“Argelia Laya’s words should be engraved in gold letters in all our battlefields and with red letters in our hearts: The fight for women’s equality is the fight for people’s liberation,” Hugo Chávez.
Argelia Laya is the most important feminist figure in the history of Venezuela. A black woman, teacher, social activist, guerrilla soldier, communist militant and prominent politician, she fought tirelessly for women’s rights and against all forms of discrimination.
Born on July 10, 1926, Laya was raised alongside her three siblings on the leased lands of a cocoa farm in the Afro-descendant region of Barlovento, Miranda state. The family grew its own food, built strong community ties and was deeply connected to its African roots.
From a young age, Laya’s parents taught her to fight injustices and to uphold her black heritage. Her mother, Rosario López, was a militant of the Women’s Cultural Assembly. Her father, Pedro María Laya, fought against Juan Vicente Gómez’s dictatorship in the 1930s as part of the grassroots montonera guerrilla groups.
After years of persecution and imprisonment, Laya’s father died from poor health, forcing the family to migrate and settle under precarious conditions in the outskirts of Caracas. Despite the constant hardships, Laya enrolled in the Normal School, where she joined the Young Women’s Union and founded the Center for Student Novelists.
At just 19 years old, Laya graduated with a teaching degree, secured a post in Zulia state and co-founded the National Union of Women Organization. Two years later, following a sexual assault, the young educator became pregnant. At the time, unmarried mothers were prohibited from working in schools, with many opting for backstreet abortions.
Determined to keep her child, Laya wrote a letter of protest to the Minister of Education and was allowed to continue her teaching career. The penalty was being transferred to a small school in La Guaira, outside of Caracas. She assumed the new post with optimism and spearheaded an adult literacy campaign.
This was also a turning point in the activist’s life. Laya went on to lead the struggle for women’s reproductive rights, becoming the first Venezuelan woman to talk about this issue openly. In particular, she campaigned for abortion decriminalization, gender equality in the education system, as well as equal access to politics and economic spaces.
A woman against the tide
Argelia Laya was deeply aware that being a black, poor woman meant swimming against the tide. Undeterred, this only fueled the fight for equality. Her prominent platforms allowed her to address issues regarding racism that were usually nonexistent in the public discussion.
“The violation of black women and indigenous peoples’ human rights is a crime against humanity. We have to resist actively, organize and persevere for ourselves and future generations,” she wrote in her 1979 autobiographical book Our Cause (Nuestra Causa).
Laya was also a passionate communist militant. In the 1950s, after a brief period in the Democratic Action (AD) political force, she joined the Communist Party (PCV), playing an active role in the resistance against Marcos Pérez Jiménez’s dictatorship. Additionally, she was elected for Caracas’ city council and as a member of the national parliament several times.
“It was my duty to fight for the transformation of our society. I would not allow my son and thousands of children in Venezuela to grow up in a dictatorship,” she answered in an interview when asked about her political activism.
Although Pérez Jiménez was deposed in a coup d’état in 1958, the country’s dire situation and suppression of leftist movements continued. As a result, guerrilla struggle broke out. Determined to occupy all fighting spaces, Laya changed her name to Commander Jacinta and headed to the mountains as an active member of the Armed Forces of National Liberation (FALN).
The guerrilla chapter of Laya’s life ended in 1964. This period allowed her to get a first-hand experience of Venezuela’s rural areas. “On one side, poor people [the guerrilla] fought for the country’s transformation, and on the other side, poor people were being used to defend the elite’s interests,” she explained in a 1992 interview.
The grassroots leader’s political career continued rising alongside her fight for women’s rights. She served as vice president of the First Congress of Venezuelan Women and helped draft laws to protect female workers. This included maternity leave and childcare centers in public and private institutions.
In 1971, she parted from the Communist Party and co-founded the Movement to Socialism (MAS). Two decades later, she assumed the party’s presidency, being the first woman to occupy this position in Venezuela. Additionally, Laya created the Women’s Socialist Movement and was an advisor to the Transcultural Institute of Studies of Black Women.
The Afro-descendant activist was instrumental in the Penal Code’s reform to recognize children born out of wedlock. She promoted laws against machista violence, sexual education in schools and campaigned for pregnant women’s right to continue their education and careers without facing repercussions.
Laya likewise advocated for socio-economic equality for minorities, workers, and women. In 1994, she attended the First Meeting to Discuss Women and Education in Bolivia, helping to draft a program to eliminate sexism through education.
Women need socialism!
Without flinching, Argelia Laya repeated time and again that machismo was capitalism’s main ally. “The first step for women’s true liberation is socialism. Equal rights are only possible in a socialist society,” she argued.
The feminist politician warned that the capitalist system thrives on women’s political exclusion and alienation because it stops them from “achieving their revolutionary potential.” Laya went on to explain that in a capitalist society, women were always the most oppressed.
“Everybody suffers in this system. Rich men exploit poor men, but women are subjugated to the male slave and enslaver. Working-class women are exploited inside the house and outside by the employer,” emphasized Laya.
Furthermore, the Afro-Venezuelan activist took aim at the revolutionary ranks she belonged to, where sexism was still rampant.
“Why is it that women in revolutionary movements, the left, the socialist ranks, generally do not develop politically like their male comrades? Why do socialist organizations stop women’s struggles if we are half of the exploited and the most oppressed in this society?”
Laya’s unapologetic words sparked Venezuelan women’s awareness of their undisputable role in society’s transformation. The educator passed away on November 27, 1997. The next year president Hugo Chávez’ Bolivarian Revolution took the country by storm, with women playing a central role in the project.
Today, Argelia Laya’s legacy continues to inspire feminist grassroots struggles, especially in the fight for legal abortion. Her name and words remain engraved in every political and revolutionary space, with the “Argelia Laya” Feminist School Foundation created in 2013.