REVIEW // Marilyn Duarte
Echoes of The Three Marias in the #MeToo Movement
In the pre-revolutionary Portugal of 1972, three female writers, Maria Isabel Barreno, Maria Theresa Horta, and Maria Velho da Costa voiced their dissatisfaction with the views and treatment of women living under António de Oliveira Salazar’s fascist dictatorship within the pages of the New Portuguese Letters: The Three Marias. This work is a compilation of letters, monologues, poems, and puzzles highlighting the exhaustive subservient role of women in that particular society. At the time, ripples were made, the book banned for being “pornographic and an offense to public morals,” the writers arrested and charged with “abuse of the freedom of the press,” and, “outrage to public decency” (NYTimes.com), but this patriarchal society was not ready to adequately address or implement changes. Although The Three Marias did not evoke societal change, forty-five years later its echo vibrated across time and continents in the #MeToo movement, begun by Tarana Burke in 2006, and becoming widely known and used in 2017, whereby brave individuals shared stories of having been harassed, threatened, and violated, contributing to the momentum needed to effect change. By delving into historic literature, readers and writers can gain a deeper understanding of current day issues and subjects, important in providing invaluable background and context, along with a wider perspective to inform current opinion and work.
The normalization of sexual violence that persisted in pre-revolutionary Portuguese society is mirrored in the experiences contained in The Three Marias. In this work, a woman casually recounts the violence she experiences at the hands of her husband:
‘Shut your mouth you bitch or I’ll kill you’…I started screaming and he lost his head and started to beat me with all his might, and the blows rained down on me from head to foot…he came back a month later to beg my pardon, and apologized so politely that I forgave him, what else could I do.
The assumption of forgiveness on the victim’s part is telling. It is a woman’s responsibility to forgive her abuser, not only so that he can feel better about himself, but also to ensure the status quo. The combination of forgiveness, obedience, and complicity which protects a husband on a micro level replicates itself on a macro level outside the home. Prior to the #MeToo movement, forgiveness stretched into the workplace, where the burden was placed on women to forgive and forget. Literature can serve as an archive of the human experience; writers are able to gain a deeper understanding of an issue’s complex past to inform their current work with this new information. And so, they can make use of tracing modern day issues and concerns by reading texts published during other periods and across various cultures and locales. For instance, The Three Marias, in highlighting deep roots of female oppression, both in the home and in society, is thereby infused with issues that would later emerge in the #MeToo movement.
In societies where macho-culture exists, consent can be murky. A letter in The Three Marias states that “men immediately want to grab us by the waist, pin us to white bed sheets if necessary…because our refusal to bow to men’s wishes is harmful.” I was born to Portuguese parents and raised in Toronto’s little Portugal neighborhood, where I witnessed women from my own culture, as well as a multitude of others, giving way to men’s wishes, subtly and overtly.
This reminds us that we need to be keyed into the silences in our society to observe where our society is falling short, particularly where marginalized groups are being suppressed, which again we can learn more about if we go back into literature.
In the world of The Three Marias, any violence directed towards women was believed to be their fault: she was walking alone, she went out with me, she smiled, she cried. The #MeToo movement confirms what was stated in The Three Marias: “Let no one tell me that silence gives consent, because whoever is silent dissents.” This reminds us that we need to be keyed into the silences in our society to observe where our society is falling short, particularly where marginalized groups are being suppressed, which again we can learn more about if we go back into literature. An absence of marginalized voices in literature can be indicative of a particular society’s oppression. Further to this, in The Three Marias, a man tells a woman:
It was all your fault. You know that you were the one to blame for everything. I’m a man. I’m a man and you’re provocative, perverse. You’re perverse. A woman with no modesty, no shame…You knew very well…what you were doing to me.
The coming together of the three writers was a grassroots effort to stop the silencing of women’s voices: “They wanted the three of us to sit in parlors, patiently embroidering our days with the many silences, the many soft words and gestures that custom dictates.” Instead, the writers devoted themselves to reading and writing about taboo topics. This collective sharing of opinions by the authors was an initial tear-down of the culture of women’s silence and obedience. The power of the #MeToo movement via social media has expanded on what the three Portuguese writers did: shed light on the depth, scope, and frequency of sexual harassment and abuse.
There were attempts made to silence the authors of The Three Marias, much as there were attempts to silence and discredit the first women who publicly accused their abusers of crimes and exploitation in the early days of the #MeToo movement. The eponymous three Marias understood the potential negative backlash against those who spoke out: “a feminist is slandered; she is someone raising the frightening spectre of what has never before been put into words, a trouble-maker, a ridiculous creature.” Regardless of attacks made on a writer, what endures is the writer’s truth, preserved in literature, and often times accessible in translation, if needed. This is an encouraging reminder to writers, especially to marginalized voices, to write their truths, because their voices are relevant.
As part of a systemic silencing of women’s voices, Portuguese laws originally attempted to silence the three writers, as North American laws have done, and largely continue to do, to women seeking justice in the courts. The authors of The Three Marias were arrested in the fall of 1972, but after the Carnation Revolution of 1974, ending fifty years of a dictatorship, the women were pardoned, more as a rejection of the country’s old guard than an acceptance of the book’s message.
Abuse is a covert act, yet courts rely on overt proof to condemn.
Abuse is a covert act, yet courts rely on overt proof to condemn. The repercussions of The Three Marias and that of the #MeToo movement played out in the courts. Only recently have North American courts begun to reform those methods which have often resulted in silencing and discrediting victims. It’s necessary to remember that courts don’t only uphold laws, but societal norms as well, since laws are made, interpreted, and judged by members of society. This is where the parallel stops. The Three Marias spoke generally about their society and did not elicit a movement, whereas #MeToo became a movement, calling out specific people and effecting societal change. This historic text holds a wealth of material for writers, allowing for a greater understanding of early #MeToo stirrings, which were present in another culture and in a completely different context.
The three writers always understood the gravity of their content: “I have already spoken of the seriousness of our undertaking, a fight for life, which in our time and our place is not considered legitimate, even in self-defense.” Forty-five years later, the #MeToo movement began dealing in earnest with many of the same issues: sexual violence, consent, and women’s voices. Literature finds its power when writers speak their truth, and for those of us interested in widening our perspective, and learning more about our present, it’s only a book, or perhaps, a translation, away.