Portugal Table of Contents

The deep-reaching political, economic, and social changes that Portugal has experienced in the last few decades have left their mark on the family, women's place within society, and the role of kinship relations. Women were the most affected, for a modernizing economy offered them a greater range of choices than they had in previous times, and the radical reforms enacted after the Revolution of 1974 gave them much greater rights. Kinship relations, whether based on biology or social relationships, were perhaps the least affected, for they remained vitally important in how Portuguese lived and worked with one another.


The patriarchal and nuclear family traditionally served as the norm and the ideal in Portugal. Until the constitution of 1976 was promulgated, the father was seen as the head of the family, and his wife and children were obliged to recognize his authority. He, in turn, was obliged by law to support and protect his family. While the men worked outside the home, women were expected to care for the children and manage household affairs. Marriage was considered permanent; divorce was virtually unknown. During the period of Salazar's rule from 1928 to 1968, the family was even seen as the primary institution of politics; voting was organized under the regime, the Estado Novo (New State), on a family basis--only "heads of households" (usually men but sometimes women) could vote.

Although the nuclear and patriarchal family was the ideal, the cultural patterns varied considerably depending on class status and region. Upper- and middle-class families corresponded most closely to the ideal. Women remained at home tending the children and rarely ventured out unaccompanied, while husbands managed their businesses or followed their professions. Peasant and working-class families were marked by greater variation. In northern Portugal, for example, names and property were often passed on through the mother because of the absence abroad of male heads of households for long periods. The fact that women could inherit land in Portugal gave women in rural areas some independence, and many of them managed their own farms, took their produce to market, and did much heavy work elsewhere seen as suitable for men. The absence of men because of emigration meant that many women never married and also resulted in a higher rate of illegitimacy than in other Mediterranean countries.

The slow modernization of the Portuguese economy, the increasing employment of women outside the home, and the emigration of many women, as well as the spread of new ideas about the place of women and the nature of marriage, gradually changed the nature of the Portuguese family, despite the attempts of Salazar's Estado Novo to preserve the male-dominated nuclear family. The Revolution of 1974 responded to these long pent-up social pressures.

The reforms enacted after the revolution established in the civil code that men and women were equals in marriage, with the same rights to make family decisions. Divorce became much easier, and the number of divorces increased from 1,552 in 1975 to 5,874 in 1980 and 9,657 in 1989. The number of separations, formerly the main method of ending a marriage, fell from 670 in 1975 to 70 in 1980 but climbed to 195 in 1989. Illegitimacy was no longer to be mentioned in official documents because it was regarded as discriminatory; the frequency of births out of wedlock rose from 7.2 percent to 14.5 percent between 1975 and 1989. Abortion under certain conditions became legal in 1984. Maternal leave with full pay for ninety days was established for working mothers in 1976. A small family allowance program was also instituted that made payments at the birth of a child and all through his or her childhood. Family planning also became an integral part of Portugal's social welfare program; the number of children born per woman fell from 2.2 in 1980 to 1.7 in 1985 and 1.5 in 1988.

Relations within the family came to resemble more closely those of the rest of Western Europe. Children were less respectful to their parents, dating without chaperones was the rule, and outings in mixed gender groups or as couples were taken for granted--all things that would not have happened during much of the Salazar era.

Still, some characteristics of Portuguese family life remained constant. Marriage and kinship networks in Portugal were often based on social and political criteria as much as on love or natural attraction. To a degree that often surprised outsiders, even in the early 1990s many Portuguese marriages were arranged. For the peasant class, considerations of land were often most important in determining marriage candidates. Marriages might be arranged to consolidate property holdings or to tie two families together rather than result from the affection two people might feel for one another. Middle-class families often had status and prestige considerations in mind when they married. Among the upper classes, marriage might be for the purposes of joining two businesses, two landholdings, or two political clans.

The Extended Family

The extended family and kinship relations, including ritual kinship, were also important. The role of the godparent, for example, had an importance in Portugal that it lacked in the United States. Being a godparent implied certain lifetime obligations, such as helping a godchild in trouble, arranging admission to a school, finding employment, or furthering a professional or political career. The godchild, in turn, owed loyalty and service to the godparent. The system was one of patronage based on mutual obligation.

Political kinship networks could consist of several hundred persons. Such extended networks were especially prevalent among the elite. Members of the elite were bound not only by marriage and family, but by business partnerships, friendships, political ties, university or military academy bonds, and common loyalties. It was long the practice to have such family connections in the government so as to be able to extract favors and contracts. The elite and middle-class families also tried to have a "cousin," real or ritual, in all political parties so that their interests were protected no matter which party was in power. Sometimes the parties or interest groups were just "fronts" for these family groupings. These extended families also tried to have members in different sectors of the economy, both to enhance profits and to enable each sector to support and reinforce the others. Although these extended family networks were difficult for outsiders to penetrate, some observers regarded them as the country's most important political and economic institutions, of greater real consequence than political parties, interest organizations, or government institutions.

The poor and working class lacked the extended family networks of the middle class and the wealthy. Kin relations outside the nuclear family were weak. Little premium was placed on building economic alliances through an extended family network because there was little wealth to be shared or gained. Similarly, there was no reason to build strong political connections because the poor lacked political power. However, a poor person might succeed in persuading a local landowner or village notable to serve as godfather to his children. In that way, the individual became part of a larger network, expecting favors in return for loyalty and service. If that network became wealthy or achieved political prominence, then the poor person attached to it might also expect to benefit--perhaps by obtaining a low-level government job. But if it fell, the individual also fell. The entire Portuguese local and national system was based on these extended family and patronage ties, which were often as important as formal institutions.


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Source: U.S. Library of Congress