Maria Odete Santos
Profession/ Current priorities
Political Aims/ Priorities/ Assessments
© Jan 2001
Maria Odete Santos
I've been asked that before and I have to confess there was nothing specific…, I've always been interested in politics. Even before the 25th April, I was influenced by my father, when I was a little girl I used to hear talk of Norton de Matos etc., of the fascist era, the Rosenberg case; it stuck in my mind. Then I was at University during a period in which the young were very committed to the fight against fascism, I left at the beginning of the 70's, I took part in the student strikes. After the 25th April, I ended up going into local politics since I was known in Setúbal and, therefore, I was initially put forward for the local authority and later for the party where I started as a member of parliament. What directed my life towards the Assembleia da República (Parliament) was the experience I had in Labour Law.
2. Is there a tradition of political involvement/policy - making in your family?
No, there wasn't. Even my father stepped out of line. I come from a small rural family from Beira Alta, very small, conservative, whose references had nothing whatsoever to do with politics, so it could be said that my father was the first person to emancipate himself in that respect; as he was a primary school teacher from a young age, from the age of 18. He ended up being sent to a place with political traditions, Alpiarça, and it was there that he began to get interested in politics, that was the starting point. But till then, no!
My mother was a very conservative woman who believed that girls should stay at home and quaked with fear at the mere mention of the word politics. She used to say that they tortured you and heavens knows what and that she preferred my father and me not to get involved in that.
3. Have you had or do you have any person or political personality who has been a model or reference for you?
It started with my father's influence. Since I was very young my father used to read me pages of Jorge Amado's books and that was it…. It got stuck in my mind…and the War in Korea, I remember hearing about the story of the parallel when I was at school. Later I was also at school with Humberto Delgado's daughter in the 6th and 7th year of the "liceu" (secondary school) and I followed one of those elections closely. All this left me with an interest in political issues.
On the female side there's a person who, I think, made a deep impression on me. I'm somewhat romantic in these things and also because of this I allowed myself to be influenced by the romanticism of the Passionária, of Dolores Ibarrui. Because, there again, the Spanish civil war was another of the subjects I heard about through my father and, therefore, the Passionária without doubt also made a deep impression on me. In terms of men, I also have two favourite people who are Álvaro Cunhal and, at an international level, Fidel Castro. When I was at University Fidel Castro and Che Guevara marked me. In fact they were two people who marked the young people of that time. Fidel Castro is often attacked, called a dictator. I don't think so but there you go!
Che Guevara still makes a strong impression. Today's young are still deeply marked by him! He is the image of a guerrilla, also romantic.
4. Have you been engaged in political grassroots activities before your involvement in party politics - e.g. in a citizens' rights, parents or other initiatives? What were important experiences you made?
When I was at University I belonged to the Associação Académica (Academic Association). At the Law Faculty there was that whole fight for the day of the student. It really was grass roots involvement, I was not a member of the Executive Board. After the 25th April, I did some work with the Movimento Democrático de Mulheres (Women's Democratic Movement) for a while but then it was too much work and I had to leave although I was still on the Movement's National Executive Board.
I was most active in cultural areas. Even before the 25th April, I worked in community movements and theatre groups. I was involved in 3 community movements in which I belonged to theatre groups. In two of them I actually set up theatre groups. And since the 25th April I've also been a member of community movements such as the Grupo Cultural de Setúbal (Setúbal Cultural Group). I was involved in theatre groups.
This is important because it gives you a certain knowledge and way of thinking about concrete facts, it makes you take decisions. For example, when I belonged to the Associação de Estudantes (Students' Association) I was very childish and I held views which today make me want to laugh because I had no political experience. It seemed like a choice was wrong but it wasn't after all.
As to the theatre, I think that it has always been a means of political intervention. It's not party orientated theatre, but human problems are broached and, therefore, I've always thought of theatre, even during the fascist era, as a way of participating politically against the regime. Poetry readings at the camping clubs etc.. In terms of party politics, theatre is based on the capacity to debate, the theatre is a vast, huge world of knowledge which is very enriching in that respect.
