Isabel Allende never thought she would count herself in the group of wave-making women protagonists she’s used to writing about. “In March 2013, I was in Mexico for a women’s conference and I did a speech on feminism that went viral,” she says. “Some time later, my editors decided they wanted to print the speech into a booklet.” When she read it, Allende was less than impressed. “It sounded so dated because so much has happened relating to the movement since that time: #MeToo, the Women’s March, LGBTQ+ progression, and more recently with Black Lives Matter,” she says. “So I told them, ‘No, we’re not going to do this.’”
But it got Allende thinking about what the movement has meant to her personally over the course of her lifetime. “Feminism has been a guiding light in my work, my writing, and in the way I conduct my life,” says the 78-year-old Chilean-American author of novels such as The House of the Spirits (also the basis of the 1993 film of the same name starring Meryl Streep, Glenn Close, and Winona Ryder) from her home in Marin County, California. “I started taking notes about what my own trajectory has been.”
Considered one of the world’s most influential Latina authors, Allende’s novels often center around passionate women who dare to break through the confines of patriarchy and oppression, usually in magical-realist settings. Allende’s own crusade has taken her to the White House, where in 2014 she was awarded the Medal of Freedom by President Obama. Allende’s notes began to evolve into the makings of a book. “I found myself writing but I didn’t know what it was—it isn’t quite a memoir and it isn’t quite a feminist manifesto.”
The Soul of a Woman (out March 2 from Ballantine Books) can best be described as a meditation of sorts, Allende says. “It’s a reflection of my feminist storyline through my own personal history.” The non-fiction book intersects Allende’s past with social, cultural, and political prose, giving personal insight into how much—and how little—has changed for women in her lifetime.
Allende believes that her rebellion against male authority started with her mother. “Her husband, a Chilean diplomat, abandoned her in Peru with two toddlers and a newborn, and she was forced to return to her parents’ home in Chile,” she explains. “She had no resources and no money; she was a charity case in her father’s house.” Allende’s grandmother had some say in household and family matters, but when she died, any authority she had as a woman died with her. “The house became exclusively ruled by my grandfather and his bachelor sons,” she says. “They made all the decisions; they came and went as they pleased.” Allende remembers the maids in the house as very humble women who had no life at all. “They were paid miserable salaries and slept in basic quarters in the backyard,” she says. “Early on, I could see how unjust life was for women.”
Decades later, therapy would try to tell Allende that her anger was rooted at her father. “Therapists have tried to convince me that the abandonment of my father had a very traumatic effect on me—and that it had a lot to do with my life and my character,” she tells me. “But I never missed my father and I never tried to find him. I was never interested in him because he was never interested in me or in his other children. So I wouldn’t trace my anger back to that. It was my mother’s vulnerability I hated.”
Her mother didn’t know how to handle her daughter’s “difficult” disposition and consulted several doctors to find out what was wrong with her. “An obstinate, defiant character was accepted in my brothers as an essential condition of masculinity, but in me it could only be pathological,” Allende writes. The nuns who ran her education echoed the sentiment: “I was expelled from school at the age of six for insubordination.”
In her teens, Allende kicked her defiance of the rules up a notch. At age 18, she helped her 15-year-old friend “Celina” (not her real name) get a secret abortion. In Chile, abortion was severely punished by law at that time and still is today, Allende says. “Celina turned to me because she didn’t dare tell her parents. She even contemplated suicide—that’s how bad the stigma was,” she says. Allende can’t remember how she found the name of the woman who would perform the abortion, but she recalls taking Celina to a modest part of town two buses away.
“When we got there, the woman assured us she used to be a nurse and for a little more than the price quoted over the phone, she said she would use anesthesia,” Allende says. “My job was to inject just enough to stun my friend; I was told to be careful not to use too much.” Allende remembers running to the bathroom and vomiting after it was all over. “The experience haunts me to this day,” she tells me. “I have always been a fierce defender of the right to choose. If a woman doesn’t have control over her fertility, she has control over nothing.”
Allende’s dissent would soon find an outlet right up her alley. “In my twenties, I started working as a journalist at Paula Magazine,” she says, referring to the first-ever Chilean feminist publication, which she co-founded. “The job gave me a focus and a voice. It also gave me a language to express my anger, and for the first time, I felt like my anger served a purpose.” Alongside four other women journalists—all under age 30—the group challenged the ideals of the society of the time. “It was the first time that issues like abortion, infidelity, prostitution, and domestic violence were written about in Chile. These things were not even touched on before—at least not in public,” Allende says. “It shook society.” The first issue of Paula came out in 1967. “To this day, the magazine is considered legendary even though it lasted only six years because of the military coup,” she adds. “In that short time we made an incredible impact.”
