The Portuguese Revolution and Women’s Liberation

After the overthrow of Portugal’s fascist regime in 1974, a radical movement arose to challenge the near-total lack of rights accorded to women. The violent breakup of the movement’s first protest showed how difficult their struggle would be — yet their activism helped bring about a lasting transformation.

The feminist group Movimento da Libertação da Mulher (MLM), Portugal’s Women’s Liberation Movement.

When Isabel Telinhos left her apartment all dolled up on January 13, 1975 — high heels, tight skirt, fake eyelashes, and a curly blond wig like Marilyn Monroe — she had no idea what would happen next.

“I brought my kid with me and everything, like all these other women. It was supposed to be a small protest, just a few journalists, so we could talk about the issues and get some coverage in magazines.” The protest followed several actions by the feminist group Movimento da Libertação da Mulher (MLM), Portugal’s Women’s Liberation Movement. “We felt like we needed a radical wake-up call. If it’s not radical, nothing changes. In any political situation, actions must be radical.”

It’s been over forty-five years since that fateful Monday afternoon in 1975. MLM had organized a performance in Parque Eduardo VII, Lisbon’s largest central park. But when the fifteen or so women got there, they were welcomed by a crowd of men: “A crowd that quickly turned into a horde,” remembers the renowned Portuguese journalist Adelino Gomes. “It wasn’t just a group of people catcalling these women. It was a horde,” stresses Adelino. “At one point, when they started walking, these men started chasing after them, and the whole thing got out of control.”

Adelino Gomes is well-known in Portugal for his coverage of the Carnation Revolution, or 25 de Abril, the 1974 military coup in which the dissident Armed Forces Movement (Movimento das Forças Armadas, or MFA) overthrew the five decades-long fascist regime. Initially told to stay home, the population soon flooded the streets in support of the MFA and handed out red carnations to the soldiers. Adelino reported the last gasps of the dictatorship for a radio station that official censors had forbidden him to work for. As he trailed the road from Terreiro do Paço to Largo do Carmo, he repeated to the microphone exactly what he was hearing from the crowd: “Down with the colonial war! Down with Fascism!”

Meeting him at the Fundação Calouste Gulbenkian in Lisbon, I asked him why he had been there for the MLM action. “Well, it had all the factors that made it newsworthy. It was a protest, first of all; of women, second of all; of a women’s liberation movement, third; a movement where they wouldn’t just list their demands but would quite literally set fire to the symbols of women’s oppression.”

And there were plenty of those. Isabel Telinhos remembers, above all, the pornographic brochures, the pots and pans, but also the bridal hair wreaths, brooms, dust cloths, sexist toys, Francisco Manuel de Melo’s The Letter of Guidance to Married Man (a seventeenth-century letter where the author argues, among other things, that the best book for a woman is the pillow and the embroidery hoop), and even the Civil and Penal Codes.

“I mean, if you didn’t cover that, you were either an idiot and should quit journalism, or you were completely (which was very likely) distracted — and I say this as a profound critique — distracted with everything else that was going on at the time. And then there was just one more factor, which, for better or for worse, is always there: it was just around the corner,” Adelino chuckles.

He’s not exaggerating. Rádio Clube Português’s newsroom was a brisk five-minute walk from Parque Eduardo VII. Madalena Barbosa, emblematic feminist and founder of the Women’s Liberation Movement, also had an apartment right around the corner, where many women took refuge that day. According to several accounts, about two thousand men chased after them holding signs that read “Out with them!” and “This is ridiculous.” “They were surrounding me . . . screaming ‘let’s undress her!’ . . . trying to push the van where our kids were playing upside down,” Isabel tells me. “And you know that when it comes to big crowds, you just need one person to try something before everyone else starts doing it.”