5. When did you start your political career? What have been the most important experiences you have had? What made you change from grass roots political activities to party politics?
I've been in the Assembleia da República since 1980. Before that I belonged to the Comissão Administrativa da Câmara Municipal de Setúbal (The Administrative Commission of the Setúbal Municipal Council). That was just after the 25th April, from 1974 to 75/76. Then I went through a period during which I no longer worked in that area, I worked with the trade unions. In 1979, 3 years later, I went back to the Assembleia Municipal (Municipal Assembly) and I worked with the Assembleia Municipal and the Assembleia da República until 1989.
I was contacted to be the president of the Assembleia Municipal and I said that that wasn't for me. I like being down here too much. Then, I was the leading candidate in the 1989 elections for the Câmara de Setúbal and I was a councillor in 1990 and 91. I left midway through 1992. After 2 years I asked to be substituted because I had a lot of work at the Assembleia da República and I wasn't able to also deal with the work of Councillor for Traffic which was very tough. The work was very interesting but I couldn't do the two jobs so I asked to be substituted. In 1993, in the next elections, I returned to the Assembleia Municipal where I still am but I'm thinking of leaving because I've had enough.
I don't much like the local politics in the Assembleia Municipal. We have almost no powers at all, we're just there talking in a way I don't much like. I enjoyed the council executive board more. Decisions are taken and you see things being born. I really enjoy my work at the Assembleia da República.
I'm someone who sometimes has difficulty in disciplining myself. My work style is sometimes a bit anarchic and I need to be more organised in the precise discussion of things. Sometimes, in the movements, things become very confused and direction is somewhat lost and I need, even in terms of imposing self discipline, to establish objectives. To establish them myself or in conjunction with others so that they're clearly founded. If I don't agree then I go away or say I won't do this because… but if I do, then at least I have the framework established there and that, for me, is very important.
In grass roots movements it's different, this doesn't happen. Everything depends much more on improvisation and I don't like that, I like other kinds of work.
6. Have there been any interruptions in the course of your party political career and what was behind them?
As I've already mentioned, from 1976 to 1979 I was in the Municipal Council's Administrative Division and, afterwards, as I was a lawyer and worked with the trade unions, I worked only with the union for 3 years.
I was already a member of the union only I ended up not having any party political work but that wasn't my choice. There are problems in all parties. Sometimes there are people who are shelved and at that time I was shelved. Probably in the opinion of some people I was not very nice, I was not pleasant. It's very difficult, namely when you don't want to stop being consistent and I've felt that. Those three years were due to the fact of not renouncing that in which I believed. After that there was never any other interruption.
But that is when what I said before is important, when it's necessary at least in my parliamentary group, and I think in others, to have people qualified in certain matters. Because, although these are political positions, whether you like it or not, specialised knowledge is very important and, therefore, the fact that I came here and have stayed here is due to the work I did in the trade unions and the experience I gained in relation to Labour Law. It was that which was behind my entry into the Assembleia da República, because it was necessary to substitute Jorge Leite who, at the time, was here but had already said that he wanted to leave because he wanted to go back to University and they needed someone who understood labour laws. He obviously knows much more than I do but it was that and the need for people with specialised knowledge which enabled me to remain. I don't know but perhaps it would be interesting to make a study of women who work here just because of their political intervention and those who work here because of their specialised knowledge.
7. Have there been changes in your private life which affect or have affected your political career?
I must say that if I didn't divorce I wouldn't have come to the Assembleia da República (National Parliament). I mean, I didn't divorce to come here, on the contrary, I divorced before I came here, I wasn't even thinking about it. But I think if I wasn't divorced I would have much more problems to come here.
8. Did your objectives change during your political career?
I don't think I've changed my objectives. The objectives remain the same. I can only understand the question in the following way: why was it that at a given time my objective was no longer to be in the local authorities but rather to be here? Perhaps from this point of view the question could be interesting. Even in relation to women, given the discrimination they're subject to, when you think of electoral candidates, you normally think of men, isn't it? Normally this is the case. When the candidates are to be discussed there are always more men than women because nobody thinks of them…, because this is natural and there are even militants from my party who believe that women should not be leading candidates (heads of the lists of candidates).
