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Guita Grin Debert: The distinct phases of womanhood

A scholar of the issues surrounding gender and aging, anthropologist Guita Debert is now investigating the problems of elder care and dependent old age

Léo Ramos Chaves / Revista Pesquisa FAPESP

The initial data from the 2022 Demographic Census released by the Brazilian Institute of Geography and Statistics (IBGE) in July indicate that the country has been aging faster than expected. These data came as no surprise to São Paulo anthropologist Guita Grin Debert. A pioneer in research on old age in Brazil, for four decades she has dedicated herself to this specialized area of the social sciences.

The issue of aging caught the researcher’s attention in the 1980s. At the time, she was conducting doctoral research on nationalism at the Department of Political Science at the University of São Paulo (USP). Shortly before defending her thesis, in 1986, she wrote an article based on interviews she had conducted independently with eight elderly women. Since then, she has been immersed in the subject. In 2000, her book A reinvenção da velhice – Socialização e processos de reprivatização do envelhecimento (Reinventing old age – Socialization and the reprivatization of aging (EDUSP, 1999) was the third-place finalist for the Jabuti Prize in the Human Sciences and Education category.

Age 74
University of Campinas (UNICAMP)
Bachelor’s degree in social sciences (1973), master’s degree (1977) and PhD (1986) in political science from the University of São Paulo (USP)

Debert taught in the Department of Anthropology at the Institute of Philosophy and Human Sciences at the University of Campinas (IFCH-UNICAMP) from 1984 to 2018, when she retired. But she remains active at the Graduate Program in Social Anthropology and Social Sciences at IFCH, advising researchers. She also continues her work with the PAGU Gender Studies Center at UNICAMP, which she directed from 2007 to 2009.

Last year Debert was granted the title of professor emeritus at UNICAMP. In their decision statement, the select committee noted that the researcher has contributed not only to the development of studies on old age and gender but also to the institutionalization of the social sciences in Brazil. For example, Debert was deputy secretary of the National Association for Graduate Studies and Research in Social Sciences (ANPOCS) from 1992 to 1996, and vice president of the Brazilian Association of Anthropology from 2000 through 2002. She was also a member of the advisory council for the Human and Social Sciences Department of the FAPESP Scientific Board from 2007 to 2014.

Currently, Debert is researching the issue of elder care and old-age dependency. In 2019, she launched the e-book Desafios do cuidado: Gênero, velhice e deficiência (Challenges in care: Gender, old age, and disability) (UNICAMP/IFCH), which she edited with anthropologist Mariana Marques Pulhez. The widow of physician Zelman Debert (1940–2021), she is the mother of Paula, a psychologist, and Iara, an ophthalmologist, and the grandmother of Tom, age 9. Shortly before leaving for a conference in Costa Rica, Debert welcomed Pesquisa FAPESP to her apartment in the capital of São Paulo, where she lives alone, for the following interview.

Where were you born?
In Santo André, in the Metropolitan Region of São Paulo. At the age of nine, I moved to the capital with my family, who are Jewish. My parents arrived in Brazil in the 1920s. He came from Palestine, and she was from Lithuania. I’m the eldest daughter. My sister, Bila Sorj, is a sociologist and retired professor at the Federal University of Rio de Janeiro [UFRJ], and my brother, Ezequiel Grin, is a lawyer, who’s also retired. My father went to a vocational chemistry program and my mother completed ginásio [what would currently be equivalent to junior high]. They didn’t go to college, but they really valued education, and they wanted their children to study.

I studied the social sciences to think about ways to change this situation of inequality that so impacts Brazil

What did your parents do?
My mother was a housewife, and my father owned a textile factory, first in Santo André and later in São Paulo. In the 1970s, when he retired, he became a collector of fine arts. He was always around artists. Aldemir Martins [1922–2006], Clóvis Graciano [1907–1988], and Alfredo Volpi [1896–1988] would come to our house frequently, but my father loved visiting the studios to watch them work and find out what was happening. I was already an adult at that time, and I took immense satisfaction in knowing these artists and being able to talk with them.