If the men’s appalling behavior seems hard to understand, the reason why they were there is not quite so mysterious. A few days before, on January 11, leading weekly Expresso published an unsigned article which jokingly announced that “according to reliable information,” the gathering would see “the striptease of a bride, a housewife, and a vamp, who will present the orange blossom, [a flower traditionally associated with purity and chastity] the apron, and bikini as fuel to the fire.” And indeed, these stereotypes were there: the bride, the housewife, and the vamp, a sexist archetype that portrays women as sexual objects. Isabel Telinhos, with her blond wig and tight skirt, was the vamp that day. “They’re the ones who get catcalled the most,” she said.

But the truth begins and ends there. Years after the protest, rumor still claims that bras were burned — an idea dismissed by everyone present. Feminist activist Maria Antónia Palla, one of Portugal’s first women journalists, remembers the gossip: “It’s all lies. I don’t think we ever found out who started spreading that, but it’s a lie . . . I was there until the end, until we’d all gone to Madalena Barbosa’s apartment, and there was no such thing.” Isabel agreed: “No one was going to burn any bras.”

Nothing was burned that day — the fire never actually happened. But what did happen that afternoon in 1975, nine months after the revolution, the women who took to the streets to protest for their rights were forced to run away. They were insulted, harassed, assaulted, and chased after.

Forty-five years later, Isabel admits there are a few details she can’t quite place anymore. But she remembers vividly when she turned to a man who wanted to undress her and managed to yell back, “‘Well, let’s undress you first!’ That was it. I didn’t even think twice. I only felt like I needed to defend myself.” She spent hours on end at Parque Eduardo VII that day, screaming back to the crowd, trying to find a way out. “It’s terrible how — in the middle of the joy and freedom brought by 25 de Abril, where everyone was gathering in unions to fight for their rights — so many men went there because they heard women were stripping. That was brutal,” Isabel bemoaned over the phone. “The spectacle that the men of this country, with no discrimination of culture, class, or ideology, gave yesterday afternoon at Parque Eduardo VII, came once again to confirm that there’s a reason why feminist movements exist,” journalist Lourdes Féria wrote in the following day’s Diário de Lisboa. “Some photographers from the newspapers ran from side to side, almost drooling from lust as they shouted, ‘Where are they? Have they stripped yet?’”

Many of the people who were there still have trouble explaining what happened. After all, it was just a few dozen women, many accompanied by their children, doing something very similar to what feminist movements were doing abroad. Manuela Tavares, cofounder, and director of União de Mulheres Alternativa e Resposta (UMAR), who wrote the most comprehensive PhD thesis on feminism in Portugal, explains that the activists were, in a way, trying to mimic what French feminists had done in the 1960s and 1970s: “There was this really simple act where they laid a flower crown in the Tomb of the Unknown Soldier dedicated to his wife. Because more unknown than the unknown soldier is the wife of the unknown soldier,” she laughs. The inscription read: Il y a plus inconnu que le soldat inconnu: sa femme (“There’s someone even more unknown than the unknown soldier: his wife”). And in a way, they wanted to get the same kind of attention.

Abused Freedoms

The Women’s Liberation Movement was founded on May 7, 1974, less than a year before the protest that never took place. Earlier that day, Maria Teresa Horta, Maria Isabel Barreno, and Maria Velho da Costa had been exonerated from the case that became known as “As Três Marias” (“The Three Marias”), where they stood accused of “abuse of the freedom of the press” and “outrage to public decency” thanks to the “pornographic content” of their newly published book, Novas Cartas Portuguesas (“New Portuguese Letters”).

Finished in 1972, Novas Cartas Portuguesas is not an easily digested piece of literature. It’s an homage to the seventeenth-century classic As Cartas Portuguesas (“Letters of a Portuguese Nun”), a work of five passionate and anguished love letters allegedly written by a Portuguese nun, Mariana Alcoforado, to the French official who seduced and deserted her to avoid scandal. It’s not just a collection of letters or poems, though it’s certainly both, and it can’t simply be described as a feminist manifesto, though, in a way, it is.