I think that it's easier, at least it was in my case, to get into institutional political life in the local authorities, and I think that that happens with many women because they're known in the district. But then, as they don't usually hold positions at the level of the party's national executive board, and even when they do, they aren't visible, it's more difficult to make the jump to the Assembleia da República. So the local authority is in fact the normal route for a woman. Then, there are some who stay because they really enjoy it; I compared them and came to the conclusion that I liked the Assembleia da República more. In that sense, there was a change in objectives - from life in the local authority which, at the time, was more within my reach for the reasons I've given, to the Assembleia da República. What was behind that: well, I like the work here more, but it's not only that. Through the work here I've also become better known, which was not the case previously, and this has resulted in my having a greater influence.
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I'm affiliated to the PCP (Portuguese Communist Party) since 1974. I was in fact invited to join the PCP in 1962 and I joined but straight afterwards there were arrests and then the link was broken. Then, only in 1974, after the 25th April, was it re-established.
2. Does your party have equal opportunity regulations?
There's nothing written. With regard to Equal Opportunities, what exists is in the PCP programme which is what the PCP adopts for the whole country. The statutes establish equality between all militants; internally equality is only established between all militants but there's no specific reference to sex.
What were your first offices or your first positions in the party? How long after joining the party did you take on these offices or positions? How did your candidature to a position come about?
I've always held offices since 1979 in the Comissão Concelhia de Setúbal (Setúbal Municipal Commission) but I do not belong to the Executive Body, I'm not part of the deliberative body. And later, from a certain point onwards, I became part of the Direcção da Organização Regional de Setúbal (Setúbal Regional Organisation Executive Board) which is the Setúbal district organism. I also do not belong to the executive body. I'm also part of a Commission, at a central level, for work related to women's problems. There's a Commission within the party itself which operates with the Central Committee to prepare work in relation to question of women's rights.
These offices were attributed to me five years after I joined the party. I was invited (in other parties there are candidatures, in the PCP, it doesn't work quite like that… in the other parties, as far as I understand, there are individual candidatures. In the PCP, when the municipal or district organisation meets, the names which are to be put forward for the municipal commission are discussed in the various organisms, cells and parish committees and afterwards the majority wish of the various organisms in relation to the names put forward is established and the main trend is established. There's no voting. The voting comes later in the meeting of the municipal organisation. Therefore, the names which emerge from this debate go to the municipal organisation's meeting where names are proposed, but there's no individual voting for each name, votes are taken for the group of names and whoever isn't in agreement votes against them. And even in the organisation's meeting it may happen that they say "this name is missing and it should be here" and another proposal may appear.
At the central level I've never been part of the main party organs, nor of the central committee. It has happened that I've sometimes been introduced in some places as a member of the central committee, but I've never belonged to it. There have been times when my name was discussed but it has never been seen through. My candidature was proposed… normally the person who undertakes this procedure is someone from the executive board of the regional organisation who meets with the municipal organisation and then talks to the people in question, "your name came up, are you in agreement or not". They always talk to you first.
3. Did you have any mentors inside the party?
No. Except perhaps for the person (who happens to have already died) who thought of putting me forward as a candidate for the Assembleia da República. There was in fact one person who belonged to the Central Committee and the Political Commission, Manuel Sobral, who I think put me forward but that was as far as it went.
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Nowadays I hardly practice as a lawyer but my professional activity is very tied up with my political activity because I sit on two Parliamentary Commissions - the Comissão de Direitos, Liberdades e Garantias e Assuntos Constitucionais (Commission for Rights, Freedom, Guarantees and Constitutional Affairs) and the Comissão do Trabalho (Labour Commission) - it's obvious that all my experience in Law and in the Courts has been a very important basis for my work here. My work here could not have been the same had I not practised as a lawyer for several years in the Courts and trade unions. All that was very important.
2. What kind of qualifications do you have?
I only have a degree in Law. I believe that practice is very important because sometimes things are discussed here and there are people who have no knowledge of reality. I think reality, practising law, is in fact very important here.
