By the beginning of the twentieth century, the traditional pattern of patriarchy was breaking down in Uruguay. The relative emancipation of women put Uruguay far ahead of the rest of Latin America in terms of legal rights and social custom. Civil marriage became legally required in 1885, and the influence of the church declined. Divorce on the grounds of cruelty by the husband was legalized in 1907, and in 1912 women were given the right to file for divorce without a specific cause. Married women were allowed to maintain separate bank accounts as early as 1919. Women also were provided with equal access to educational opportunities at all levels early in the twentieth century, and they began to enter the professions in increasing numbers. In 1938 women voted for the first time in national elections. Nevertheless, there was a paternalistic flavor to many of the reforms, which were often seen as protecting women rather than guaranteeing their inalienable rights.
One factor that made it easier for middle-class women to go out of the home to work was the widespread availability of domestic servants willing to undertake cooking, cleaning, and taking care of children for comparatively low wages. By the 1960s, one-quarter of all adult women worked. This proportion continued to rise steadily, reaching over 45 percent in Montevideo by 1985. In 1975 one-fifth of all households were headed by women. Nuclear families made up 61.2 percent of all households, while there were almost as many single-person households (14.6 percent) as traditional extended families (17.6 percent). The average number of persons in each household was 3.4.
The small size of Uruguayan families by Latin American standards was related to the widespread practice of birth control and the middle-class aspiration to provide the best possible education for children. Families tended to be larger in rural areas, where the birth rate was much higher. In rural areas, however, there was an imbalance in the sex ratio because women had a much higher propensity to migrate to the towns in search of work, particularly as domestic servants. Poor families in rural areas were often unstable; common-law marriage and illegitimacy were widespread. Although abortion was illegal, there was no legal distinction between children born in and out of wedlock.
In rural areas, the maintenance of symbolic kinship ties remained common. When babies were baptized, they often were given a godfather (compadre) chosen from among the members of the local elite. This practice, known as compadrazgo, was intended to provide the children with useful connections in later life. It formed an important link in the pattern of interaction between rural elites and subordinate classes. Reciprocal obligations ranged from help from the godparent in finding employment to the requirement of loyalty in voting on the part of the godchild.
Relations between husbands and wives in Uruguay were relatively equal by Latin American standards. The divorce rate had grown steadily from 1 per 10,000 population in 1915 to 14 per 1,000 in 1985. In 1927 the compulsory civil marriage ceremony was amended so that the bride no longer promised obedience, but both man and woman vowed to treat each other with respect. It was not uncommon for women to keep their surnames after marriage. Often, they simply added the husband's name to theirs. Children had their father's surname followed by their mother's.
Uruguayan children, and especially girls, had a relatively high degree of freedom compared with their counterparts in many other Latin American countries. Chaperonage was rare. It was expected that women would have careers, and by 1970 almost half the total school population was female.
During the 1960s, the phenomenon known as the "generation gap" began to be acutely felt in Uruguay. Young people rebelled against their parents and adopted permissive life-styles. In many cases, they were drawn into radical politics; in fact, in 1990 youth was still one of the strongest predictors of left-voting in Uruguay.
Family ties remained strong in Uruguay despite the rebelliousness of youth. Children frequently lived in the parental home well into their thirties, in some cases even after marriage. The usual reason for staying at home was economic necessity; many couples found affordable housing hard to come by.
Despite the relative freedom of women, attitudes toward gender roles and sexuality remained traditionally stereotypical. The pattern of machismo was less pronounced than in much of Latin America, but males were expected to show "masculine" traits; "feminine" characteristics were seen as inferior. At social gatherings, women tended to congregate with other women, and men with men.
Upper-middle-class Uruguayans usually tried to escape Montevideo for the beach resorts on weekends and during the long December to January summer holidays. Family gatherings typically centered on outdoor barbecues (asados), in which large quantities of meat were consumed. Another typical custom, symbolic of family and friendship ties, was the sharing of yerba maté, a form of green tea. A hollowed-out gourd (the maté) or sometimes a china cup is packed almost full with the green tea. A metal straw is then inserted into the tea, and boiling water is poured on top. The maté is then passed around in a circle, each person adding a little more hot water. This custom was particularly significant under the military regime of 1973 to 1985, when citizens were often afraid to congregate in public squares for fear their gossip might be seen as political. An innocent maté ceremony could hardly arouse suspicions.
As in other countries, the advent of television has reduced movie and theater attendance precipitously, causing more leisure hours to be spent in the home. Uruguayans remained enthusiastic in their participation in competitive sports, however. Amateur soccer continued to thrive among the middle and lower classes, whereas the upper-middle classes preferred tennis, golf, and sailing. For the elite, membership in a country club was an important focus of leisure activity and a symbol of social status.
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