Visit to Europe
Evita’s fame and charm had spread across the Atlantic, and in 1947 she visited Europe. In Spain, she was the guest of Generalissimo Francisco Franco and was awarded the Order of Isabel the Catholic, a great honor. In Italy, she met the pope, visited the tomb of St. Peter and received more awards, including the Cross of St. Gregory. She met the presidents of France and Portugal and the Prince of Monaco. She would often speak at the places she visited. Her message: “We are fighting to have less rich people and less poor people. You should do the same.” Evita was criticised for her fashion sense by the European press, and when she returned to Argentina, she brought a wardrobe full of the latest Paris fashions with her.
At Notre Dame, she was received by Bishop Angelo Giuseppe Roncalli, who would go on to become Pope John XXIII. The Bishop was very impressed with this elegant but frail woman who worked so tirelessly on behalf of the poor. According to Argentine writer Abel Posse, Roncalli later sent her a letter that she would treasure, and even kept it with her on her deathbed. Part of the letter read: “Señora, continue in your fight for the poor, but remember that when this fight is fought in earnest, it ends on the cross.”
As an interesting side note, Evita was the cover story of Time magazine while in Europe. Although the article had a positive spin on the Argentine first lady, it also reported that she had been born illegitimate. As a result, the magazine was banned in Argentina for a while.
Not long after the election, Argentine law 13,010 was passed, granting women the right to vote. The notion of women’s suffrage was not new to Argentina: a movement in favor of it had begun as early as 1910. Law 13,010 did not pass without a fight, but Perón and Evita put all of their political weight behind it and the law passed with relative ease. All around the nation, women believed that they had Evita to thank for their right to vote, and Evita wasted no time in founding the Female Peronist Party. Women registered in droves, and not surprisingly, this new voting bloc re-elected Perón in 1952, this time in a landslide: he received 63% of the vote.
The Eva Perón Foundation
Since 1823, charitable works in Buenos Aires had been carried out almost exclusively by the stodgy Society of Beneficence, a group of elderly, wealthy society ladies. Traditionally, the Argentine first lady was invited to be the head of the society, but in 1946 they snubbed Evita, saying she was too young. Outraged, Evita essentially crushed the society, first by removing their government funding and later by establishing her own foundation.
In 1948 the charitable Eva Perón Foundation was established, its first 10,000 peso donation coming from Evita personally. It was later supported by the government, the unions and private donations. More so than anything else she did, the Foundation would be responsible for the great Evita legend and myth. The Foundation provided an unprecedented amount of relief for Argentina’s poor: by 1950 it was giving away annually hundreds of thousands of pairs of shoes, cooking pots and sewing machines. It provided pensions for the elderly, homes for the poor, any number of schools and libraries and even an entire neighborhood in Buenos Aires, Evita City.
The foundation became a huge enterprise, employing thousands of workers. The unions and others looking for political favor with Perón lined up to donate money, and later a percentage of lottery and cinema tickets went to the foundation as well. The Catholic Church supported it wholeheartedly.
Along with finance minister Ramón Cereijo, Eva personally oversaw the foundation, working tirelessly to raise more money or personally meet with the poor that came begging for help. There were few restraints on what Evita could do with the money: much of it she simply gave away personally to anyone whose sad story touched her. Having once been poor herself, Evita had a realistic understanding of what the people were going through. Even as her health deteriorated, Evita continued to work 20-hour days at the foundation, deaf to the pleas of her doctors, priest and husband, who urged her to rest.