Portugal | Maria Filomena Monica

“I’ve been a rebel since I was a child”

PORTUGAL, LISBON: Portrait of Maria Filomena Mónica, 75 years old, a sociologist and writer, taken at her home.

Words: Cátia Bruno | Images: Claudia Wiens

Maria Filomena Monica, 75, is the first Portuguese woman to receive a PhD in sociology. After leaving her husband during Portugal’s dictatorship and writing over 30 books, she has become one of the country’s most respected intellectuals.

According to your autobiography [Bilhete de Identidade], you grew up in a very privileged environment, a “social cocoon” that you hated. Why?

I think I’ve been a rebel since I was a child. It’s in my DNA. That trait was fuelled by my mother who was an authoritarian and an important figure in the social ranks of the church. At 17, I stopped believing in religion and decided I didn’t want to marry the boyfriend she liked so very much. In a way, I got so used to fighting her that it was as if I’d had boxing gloves since I was a girl. The worst moment must have been when I went to study at Oxford. That was in 1970, my daughter was seven and my son was six. Every year, I would spend six months in Oxford and six months in Portugal. It was a scandal [for my mother], even though my husband had left for a full year in 1969 to learn how to become a pilot. Everyone thought I had abandoned my children.

Do you think people would react the same nowadays?

I have two granddaughters, one is 23 and the other is 20. Even though they are right to complain, the progress [I’ve seen] for women has been extraordinary. For example, they find travelling to be a given. The other day, one of them went to Budapest and fell in love with a boy in three days!

Still, there are some advantages I had that they don’t, like when I found a well-paying job as a translator for the Ministry of Health in no time. I could easily rent an apartment. Finding a good job and housing isn’t as easy for young women today, not to mention having kids… They both did Erasmus, are well-travelled and speak fluent English. Even though Europe has facilitated mobility, [it doesn’t make it easier] to find jobs or apartments. And with Lisbon’s prices rising, they are struggling. Having kids will have to wait.

You chose to get a divorce and go study at Oxford. At the time, did you feel as though you were too emancipated for your country?

I knew I was. My mother was emotionally blackmailing me and I lost many friends who were critical of my decision. As soon as I arrived in Oxford, people were blown away by the fact that I was Portuguese. I was blonde with green eyes and divorced with two kids. I felt like a bit of an outsider. We were about 100 students in my college, and only 4 or 5 of us were women. Being a woman at an elitist university like Oxford meant that I had to work twice as hard as men. It was a discriminating place. But that’s what I did, and if you ask me if it’s hard being a woman I will say yes because I’m not a denier of reality. But since I’m a woman and I don’t plan on becoming a man, I might as well say: “Let’s go for it!”

Did marriage feel like a liberation to you?

No. I got married because I was pregnant. It was only liberating in practical terms. [I got married] at a time when I felt very lonely; I would work, study and take care of my children. I barely had any time left.

And you still had to deal with things like the doctor refusing to prescribe you the pill…

Yes. As a whole, society was very chauvinistic towards women and deeply catholic. So I went to a different doctor. I already had two kids, I didn’t want to spend the rest of my life bearing children.

PORTUGAL, LISBON: Portrait of Maria Filomena Mónica, 75 years old, a sociologist and writer, taken at her home.
PORTUGAL, LISBON: Portrait of Maria Filomena Mónica, 75 years old, a sociologist and writer, taken at her home.

You went from a childhood sheltered from the ongoing political turmoil in Portugal, to an adulthood where you considered becoming an MP after the Carnation Revolution in 1974. How come?

I decided to fall out with the Portuguese right-wing ideology when I was 14 and nuns took me to “visit the poor”. I told myself I couldn’t live in a country where kids don’t go to school because they don’t have shoes. As soon as I realised I lived in a country with that level of inequality, I felt I couldn’t be on the wealthy side [anymore].

Many people think I am right-wing because of my habits or because I don’t agree with every silly idea the Left Bloc [Portuguese left-wing party, part of the GUE] comes up with. I am left-wing because I don’t care for the privileges I grew up with.

You don’t like charity?

I don’t. I find it shocking [when people think that] giving a pair of shoes on Christmas will fix poverty. Observing the way the rich saw the poor made me say: “I have nothing to do with this world.”

Is it important for women to get involved in politics? Are quotas good methods?

It’s just as good for women to get involved as it is for men. It’s not about gender. But if I got elected on a female quota, I would feel belittled. I think I’m good enough as an individual, not just as a woman. Having said that, I know most people in Portugal feel that men are better than women. It’s still a deeply chauvinistic country. Just look at the parliament and how many women have seats…

“The EU is almost Napoleonic with all of its rules.”

