This March, for Women’s History Month, the Ms. Blog is profiling Wonder Women who have made history—and those who are making history right now. Join us each day as we bring you the stories of iconic and soon-to-be-famous feminist change-makers.
Zoila Aurora Cáceres Moreno was a Peruvian feminist writer who dove deep into sensitive topics such as a woman’s right to sexual pleasure, the intellectual liberation of women and gender inequality. She was a part of the Spanish literary movement “modernismo,” a blend of romanticism, symbolism and French parnassianism that lasted from the end of the 19th century to the beginning of the 20th century. Cáceres established feminist organizations in Peru, wrote of her travels with her father, the president of Peru, and wrote feminist and modernista books that were recognized by the most well-known modernismo writer Rubén Darío—yet she is overlooked in history.
Born in Lima, Peru on March 29, 1877 to the general and president of Peru, Andrés Avelino Cáceres and his wife, Antonia Moreno, Aurora Cáceres traveled often due to her father’s position and because of the wars that were intertwined with her personal life. The War of the Pacific began two years after her birth and lasted until 1883. Later, in 1895, her sister died while her family was attempting to flee the Chileans during the Peruvian Civil War. That same year, her father was exiled from Peru.
After the exile of her father, Cáceres was educated by nuns in Germany and later attended college at Paris’ Sorbonne for social studies. She learned French, German and Quechua and received the best education for a woman of her era. The combination of her traditional yet liberal education and broad travels with her father inspired her feminist views, which she incorporated into her work in traditional Peru in the 1900s.
In 1906, she married a bohemian, liberal and floozy Guatemalan writer, Enrique Gómez Carrillo. When Cáceres met Carrillo, she was familiar with his writings because he was considered among the most widely read writers in Latin America and was also known in Spain and France. They divorced a year later because of their incompatible lifestyles, with Cáceres requesting and receiving an annulment. In her book, Mi Vida con Enrique Gómez Carrillo, she describes how Carrillo was a free spirit who loved attending parties and traveling, but often fell into depression and expected her to stay home to assume the heteronormative social duties of a married woman.
In 1905, she opened a center for women called the Centro Social de Señoras in Lima to promote the intellectual liberation of women. While educating women to grow a social consciousness and to demand equal rights with men domestically and politically, she fought for women’s right to vote and to gain access to education and employment. Her feminist activism was a leading factor in gaining the vote for Peruvian women in the 1950 municipal elections.
In Paloma Jiménez del Campo’s “La crónica de viajes en la obra de Aurora Cáceres” she highlights a quote from Aurora Cáceres’ book “Una visita a Evangelina” when Cáceres says: “The woman cannot be a queen of happiness in a place where there is hunger. Women should be able to fight and provide and gain knowledge so they can provide for the family as well.”
In this period of history, women sewed for the majority of the day, so Cáceres advocated to “free [women] from the needle” and encouraged women to get involved in social, cultural and political issues just like men. (She also thought sewing would damage women’s eyesight).
She believed the cost of living needed to be lowered for the working-class, so she organized a feminist strike for food in April of 1919. Five years later, she created the organization Peruvian Feminism. During the Spanish Civil War of 1936-1939, Cáceres worked with feminist Peruvian journalist Ángela Ramos and the anti-fascist organization Feminine Action.
Aurora Cáceres’ essays and books were another way she raised awareness of gender inequality. She’s best known for her medical drama, La rosa muerta, which was seen as scandalous for 1914 and was only published in Paris. It wasn’t re-published elsewhere until 2007 by Thomas Ward.
In the drama, the lead character, a Parisian widow, discovers she has a life-threatening sexually transmitted illness received from her deceased husband. Even after treatment, she cannot have sex or else she will die. During treatment, she falls in love with her gynecologist, and convinces him to have sex with her, leading to her death. Her death is dramatic but creates the necessary shock by depicting a woman in her time acting on her sexual desires.
Cáceres also wrote the gynocolgist as a a new kind of man who was more equal to his lover. In her era, “man” semantically meant one that intimidates, dominates and shames. Cáceres gave him nurturing, feminine traits by portraying him as being OK with performing the jobs of both doctor and nurse.
La rosa muerta purposefully references her ex-husband Carillo’s novel, Del amor, del dolor y del vicio, because she wrote about a similar topic with an alternate message. She had read Carillo’s book before they met in secret after her brother-in-law told her it was “dangerous for señoritas and even señoras” to read. Both plots feature rich Parisian widows who find out their deceased husbands had affairs with other women and begin an erotic journey to rediscover themselves. However, Carillo’s novel explores a woman’s sexuality but ends with the typical hedonistic heteronormative balance, while Cáceres’s novel ends dramatically with the death of a woman who chose sexual power over her life.
The book makes a “bold statement in favor of women’s self-empowerment and against misogynistic social codes.”
Aurora Cáceres dared to delve into sensitive topics and issues of feminism through the organizations she founded and the writings she published and should be recognized as a leading figure of the modernismo movement. She died at the age of 81 on February 14, 1958 in Madrid, Spain.