Eva Duarte de Perón (1919-1952) was the second wife and political partner of President Juan Perón of Argentina. A formidable political figure in her own right, she was known for her campaign for female suffrage, her role with organized labor, and her organization of a vast social welfare program which benefited and gained the support of the lower classes.
The youngest of five children, María Eva Duarte was born on May 7, 1919, in the little village of Los Toldos in Buenos Aires province. Following the death of her father, the family moved to the larger nearby town of Junín, where her mother ran a boarding house. At the age of 16, Evita, as she was often affectionately called, left school and went to Buenos Aires with the dream of becoming an actress. Lacking any theatrical training, she obtained a few bit parts in motion pictures and on the radio, until she was finally employed on a regular basis with one of the larger radio stations in Buenos Aires.
In November 1943 she met Colonel Juan Perón, who had just assumed the post of secretary of labor and social welfare in the military government which had come to power the previous June. Eva developed an intimate relationship with the widowed Perón, who was beginning to organize the Argentine workers in support of his own bid for the presidency. Becoming Perón's loyal political confidante and partner, she rendered him valuable assistance in gaining support among the masses. In October 1945, following Perón's arrest and imprisonment by a group of military men opposed to his political ascendancy, she helped to organize a mass demonstration which led to his release. A few days later, on October 21, 1945, Eva and Juan Perón were married.
Now politically stronger than ever, Perón became the government candidate in the presidential election set for February 1946. In an action unprecedented for Argentine women, Señora de Perón participated actively in the ensuing campaign, directing her appeal to the less privileged groups of Argentine society, whom she labeled los descamisados ("the shirtless ones").
Following Perón's election, Eva began to play an increasingly important role in the political affairs of the nation. During the early months of the Perón administration she launched an active campaign for national woman suffrage, which had been promised in Perón's electoral platform. Due largely to her efforts, suffrage for women was enacted in 1947, and in 1951 women voted for the first time in a national election.
Eva also assumed the task of consolidating the support of the working classes and controlling organized labor. Taking over a suite of offices in the Secretariate of Labor, Perón's former center of power, she used her influence to seat and unseat ministers of labor and top officials of the General Confederation of Labor, the chief labor organization in Argentina. For all practical purposes she became the secretary of labor, supporting workers' claims for higher wages and sponsoring a host of social welfare measures.
Because of her own lower-class background, Eva readily identified with the working classes and was fervently committed to improving their lot. She devoted several hours every day to audiences with the poor and visits to hospitals, orphanages, and factories. She also supervised the newly created Ministry of Health, which built many new hospitals and established a remarkably successful program to eradicate such diseases as tuberculosis, malaria, and leprosy.
A large part of her work with the poor was carried out by the María Eva Duarte de Perón Welfare Foundation established in June 1947. Financed by contributions, often forcefully exacted, from trade unions, businesses, and industrial firms, it grew into an enormous semi-official welfare agency which distributed food, clothing, medicine, and money to needy people throughout Argentina, and even upon occasion to those suffering from disasters in other Latin American countries.
Enjoying great popularity among the descamisados, Eva Perón aided significantly in making the masses feel indebted to the Perón regime. On the other hand, her program of social welfare and her campaign for female suffrage aroused considerable opposition among the gente bien (social elite), to whom Eva was unacceptable because of her own humble background and earlier activities. Eva was driven by the desire to master those members of the oligarchy that had rejected her and she could be ruthless and vindictive with her enemies.
In June 1951 it was announced that Eva would be the vice-presidential candidate on the re-election ticket with Perón in the upcoming national election. Eva's candidacy was strongly supported by the General Confederation of Labor. But opposition within the military and her own failing health caused her to decline the nomination. Already suffering from cancer, Eva died on July 26, 1952, at the age of 32.
After Eva's death, which produced an almost unprecedented display of public grief, Perón's political fortunes began to deteriorate, and he was finally overthrown by a military coup in September 1955.
Eva Perón remains a controversial figure in Argentine history. Diminutive, attractive, and highly vivacious, both her friends and her enemies agreed that she was a woman of great personal charm. Her supporters have elevated her to popular sainthood as the patroness of the lower-classes, and the sympathetic portrayal of her in the 1997 film Evita, starring American actress Madonna, reintroduced Eva to the American public. By the oligarchy and a large part of the officer corps of the military, however, she is greatly detested. There is still considerable difference of opinion regarding her true role in the Perón regime and her ultimate place in Argentine history.
Further Reading on Eva Duarte de Perón
A useful autobiographical account of Eva Perón is provided in her My Mission in Life (1953). One of the most valuable studies of her career is Nicholas Fraser and Marysa Navarro, Eva Perón (1980). Two other important works are Julie Taylor, Eva Perón: The Myth of a Woman (1979), and John Barnes, Evita, First Lady: A Biography of Eva Perón (1978). Maria Flores, The Woman with the Whip (1952) is also useful. Richard Bourne, Political Leaders of Latin America (1967) provides a balanced sketch of Eva's role in the Perón regime. For background on the Perón era see Robert J. Alexander, Juan Domingo Perón: A History (1979) and Joseph A. Page, Perón: A Biography (1983). A 1986 book, Perón and the Enigma of Argentina by Robert D. Crassweller, drew mixed reviews.