Portuguese women gained full legal equality with men relatively recently. Until the reforms made possible by the Revolution of 1974, Portuguese women had notably fewer political, economic, or personal rights than the women of other European countries. In family matters, they were subordinate to their husbands, having to defer to male decisions about how the children should be reared and educated. It was only in 1969 that all married women obtained the right to obtain a passport or leave Portugal without their husbands' consent. The constitution of 1976 guaranteed Portuguese women full equality for the first time in Portuguese history. However, this equality was not attained through steady progress, but rather after reverses and defeats.
For centuries, Portuguese women were obliged by law and custom to be subservient to men. Women had few rights of either a legal or financial nature and were forced to rely on the benevolence of their male relatives. Late in the nineteenth century and early in the twentieth century, some educated persons saw the need for women's equality and emancipation. A small Portuguese suffragette movement formed, and some young women began to receive higher educations. Shortly after the proclamation of the First Republic in the fall of 1910, laws were enacted establishing legal equality in marriage, requiring civil marriages, freeing women of the obligation to remain with their husbands, and permitting divorce. However, women were still not allowed to manage property or to vote.
Salazar's Estado Novo meant the end to these advances. The constitution of 1933 proclaimed everyone equal before the law "except for women, the differences resulting from their nature and for the good of the family." Although the regime allowed women with a secondary education to vote (men needed only to read and write), it once again obliged women to remain with their husbands. The Concordat of 1940 between the Portuguese government and the Roman Catholic Church gave legal validity to marriages within the church and forbade divorce in such marriages. Later amendments to the civil code, even in the 1960s, cemented the husband's dominance in marriage.
The constitution of 1976 brought Portuguese women full legal equality. Anyone eighteen or over was granted the right to vote, and full equality in marriage was guaranteed. A state entity, the Commission on the Status of Women, was established and from 1977 on was attached to the prime minister's office. Its task was to improve the position of women in Portugal and to oversee the protection of their rights. This entity was renamed the Commission for Equality and Women's Rights (Comissão para a Igualdade e Direitos das Mulheres) in 1991.
The position of women improved as a result of these legal reforms. By the early 1990s, women were prominent in many professions. Thirty-seven percent of all physicians were women, as were many lawyers. Slightly more than half of those enrolled in higher education were women. Working-class women also made gains. A modernizing economy meant that many women could find employment in offices and factories and that they had a better standard of living than their mothers.
Despite these significant gains, however, Portuguese women still had not achieved full social and economic equality. They remained underrepresented in most upper-level positions, whether public or private. Women usually held less than 10 percent of the seats in the country's parliament. Women were also rarely cabinet members or judges. In the main trade unions, women's occupancy of leadership positions was proportionally only half their total union membership, and, on the whole, working-class women earned less than their male counterparts.
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