The book was collectively signed by the Three Marias (to this day, no one knows which Maria wrote what). They weren’t just speaking for the three of them, but for all the Marias, Marianas, and Maria Anas; for all the repressed women in a deeply Catholic country which had nothing to offer them besides a matronly, supporting role. Novas Cartas Portuguesas breaks with the patriarchal authority of the fascist regime, criticizing not just women’s place in society, but also Portugal’s continuing colonial project.

Compraz-se Mariana com o seu corpo, [“Mariana takes her pleasure with her body”]” read Manuela Tavares when I visited her at UMAR (originally called the Union of Anti-Fascist and Revolutionary Women), a place where several generations of feminists have met since its founding in 1976. We walked through “The Three Marias garden” to reach an open room full of books and rows and rows of archives and posters about prostitution, sexual violence, and domestic violence. The rain was quietly falling outside as we started talking about the protest, MLM, and Novas Cartas Portuguesas.

“I believe Novas Cartas Portuguesas caused massive ripples in a conservative society which was a product of forty-eight years of fascism, of darkness,” says Manuela. “It was a powerful call to action.” Reading me her favorite parts of the book, she reveals that it started raising red flags even before its publication, when an employee at the printing office complained about its contents to his manager. Several copies still found their way to circulation in Lisbon, but then the official censors got hold of the book, and it was promptly banned. The state prosecutors opened formal charges against the authors and Romeu de Melo, director of the publishing house.

The process referred to the book’s pornographic contents as the leading reason to seize the book, but Duarte Vidal, Maria Isabel Barreno’s defense attorney, believed the real goal was to censor its harsh criticism of the fascist government. In his defense, he argued: “Naturally worried that an accusation of a political nature against the three talented writers would be yet another scandal, adding to the many others humiliating the country’s image . . . the Portuguese censors, with a Machiavellianism typical of their poor consciences, referred the three writers to the police in charge of investigating common crimes, as authors of a pornographic book.”

If the idea was to prevent another scandal, it backfired. Copies of the book were smuggled out of Portugal and translated in several languages, and during the two years in which the process dragged on, the case became an international cause célèbre, prompting worldwide protests in support of the writers. In 1973, the first International Feminist Planning Conference in Cambridge unanimously voted for support for the Three Marias as the very first international feminist action.

The sentencing hearing got delayed and then delayed again. Finally, on May 7, 1974, just a few days after the revolution, the Three Marias were acquitted of all charges. That same night, Maria Teresa Horta and Maria Isabel Barreno decided to start a women’s liberation movement — MLM. This was “the first feminist association in Portugal who put the problem of abortion, sexuality, and violence against women in the political agenda of the country,” says Manuela. But despite their popularity abroad and the urgency of the issues they were discussing — and at this time, thousands of women were dying in the one hundred to two hundred thousand unsafe clandestine abortions performed each year — the movement wasn’t necessarily well-received.

Irene Flunser Pimentel, historian and researcher at Lisbon’s NOVA University, says that “these women from MLM suffered from the extreme backwardness of Portugal never having had a strictly feminist movement.” Feminism, she argued, “was for privileged, bourgeois women.” There was this idea on the Left that “the class struggle had one solution, and that women who were part of that feminist movement were bourgeois and didn’t have a clue about the life and struggles of proletarian women.”

“At the beginning of the twentieth century, in Portugal,” she adds, “the republican women’s suffragette movement fought mainly for the right to vote and receive an education.” However, according to the Portuguese National Institute of Statistics (INE), in 1970, 31 percent of women were still illiterate, twice as much as men. “No one read. It was quite hard to reach people because, at the time, you would reach them through pamphlets.”

But that’s not the only reason behind MLM’s lack of recognition in Portugal. If today the word “feminism” is still somewhat controversial, back then, it was almost “dirty.” Maria de Lourdes Pintasilgo — a lifelong fighter for women’s rights, creator of the Commission on Women’s Condition, and so far Portugal’s only woman prime minister — didn’t like the term. She wrote that “‘feminism’ is an archaic word, with a bad reputation, and no dynamic force.”

