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  • Writer's picture@ Cynthia Adina Kirkwood

Photos by Maria Lamas, A “Remarkable 20th-Century Portuguese Woman”

Updated: Mar 1


Unidentified woman and child in Covão da Ponte, commonly known as “A Castanheira”, in Manteigas Municipality, Serra da Estrela (Photos by Maria Lamas)

 

The Calouste Gulbenkian Foundation is showing, for the first time in Portugal, the photographic work of Maria Lamas, one of the country’s first female journalists. Lamas also published more than a dozen fiction and non-fiction books, and she translated Charles Dickens’ David Copperfield and other novels. Her passion for giving visibility to women’s work and fighting for citizen's rights during the Estado Novo regime led to arrests, imprisonments and several exiles.


Between 1948 and 1950, Maria Lamas traveled all over the country, reporting on the lives of women in 15 issues entitled As Mulheres do Meu Pais (The Women of My Country), published at the time, and later collected in a single volume and reissued in 2002. Sixty-seven of the 149 photographs taken during the project are on exhibit until May 28. Admission is free.


“An expression of solidarity with the women of my country,” is how the journalist described her endeavor in the first installment of her work, reported Expresso (November 10, 2022).

 

Guta Moura Guedes, design writer for Expresso (February 1), wrote:

  

“Knowing the work and life of Maria Lamas is crucial to knowing and understanding Portugal. The Portugal of today, which faces so many challenges and which we see sinking into a sea of insanity, is also understood by realizing the country we were in the post-Second World War period and, above all, the country we were during the fascist dictatorship, where female reality was, not to use harsher words, painful and unfair.

 

“(The photographs) are small, dense, and look like precious stones. Whenever I saw these women, who could be our grandmothers or great-grandmothers, . . . I got caught up in the details beyond themselves. Observing the utensils that they carry or use is to know the days and horizons that surrounded them. It means knowing part of the tasks they performed and also what they were not allowed to do. Perceiving the outline of the houses that are their backdrop is discovering how a country was made; seeing the costumes they wear is knowing their customs and manners.”

 

The Calouste Gulbenkian Foundation described Maria Lamas (Torres Novas 1893 – Lisbon 1983) as “perhaps the most remarkable Portuguese woman of the 20th century”.

 

Pushing coal carts in São Pedro da Cova, Gondomar Municipality, in Porto District

 

In 1946, at the age of 53, Maria Lamas found herself out of a job.

 

For nearly 20 years, she had worked as a writer and director of Modas e Bordados (Fashions and Embroidery), a supplement of the newspaper, O Século, adopting a discourse “from women to women” on topics questioning traditional standards of women in society. Her column, O Correio da Tia Filomena (The Mailroom of Aunt Filomena), became famous and received hundreds of letters about the condition of women and their dreams, reported Mulher Portuguesa (February 10, 2001).


As "Tia Filomena", one of Maria Lamas’ many pseudonyms, she touched the lives of her readers. Her biographer, Maria Antónia Fiadeiro, who was also a journalist and pioneer of women’s studies, told RTP (December 6, 2016):

 

“Any problem that women had – and they had many – they would write to the magazine and she would respond. And the women would be guided. In those years, it was daring to write to a magazine and ask certain questions that were not common in these posts. She added everything that is part of women’s lives, everything that women wanted to know, what they asked about life, society, politics, their professional orientation.”

  

In 1945,  Maria Lamas had become president of the National Council of Portuguese Women, reported Expresso (May 12, 2023), with the promise of promoting literacy campaigns throughout the country.


Dictator António Oliveira da Salazar had been chair of Political Economy and Finance at the University of Coimbra, where he had received a degree in Law and a doctorate in Economics. Despite repeated promises, the former teacher achieved little improvement in the country’s education. Portugal’s literacy rate was officially 50 percent in 1946, one of the lowest in Western countries, but it was probably much lower since those who could barely sign their names were counted as literate, reported Time magazine (July 22, 1946).

