For reasons of property transmission and religion, Brazilian society was originally strongly patriarchal, but there was also strong tension between rigid norms of Iberian origin and the extenuating circumstances of frontier life, where conditions were not favorable for compliance with the norms. The difficulty of putting Roman Catholic values into effective practice in the context of poverty, isolation, and unbalanced male/female sex ratios (number of men per 100 women) reinforced the Mediterranean double moral standard for men and women. Men were expected to demonstrate their masculinity, while proper women were supposed to remain virgins until marriage and to be faithful to their husbands. This double standard also favored frequent consensual unions, illegitimacy, and prostitution. Such behavior was not entirely acceptable but was tolerated more readily in Brazil, generally speaking, than in North America and the rest of Latin America.
Although women were allowed open access to schools and employment around the turn of the century and suffrage on a national level in 1933, they were not on an equal footing with men in family affairs. Men were automatically heads of households, and married women were legally subordinate to their husbands. Because of the inconvenience caused by informal remarriage, divorce was made legal in 1977. Under the constitution of 1988, women became entirely equal to men for all legal purposes.
Female participation in the labor force grew dramatically in the 1970s and 1980s, as a result of new employment patterns, especially the expansion of the services sector, and economic pressures on family income. Women are most commonly employed as domestic servants. The economic participation of women in Brazil rose from 18 percent in 1970 to 27 percent by 1980 and 30 percent by 1990 (although such figures might underestimate actual rates of participation by failing to include the informal activities that characterize small and/or household enterprises). More than 70 percent of women in the labor force are employed by the services sector (as compared with 42 percent of men), and women tend to be underrepresented among the formal labor force in agricultural and industrial activities. Patterns of labor force participation vary considerably by region. In the early 1990s, rates of female labor force participation ranged from 36.8 percent in Rio de Janeiro to 33.1 percent in the Northeast. In Brazil, as in most other countries in Latin America, rates of females participating in the job market appear to increase with education, especially the proportion of single educated women entering the formal sector rather than the informal and self-employed sectors.
There is a considerable wage gap between men and women. According to one recent estimate, the differential between women and men is less pronounced in urban areas (for example, women earn on average 77.8 percent of men's wages in Rio de Janeiro and 73.6 percent in São Paulo), and most pronounced in the Northeast (where, on average, women earn 63.5 percent of the wages of men). Average wages are also considerably lower in the Northeast, where women's average hourly wages are 42 percent of the prevailing average in Rio de Janeiro. According to recent economic studies, only a small portion (between 11 percent and 19 percent of wage differentials in the formal labor force) can be attributed to differences between men and women in their endowments (such as education or experience). For the most part, the wage gap probably reflects discriminatory practices.
Recent decades have also been characterized by significant changes in family structures. For example, the available data suggest a considerable increase over the past decades in female-headed households, which include the poorest of the poor, from 13 percent in 1970 to 16 percent in 1980 and 20 percent by the late 1980s. This process has been termed the "feminization of poverty." Once again, there are considerable differences among regions; in the urban North Region, for example, over 24 percent of households were headed by women in the late 1980s, while their relative share in the South was closer to 16 percent.
Despite persistent gender inequality, the status of women in Brazil is improving on various fronts. As a rule, there are as many females as males in schools, even at the highest levels, and professions that traditionally were dominated by males, such as law, medicine, dentistry, and engineering, are becoming more balanced in terms of gender, if there are not already more women students than men. More women than men are in the National Lawyers' Association (Associação Nacional dos Advogados). The attitudes and practices of young people are generally not as sexist as those of their parents, at least among youth of families with higher income and education.
Nevertheless, there are still relatively few women in positions of power. They have a significant, albeit limited, presence in high levels of federal government, although they have better representation at the state and municipal levels. Since the government of João Baptista do Oliveira Figueiredo (president, 1979-85), several female ministers have been in the cabinet, and in 1994 two women were candidates for vice president. By 1994 women made up only 7 percent of the Congress (see Women in Politics, ch. 4).
Women's movements grew in the 1980s, when a National Council on Women's Rights (Conselho Nacional de Direitos da Mulher--CNDM) was created. Originally, the feminist movement was closely connected to human rights movements and resistance to the military regime. In the 1980s and 1990s, attention shifted to violence against women, especially domestic violence and sexual abuse and harassment. One original response to this kind of problem was the creation of special police stations for women. Women's movements also mobilized support for reproductive health and rights, as defined in the 1994 International Conference on Population and Development, held in Cairo.
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