Why did you study the social sciences?
I wanted to better understand the reality of Brazilian life and think about ways to change this situation of inequality that so impacts Brazil. I entered USP in 1968. For the previous two years I had lived in Jerusalem, Israel, where I studied Hebrew and traveled around the country. It was a very interesting experience, but for me, it didn’t compare to entering college. College was the land of freedom, where we could talk, propose ideas, and study various ways of life. It was a very lively environment, despite increasing repression from the military dictatorship [1964–1985]. At the time, the social sciences program was on Maria Antônia Street, in Higienópolis, in a building that was occupied by students in 1968. In December that same year, an opportunity came up for me to go and study in France, where I stayed for about three years. I went to study social sciences at the Sorbonne, but I really wanted to study linguistics, which was a very popular discipline at the time. I chose linguistics as my first option and sociology as my second. At the time, Paris was full of Brazilians; many were exiles. But there were also people who were there by choice, because they didn’t want to live under the yoke of the military regime. I have friends from that time to this day.

When did you return to Brazil?
In 1972. At first, it was just to spend some time, see what the situation was like in Brazil, and cure my homesickness for my family, but I ended up staying in São Paulo. Since I was enrolled at USP, I resumed the social sciences course the following year, which at the time had been transferred to Cidade Universitária, on the Butantã campus. Our classes took place in sheds; the current FFLCH [School of Philosophy, Letters and Languages, and Human Sciences] didn’t have its own building yet. That was when I met two people who were fundamental in my academic career: the anthropologists Ruth Cardoso [1930–2008] and Eunice Durham [1932–2022]. The classes they taught were incredible and inspired me to pursue a career in anthropology. I graduated in 1973. I got married soon after, and my first daughter, Paula, was born in 1975. At the time I was already working towards my master’s degree.

Personal archiveDebert, in white, at the commemoration of her professorship, in 1997, with anthropologists (from left) Simone Coelho, Helena Sampaio, Ruth Cardoso, and Gilberto VelhoPersonal archive

What did you research for your master’s?
Ruth Cardoso was my research advisor; at that time, she was in the Department of Political Science at USP. I loved her transgressive, irreverent sense of humor. For my research, I analyzed the speeches given by several political leaders before the 1964 coup: Miguel Arraes [1916–2005], Leonel Brizola [1922–2004], Carlos Lacerda [1914–1977], and Adhemar de Barros [1901–1969]. I investigated the meaning of the term “the people” in these four cases. For Lacerda, for example, the people were those who paid taxes, while for Arraes the ability to fight and defeat imperialism was in the hands of the people. I finished my master’s degree in 1977.

And then you went to the United Kingdom?
My husband, Zelman, was a doctor. At that time, he was working with public health scientist Walter Leser [1909–2004], who was then the Secretary of Health for the state of São Paulo. In 1977, Zelman went to do specialization training at the London School of Hygiene and Tropical Medicine and brought along our family. While I was getting my master’s degree, I had attended a conference that Ernesto Laclau [Argentine political theorist, 1935–2014] gave in São Paulo, at the invitation of CEBRAP [the Brazilian Center for Analysis and Planning]. He had a very interesting view regarding populism; that there were many ways of dealing with the concept, and not just by keying in on the manipulation of class interests. Laclau agreed to supervise my doctoral research at the University of Essex [United Kingdom] to study nationalism in Brazil during the 1960s, before the military coup. A year after arriving in London I became pregnant with my second daughter, Iara, so my husband and I decided to return to Brazil.

Wasn’t it through Laclau’s companion, the Belgian philosopher and political scientist Chantal Mouffe, that you were introduced to feminism?
Yes. Laclau worked in Essex but lived in London, like me. We talked a lot on the train, during our commute. We had a great relationship and lived close to each other. He used to invite us to dinner at his house. Chantal was very involved with feminism, and in these meetings she gave me tips, saying: “You’ve got to see this or read that.” In London during the second half of the 1970s gender issues were catching fire. I returned to Brazil very excited about these ideas and saw that these discussions were already taking place here as well.