 

The newly elected women’s council president would not have the time to fulfill her promise of encouraging literacy campaigns.

 

A few months after her election in 1945, the director of O Século gave her an ultimatum: choose the magazine or the women’s council. Maria Lamas chose the council.

 

However, in 1947, after the exhibition, Livros Escritos por Mulheres (Books Written by Women), of 1,500 original works and translations of literary, scientific and political works from 35 countries on three continents held at the Sociedade Nacional de Belas Artes (National Society of Fine Arts), the government banned activity of the National Council of Portuguese Women. The council, having been warned, dismantled the exhibit after one week, the day before the arrival of the secret police, or PIDE (International and State Defense Police), according to José Gabriel Pereira Bastos (1943-2021), her grandson, in Maria Lamas, Photographed and Photographer, Fascínio da Fotografia (Fascination of Photography) (December 6, 2018).

 

It was then that Maria Lamas decided, without any support or financial aid, to embark on a project of extraordinary ambition: to set out (sometimes on top of a donkey) and travel across the country, from north to south, from the Azores to Madeira, interviewing and photographing women from all social classes, in order to create as complete a portrait as possible of the situation in which her compatriots lived at the time, reported Expresso (May 12, 2023).

 

In the 2002 reissue, long out of print, in an introductory text, granddaughter Maria José wrote about the journalist’s resolve:

 

“My grandmother left Lisbon with money for 15 days, paper, pencils and a Kodak camera. . . . At the end of those 15 days, she returned to Lisbon, went through all her notes, delivered the work to the printing house and reviewed the proofs of that issue.”

 

Maria Lamas saw the entire project through to the end.

 

In Costa Nova, on the west coast on the Ria da Aveiro coastline, in Ílhavo Municipality, central Portugal

 

José Gabriel Pereira Bastos, her grandson, who had been a retired professor of Anthropology and Psychoanalysis at Universidade Nova de Lisboa, wrote about As Mulheres do Meu Pais in Maria Lamas, Photographed and Photographer (December 6, 2018):

 

“In a neo-realist-influenced approach, they are all women of the people, in untitled photographs – a young mother from Serra da Estrela, with her child; the work of the Azinhal weavers (in Castro Marim Municipality of the Algarve); one woman sifting, another working in the cod drying season . . .; a group dancing with each other, to the sound of an accordion; a very old woman bringing firewood to the house; motherhood, work and festive meetings with men; preparing for courtships – all which say a lot about what the world of Portuguese women was like after the last World War:

 

“With little or no education, without television or horizons opening outside of their small world. Earning bread for herself and for the family she has established or is about to form, a family perhaps emigrated or already lost.”

 

“An expression of solidarity with the women of my country”

 

Beginnings

 

The life of Maria Lamas traces a trajectory with modern Portuguese history. She was born during the monarchy, lived through the First Republic, resisted the Estado Novo and died after the April 1974 Revolution.

 

At her birth (São Pedro Parish, Torres Novas Municipality, Santarem District  October 6, 1893 – Alcântara, Lisbon  December 6, 1983), King Carlos I sat on the throne until his assassination at Terreiro do Paço, in Lisbon, in 1908.

 

Maria Lamas was the daughter of Maria da Encarnaçao Vassalo e Silva, a Catholic, who was born in Alcanena, Torres Novas, and Manuel Caetano da Silva, a shopkeeper, who was a republican and a Freemason, born in Mação Municipality, Santarem District.

 

Her younger brother, Manuel António Vassalo e Silva, a general in the Portuguese Armed Forces, would become the last governor of Portuguese India. After Indian takeover of the territory in 1961 with 40,000 men compared with the Portuguese number of 3,000, he disobeyed Salazar’s order to fight to the death. As a result, he was expelled from the military but reinstated after the April 1974 Revolution.

 

Maria Lamas attended Conde Ferreira primary school and completed her studies at Colégio das Teresianas de Jesus Maria José in Torres Novas.

