusion of new values through the media and by second-wave feminism, a movement that began in the 1960s (the first wave occurred in the second half of the nineteenth century). “It was also at that time that Brazilians really began debating gender inequality, especially after the United Nations’ declaration of 1975 as International Women’s Year and 1976–1985 as the Decade for Women,” explains the researcher.
Itaboraí is the author of the book Mudanças nas famílias brasileiras (1976–2012): Uma perspectiva de classe e gênero [Changes in Brazilian families (1976–2012): A class and gender perspective] (Garamond), based on her doctoral thesis, which won Best Thesis of 2016 in a contest run by the National Association of Graduate Studies and Research in Social Sciences (ANPOCS). In her study, she endeavors to look beyond gender indicators that measure changes to the female condition in a public context (labor market participation, political representation, etc.), which are often used to compare advances between Brazil and other countries. These indicators, according to Itaboraí, do not consider the differences between social groups in Brazilian society and the impact of gender inequality on the family and domestic tasks (housework and caring for children or elderly relatives, for example).
In order to analyze how the family experience has been transformed for women in different social classes, she described eight types of occupational strata, ranging from rural workers (class 1), who are the poorest, to professionals with a higher education (class 8), who are the most affluent. Although there are significant disparities between women in different classes, the analyses indicate that family behavior among women has moved in the same direction over the last 40 years regardless of social class, with significantly greater autonomy, meaning greater control over their own body and the ability to generate their own income and control family resources.
Until the late 1960s, the traditional family model in Brazil was characterized by enormous inequalities between men and women. In couples, the man was usually older, more educated, and had a greater income. Women worked only when they were single, abandoning their career after marriage to dedicate themselves to domestic work and childcare. This began to change from the 1970s onward (see interview with demographer Elza Berquó in Pesquisa FAPESP issue No. 262). Itaboraí found that during this period, the status of women improved relative to their spouses. Differences in age, education, and income between them decreased.
The traditional family structure, with the man as the sole provider and the woman as the housewife, is no longer predominant. In 1976, the percentage of married women aged 15–54 in the rural workers group (class 1) who were employed was 25.4%, while among professionals with a higher education (class 8), it was 34.5%. In 2012, these figures rose to 46.4% and 75.5%, respectively. “Having their own income has given women a greater level of economic autonomy, although for the poorest this only means reducing certain disadvantages,” explains the sociologist. In 1976, men were the sole provider in 77% of rural worker couples and 63% of professional couples with a higher education. In 2012, this percentage fell to 50.5% in class 1 and 24.1% in class 8. “Men and women have become more comparable in terms of professional engagement, although women still face more obstacles in the labor market,” she says.
These conclusions reinforce a phenomenon that has been observed in Brazil for some time. The number of households in the country headed by women increased by 67% between 2004 and 2014, according to IBGE data. Women tend to act as head of their household more often in the poorest sectors, where they need to work due to difficult financial situations, according to findings by sociologist Mary Alves Mendes, from the Department of Social Sciences at the Federal University of Piauí (UFPI), in a study presented at the XIII Meeting of the Brazilian Association of Population Studies in Ouro Preto, Minas Gerais, in 2002.
A similar trend was identified by demographer Mario Marcos Sampaio, from the Center for Regional Planning and Development at the Federal University of Minas Gerais (UFMG), in 2006. He is one of the coordinators of a study published in the journal Bahia Análise & Dados (Bahia analysis & data), which analyzed the process of female emancipation in Brazilian metropolitan regions between 1990 and 2000. The research found that the contribution to family income by women in Brazil is increasing, whether as spouses or daughters.
These changes are related to a slow but continuous process of increasing access to education for women, beginning in 1879 with the declaration of the Leôncio de Carvalho Reform Law, which allowed women to attend higher education. From the 1970s onward, this trend has been accompanied by improved educational performances by women, especially among the poorest families. Today, according to data published by the IBGE in 2014, 12.5% of women aged 25 or over had completed higher education in 2010. For men, the 2010 figure was 9.9%. “If there is a strategy among the lower classes of choosing one or more children to continue studying, they are likely to choose girls, who perform better at school, on average,” says Itaboraí.