Where, for example?
My sister, Bila, who was then a professor at UFMG [Federal University of Minas Gerais], had begun studying gender violence and the femicide of Ângela Diniz. [Diniz was a socialite from Minas Gerais murdered with four gunshots by her boyfriend Raul Fernando do Amaral Street, known as Doca Street, in Búzios, on the Rio de Janeiro coast, in December 1976.] Bila is a pioneer in gender studies in Brazil and even participated in the demonstrations pushing for the murderer’s conviction in the early 1980s. I remember that at that time, in the 1970s, Mariza Corrêa [1945–2016] and Heloísa Pontes, both anthropologists, were already researching feminism at UNICAMP. And Ruth Cardoso had launched a gender studies group at USP in the late 1970s. It was nothing formal, but it brought together a lot of people who were interested in this issue, such as the anthropologist Teresa Caldeira, who — for her master’s research — studied women’s movements in the neighborhoods of São Paulo’s peripheries.

But you didn’t go that route with your doctorate.
I resumed the doctoral research at USP that I had already started in England. My thesis, which was also supervised by Ruth Cardoso, was an offshoot of my master’s degree. I studied the ISEB [Instituto Superior de Estudos Brasileiros], which was aligned with the left, and the Escola Superior de Guerra [ESG], positioned on the right, to understand the political disputes that preceded the 1964 coup in Brazil. My research shows that both institutions wanted to accelerate economic growth in Brazil. Furthermore, Cuba was an element for both sides. ISEB was evaluating the difficulties of the Cuban revolutionary model, while ESG defended formulating a type of Marshall Plan so that Brazil wouldn’t “become another Cuba.” I completed my doctorate in 1986, but my researcher’s mind was already someplace else.

In London during the late 1970s gender issues were catching fire. When I returned to Brazil, I saw that these discussions were already taking place here

When did you become interested in the issue of aging?
While I was still working toward my doctorate, in the 1980s. As I mentioned, several of Ruth Cardoso’s students were working on the issue of gender and I was very interested in this topic. But I needed to finish my thesis, which was already well underway. Just before defending my research, I independently interviewed eight middle-class women who were 70 or older. Some of them I approached in Jardim da Luz Park, in downtown São Paulo. Others were suggested by friends, who recommended their grandmothers to me, for example. At that time, I was in my 30s. I wanted to understand the specific circumstances of women in old age, a time when reproduction and caring for young children are no longer the defining conditions of being female.

How did you enter this area of research?
I went in full of preconceived ideas. As we know, interviews are part of anthropologists’ work, but they don’t always yield good material. In this case, I heard a lot of interesting things. These women told me, for example, that they felt liberated, especially after they became widows. And that for them, domestic work wasn’t a symbol of female oppression: having the ability to do it showed that they had the autonomy and independence that negated aging. In their opinion, Brazilian men aged prematurely due to their dependence on the work of women. At the time, the sociologist Eva Blay invited me to present these interviews in the form of an article at a seminar she had organized on life stories at USP, where she taught. Soon after, Anne-Marie Guillemard, another sociologist who had been researching the topic since the 1970s in France, asked Ruth Cardoso if she knew anyone who was working on aging in Brazil. It was about speaking at an international congress in Mexico, where there were to be discussions regarding the subject in various parts of the world. I went there to present the conclusions from my article. This opportunity opened doors for me, and I have immersed myself in this subject ever since.

Who was researching this topic in Brazil?
There were few people in the social sciences. Anthropology, for example, was concerned with the situation of the elderly in so-called primitive societies but wasn’t looking at the urban and contemporary context. One of the researchers who was interested in this area, with an urban and contemporary focus, was the anthropologist Myriam Lins de Barros. She defended her master’s thesis “Testemunho de vida: Um estudo antropológico de mulheres na velhice” [“Life testament: An anthropological study of women in old age”], at UFRJ, in 1980. In my case, 1989 was a significant period, when I went to do postdoctoral work at the University of California, Berkeley, in the United States. There was a lot of interesting stuff to read about old age in the anthropology library. Amongst the material I found there, one big inspiration was the work of the English sociologist Mike Featherstone, who discussed how “active aging” was getting established in contemporary society, imposing the obligation of youth. Later, I invited him to several academic events in Brazil.