3. What kind of jobs have you done?
I've always been a lawyer, even in the trade union. At the beginning, in order to have some money to pay the office rent, I taught Portuguese at a college.
4. Is it possible to articulate your professional life and your political career?
At the moment my professional life is this one. I'm only finishing pending procedures which take a long time but I've already been in Parliament for 20 years so I'm hardly at an age to go back to professional activity.
5. In which areas do you see your special competencies?
I'm normally regarded as a generalist …I mean, it's very complicated! Because here we have to deal with everything but I actually think that I have some knowledge in the area of Labour Law and Law. Also in the area of Human Rights and Women's Rights which was an area I discovered after becoming involved in politics. It really was a discovery which came with my work in the area of human rights because, previously, I had not really thought much about it. Problems which need solving begin to appear and you investigate and get more involved in it. I also think, and this is very interesting, that the fact of having been educated by my Father, although living with both parents, also contributed to this because he believed that he should be responsible for my education. Therefore, discrimination was never an issue for me. I was an only daughter and I always led a very independent life as a child and as an adolescent. Only later, in the courts, when one day I discovered there was a judge who did not call female lawyers Dr. because he thought they were not competent to work in Law, only then did I start to open my eyes, after all it seems that there's discrimination….
6. What are your political priorities?
In terms of legislation, at the moment what concerns me most is the fact that legislation still only exists on paper.
I think it's the area of citizens' rights. This area concerns me, it has to do with a lot of things. Look, it has to do with women's issues, with issues of sex education, voluntary pregnancy termination, family planning and I think that these are priorities. But then, it's to do with the work issues, because I think that when you don't enjoy citizens' rights in the work place then you also feel unmotivated and no longer think about your citizens' rights in society and in your political activity even if it's not in party politics and these, for me, are the main concerns.
7. What are your main areas of intervention?
I have three areas of intervention in the Assembleia da República: one is the issue of women's rights although I do not belong to that Parliamentary Commission because I'm involved in other Parliamentary Commissions. But it's a task with which, within my parliamentary group, I and other female comrades are charged but perhaps because I've been there for such a long time it's principally my responsibility. There's the area of Labour law and the Courts both with regards to organisation and in relation to procedural legislation and Rights, leasing rights, etc. everything covered by this subject. Internal security, no, but all other issues related to rights, except electoral rights which is also not my area, all the others which are more related to extra-judicial and judicial practice, these are normally given to me.
At present I think that the issue of women is very complicated. It's very hard to see the light at the end of the tunnel. One of my priorities, although I've not made it my life's fight despite what is said, is the de-penalisation of voluntary pregnancy termination at a woman's request. For me it's a very important ideological question because if the State claims the right to intervene in a woman's privacy, threatening her with criminal law, it's because it does not entirely consider women as subjects with rights. It's because of this, from an ideological point of view that I believe that de-penalisation would be very important because it could mark the fall of many other barriers. Biological barriers are still the ideological support for treating women in a different way in their work and in society. Therefore, the penalisation of abortion underlines the fact that a woman is irremediably confined to a biological barrier which is procreation even against her wishes. For me it's very important to solve this problem.
I'm quite aware that at the moment conditions aren't right to move this issue forward and, therefore, at present my priorities must be focused on other areas such as the issue of sex education, of that last legislation which faced huge obstacles to be brought into force precisely because of attitudes which still have an idea of woman as… well, with which I've been sometimes confronted. Therefore, it's important to move forward in this area, namely with regard to young people and the ideological education of the young with regard to this matter. The world is going to be led by these young people, if we educate young people with lots of cobwebs then it will be a disaster, therefore, that education is important. It's not only sex education, it's education for citizenship which also includes this and I think that this issue of education for citizenship is extremely important. Of course there are lots of things here that aren't related to the area in which I work because they're related to teaching and education, etc... I think it's very important that we invest a great deal in this area.
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My objective was that to attain a fair society. Injustice and inequality have always hurt me, not always rationally. Then, sometimes very small things shock me.
