Maria Eva Duarte de Perón was the 2nd wife of populist Argentinian President Juan Peró. She was the First Lady of Argentina from 1946, until her early death in 1952 at only 33. Popularized in a Broadway musical decades later, she was so much more than a caricature. She used her position as First Lady to fight for women’s suffrage, improve the lives of the poor, and in doing so, became a legend in Argentina. A gifted speaker and tireless advocate, she dedicated her life to making Argentina a better place for the marginalized, and they responded back by loving her. So who was this amazing woman?
Evita was born María Eva Duarte in 1919. Her father, Juan Duarte, had 2 families – one with his legal wife, and another with his mistress, Juana Ibarguren. María Eva was the 5th baby born to the mistress. While the couple never married, Juana used the name Duarte for herself and her children. The father eventually abandoned his mistress and his children, leaving them with nothing. He died in a car crash when Evita was only six.
His wife rejected Juana and her family at the funeral. The legitimate family then blocked any inheritance for the illegitimate one. Already struggling, this meant even greater hardship for the family. They moved to Junín, a city near Buenos Aires in 1930. Eva’s mother took in boarders and worked as a seamstress. Young Eva grew up dreaming of becoming actress. She and her sister often made up their own performances.
At only 15, Eva went to Buenos Aires to seek a better life for herself.
Both attractive and charming, Eva quickly found work as an actress in 1935 at only 16. She landed small roles in theaters and low-budget movies. Later, she found steady work in radio dramas. Young Eva played each part with gusto and became popular among listeners. She was able to earn enough to have her own apartment by the early 1940’s, unheard of for a single woman at the time.
When Eva was about 20, she started her own entertainment business, the Company of the Theater of the Air, producing radio programs. In 1943, Eva portrayed a number of famous women in history on a special radio series, giving her the chance to play the likes of Catherine the Great and Queen Elizabeth. Poor, illegitimate Eva Duarte soon became famous!
In 1944, Eva met someone who would change her life, Colonel Juan Perón.
The 48 year old widower was a rising military and political figure in Argentina. Just a year earlier, he’d been one of the officers who overthrew the civilian government. He was rewarded by being made Minister of Labor, where he began improving the rights of poor farm workers. Part of their romance came from the fact that they saw eye-to-eye politically. They were both passionate about helping the marginalized, the Descamisados, or ‘Shirtless ones,’ to get their fair share.
In 1945, rival officers threw Juan in jail, jealous of his rising popularity. A few days later, hundreds of thousands of union workers (roused in part by Eva, who’d spoken to the largest unions) flooded the Plaza de Mayo demanding his release. October 17th, the day he was released, is still celebrated as “El Día de la Lealtad” or “Day of Loyalty.”
By then, the two had moved in together in a mansion in Buenos Aires. Living with a much younger, unmarried woman caused problems for Perón (it was the 1940s after all). So less than a week after his release, Eva and Juan were formally married.
Riding his popularity, Perón decided to run for president. Eva campaigned tirelessly for her new husband, both on her radio shows and on the campaign. She often appeared with him at public engagements, unprecedented for a woman in Argentina. She appealed directly to the disenfranchised in Argentina, saying she understood their plight because she was one of them. The public began referring to her lovingly as simply “Evita!”
Juan Perón won the presidential election with a 52% majority.
Evita proved to be a powerful influence, using her position as First Lady to fight for women’s suffrage and improve the lives of the poor. She kept her promise to the working class. In everything but title, she effectively ran the Ministry of Labor, supporting higher wages and social welfare benefits. Evita kept a high public profile, visiting factories and hospitals, and holding dozens of meetings.
But she was not without critics and detractors. Evita angered the elite with her campaign for the female vote. Suffrage for women was finally enacted, largely due to the energy that Evita poured into the campaign.
“Like every woman of the people, I have more strength than I appear to have.”Eva Peron
Not long after the election, Argentine law #13,010 was passed in 1947, finally granting women the right to vote. But it did not pass without a hard fight. All around the nation, women thanked Evita for their right to vote. And she wasted no time in founding the Female Peronist Party. Argentine women registered in droves.
Since the 18oo’s, charitable works in Buenos Aires had been carried out by the Society of Beneficence, a group of wealthy, older ladies. Traditionally, the First Lady was the head of the Society, but in 1946, they snubbed Evita. She was livid! Evita crushed the society by removing their government funding and establishing her own foundation.
The Eva Perón Foundation
In 1948, the Eva Perón Foundation was established with its first 10,000 pesos coming from her own money. The Foundation provided unprecedented relief for Argentina’s poor, giving away thousands of shoes, pots and sewing machines annually. It provided pensions for the elderly, homes for the poor, schools and libraries in Buenos Aires. The unions and wealthy, looking for political favor, lined up to donate.
Eva personally oversaw it, working tirelessly to raise money or meet with the poor and listen to their stories. Having once been poor herself, Evita understood their life. Even as her health deteriorated, Evita continued to work daily at the foundation, ignoring the pleas of her doctors and husband to rest.
Juan Perón was coming up for re-election in 1952.
In 1951, he had to select a running mate and Evita wanted it to be her. The working class was overwhelmingly in favor of Evita as VP. The military and upper classes however were would not accept an ‘illegitimate actress‘ running the country if her husband died. Even Juan was surprised at the popularity of his wife, showing him just how important she had become to his own political future.
At a summer rally in 1951, hundreds of thousands chanted her name. “EVITA! EVITA! EVITA!” She bowed out, however, telling her adoring masses that her only ambitions were to serve the poor and her husband. In reality, her decision was probably due to a combination of military pressure and her own failing health. Evita’s new female voting bloc re-elected Juan Perón with a landslide 63% of the vote.
Evita made her last public appearance in June 1952, at her husband’s second inauguration. In 1950, she’d been diagnosed with cervical cancer, the same disease that had claimed Perón’s first wife. Aggressive treatment, including a hysterectomy, could not halt its advance, and by 1951 she was quite sick, occasionally needing support standing at public appearances. Everyone knew the end was near – Evita did not deny it.
A month after the reelection, she died in July 1952. She was only 33.
The public’s grief was overwhelming and unprecedented. Argentina went into mourning unlike any seen since the days of emperors. Flowers were piled high on the streets, people crowded around the presidential palace. She was given a funeral fit for a head of state. A devastated Perón planned an elaborate memorial, but it was never completed. Evita is buried in the Recoleta Cemetery in Buenos Aires.
Without Evita, Perón was removed from power by coup in 3 years, fleeing to Spain. Her final legacy is still hotly debated as both her supporters and enemies write her legacy. Peronism is still a powerful political movement in Argentina. Evita is considered a saint by the poor that adored her. She‘s appeared on stamps and coins, there are schools and hospitals named after her. Every year, thousands visit her tomb in Recoleta, walking past dead presidents and poets to leave flowers and cards.
Evita Peron has been immortalized in countless books, movies, poems, and paintings. Perhaps the most well-known is the 1978 Tony Award winning musical Evita, written by Andrew Lloyd Webber and Tim Rice. It was the winner of many theater Tony awards and later a 1996 movie starring the singer Madonna as Evita. She has served as an inspiration for millions of women around the globe, and her legend only continues to grow.