 

Maria Lamas, with her two daughters, on her return to Portugal from Angola in 1913 (Photo from Maria Lamas, Photographed and Photographer, Fascínio da Fotografia)

 

First Republic; Remaking Her Life

 

The October 5, 1910 revolution, the result of a coup d’etat organized by the Portuguese Republic Party, overthrew the centuries-old monarchy and replaced it with the First Portuguese Republic.

 

Two months before the first woman, Carolina Beatriz Ângelo, voted on May 28, 1911, Maria Lamas married at age 17. She accompanied her husband, a military officer, on his mission to the fort of Capelango, Angola.

 

In 1913, two years later, she left a troubled marriage and returned to Portugal. The couple had two daughters.

 

Maria Lamas was willing to seek a divorce -- which the First Republic had only just legalized in 1910 and was still a taboo subject in conservative circles -- and fought successfully for guardianship of her daughters.

 

The divorce, by mutual consent, was granted in 1920.

 

In 1921, at age 27, she married again, this time with a newspaper colleague at A Época. The couple separated soon, shortly after the birth of their daughter, and her husband refused her a divorce. Her friend, journalist Maria Antónia Palla, who said she met her when she was 18 and Lamas already had white hair, told Expresso (January 19, 2019):

 

“She ends up accepting the marriage, on the one hand, because her family pressured her to ‘redo her life’. On the one hand, she was uncomfortable being a woman with two daughters and, on the other hand, her own consciousness was not yet complete. The formation of Maria Lamas was taking place.

 

“‘Remaking our lives’, at that time, was not looking for a job or a profession. It wasn’t about improving education. It was about finding a husband. I also felt that pressure, and I think it still exists today,” said Maria Antónia Palla, mother of Prime Minister António Costa.

 

Working as a Journalist

 

Maria Lamas began working at Agência Americana de Noticias, where her friend, Virgínia Quaresma (Elvas 1882 - Lisbon 1973), had been appointed director of the Lisbon branch in 1922 after returning from Brazil.

 

The anti-fascist Virgínia Quaresma, despite being watched by the secret police, partly due to her public admittance of lesbianism, was able to use her influence abroad to help colleagues get work at the news agency. One of the first women to graduate in Literature in the country from the University of Lisbon, she co-founded Atlântida, one of the first advertising companies for newspapers in 1918. The daughter of a descendant of African slaves and an officer in the Portuguese Armed Forces, she spoke out early on republican ideals, beginning to express social activism with a focus on the rights of women, sexual orientation and people of color.

 

Besides the news agency, Agência Americana de Noticias and the newspapers, A Época and Correio da Manhã, Maria Lamas also published poems, novels and texts for children, adolescents and women.

 

The First Republic (1910-1926) was still in power, but it was turbulent, marked by widespread terrorist attacks and political assassinations. There were nine presidencies, including the head of the provisional government, and 44 cabinet reorganizations. Between 1920 and 1925, 325 bombs exploded in the streets of Lisbon. Meanwhile, the cost of living increased 25-fold.

 

The First Republic ended with a coup d’etat on May 28, 1926, and a military dictatorship followed with the entrance of Salazar, the economist, to public life as Finance Minister. Within one year and equipped with special powers, he balanced the budget, stabilized Portugal’s currency and produced the first of many budgetary surpluses.

 

However, Salazar did not balance the budget of Portuguese families, reported Time magazine in 1946. One typical family with a monthly income of 1,200 escudos paid out 1,663 escudos for rent, water, electricity and clothing.

 

In 1928, Maria Lamas began working at the Modas e Bordados. At about this time, she began to speak about the right to happiness, dignity and the emancipation of women. She joined the National Council for Portuguese Women.

 

In 1930, on her own initiative, with the National Council of Portuguese Woman and the newspaper, O Seculo, Maria Lamas organized the exhibition, Mulheres Portuguesas (Portuguese Women), of women’s ancient and modern work of a literary, artistic and scientific nature, reported RTP (December 6, 2016).  The exhibit occupied 11 rooms at O Século, lasted two months, generated a strong turnout and caught media attention.