Looking back at feminists’ struggles in 1978, Madelena Barbosa explained why it had gotten a bad name: “Forty-eight years of Salazarism meant women’s indoctrination with the myth of self-sacrificing motherhood, the dedicated wife and incorrupt virgin, while censorship prevented us from getting to know the reality of women’s struggles in all parts of the world . . . Feminism thus became a term of negative, laughable connotations for Portuguese women who, for the most part, to this day, still don’t know the real political significance of women’s struggles.”

Irene agrees that censorship had a destructive role in what the Portuguese woman accomplished during the republican liberalism of the early twentieth century: “One of the main things of Estado Novo [“New State” or “Second Republic”], besides the secret police, political party ban, and all that, was censorship. . . . There was a big hiatus — forty-eight years is a very long time. I don’t think people realize how this kind of longevity shapes collective memory and mentality.


The Civil Code passed in 1966 was more than clear about women’s intended role. A section on “Marital Power” proclaimed: “The husband is the head of the family, and it is up to him, in that capacity, to represent her and decide in all acts of married life.”

As historian Irene Flunser Pimentel — an expert on the fascist Estado Novo and coauthor of a book on Portuguese women in the twentieth century — tells me, women’s role under Prime Minister António de Oliveira Salazar was limited to marriage, domestic work, and their children’s education: “What was on the Civil Code, after all.” At the time, Portugal’s Civil Code embodied the idea of the man as the head of the family, “and everything flowed from that. Because if the man was the head of the family, who owed him obedience? His wife and children. All the rules came from that.”

In a 2016 interview with Diário de Notícias, Irene regrets that, although the status of “second-rate Portuguese,” typically used to refer to the Portuguese born in the colonies, ended in 1950, “women stayed second-rate until 1976,” two years after the Carnation Revolution that proclaimed freedom for all.

With the dictatorship overthrown, amid an ongoing revolutionary process, the Civil Code still stated that men could open women’s correspondence, or that the loss of virginity (women’s virginity, of course) was grounds for marriage annulment. Men had almost complete authority over their wives, children, and property.

And if in the eyes of the law women were still inferior to men, in people’s minds there wasn’t much doubt: “It was a very sad display of Portuguese misogyny which proved that, after all, 25 de Abril still hadn’t managed to fight the existing mentalities,” Adelino Gomes sighs, referring to the events that took place that January afternoon. “I’ll use a word here: they ‘provoked’ the ‘Iberian male.’ And the ‘Iberian male’ doesn’t even need to be provoked to show his true colors.” Adelino is referring to an infamous 1989 court case when two tourists were raped in the Algarve. The Supreme Court of Justice ruled that, though the case was morally reprehensible, the two young women “contributed a lot to its realization,” for they “did not hesitate to ask passersby for a ride, right in the territory of the so-called Iberian male.” “These are expressions of the cultural and civilizational sadness of this community,” complains Adelino.

It wouldn’t be the last time, provoked or not, that the “Iberian male” would reveal itself. Nor would it be the last time the blame would fall on the victims. Even in 2017, the judge Neto de Moura justified domestic violence on the grounds of a victim’s extramarital affair. The judgment, which drew a storm of criticism, reads:

Women’s adultery is a very serious attack on a man’s honor and dignity.

There are still societies in which the adulterous woman is stoned to death.

In the Bible, we can read that adulterous women must be punished with death.
It was not long ago that the penal law (Penal Code of 1886, article 372) punished with little more than a symbolic punishment the man who, catching his wife cheating on him, killed her.

These references are meant only to emphasize that women’s adultery is a behavior that society has always condemned, and strongly condemns (and honest women are the first to stigmatize adulteresses), and that is why the violence exercised by the betrayed, vexed, and humiliated man is seen with some understanding.

