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In South America, some of the first women to vote did so in a referendum in a small town in the interior of Uruguay called Cerro Chato. And the very first woman to vote in Uruguay was a 90 year old Brazilian woman of African descent.

You reach Cerro Chato on Ruta 7, 170 miles (276 km) from the capital. Route 7 is a two-lane road which rides a gently rolling hill range known as the Cuchilla Grande. The route was originally forged by cattle drovers from pre-Colonial times driving cattle as far as Brazil and Paraguay. It became a classic passageway for cattle, then horses, wagons and then finally stagecoaches. Along Ruta 7 every 20 miles or so there’s a village—the original stagecoach stops where horses were changed.

Cerro Chato was founded at the intersection of the Cuchilla Grande and a second hill range. The rivers that sprung from the Cuchilla Grande became the dividing lines of three provinces or departments (as they are referred to in Uruguay)—Treinta y Tres, Durazno and Florida.

In Cerro Chato, today, a local may live in one department, send her children to school in another and visit the local doctor in a third.

Residents can vote in the department of their choosing (citizens do not require proof of address to register to vote in a locale). Of course this leads to tactical voter registration, as a resident joked: “We’re a bit Sicilian in that way.”

One town can’t belong to three provinces, surely?

In 1927 there was a call to sort out the situation and decide once and for all to which province the town should belong. So the location of the town was put to a local referendum.

The feminist movement had great visibility at the time, led by Uruguay’s first female doctor, Paulina Luisi. This was the era of Batlle—Uruguayan society was bubbling with polemic debates and actions regarding rights.

The women of Cerro Chato were no political novices, many having played a part in political uprisings in 1897 and 1904. Women’s right to vote had been announced as a principle in the Constitution of Uruguay of 1917, however it wasn’t put into law until 1932.

So it was unexpected when a green light came from government—women could vote in the referendum.

A B&W picture of Paulina Luisi at her graduation as a doctor
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Paulina Luisi at her graduation as a doctor (Photo: Uruguay Government)

The campaign lasted almost a year with fund-raising balls and meetings. Women ran two of the three annexation committees. When the electoral rolls opened, Rita Ribeira, a 90 year-old Brazilian woman of African descent (in Uruguay, the term used is ‘afro-descendiente’), was the very first person to register to vote.

So for the first time in Uruguay women were given the right to vote—to decide the destiny of a town of six hundred people.

So what was the outcome? Not what you might expect

According to a local historian, politicians in Durazno rigged the electoral register in their territory by including the residents of a small village just outside Cerro Chato, to bulk up their voting numbers. In repudiation, residents from the other two provinces boycotted the vote.

There was a stalemate and the referendum result was never called.

This may have seemed like a political disaster for the town.

However to the contrary, the result has been highly favourable to Cerro Chato. This town of three thousand inhabitants has three municipal governments and incomes instead of one and six parliamentary representatives instead of two.

And the Cerro Chato referendum was to be a political outlier for women’s suffrage for over a decade.

The first national election in which all women voted was the 1938 Uruguayan general election.

Photo of Paulina Luisi

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