You spent a year in California?
Eight months. My daughters, who were in their early teens, stayed with me for three months. They would go off to school and I’d bury myself in the library, reading everything I could about old age. I also met a lot of researchers, such as Donna Goldstein, the anthropologist. At the time, she was doing her doctorate at Berkeley and researching women’s activism against HIV/AIDS in Rio de Janeiro. We became friends. In 2000 we organized the book Políticas do corpo e o curso da vida [Body politics and the course of life] [Editora Sumaré], a compilation of articles presented at two events we’d held at UNICAMP two years earlier, focused on aging. This period in California was very pleasant, but I suffered a shock when an earthquake hit San Francisco [22 kilometers from Berkeley] and caused the deaths of more than 60 people in the city. The effects of the tremor were mild in Berkeley, but even so, I was apprehensive, not knowing exactly what to do.

In general, the task of elder care falls to women and some of them are even elderly themselves. They’re elderly people taking care of elderly people

Was it this postdoctoral internship that led to your book A reinvenção da velhice (The reinvention of old age; 1999)?
That book is the result of more than ten years of research, starting with the interviews I carried out with the eight elderly women in the 1980s. It’s a reworked version of my qualifying thesis for professorship, which I defended in 1997, at UNICAMP. My objective was to try to understand the new ways of thinking about old age that were emerging at that time and to show the conflicts involved in the reinvention of aging through three actors: gerontologists and other specialists, elderly people, and the media. In the 1980s, programs for the elderly proliferated in Brazil, such as universities for seniors.

Weren’t these positive initiatives?
Yes, to the degree they promoted social interaction and transformed senior citizens into a political subject. However, the visibility won by innovative and successful experiences took up the space for discussing issues of abandonment and dependence. These issues began to be seen as being a consequence of the lack of involvement in motivating activities or the failure to adopt appropriate consumption habits and lifestyles. In the research I carried out over more than 10 years, I listened to older women and men from various social classes. People who were married, widowed, single, lived alone, with a spouse, with their family, or in nursing homes. In short, women were afraid of a lack of autonomy, while the men were afraid of losing their lucidity.

In the 1980s, you also began researching gender violence. How did that come about?
Soon after I completed my doctorate, I went to work for CEDAC [the Research and Documentation for Community Action Center], created by Ruth Cardoso, Eunice Durham, and [sociologist] José Augusto Guilhon Albuquerque, in the 1980s, in São Paulo. At that time, sociologist Jacqueline Pitanguy was at the head of the National Council for Women’s Rights [CNDM], during the José Sarney government [1985–1990]. She wanted to understand what happened to those who filed complaints at the women’s police stations, which were beginning to be set up around the country in 1985. The following year, Jacqueline hired CEDAC to conduct a study, which I did with anthropologist Danielle Ardaillon. Throughout 1986, we analyzed legal cases involving rape, beatings, and femicide in six Brazilian capitals, such as São Paulo, Belo Horizonte, and Recife, to understand the logic behind defense and prosecution arguments in criminal proceedings.

What did you conclude?
In the case of rape, the victim was placed under suspicion. In other words, that she had provoked the situation or invented the crime to implicate the man. In relation to beatings and femicide, the “legitimate defense of the man’s honor” was used to justify these occurrences. The study became a book, Quando a vítima é mulher [When the victim is a woman] [CNDM, 1987], and was widely publicized by the national council. During the research, we had assistance from Mariza Corrêa and the anthropologist Maria Filomena Gregori, known as Bibia. Mariza’s master’s thesis, “Os atos e os autos: Representações jurídicas de papéis sexuais” [“Acts and records: Legal representations of sexual roles”], which she defended in 1975, at UNICAMP, was the basis for two important books: Os crimes da paixão [Crimes of passion] [Brasiliense, 1981] and Morte em família [Death in the family] [Graal, 1983]. And during the same period, Bibia was doing her master’s research on the day-to-day lives of the feminist group SOS-Mulher, in São Paulo. Her study, defended in 1988, at USP, resulted in the book Cenas e queixas [Scenes and charges] [Paz e Terra, 1992].