It was the assistant’s disloyalty and sexual immorality that caused defendant X to fall into a deep depression, and it was in this depressed state, clouded by disgust, that he committed the act of aggression, as was considered in the appealed sentence.

The Iberian male is not yet extinct. The subsequent revisions of the Civil and Penal codes couldn’t unweave the deeply seeded misogyny that can still be found, to this day, in our institutions. Almost fifty years later, the fight that the Three Marias and the women at MLM started is still far from over.

Abortion Is Not a Crime

The Women’s Liberation Movement didn’t last much longer after the protest that brought them to Parque Eduardo VII: “There were major contradictions, and they ended up drifting apart,” Manuela says. “Overall, we think MLM did what it could,” wrote Madalena Barbosa in 1978. After all, for such a short-lived movement, MLM bothered a whole lot of people. And it had big implications on the social, cultural, and political Portuguese fabric.

“These women all moved within the same circles,” Irene notes, “who may not have been at MLM per se, but were feminists as well and had the same demands. When I met Madalena Barbosa, she was already part of a feminist documentation center, of which I was also a part of. There, I found many of those women, fighting for the decriminalization of abortion.”

The decriminalization of abortion was one of MLM’s most radical demands. In 1975, Maria Teresa Horta, Célia Metrass, and Helena de Sá Medeiros published the first-ever book on abortion in Portugal  — Aborto: Direito ao Nosso Corpo (“Abortion: The Right to Our Bodies”). It made the case that “abortion is not a moral or religious or medical problem, but a sociopolitical one. . . . The decision to have an abortion falls only with the pregnant woman who has (or should have) the right to control her own body.”

Although she was never a part of MLM, Maria Antónia Palla also fought most of her life for decriminalization. In the 1960s, Maria Antónia Palla was one of the first women registered in the journalists’ union. She was also one of the first women allowed in the editorial staff of Diário Popular, a newspaper from which she was fired in May 1968 for covering the student revolt in Paris without permission.

“I was mainly involved in defending the freedom of the press, but I was always interested in women’s issues,” she tells me. In 1974, she and her colleague Antónia de Sousa began producing a documentary series on the situation of women in Portugal, until February 1976, that is, when they decided to make an episode on abortion. In O Aborto Não É um Crime (“Abortion Is Not a Crime”), they decided to film a woman who chose to have an abortion in her house, with the help of doctors from a clinic in Cova da Piedade.

The images proved too explicit for viewers, who replied with a storm of criticism against public broadcaster RTP. The series was quickly canceled and the authors formally charged with “outrage against public morals” and “incitement to crime”: “It became clear, in those two years, that there was freedom for everything, but not for women to decide whether or not they wanted to have kids, or for women to decide what was going on in their own bodies,” Maria Antónia sighs.

Thousands of women suffered needlessly from clandestine pregnancy interruptions. Many had no way of paying for anesthesia, and, even when they did, it was typically administered by midwives with no qualifications to do so. It’s ironic, Maria Antónia points out, “that in the middle of it all, it’s my reporting that’s indecent.”

The hearing came in 1979, three years after the show aired on RTP: “At least it helped advance the cause, and to that extent, I felt like it wasn’t completely useless. But it’s very unpleasant to be waiting for a trial for three years.” When she was finally called in, she admits how lucky she was: “Both the judge and the prosecutor were feminists. They pulled some strings and managed to get the case, because there was this [other] prosecutor that wanted to convict me.” She laughs that, after the trial, she and the prosecutor even became friends.

In 1976, Albino Aroso, a medical doctor and secretary of state in Francisco de Sá Carneiro’s provisional government, published the Law of Family Planning, which allowed women to have access to these consultations. This measure earned him the nickname, “Father of Family Planning,” “but we wanted much more,” Maria Antónia adds. “We wanted a law that would decriminalize abortion.”

