In a pomp-filled session of Congress last week, machismo was formally booted out of Venezuelan family law, and in homes, offices and university classrooms across the country women celebrated reforms in the 40-year-old civil code giving them equal rights in the home.
"This is a time to remember forever," said Carmen Manchego, a secretary for a large law firm here. "I'm going to smile all week."
"This is a historic day for Venezuela," said Chamber of Deputies President Armando Sanchez Bueno Tuesday after delegates from the country's eight political parties unanimously approved the changes. As he spoke, about 400 women in the audience of 800 cheered and held up banners proclaiming: "And we'll continue the struggle."
The reform of Venezuela's family law is the culmination of three years of review by Congress and a decade of widely divergent proposals for eliminating discriminatory aspects of the civil code.
The modified code gives women an equal voice in deciding where the family lives and how children are raised, educated and disciplined. Women also have been given equal say over the disposal of community property and the same legal grounds for divorce as their husbands.
Under the old code, a wife's adultery was considered just cause for divorce, but for a woman to obtain a divorce, she had to prove her husband had "publicly and brazenly" kept a mistress.
Eradicated are sections of the code that declared: "A woman must follow her husband wherever he decides to live," "A husband shall make all decisions related to married life," and "A woman who does not have legal custody of her children may not travel through the country with them without the written permission of the father."
A key aspect of the new code is the elimination of distinctions in the legal rights of children born in and out of wedlock. Under the old code, children born out of wedlock usually were denied rights to inheritance, unless the fathers chose to include them in their will. The modified code requires parents to feed, clothe and educate all offspring until maturity, and gives all children equal inheritance rights.
Approximately 52 percent of children in Venezuela are born out of wedlock. More than 200,000 children without families live in government-supported hostels.
President Luis Herrera Campins had made passage of a revised code a major goal of his administration when he took office in 1978. He appointed a social psychologist, Mercedes Pulido de Briceno, as minister of state for the participation of women in development. For the past three years, she and a small staff have set up meetings with congressmen, pushing for speedy approval of the modified code.
"I feel very triumphant now," she said. "Now if we can only get it printed up and distributed so women know their new rights..."
Much of the advance in women's social and political standing in this traditionally male-dominated country of 14 million can be traced to the surge of wealth here since oil prices began to rise in 1974.
A boom in investment and government activity has resulted in increased job opportunities for all Venezuelans, and there has been heightened demand for educated women and those with technical training. Universities here have an equal percentage of men and women, and women form a majority in the departments of law, sociology, economics, architecture and social communication.
Nearly half of the nation's judges are women, including two Supreme Court justices. Five Cabinet ministers are women.
Until last week, however, there was much bitterness about the fact that women's legal rights had dragged far behind their social and political status.
"We've entered a new era in Venezuelan life--finally," said Sonia Sgambatti, a criminal court judge and lobbyist for the modified code. She noted that the legal system has come a long way since 1971 when, as a new judge, she petitioned the Supreme Court to eliminate from the penal code an article exempting from the charge of homicide a man who kills his wife because he suspects her of adultery. The court did not act on the petition until 1980, when it declared unconstitutional the "crime of honor" article, which limited punishment for such crimes to six months in jail.
While clearly pleased with the changes in the law, feminists here believe it is only the first step in the achievement of full equality for Venezuelan women.
"This doesn't mean machismo is dead or women automatically have conquered sexism here," said Pulido de Briceno. "There must also be changes in attitudes regarding other legal matters affecting women."
The most controversial of those matters is abortion, which is illegal except when the mother's life is in danger. The issue is of deep concern to religious leaders here. About 95 percent of the population is Catholic, and most of the rest are Protestants.
"We, of course, agree that women and men should be given equal rights in their homes, but we are concerned that these reforms could lead to other moves that are dangerous to family life," said Msgr. Jose Joaquin Troconis, secretary general of the Venezuelan bishops' conference.
Msgr. Manuel Chirivella, bishop of the island of Margarita, said: "The struggle for equality is fine, but we've got to be careful that it doesn't lead to free love or the killing of unborn children, which is the right of neither men nor women."