When Fidel Castro asked Wilma Espin to be the head of the Cuban woman's movement in 1959, shortly after the revolution, she didn't know what he was talking about.
"I asked precisely why do we have to have a women's organization? I had never been discriminated against. I had my career as a chemical engineer. I never suffered. I never had difficulty." Espin had been a leader in the underground movement in the province of Oriente and had fought in the Second Front.
And too, she was the wife of Raul Castro, Fidel's younger brother, now the head of Cuba's military.
So she was obviously expecting some role in the new government. But the women's movement? Well, is wasn't exactly what she had in mind.
"Anyway," she says. "we had this big meeting. And Fidel explained the whole thing to us and how we were to prepare for the women's federation. We didn't even have a name. At that time I was very poorly read in politics. But Fidel was different. He was much more prepared than any of us. He had read revolutionary materials. I was beginning to be revolutionary. He was much more developed than we were. He wanted the best for our women. But we didn't know how to do it. It was only then that I realized so much had to be done."
For Wilma Espin, as for many Cuban women, the struggle in their minds had been not for women but for all Cubans. So thinking in terms of a women's movement was all very new.
Wilma Espin at 46 is a pretty woman with a pale oval face, and a delicate voice. She has curly shoulder-length brown hair and she wears a feminine white blouse with colored butterflies on it.
The interview is her office, the headquarters of the Federation of Women, a beautiful old mansion in downtown Havana. Her office is clutered with mementos, prizes, trophies, pictures of children and friends. On the walls hang an enormous picture of Che, a large picture of Fidel and Raul Castro and an even larger picture of "Tania," the Argentinian woman killed in Bolivia with the Che Guevara. There are masses of flowers everywhere which she proudly points out, sent to her by people all over Cuba to celebrate International Women's Day, the day before. Her English, which she learned at MIT where she studied for one semester, is now halting and she will occasionally apologize and lapse into rapid Spanish to make a point.
The one thing she wants to make clear right away is that she is not the leader of Cuba's feminist movement. "In reality," she says, "we have never had a feminist movement. We hate that. We hate the feminist movement in the United States. We consider what we are doing part of the struggle. And for that reason we feel we are more developed. We see these movements in the United States which have conceived struggles for equality of women against men! "She looks aghast. "That is absurb!" There is real passion in her voice now. "It doesn't make any sense! For these feminists to say they are revolutionriesis ridiculous!"
Most of the women in the U.S. struggle think they are doing the right thing. They think they revolutionary. That's what is most tragic. They're just being manipulated being used. The feminist movement! Ha! You seven see lesbians in their movement. Our work is to make everybody advanced. Then when everybody has a high level of consciousness nobody will have to think in terms of equality."
Nevertheless. Wilma Espin has never heard of Betty Friedan, Gloria Steinem or Ms. magazine.
"I don't know names," she says. Then adds, on second thought, "There are many good groups of women in the United States working for peace, doing good things. But it must be hard for them to work there."
In a sense Wilma Espin is well prepared for her role as First Lady of Cuba, a role she assumes because her brother-in-law is not married.
She is no worker from the country-side. Her mother was the daughter of a French consul in Havana, her father, a Cuban, was vice director of Bacardi rum. She was raised comfortably in an upper middle-class family of four children, where she was always encouraged to have a career. "I was always a good student," she says. "I just was very little informed about politics. "She went to the university in Santiago to study chemical engineering. It was while she was studying, when she was 22, that Batista's coup d'etat took place. "At that point I was just a spectator, not political. But I felt mortified by the injustice of what was happening."
"I remember where I was, the morning of the coup. I was with a teacher. It was 7 in the morning."
"At that very moment I decided something must be done. And my teacher said, "if this is true, we must take up arms."
She became involved in antigovernment student rallies and protests, but the groups and protest units were disorganized and isolated. After the 1953 attack on the Moncada Garrison and during the period of Castro's imprisonment in Cuba, Espin went to MIT to study engineering.
But she was restless and she stayed in touch with her friends. On her way home from Boston she went through Mexico where Fidel Castro, finally released from prison, was planning his attack on Cuba. She met him, Che Guevara, and her future husband Raul, picked up some messages to deliver and returned to Cuba.
"When I met Raul I liked him but I never thought I would marry him," she says with a smile. "I was only there two days and I was thinking of more important things."
After her return Espon became deeply involved."I had no real responsiblity, no leadership. I was just a sergeant." She went to Oriente with Frank Pais, who was later killed, Haydee Santamaria and Armando Hart.