And yet abortion wouldn’t be decriminalized any time soon. It took thirty-one years after Abortion Is Not a Crime aired, before it actually stopped being one. After a narrow defeat in a 1998 referendum, in the rerun in 2007, 59.3 percent of the population answered “yes” to decriminalizing voluntary terminations — albeit only within the first ten weeks of pregnancy.  Decriminalization was approved in the parliament shortly after, with votes in favor from the Socialists, the Communists, the Left Bloc, and the Greens.

Although it was a victory for the feminist movement, there are issues raised in the first brochure of the Women’s Liberation Movement in 1975 which are still unanswered to this day. Besides demanding the revision of the Civil Code and the right to equal pay for equal work, the activists also demanded, for example, the recognition of domestic work by the state, or free childcare for all women. “Curiously, even today, the image people have from MLM is that we were all foolish women, just like the feminists of the early twentieth century were called crazy and hysterical, when they were instrumental,” says Maria Isabel Barreno in a 2006 interview for Público. “Today, the principles we stood for are considered normal and respectable and defended by all political organizations.”

For historian Irene Flunser Pimentel, the decriminalization of abortion is one of MLM’s greatest legacies. “It is perhaps wishful thinking on my part, I’m afraid, because it was a very isolated and, above all, defeated movement. But there is no doubt that these women at the forefront started an effort that would have many ramifications later on, as in the abortion issue.” But not just abortion. Irene also mentions the reform of the Civil Code of 1977, replacing “marital power” with the “duty of cooperation” for both spouses. This greatly owed to the Commission on Women’s Condition, now called the Commission for Equality and Women’s Rights, of which Madalena Barbosa was also part.

“In the long run, [the reform of the Civil Code] was perhaps the biggest change, at least in the eyes of the law. Of course, the main question is that there’s a wide gap from law to action — today it would be very interesting to analyze how those changes flowed from top to bottom.”

What Will We Do With Our Freedom?

For Adelino Gomes, MLM’s legacy represents “the beacon for a path that is yet to be followed. Even today, I was looking at pictures from the three of them [the bride, the housewife, and the vamp], so young and so brave, and it moves me. It’s the unfinished struggle of women like Maria Teresa Horta, Maria Velho da Costa, and Maria Isabel Barreno — women with a poetic and literary sensibility who fought with literature, who used the weapons of their condition.”

Isabel Telinhos, who got all dressed up that Monday afternoon, believes the legacy of the 1975 protest lies beyond a simple paper trail. “At the time, we managed to get a lot of people’s attention, and help plenty of women realize life was more than just doing laundry,” she said over the phone. Just before we hung up, she added: “It was good. It was wonderful.”

Everyone I talked to agrees there’s a long way ahead of us. For example, Irene says that “nowadays, women work just as much as men and then work god knows how many more hours when they get home, and there are studies about that.” She complains women don’t have enough time to study, to think, for leisure, “for everything!”

A less-traveled path is the fight against domestic violence. Irene compares the lack of discussion on this question unfavorably to France: “Here, domestic violence is only discussed and dealt with in terms of laws, when it should be something we all talk about.” It’s as if the old Portuguese saying, “one doesn’t put the spoon between husband and wife” — meaning, just mind your own business — still holds. But, Irene quips, “according to law, you do need to put the spoon in!”

We got a lot of freedoms back in 25 de Abril but, as Maria Antónia Palla told me, “freedom is something for which we must fight every day.” Back on that day in 1974, she “was out on the street by 7 AM. It was very emotional.” She was at Largo do Carmo, where the Estado Novo surrendered to the Armed Forces Movement, and went straight back to the O Século Ilustrado newsroom where she was working: “Only I couldn’t write. I mean, I was putting in a sheet of paper and throwing it on the floor, another sheet of paper, another one on the floor.” Finally, she came up with a sentence that, to this day, is still on her mind: “Now that freedom is ours, what are we going to do with it?”