 

“One of the narratives of Portuguese feminism is intellectual demand and this exhibition, among others is proof of that. There is always intellectual demand. It wasn’t just the right to vote, it wasn’t just copyright. It was giving visibility to the work of women, from north to south,” Maria Antónia Fiadeiro, journalist and pioneer of women’s studies, told RTP (December 6, 2016).

 

In 1934, Portugal awarded her the rank of Officer of the Order of Sant’Iago da Espada.

 

Opening of one of Maria Lamas’ exhibitions for Modas e Bordados in 1936; she is in the forefront and dictator António Oliveira da Salazar, on the far right, observes the loom (Photo from Maria Lamas, Photographed and Photographer, Fascínio da Fotografia)

 

In 1937, she organized, in the halls of O Século, the exhibition, Tapetes de Arrailos (Rugs of Arrailos), made by women imprisoned in the Mónicas Prison. The same year, the women’s council elected her president of Education and, in 1939, president of Literature.

 

Asked to collaborate on a children’s supplement to the magazine, Civilização, the journalist created Reino dos Miúdos (Children’s Kingdom). In 1935, she founded a weekly magazine for girls, Joaninha, (Ladybugs), according to the News Museum.

 

Estado Novo; Invitation to Study U.S. Women

 

In the meantime, in 1932, Salazar had reframed the regime as the Estado Novo with himself as dictator. Maria Lamas was 39 and would be 80 when the regime ended in 1974, making it one of the longest authoritarian regimes in Europe.

 

Order and stability were the goals of Salazar's Estado Novo, an anti-liberal, anti-communist and anti-democratic dictatorship oriented according to authoritarian principles.

 

Salazar’s hard-fisted rule was characterized by systematic repression of civil and political rights, mass torture, arbitrary arrests, concentration camps, police brutality against protestors, electoral fraud, news censorship and colonial wars that killed hundreds of thousands.

 

Through a wide network of covert cells, which were spread throughout Portugal and its colonies, the regime’s secret police, PIDE (International and State Defense Police), had infiltrated almost every underground movement, including the independence movements. PIDE encouraged people, through monetary and prestige incentives, to become bufos (snitches) and denounce suspicious activities.


Maria Lamas participated in seminars and congresses for women’s rights and world peace, appealing to other countries not to turn a blind eye to Portugal’s oppressive regime. Also, in reaction to the Spanish Civil War, she co-founded the Portuguese Women’s Commission for Peace, according to Maria Lamas, Photographed and Photographer.

 

In 1944, the United States diplomatic mission invited her to investigate the life of the American woman for four months. Enthusiastic, the reporter prepared four months of issues of Moda. However, the magazine director rejected her request for an unpaid leave of absence.

 

She played an active role in the campaign of Norton de Matos, who bowed out, for the presidential election of 1949 in which she confronted the regime (Is the Estado Novo afraid of the enlightened conscience of women?) and appears as co-founder of the Democratic Unity Movement and the Youth MUD (Movement of Democratic Unity) and “godmother” to students 20 to 32 years younger than herself, such as Mário Soares (future Prime Minister and President; first Secretary-General of the Socialist Party): Álvaro Cunhal (Secretary-General of the Portuguese Communist Party from 1961-1992); Maria Barroso (a founder of the Socialist Party,) and hundreds of others, including the many dozens of “Ladybugs” from “Aunt Filomena”, according to Maria Lamas, Photographed and Photographer.

 

Signing Her Own Name

 

In 1953, she turned 60.

 

By this time, she signed her work as Maria Lamas, not a pseudonym.  

