Archives of Maryland
(Biographical Series)

Carmen Delgado Votaw (1934- )
MSA SC 3520-13586
Women's Rights Activist

Biography:

Carmen Delgado Votaw is a feminist activist and political leader with international influence. Her work to include minority women in the feminist movement has led her to travel to 69 countries, and has also enabled Hispanic and Latina women to have a voice in a global movement advancing the rights of women. Passionate about human rights and devoted to her homeland of Puerto Rico, Votaw has made many gains for women, children, and families around the world. Her work in the private and public sectors has led towards positive social changes that benefit many who are often underrepresented.

Carmen Delgado was born on September 29, 1935, to Candida Paz and Luis Oscar Delgado, both teachers. Growing up in a small, close-knit town on the southeastern coast of Puerto Rico called Yabucoa, the Puertorriqueña fondly remembers a childhood surrounded by beautiful scenery and very caring neighbors.1 2 She recalled that the relationship between herself and her neighbors instilled in her a need for proactive civic engagement: “My town helped me with a sense of identity.”3 Advancing this commitment to community engagement, “Carmencita,” as she was called by her neighbors, joined the local Girl Scout troop, where she learned valuable leadership skills, and later volunteered with the Red Cross.4

Votaw did not have any siblings, but her mother would often invite her students and colleagues to come eat at the family’s home. Many of these folks lived far away in rural communities and didn’t always have the money or time to safely return to their homes, so they happily joined the Delgado family. In an interview, she warmly remembered that, “Even though there were just three of us… our table was always full… Very often in a three-person house we had a 12-person lunch or dinner, and that was very nurturing for me.”5

Though her parents were both employed as teachers, the money the family made was never really enough. The Puerto Rican economy was strained, and many on the island were left struggling. Mr. Delgado also ran the town book store and worked whatever odd jobs he could find. Delgado was only in high school when her father died, and her mother’s health took a turn. The family was just barely scraping by on her mother’s retirement checks, so Delgado dutifully acquired a job to support herself and her mother.6 Though she aspired to eventually earn her degree, Delgado put her studies on hold while she took care of her family. Things began looking up, however, when she fortuitously met the president of Puerto Rico University, Jaime Benitez, who eventually granted Carmen a full tuition waiver to attend his university.7 With her college paid for, she earned her secretarial degree from the school of business, and was awarded top academic honors when she graduated in 1954.8 9 Following her graduation, Delgado began working at the Government Development Bank of Puerto Rico.10

On Valentine’s Day in 1959, Delgado went to a party and met Gregory Votaw, an economist who had come to Puerto Rico to advise the government on national economic development.11 After courting her for a year, the couple married in 1960.12

Because Votaw’s husband was an international economic development advisor, the new family travelled widely. One trip she vividly remembers was when she lived in Iran for two years during the 1960s.13 At the time, Iran was working to modernize their country. While her husband worked with the government, Votaw learned more about the culture she was living in. It was vastly different from what she was used to in Puerto Rico, where women enjoyed constitutionally guaranteed equal rights. Votaw felt passionate about extending the freedoms she had known growing up to the Iranian women and their families. She coalesced with other foreign women living in Iran to help in their new community. The group would volunteer at local orphanages and play with the children there. As they grew stronger ties with the children they were taking care of, Votaw and some of the other women she was working with decided that they wanted to work toward having these Iranian orphans adoptable by families from outside nations. Though the initial reaction to this plan was negative, the women met with Islamic and community leaders in Iran, and were eventually able to successfully push for the legalization of adoption by non-Iranian families.14 Votaw remembers this work as the start of her career in advocacy. She recalled thinking, “If we can do this here, we can do a lot of things everywhere else to improve women’s lives.”15 With this first success, Votaw saw how she could be an agent of change in the world, and took her first steps into a life of activism.

Votaw and her husband eventually settled in the United States in 1962, when her husband was employed by the World Bank headquartered in Washington, D.C.16 From their home in Bethesda, Maryland, Votaw would both raise her family and grow as an international advocate for civil and human rights. Votaw remembered witnessing Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.’s 1963 March on Washington, and feeling her her commitment to political progress catalyzed.17

Volunteering at the local level, Votaw started tutoring inner-city youth.18 She later moved on to volunteer with the League of Women Voters, where she learned more about feminism and found her niche in a movement that was eager to host her.19 Describing her brand of feminism, Votaw warmly joked,

“My definition of feminism is very broad. It’s “believing and working toward the advancement of all women.” And I don’t agree with people who define it other ways. I never took my bra off, and I never burnt it, but sometimes I didn’t wear one.”20

Her budding inclination toward fighting for human rights was honed into a passion for women’s equal rights, and for promoting feminist causes in international communities.