You’ve spent many hours writing at the National Library. What did writing bring you, or what did it take away?

It didn’t take anything, it was what I enjoyed doing. In the National Library, you don’t hear the noise of the outside world. Maybe I should have been a cloistered nun [laughs].

I remember on the 11th of March 1975 [an attempted coup took place], planes were flying over Lisbon and my husband at the time called the library to say: “Tell the lady sitting at spot M-15 to come home immediately.” If he hadn’t called, I wouldn’t have noticed. But all of that came to an end when I got cancer. I lost my immune system, so I’m not allowed to be in public places because the doctor thinks it’s too risky. It’s not too painful, my pleasures are lonely ones, you know? Except maybe sex… But at 75, that’s not a priority.

While at Oxford, did you come to hate some traits you found in Portuguese people?

I did. Their attitude towards women, the glorification of the Portuguese discoveries as an excuse to do nothing, the acceptance of the dictatorship… Our salazarismo was not like nazism or fascism, Portuguese people were passive. It was so easy to rule back then with 80% of the population starving and living in the countryside.

PORTUGAL, LISBON: Portrait of Maria Filomena Mónica, 75 years old, a sociologist and writer, taken at her home.

What do you think about the EU?

As a Portuguese, I feel the EU was very good to us. But I think it has a tendency of being too centralised and bureaucratic. It’s almost Napoleonic with all of its rules. But the general idea is good. We live in a globalised world, and Europe can only be a major power if its countries stick together to stop the nationalist and fascist-like tendencies coming from Hungary and Poland. So far, the far-right has been quiet in Portugal. Let’s hope it stays that way. But I like being European. I could live in any country in Europe, but not in the U.S.

“I was only harassed once but it was no big deal, I pushed him away.”

That reminds me of an article you wrote about your granddaughters and the #MeToo movement. What are your thoughts on it?

The oldest one is completely in favour of #MeToo. She thinks most men are capable of sexual harassment and that you shouldn’t make eye contact on the subway. I think she’s overreacting, maybe to provoke me [laughs]. Men, especially those in power, can abuse the women in front of them and that’s a crime. I was only harassed once but it was no big deal, I pushed him away. there were also two or three times where men tried to kiss me and I said, “I don’t feel like it” and that was it. Maybe in academia there’s not as much sexual harassment as in companies. I remember studying factory conditions in the 1800s and how girls would be raped almost every day by the bosses, but no one cared because they were factory girls…

How do you think it has been dealt with in Portugal?

There is not a lot of talk about it. People talk about #MeToo but I think most don’t even know what it is. In low-income communities, sexual harassment definitely occurs. The thing is that it ends up being treated as a fad and I don’t like that. [The movement] isn’t focused enough on things like sentences given by judges who believe women are subservient to men.

On a European level, do you think there’s a law that could change to help women?

There are several, but I’ll focus on one: providing free daycare with a staff that’s qualified. What’s important is for these facilities to be open from 7am to 7pm, so that parents can drop their kids off when it’s convenient for them.

Do you think the justice system in Portugal is problematic?

The rotten apple in Portugal today is corruption, not the far-right. I’ll be happy when I see all these corrupt men standing behind bars, because it will show that justice can be served. The José Sócrates [former prime minister who is facing money laundering and corruption charges] case is scandalous.

PORTUGAL, LISBON: Portrait of Maria Filomena Mónica, 75 years old, a sociologist and writer, taken at her home.

Has your cancer changed your views?

It’s very different to know you can die suddenly. There are times when I feel anguished, but I’m 75 years old. I’ve lived enough. At the same time, the feeling that I might die tomorrow is funny. Yesterday I was about to renew my Times Literary Supplement subscription, which I usually renew for two years because it’s cheaper. Then I told myself I wouldn’t do it for two years because what if I die in the meantime? It would be a waste of money. The effects of cancer can be very mundane at times. But I ended up renewing the subscription anyway.

The other day you told me that there’s something you can still do, despite the cancer: speak. Where does the need to voice your thoughts and opinions come from?

Maybe it’s my way of doing politics. If there are things I love or hate, I want to say it. If a newspaper pays me to do it, all the better. I find pleasure in writing. This morning I said, “I’m going to read the book that explains Fernando Pessoa’s work better, because I don’t understand one thing.” I don’t even like Pessoa but it helps me get out of bed. I know death is approaching, and knowing that I would get depressed without writing means I value it a lot more. And I do hope I’m becoming a better writer.