Mercedes Pulido, who passed this Tuesday, was a peculiar kind of intellectual: a thinker, activist, politician, teacher, mother and also a great cook, whose hallacas were famous and eagerly awaited every December.
Pulido’s academic credentials were stunning. She studied with Piaget in Paris in the 1960s and was analyzed by Lacan. She could’ve stayed in Europe and become a leading intellectual there. Instead, she came home, to Venezuela.
But she didn’t come home thinking she had the world on a string. Yes, she’d experienced western thinking being changed, but she was eager to listen and carefully watch our own social reality. She knew that knowledge was not to be kept petrified, repeating what books tell us, and made it a personal quest to use those tools for understanding the world that stands in front of us.
Mercedes Pulido channeled this enormous curiosity into two occupations she never let go of: teaching and public service. She became our first Minister for Women. She used to say that she told the President: “OK, so AD gave the people universal voting rights. Let’s give them equality under the law”.
It’s hard to imagine that only 30 years ago, obscenely outdated concepts such as “bastard children” were still very much the paradigm in Venezuela. Children born out of wedlock did not have the right to use their father’s last name or petition to be recognized if the father refused to acknowledge paternity. The law granted men near-absolute control within a marriage: women were not allowed to legally administer their assets, so in the case of divorce, there was no division of property, and legal custody of any children was almost invariably granted to the father.
The 1982 reform of the Civil Code that Pulido spearheaded was a milestone in achieving equal rights for women. Conservative Venezuelan society was strongly opposed to such a change, so Mercedes and her team carried out a pioneering study of family life, traveling across the country to discuss the proposal, lobbying the catholic church, the military and politicians… and after many struggles, they succeeded.
In 1982, when the bill was finally approved in Congress, Mercedes Pulido was a young woman with four kids, between 9 and 12 years old. Last time we met, I told her I thought that was amazing, engaging in big leagues public affairs while being a mother of four.
She said it wasn’t so difficult, because her husband, Wence, always supported her.
Later, her career took her to the United Nations and its various agencies, but after these responsibilities, she always returned to academic life. She taught at several universities, but I think her work at Universidad Católica Andrés Bello was where she taught the longest. She was a central figure for Sociology students for decades and also taught courses in Psychology and Social Communication (journalism).
Mercedes wasn’t my teacher: sadly, she came home to our School of Social Sciences after I’d graduated. I met her when she was appointed Minister once more in 1994. I worked on different projects while she was in front of Family Ministry, but I was too young and never was the important person invited to the big meetings, but the assistant who prepares the slides. Many years later I was appointed to the academic coordination of Sociology Major, so, weirdly, Mercedes Pulido became part of my staff.
That’s when I saw her real virtues up close: her generosity and her frightful sincerity. She was a wise woman who gave freely what she treasured most, all her knowledge and experience. She said what she believed in, and never held back just because someone might disagree or get angry about it. At the same time, she cared for every student and professor, she discussed and listened without haste. I can’t imagine the last ten years without her counsel and support.
She left us two days ago but she will remain a role model to us and to the women to come; a towering example of intelligence, autonomy and versatility. Venezuela needs many, many Mercedes Pulidos.