"Haydee and I weren't the only women," she recalls. "There were many, many women. We were using our long skirts and big petticoats for sabotage and ammunition. I was Frank Pais' chauffeur and I was also a translator."
They used as a headquarters her parents townhouse in Santiago while her parents were staying at their country house. Her mother knew about their operations and occasionally hid one of them from the police, but it became very difficult for them. Finally her father was picked up and questioned by the police and they had to abandon the house for several days later Frank Pais was fatally shot.
Wilma Espin had to go underground. And eventually she was called to the Second Front a mountain headquarters commanded by Raul Castro. They had kidnapped 50 Americans to hold as hostages and Espin was to act as intrepreter for a month. She remained there until the revolution was over in the meantime, falling in love with Raul.
"It was a very natural thing," she says a bit shyly. "Two people who had to struggle for the same things. Many of our friends got married during those days. It was highly romantic. She laughs gaily. "It was even more then romantic. We shared all the things that were most important to us. I couldn't have married anybody who wasn't involved who didn't have the same idea I did. Marriage is a very serious thing. To have children, to make a family that is the most serious thing in the world to me. If I was going to take a serious step it would not have been in passing. I had never even had a fiance before. I was 28 years old."
"Anyway," she says "we waited until after the triumph of the revolution, we waited for six months, then we had a huge wedding in Santiago. Everybody came. It was wonderful."
Raul, she says, was greatly influenced in every way by his older brother, but particularly in his attitude about women.
Even so, it is quite clear after talking to her that she has the full responsiblity of running the Federation of Women as well as full responsibility for her family. "If somebody had asked me what I wanted to do I would have said work in a factory as an engineer. Even now I would like to do that. "But," she shrugs matter of factly, "this is where I am needed. I must be useful. But there are many other things I would rather do."
When she is finished work she must return home to Raul, and their four children, ages 11-17. "Now it is not so difficult," she says. "Now I have a woman who lives in and takes care of the children. But in the beginning, it was very, very hard, especially if one of the children was ill."
She skillfully gets around the subject of Raul not totally helping out by discussing his ideology.
"Fidel was in many ways a teacher for Raul. He was five years older and Raul always listened to him. They had many of the same ideas to begin with. We all learned very much in this war, being in contact with each other every lay. And Fidel's attitudes about our case."
She says that Cuba's problem with women was not as severe as in many other Latin American countries. "In Cuba we didn't have the deep-seated prejudice towards women that is rooted in a devout religious culture. Catholicism in Cuba was never very strong. And too, we had a tradition of struggle with heavy participation of women. But as a Latin American culture, well, Cuba has always been machismo.
"Ah," she says, rolling her eyes and laughing, "but when the women first started earning salaries we had some real resistance from the men. Especially in the countryside."
The Family Code or "El Codigo" as it is simply called in Cuba was promulgated by Castro under Wilma Espin's auspices. In essence, it gives the force of law to the division of household labor. Men and women must share the housework and child care equally or one spouse can take the other to court.
For the Cubans this was a major wrench and it is still not totally accepted. Many do, however, have a sense of humor about it and whenever the subject is brought up it elicits smiles, snickers, guffaws. Wilma Espin, head of Cuba's Federation of Women is no different.
One thing she does understand is this: "The law is one thing and the way people live is another. We can't say that in each home there is equality. Tradition is very strong. But we have advanced. Before, the machismo was terrible. Before, the men on the streets would brag about how their wives took care of them and did all the work at home. They were very proud of that. At least, now we have reached the point where they don't dare say that. That's an advance. And now with young people you can see the difference."
Does she think Fidel Castro is machismo?
She stops for a moment, weight her answer, then replies with a mischievous, almost approving grin. "Yes. A little bit."
With Wilma Espin, as for all Cubans, life is fraught with contradictions.
Yes, of course she minds machismo, particularly where it affects women's advancement.
On the other hand she is a woman, and a Latin one at that. She likes men. She likes to flirt. One of the ways Cuban men flirt is in the Latin and now controversial custom of giving "piropos," or street compliments.
"Well," she laughs, "after all, it is a Spanish custom. But of courst, the level of the piropo depends on the cultural and educational level of the person. It can be offensive and low. When machismo is combined with a low cultural level it is offensive. But as the level increases it is no longer. Before, a woman could not walk alone in the streets. That is why it is very important for us in Cuba to raise the cultural and educational level of people. Because on a very high level, a piropo can be a wonderful compliment. In fact it is a great form of chivalry towards women. And what could be nicer?"