SANTIAGO, Chile, March 8 -- It was supposed to be a moment of silence at a ceremony in the presidential palace Tuesday marking International Women's Day.
But the formal hush was disturbed by a rumble in the streets outside -- the sound of tens of thousands of mourners gathering for the funeral of Gladys Marin, a longtime leader of Chile's Communist Party and a prominent opposition figure during the country's 17-year military dictatorship.
Chileans pay tribute to Communist leader Gladys Marin outside the government palace in Santiago as her funeral procession passes a statue of late President Salvador Allende. Marin died Sunday.
(Roberto Candia -- AP)
"It is fitting, because Gladys Marin always fought for the rights of women during what was a very difficult period," said Monica Neira, who stood in the crowd waving a flag with Marin's image. "The progress we have made is because of women like her."
At the palace ceremony, government officials cited a list of accomplishments they say signal a major social shift toward sexual equality in a country struggling to shed its repressive past and long influenced by traditional Roman Catholic values.
Last fall, when divorce was made legal, women's groups hailed it as a sign that women finally were being empowered to make personal decisions. On Tuesday, President Ricardo Lagos signed a measure to outlaw sexual harassment in the workplace.
Officials also noted with pride that two candidates in the upcoming presidential election are women. In contrast to Marin, who ran unsuccessfully for president in 1993 and 1999, polls show that Michelle Bachelet and Soledad Alvear would finish first and second, respectively, if the election were held this week.
Lagos said in a speech Tuesday that taken collectively, these developments represent a "profound cultural change" in Chilean society. This may be because the pace of change was so slow in the past. Until last year, Chile was the only country in the Western Hemisphere where divorce remained illegal.
Moreover, although the percentage of women in the workforce has almost doubled since 1990, to 37 percent, that is still the lowest rate in Latin America. Women with jobs also make 30 percent to 40 percent less than their male counterparts, according to Chile's government agency dealing with women's issues.
Domestic violence is a persistent problem. The agency says about 70 women were killed in domestic disputes last year.
The enormous crowds that jostled for a glimpse of Marin's flower-strewn hearse in themselves represented a change. Marin, who died of brain cancer Sunday at 63, never received such an outpouring of public support during a lifetime of political activism. Instead, she was often portrayed as a polarizing figure, further to the left than the ruling Socialist Party.
Marin became a member of Congress at age 24 and then spent two years in exile after Gen. Augusto Pinochet seized power in a 1973 coup. Marin's husband disappeared after he was arrested by Pinochet's security service. Her party was outlawed by the military dictatorship and went underground.
On Tuesday, as national TV networks carried live footage of her funeral, politicians took turns eulogizing her. The government ordered two days of national mourning.
"When everyone was silent, she spoke out," said Jaqueline Cortes, who was also waving a flag at the procession. "As a woman, she always seemed like someone fighting for us."
Although the two leading presidential candidates are women, just 17 percent of elected members of Congress and 13 percent of municipal officeholders are women, said Cecilia Perez, minister for women's affairs. But she said the recent changes have coaxed Chile's women to become more assertive and speak out.
"In the past year, I think we've gotten over a lot of difficulties," Perez said. "The debate over the laws has helped lift away a lot of the barriers."
The two female presidential candidates, former defense minister Bachelet and former foreign minister Alvear, will face each other in a primary this summer to determine who will run against Joaquin Lavin, the mayor of Santiago. According to polls released last week, either woman would easily defeat him.
But Alvear, in an interview Tuesday, said her rise had not come without some bumps. "I think there still needs to be a change of mentality within the political parties," she said. "If the citizens had not given me a high level of support, I never would have been considered as a candidate. The political parties still have codes and rules that are masculine in nature."
Some male politicians have taken note. Sergio Bitar, the education minister, said he was considering running for president a few months ago but changed his mind after discovering how much more attention Bachelet was getting at events.
"The president of the country has always been seen as a father figure here," Bitar said, "but I think that right now, this country wants a mother."