Talking about dependent old age that requires full-time caregivers is taboo in societies like ours

Were you already a professor at UNICAMP?
I began my teaching career at the Pontifical Catholic University of São Paulo [PUC-SP] in the early 1980s. In 1984 I became a professor at UNICAMP, where anthropological research with a contemporary and urban slant has always been a strong suit. At the time, I only had a master’s degree. At UNICAMP I got involved with the PAGU Gender Studies Center—created in 1993 by researchers like Mariza Corrêa—which has always been a very interesting space for debate. There I developed, among others, the thematic project “Gênero e corporalidade” [“Gender and corporeality;” 2004–2008], with funding from FAPESP. Alongside doing research, teaching is my great passion. I’m retired, but I continue to supervise undergraduate and graduate work at UNICAMP.

What are you currently researching?
My focus today is the issue of elder care. I’m currently working with the international project “Who cares? Rebuilding care in a post-pandemic world,” supported by FAPESP, among other institutions, and coordinated by Nadya Araújo Guimarães, from the Department of Sociology at USP, who is also a CEBRAP researcher. I am one of the researchers responsible for the analyses around elderly care in the context before, during, and after the COVID-19 pandemic. The project, which is in progress and should be completed in 2025, also has the participation of researchers from the United Kingdom, Canada, Columbia, France, and the United States. I’m also developing a project funded by the CNPq [National Council for Scientific and Technological Development], “Old age and family responsibility.” In general, the task of elder care falls to women and some of them are even elderly themselves. They’re elderly people taking care of elderly people.

How did you become interested in this area?
Because the elderly population is growing considerably, the issue of elder care has become increasingly important [see Pesquisa FAPESP issue nº 299]. In 2012 I was awarded a grant from the Erasmus Mundus program, funded by the European Union, to do specialization research in gender studies. This included teaching classes at the University of Bologna [Italy] and conducting field research in that region. My initial idea was to do research on women who had left Peru and Ecuador to care for the elderly in Italy. But when I got there, I realized that the largest flow of these workers was coming from Eastern Europe, from the former Soviet Union, especially Moldova. They were highly qualified professional women, trained in fields such as engineering. But, because they earned so little where they lived, they migrated to Italy in search of better wages. I’ve been researching elder care issues ever since. In 2019, I launched the e-book Desafios do cuidado: Gênero, velhice e deficiência [Challenges in elder care: Gender, old age, and disability] [UNICAMP/IFCH], edited in partnership with Mariana Marques Pulhez, who was my master’s and doctoral advisee. It’s a collection of articles, written by researchers outside Brazil, which address the issue of elder care and dependent old age around the world. Among other topics, it discusses the situation of workers from the Philippines, which is a major exporter of caregivers to Europe, the United States, and Japan.

Have feminist thinkers reflected on old age?
I don’t think it has been thought about as it should have been, there’s still a lack even today. Feminism remains very focused on the reproductive phase of women and this focus needs to be expanded. In her book A velhice: Realidade incômoda, published in Brazil in 1970 [published in English as The Coming of Age], Simone de Beauvoir [1908–1986] says that she wanted to break the “conspiracy of silence” around this subject. Since then, the world has changed a lot, of course. Today there’s a lot more talk about old age, active old age, the “third age,” about universities for the third age, and elderly people with a high level of autonomy who can actively participate in leisure activities, but dependent old age, which requires full-time caregivers, continues to be a taboo subject in societies like ours, which worship youth.

What do you like to do in your leisure time?
My favorite sport is walking. I recently read Um defeito de cor [A color defect] [Editora Record, 2006], by Ana Maria Gonçalves, and I was fascinated by this book, which follows the saga of Kehinde, a girl who, during the nineteenth century, is kidnapped in Africa to be enslaved in Brazil. Here, she gains her freedom, sees her son sold by the child’s father, and returns to Africa when she is an old woman. In cultural terms, I am very eclectic. I listen to both classical and popular music. My favorite composers are Gilberto Gil and Chico Buarque. At the cinema, I see both French dramas and American comedies. I love going to the theater and I also watch streaming series. I really liked Sintonia, because it deals with central issues in contemporary Brazil: organized crime, the expansion of evangelical religion, and funk music. It’s pure anthropology.