Argentine women ask, 'What's in a name?'

A law may change that requires a married woman to use 'de' - meaning 'of' - before her husband's last name.

What's in a name? If you're a married woman in Argentina, it's often a little word called "de," meaning "of," that comes after your maiden name and before your husband's last name.

But for many Argentine women these days, the possessive ring to that traditional formulation feels offensive and smacks of a not-too-distant chauvinist past here when women were put on pedestals but locked in cages ... figuratively, of course.

In this beauty-conscious country of well-defined gender roles, the role of women is being slowly but surely reconfigured.

Women here are free not to take their husbands' names. But if they choose to do so, a national law requires the use of de before the husband's last name.

The Argentine Congress is currently considering amending that law by giving women the right to use "y," meaning "and," instead of de, and even offering the husband the right to take his wife's name.

And in recent months, in the province of Córdoba, a group of women have asked the government to let them use "con," or "with," to replace de.

Some women, such as Sol Duran, a 30-year-old communications professional, say such laws really aren't necessary - that being able to choose whether to take a man's name or not is enough. Others, like Mabel Bianco, president of the Foundation for the Study and Investigation of Women in Buenos Aires, stress the need to go beyond law. "Even though these types of projects are growing, it is also necessary to modify certain cultural rules," she recently told La Nación, a popular newspaper.

The bills speak to larger struggles here for civil and reproductive rights, domestic violence laws, electoral and economic representation, revamped gender roles, and historical judgments against what many say is a heavily male-dominated past.

Many women say the advances that have been made are most obvious in the workplace, despite the fact that machismo still talks loudly and struts proudly.

There have been wins. Victoria Haydee Huck is an example of how a feminist movement, struggling for decades and flowering with the return of democracy in the 1980s and economic expansion in the 1990s, has helped push women further into public life and labor markets. She just became the highest ranking female police officer in the history of Buenos Aires, overseeing 14 districts with a million and a half people and 3,847 underlings, most of them men.

Political representation is changing, too. In Congress, thanks to a legal requirement, women make up close to 30 percent of Argentina's congressional members.

Gains have come in the private sector, too.

Carol Mintz, a young co-owner of a consultancy catering to major companies here, says she sees more and more women on higher corporate rungs.

Still a long way to go

But there's still plenty of reason to grumble, say many women.

Government studies show the majority of women still fall into traditional roles such as domestic services, teaching, public administration, health services, and lower-level jobs in hotels and small businesses, all while being underrepresented in top echelons of business. What's more, women are typically paid considerably less than male counterparts.

Ms. Duran says she once worked as an assistant in a customs company. "There were four people," she says, her brow furrowed. "Three men and me, all doing the same job. And guess who earned less?"

Ms. Duran admits there have been advances: "Okay, sí, sí, but machismo still rules."

And when it reigns at home, it results in something called doble jornada, or the dual job where many women work full days in the office, but still come home to all the traditional chores.

The seeds of it all?

Argentine author Marta Zabaleta once told this reporter that the workplace attitudes, the institutional problems, were planted early in Argentine history by "otherwise nice and clever men of socialist principles" who saw women "as fragile workers, assimilated more to children than to adult workers at work, and therefore in need of special social protection."

Feminism's battle against machismo is a tough one anywhere in Latin America. But it's easy to feel in this flirtatious city, with its booming plastic-surgery industry and high anorexia rates, that femininity and feminism will have to work especially hard to sort out their relationship. But despite the prevalence of machismo, this seems to be happening at a steady clip.

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