Time is ripe for women to act, says Chilean author Isabel Allende

By Maria R. Gonzalez
University News Service
April 20, 2007

Isabel Allende claims she has to convince her family that she is a celebrity.  She is genuine and sencilla. It takes a minute to realize that underneath her sencillez, there is a world-renowned author whose books are sold in more than 20 countries. The minute one greets her, her petite stature is quickly overshadowed by the intense energy that radiates through her black, dovelike eyes. She does not put on airs. She simply weaves a string of emotions into words and creates a warm blanket of hope for the most vulnerable, destitute and victimized members of society: women.

Allende came to Texas State University to make a bold call to action that challenges the patriarchal Western culture and questions its treatment of the underprivileged, in conjunction with the university’s “Protest and Dissent” Common Experience program.

“The world is ruled by men,” she said, “and look at the mess we have.”

Born in Chile, one of the most socially conservative societies in the world, Allende faced the oppressive barriers of gender inequality.  She lived through the constraints of a society where divorce was illegal and where women’s lives were lived in the context of men’s lives. Allende rebelled against the patriarchal norms and grasped the independence she craved as a child.

“In my own life I have been empowered by education, reproductive rights and economic independence,” she said. “I know that a woman who is illiterate, has no skills and who is not in control of her own body, of her fertility, who cannot work to feed herself and her children is usually destitute and victimized.”

Strong, passionate and courageous women live in her cuentos and novelas.  They are rebellious and demure, perfect and flawed, saints and sinners, mothers and daughters, they are everything our society holds dear and shuns. But they are free and in control of their lives, even if only at the end of the last paragraph.

“It’s the heart that drives us forward and determines our fate,” she said. “That is what I want for myself, a passionate heart and that is what I need for the characters in my books. I want mavericks, dissidents, outsiders, rebels, adventurers, people who ask questions, who bend the rules and who take risks.”

Michelle Bachelet is a woman who could well have stepped out of Allende’s stories.  Bachelet is president of Chile, agnostic, a single mother, a socialist, and she has created a government in which 50 percent of its members are women.  Allende says Chile’s economic and social improvement is an indication that it is through women that the world can improve.

“For real change we need feminine energy in the management of the world. Feminine energy is the most underused renewable and sustainable natural resource in this planet,” Allende said. “I want to make this world good, not better but to make it good. Why not? It’s possible.”

A tireless proponent of women’s rights, Allende is not afraid to declare herself a feminist and make bold statements on social and political issues that are laced with humor and satire but embedded with truth at the core.

“Chile is more Catholic than Ireland and certainly more than the Vatican,” she said among other light-hearted comments. Allende hit more than one nerve by saying, “The poorest and most backward countries are those that keep women down,” and made everyone chuckle with, “I can’t be objective. That’s why I write fiction. I don’t even think of being a journalist. I would have to work with Fox News.”

Texas State’s audience took in her wit and insight with gusto until her final sentence.

In an interview after her lecture, Allende commented on contemporary issues afflicting women.  She declared that the time is ripe for the United States to have a woman president and discussed the perils women face because they are constantly objectified in media.  The message she wanted to convey that night, she said, was simply to protest against injustice, especially gender injustice.

“The theme of the whole year has been protest and dissent and I tried to use that theme to talk about women’s issues because I think that feminism is not dated, that there’s still a lot to be done. Every time that there is war or economic crisis or fundamentalism, the first victims are women and we need to be aware of it,” she said.