Eva Peron: a woman in power
"Eva Peron was not loved by all. There were those who viewed her as unimportant, a tart, and scum, Jill says, going on to tell me after the seminar that this is also the view adopted by a lot of the biographies written about Eva in English."
A fair few full A4 pages lay on the desk in front of Jill Hedges. “Don’t panic,” she tells the small group gathered in the room at Oxford’s Latin American Centre; she doesn’t intend on reading out all the material before her.
We’re here because of Eva Peron, the subject of the musical Evita, playing at the New Theatre from 7th -11th March, and a new book by Jill, Evita: The Life of Eva Peron.
From what her biographer describes – after a box of millionaire’s shortbread has been passed around her audience – as “a poor, provincial, unrespectable background”, Eva Peron “played the pretty bad cards she was dealt”, and became “one of the earliest and most prominent examples of women in public life in 20th century Argentina.”
Having initially pursued an acting career, in 1945 Eva married Juan Peron, who would go on to be the president of Argentina; she then “transformed the role of the first lady from an almost invisible one to a very active and powerful one.”
At a time when feminism in Argentina and other countries seemed to be for intellectuals and the upper classes, and “didn’t mean much to the majority of women”, the first lady in question (who “wasn’t a feminist by any stretch of the imagination”) served as “a more accessible icon for working women.” She died of cancer in 1952 at the age of 33 – after a political career largely spent helping Argentina’s poor. She never forgot her own upbringing, Jill claims, and existed as “probably one of the most genuine figures in Argentine politics.”
Eva Peron was not loved by all. There were those who viewed her as unimportant, a tart, and scum, Jill says, going on to tell me after the seminar that this is also the view adopted by a lot of the biographies written about Eva in English. In her opinion, “There’s been far too much focus,” on the tabloid worthy aspects of the first lady, “and not enough on what her effects were and what an impressive person she actually was.” This “isn’t the same as saying she was totally admirable or that she didn’t have a lot of defects – she did, but nonetheless she was a very strong person with a lot more resonance than you would think just by reading that she was a bad actress and that she slept with a lot of people.”
Jill will discuss the biography she has written at the New Theatre on 8th March, following the matinee performance of Evita. She’s chosen International Women’s Day for her post-show talk, “a good time for it,” she says.
“Evita was very much a product of her time,” the writer continues as we discuss the appropriateness of the date she’s picked, “so you can’t see her as a feminist in the 21st century sense. But she was enormously important for the public role of women in Latin America generally – there was no previous figure with the kind of power that she had. She’s still relevant now; she’s still seen as the image of women in power in Argentina.”
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