2. How and why have your objectives changed throughout your political career?
Perhaps my first objective, and I was not yet involved in party politics, was to end fascism, and now there are other, more pressing objectives.
3. Do equal opportunities strategies in your opinion have an impact in your country in the promotion of women in decision-making- please specify?
Quotas no, everybody knows that I'm against quotas. In order that women might have a greater presence in decision taking I think it's fundamental to move forward towards at least reducing the disparity between the rich and the poor. It does not even occur to many women in our society to stand as candidates because they're earning the national minimum wage, or little more than that, because they have children or old people to look after, they don't read newspapers. How can they even conceive of presenting themselves in politics or even participating? Therefore, I think it's fundamental to move ahead in the fight against inequalities and give people a decent, minimum standard of living so that they can read, think. It's often mentioned that women are in the majority in the Universities, but only a minority gets to go to University. I know that this will take a long time and at times one despairs but it must move forward in this direction.
The parties must decide internally…. For example, when quotas were discussed… I think the parties, when they discuss the candidates, must bear in mind that it's not the men who come first. They must also take into consideration that there may be women who don't want to be involved. There are women who don't want this, party politics are very discredited because in countries based on party systems, the parties in power do not solve the problems of the people, impoverishment is on the up, there's an increasingly small number of rich people but they're a lot richer and the others are poor and they, therefore, blame the parties in general. That's why people aren't interested in politics because they see that their problems aren't solved.
In the PCP, since the issue of quotas was discussed, it's not written anywhere in the statutes nor anything, but the decision was in fact taken to at least try to respect a percentage which was not below that 25% and it wasn't. In the European Parliament, it was 50% and then they say, "oh of course, they know they won't be elected and so it's easy…", it's not, it's harder to be in an electoral campaign knowing that you will not be elected, it's harder! And for the Assembleia it was 30%, it went up in relation to the previous elections, and I think that that is what they should do, assume that because they're going to find women who are as capable, if not more so, than men….
4. Do you think you have benefited from these strategies personally? How do you assess these strategies?
I did not benefit from them at the time I moved here because they did not exist.
5. Do you see direct or indirect discrimination in conventional policy-making? What is it that keeps women from committing themselves to politics?
I think it's women's double workload. There's indirect discrimination such as mind set/mentalities, the very organisation of political life which drags women down; they're here until 8 o'clock or they often don't know what time they will leave, with whom should they leave their children, their old people. Apart from the other discrimination which I already spoke about earlier which affects women much more than men, all this drives them away and that is why we talk of the feminisation of poverty, they're excluded from the centre of life because of low salaries etc. and then, from this point on, they do not come to politics because they're busy solving much more serious problems in their lives. It's funny, I think women stand out when there are popular movements to protest against this or that and, therefore, when it doesn't demand permanent work throughout a whole year. I see them on television protesting and they're the most courageous, but, there you go, these are those movements which do not demand their presence throughout the whole year which is incompatible with their lives. It's also related to the work schedule of politics. There was one example of direct discrimination which has already been overcome which was the fact that female members of parliament did not have the right to maternity leave.
6. What are the major obstacles that women need to overcome?
It's the economic question which is fundamental, it's the question of mind set/mentalities, I think lots of awareness campaigns are needed for women's rights, specifically directed at young people and above all on television, newspapers less so because people don't read so much. But they must be very good television specialists because otherwise they will change from those channels to other films in which the female body is exploited: films, series and entertainment programmes which are based on the exhibition of the female body and normally it's the men who say things with great wisdom and humour and women only appear as decoration. I think that television work is very important, with attractive programmes. I think that television is a very important instrument but what I see, even through the fight for audiences, is that the television channels are going down hill, all of them, and they're presenting programmes of lowest quality because it's said that this is what people want and this is very worrying.
7. What obstacles have you had to overcome in your own career?
I have to say that in my career internally in the party, as a member, I've not felt that there have been obstacles because I'm a woman. There's a sporadic case of one or another who thinks that women should not be in politics but I think that I faced obstacles which were not specific to women such as unwarranted rivalry, jealousy, I don't know if I'm explaining myself, but men also feel and suffer from this; I felt more this kind of thing.
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