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Always in the vanguard

Carmen Portinho fought for women's rights and helped to change architecture and the arts in Rio de Janeiro

Carmen Portinho archive With Lúcio CostaCarmen Portinho archive

Some time after having been installed in the Presidency of the Republic by force or arms in 1930, President Getúlio Vargas received the zoologist Bertha Lutz and the engineer Carmen Portinho, who demanded women’s right to vote.

The demand was accepted. Women’s right to vote was instituted by President Vargas in 1932 and ratified by the Constitution of 1934. Carmen was less than 30 years of age and had a glowing career in front of her. More than half a century later, in 1987, she went to the National Congress with another 300 women to deliver the “Women’s Letter” to Ulysses Guimarães, the President of the National Constitution Assembly. Carmen was then 84 years of age and had continued in her fight for women’s rights. The victories conquered together with Bertha and of so many other pioneers had been many, but at the end of the 20th century inequality persisted and the fight needed to be continued.

Carmen Velasco Portinho was, in 1925, the third woman to graduate as an engineer in the country, from the Polytechnic School of the University of Brazil (currently the Federal University of Rio de Janeiro). She was born in the city of Corumbá, Mato Grosso, and moved with her parents to Rio de Janeiro when she was four years old. When she was asked why she had chosen engineering, a profession at that time was sought only by men, she said that she did it for practical reasons. The eldest daughter among nine brothers, Carmen had wished for financial independence. “At that time, all of those who graduated as engineers found work”, she told in an interview to the magazine Ciência Hoje, in 1995. She got it spot on: she began work in the Works and Transportation Directorate of the Rio de Janeiro city hall the year following her graduation.

Carmen Portinho archive With President Juscelino Kubitschek: daring projectsCarmen Portinho archive

Before enveloping herself in her work, she already had a trajectory in defense of women’s citizenship. “When she was a young woman, 15 years of age, Carmen used to take rides in precarious airplanes in order to throw feminist pamphlets over Rio”, tells  the architect Ana Luiza Nobre, author of Carmen Portinho – O moderno em construção [Carmen Portinho – The modern under construction] (publishers: Relume Dumará and the Municipal Culture Secretary of Rio). During 1922, also when less than 20 years of age, she founded the Brazilian Federation for Women’s Progress along with Bertha Lutz, Stela Guerra Duval and Maria Amália Bastos.

In 1931, they organized the 2nd International Feminist Congress, at the end of which Bertha and Carmen wrote up, signed and sent to President Vargas a document about women’s rights. Previously, during 1929, Carmen had founded the Female University Union, and afterwards, in 1937, the Brazilian Association of Female Engineers and Architects.

As a professional in engineering she did not drop behind. In 1936 she set up the pre-project for the future capital of Brazil in the Central Plateau and was the first woman to receive the title of Urbanist in Brazil, through the now extinct University of the Federal District, in a diploma signed by Mário de Andrade. During the decade of the 1940’s she headed the Popular Housing Department in order to draw up an accommodation plan for public employees in functional apartments, close to their work. From this proposal came the Pedregulho housing project , in Rio. The civil works architect, admired throughout the world, was Affonso Eduardo Reidy, Carmen’s companion.

Carmen Portinho archive On a visit to the work site: attention to all detailsCarmen Portinho archive

At that time it was not uncommon for some feminists to avoid formal marriage as a manner of stating their convictions, although it cannot be said with certainty that this was Carmen’s intention. It was architect Reidy who also projected the Museum of Modern Arts building in Rio, during the 1950’s, of which she was  the director. In the following decade, the engineer went on to direct the Upper School of Industrial Design and remained there from 1967 until 1988.

Carmen died in 2001 at the age of 98 years. She had no children, but had informally adopted a 6 year old girl, her sister’s daughter, who had died prematurely – by coincidence also named Carmen, the sister of the actress and film director Ana Maria Magalhães, author of the 2004 documentary entitled, Lembranças do futuro, about  Reidy.