 

When fired from O Século, she already had founded or been involved in groups with international outlooks, such as the International Democratic Federation of Women, of which she was co-founder since Ghent in 1946, and the World Peace Council, to which she was invited in 1953, according to her grandson, in Maria Lamas, Photographed and Photographer. Also, two days after her death, Avante! (December 8, 1983), the official newspaper of the Portuguese Communist Party (PCP), described her as a member of about 40 years.

 

The internationalist researched and collected material for two major reports: the first, on the Soviet woman in Moscow, Kiev and Armenia in 1953 and, the second, on the female worker in Communist China in 1956. The reports were to be presented against a backdrop of a two-volume historical essay, A Mulher no Mundo (1952-1954), “a work that nationalist persecution rendered almost unnoticed”, said her grandson in Maria Lamas, Photographed and Photographer.

 

The reporter, Maria Lamas (3rd from left), interviewing chemical industry workers in the Soviet Union in 1953 (Photo from Maria Lamas, Photographed and Photographer, Fascínio da Fotografia)

 

Exiles

 

PIDE arrested her three times between 1949 and 1962. She found one of her sentences, six months in solitary confinement, to be particularly difficult.

 

From 1951 to 1952 and from 1954 to 1957, the regime forced her into exile from Lisbon to Funchal, Madeira, “so as not to remain in prison”, according to Maria Lamas, Photographer. While there, she wrote the book, Arquipélago da Madeira: Maravilha Atlântica (Madeira Archipelago: Marvel of the Atlantic), which was published in 1956.

 

Twice, the political organizer chose exile in Paris from 1957 to 1959 and 1961 to 1969, according to Maria Lamas, Photographed and Photographer. She lived in a tiny room in the Grand Hotel Saint-Michel in the Latin Quarter. She developed intense political activity in support of other exiled Portuguese who also opposed the fascist regime.

 

The writer, who turned 70 in Paris in 1963, secured translation contracts from Radio Télévision Française (RTF) and national publishers. A young exile described her as “a hurricane”.

 

At the request of fellow exiles, she assumed the representation of her compatriots in 1962 at the first Conference of Western European Countries for Amnesty for Portuguese Political Prisoners and Exiles. She joined the Association des Originaires du Portugal in Aubervilliers, Seine, promoted cultural events and collaborated with the Portuguese Popular Education League.

 

Between 1946 and 1975, through the World Peace Council and the International Democratic Federation of Women, the political dynamo gave conferences in Europe -- Ghent, Stockholm, Moscow, Bucharest, Tirana and East Berlin – and in Asia – Ceylon, China, Tokyo, and Hiroshima.

 

In May 1968, from her hotel room, she passed buckets of water to young people on the street demonstrating against the Establishment to protect themselves from tear gas, reported Mulher Portuguesa (February 10, 2001).

 

Maria Lamas at Dia do Trabalhador, or Labor Day, May 1st parade in 1974; some wear carnations only days after the Carnation Revolution, which got its name from people placing the flowers in the muzzles of soldiers’ guns and on their uniforms (Photo from Maria Lamas, Photographed and Photographer, Fascínio da Fotografia)

 

Honored after Carnation Revolution

 

Maria Lamas returned to Portugal in 1969, with the belief that there were no arrest warrants against her. She was not arrested again.

 

Finally, with the Carnation Revolution, on April 25, 1974, Maria Lamas, aged 80, was given several honors. She became leader of the Portuguese Committee for Peace and Cooperation; honorary director of Modas e Bordados (1974); honorary president of the Women’s Democratic Movement (1975), and director of the publication Mulheres (1978).

 

In addition, she received the Order of Freedom from President Ramalho Eames (1980); honorary reception by the Assembleia da República (Parliament) (1982) and the Eugénie Cotton Medal from the Fédération Démocratique Internacionale des Femmes (1983).

 

The tireless crusader died of a stroke on December 6, 1983.

 

Avante! (December 8, 1983) wrote:

 

“But she didn’t leave us.

 

“She continues among us, women and men of this country, to whom she left the example of her combativeness, determination, courage and confidence in the future.”

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