The military coup of 1973 ousted President Salvatore Allende—who also happened to be Allende’s father’s first cousin. The author found herself blacklisted from the new government and fled with her husband, Miguel, and their two small children to Caracas, Venezuela. “My first husband was not a typical Chilean man of the time,” she explains. “He had been brought up in English boarding schools and was more of a liberal thinker. That helped the relationship and my rebellious nature a great deal.”
But the stress of exile would take its toll on the marriage. “We weren’t living together during that time because he started working in a province far away,” Allende says. “He would only come to visit every four or five weeks.” A lack of money was also an issue: Allende couldn’t find a job as a journalist in Caracas, so she did all sorts of odd jobs to make a living. “Life was very stressful and I was very unhappy.” An Argentinian musician wandered into the perfect storm and she fell madly in love. “I did the stupid thing of running away to Spain with him,” she says. Allende returned two months later but it would take a decade to heal her relationship with her children.
Allende’s feminism would next be challenged by someone she least expected: her daughter. “Paula had been hearing about the movement since the day she was born. As a teenager she would often say: ‘Mom, don’t talk about feminism so much. It’s dated,’” Allende says. “That made me furious.” But it forced Allende to rethink the way she talked about feminism. “My daughter represented a generation that took the struggle for granted,” she tells me. “In the ‘80s, the struggle was stagnant. Feminism was still there and the rights that we acquired were still there, but nothing was happening.” Women didn’t want to be called feminists because men (and even some women) had been very efficient and successful at depicting feminists as angry, man-hating women, she says. “Being a feminist wasn’t sexy.”
A twist of fate would compel Allende to confront the impact of her activism. During a trip to India in 1994, she was traveling down an old rural road in the province of Rajasthan when her driver had to stop the car because of an overheated engine. “Out of nowhere a group of six or seven women with children appeared from under the only tree in that desert,” Allende writes. She gave the women some bracelets she had just purchased from a market and played with the children for a while. Suddenly one of the women handed her a small parcel of rags that “weighed practically nothing,” she tells me. Allende thought it was perhaps the woman’s way of repaying her for the trinkets, but the trade wasn’t so innocent: “It was a newborn baby.” Allende blessed the infant and tried to give the baby back, but the mother refused and moved away. “I was frozen from shock,” Allende says. That’s when the driver swept in, swiftly taking the baby from her arms and thrusting the bundle back to the mother. Once the car was moving again, Allende found enough words to ask why the woman had done such a thing. The driver shrugged it off nonchalantly, saying, “It was a girl. Nobody wants a girl.”
The encounter would turn Allende’s relationship with feminism on its head. “Before this, my activism was all about fighting the structures,” she tells me. “It was more abstract and theoretical in a way. But when I had that experience with the baby girl, it became so much more real for me. It made me realize that I had to take direct action.”
The following year, in 1995, Allende would create the Isabel Allende Foundation, an organization which invests in the power of women and girls to secure reproductive rights, economic independence, and freedom from violence. The foundation is dedicated to Allende’s daughter Paula, who volunteered in the poor communities of Venezuela and Spain during her short lifetime. (Paula died tragically in 1992 at the age of 29, after falling into a coma from complications with porphyria disease.) “All these years with the foundation have been the most rewarding of my life,” Allende says. “I’m asked all the time where I get my strong female protagonists from. I don’t need to invent them because they’re all around. And with this foundation, I get to meet them. They inspire me.”
Allende feels that the book doesn’t just reflect her own story. “All of the people who have supported me throughout my life have been women,” she says. “Starting with the maids who helped raise me in my grandfather’s home, to the women I worked with as a journalist—all of these women formed me into what I am today.” Her story isn’t finished, she emphasizes. “Our souls are still hungry. We need to feel safe, valued and be able to live in peace,” she says. “We need to have our own resources, and have control over our bodies and our lives.”
Although the world is a long way from this ideal, Allende feels more hope now than before. “Feminism has been invigorated by all of these new waves such as #MeToo and BLM—which shows the movement is moving beyond gender,” she says. “It’s time for these young women and men to carry on the work still left to be done.”
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