Contraception methods also played a central role in the process of female emancipation. The sexual liberation movement and the arrival of the contraceptive pill in the 1960s gave women more control, allowing them to plan motherhood according to their professional ambitions and other priorities. As a result, fertility rates (an estimate of the average number of children born per woman by the end of her childbearing years) have declined over the years in all social classes, although the drop is most pronounced in the lower classes. In 1976, the fertility rate of rural workers (class 1) was 6.6 children per woman. In 2012, that number had dropped to 2.8. In the same period, the fertility rate among professionals with a higher education (class 8) decreased from 2.5 to 1.2. According to IBGE data for 2015, the fertility rate in Brazil on the national level was 1.72, below the population replacement rate.
According to anthropologist Andrea Moraes Alves, from the School of Social Services at the Federal University of Rio de Janeiro (UFRJ), this trend was cemented in the 1990s. The notion of contraception as a woman’s right and as part of her healthcare was strengthened during the International Conference on Population and Development held in Cairo, Egypt, in 1994, and the Fourth World Conference on Women held in Beijing, China, in 1995. “The feminist movements played a central role in establishing this concept,” says the researcher, who recently studied the Center for Research and Integrated Care for Women and Children (CPAIMC), a private institution that offered women access to contraception and surgical sterilization in Rio de Janeiro between 1975 and 1992.
The conclusions of Itaboraí and Alves are consistent with other studies coordinated by demographers Elza Berquó and Sandra Garcia, from the Brazilian Center for Analysis and Planning (CEBRAP), who coauthored the article “Reprodução após os 30 anos no estado de São Paulo” (Reproduction in women aged 30 or over in the state of São Paulo), published in the CEBRAP journal Novos Estudos (New studies) in 2014. The researchers identified a trend among women of postponing motherhood until later in life. In São Paulo, the fertility rate fell from 4.7 children per woman in 1960 to 1.7 in 2010, suggesting that many women were postponing having children, either temporarily or permanently.
Garcia also coordinated a study called “Reprodução assistida no Brasil: Aspectos sociodemográficos e desafios para as políticas públicas” (Assisted reproduction in Brazil: Socio-demographic aspects and challenges for public policy), which highlighted the increased use of assisted reproduction technologies in Brazil. “Postponement of motherhood occurs more significantly among women of a higher socioeconomic level, but it is also observed among women from lower classes,” she explains. According to Garcia, assisted reproduction techniques became more popular as more women delayed having children until they were older, as well as due to new family structures.
Despite the advancing status of women within the family, many obstacles still need to be overcome. Those who are employed still get paid 30% less than men doing the same job, they are a minority in management and leadership positions, and they still have to perform domestic chores despite working all day. Women with children also face difficulties returning to the labor market.
The time spent on domestic tasks by women in all social classes tends to be higher than that spent by men. “Girls aged 10 to 14 spend more time on housework than boys of the same age,” says Itaboraí. These findings are in line with the data released in the 2016 United Nations Children’s Fund (UNICEF) report “Harnessing the power of data for girls,“ which indicates that girls between the ages of 5 and 14 spend 40% more time on unpaid household chores per day than boys. In general, the work performed by girls is less visible and less valued.
GARCIA, S. & BELLAMY, M. Assisted Conception Services and Regulation within the Brazilian context. JBRA Assisted Reproduction. V. 19, No. 4, pp. 198–203. Nov. 2015.
BERQUÓ, E. S. et al. Reprodução após os 30 anos no estado de São Paulo. Novos Estudos CEBRAP. No. 100, pp. 9–25. Nov. 2014.
ITABORAÍ, N. R. Mudanças nas famílias brasileiras (1976-2012): Uma perspectiva de classe e gênero. Rio de Janeiro: Garamond, 2016, 480 p.