Votaw became active in the women’s movement in the 1970s, when women’s rights were a focus not only in the U.S., but all around the world. Votaw was a key figure in ensuring that Hispanic and Latina women were represented at local, state, national, and international levels. In 1972, Votaw coalesced with her Puerto Rican sisters in Washington, D.C., to form the National Conference of Puerto Rican Women, an organization aimed at promoting Puerto Rican and Hispanic women’s full participation in economic and political matters of the United States. Votaw became the president of the Washington, D.C. chapter in 1976 and the national president from 1977 to 1979.21 With this organization, Votaw was able to work within the Puertorriqueña community to educate and organize. A member of other feminist groups, Votaw was also able to better represent her Puerto Rican sisters, because they were meeting and developing an agenda. Puerto Rican women have their own specific concerns and invisibility within the mainstream feminist movement was a primary one.22 Moving among many different circles, and assuming leadership roles in many of them, Votaw was able to rectify this situation to a degree. Looking back at how the diversity she helped to foster within the women’s movement of the 1970s has affected the women’s movement of today, Votaw remarked:

“I... tell my sisters, and particularly the young women, you can not just be constrained by your own community. You have to seek ways in which you can affect what is happening to the whole society… the sense of collaboration that we now have certainly did not exist in the 60s and 70s. We had to forge it. We had to be in every coalition. I was in the equal rights collaboration. I was in the national women’s political caucus. I served on many organizations… because I felt that if we didn’t have voices there, then our issues would not be addressed.”23

The mission to have women from all different backgrounds joining in solidarity to build the feminist movement was positive for multiple reasons. More diversity allowed the political movement to appeal to broader groups of people, but to also properly represent the multiple interests of diverse women in the United States and around the world.

In 1975, the United Nations began the International Women’s Year, an initiative that promoted the equal rights and opportunities for women worldwide. At the World Conference on Women held in Mexico City that year, many of the delegates urged UN leaders for an entire decade to be dedicated to women’s rights, and the UN conceded. When it was only International Women’s Year, Carmen Delgado Votaw was appointed by President Jimmy Carter to the Commission on the Observance of International Women’s Year.24 25 With this position, Votaw represented the United States and Puerto Rico in Mexico City. When International Women’s Year became the Decade for Women, Votaw represented the U.S. at both the Copenhagen and Nairobi conferences. She also helped organize the first federally funded national women’s conference in U.S. history: the 1977 Houston National Women’s Conference.26

The Houston Conference was monumental. It brought together over 20,000 people to celebrate International Women’s Year and to develop a national women’s rights agenda.27 The Houston Conference took place, because U.S. women had never had the opportunity to organize a unified agenda. When delegates attended the international conferences, they found that they were not organized and did not have clear goals. As such, the federal government funded this national conference, so that delegates elected from states and territories from around the country could convene to discuss a National Plan of Action consisting of 26 resolutions that promoted equal rights for women. The conference both nurtured a sense of solidarity among U.S. feminists, and also gave minority women the opportunity to challenge the mainstream movement to be better. Minority women like Latinas, African-American women, Native American women, lesbians, etc. felt that they were poorly represented in the National Plan of Action, and were able to meet in caucuses to draft reforms and ammend the plan. Many different people attended the conference looking to affect change in the women's agenda. Some of these people included those who opposed feminist political initiatives like increasing access to birth control and abortion services.28 Despite the sometimes tempestuous nature of the conference, Votaw remembered a particularly hopeful and dramatic moment,

“... when all women in that 20,000 people hall, held hands, and sang 'We Shall Overcome.' We had Coretta Scott King speaking for the Black women, and we had Billy Masters speaking for the Native American women, and the Mexican-American and Puerto Rican women speaking... It was very very exciting, and the whole women’s movement that was there then felt that we had sort of arrived at this uniting of forces of all women in the United States. It still makes me cry to think of it!”  29

This act of solidarity was a symbol of a newfound commitment in the women’s movement to racial, ethnic, and sexuality issues that had previously been silenced. Though some of these same problems continue today, the Houston conference demonstrated the strength and tenacity of the feminist movement. It was a watershed moment for feminist organizing and the women's political movement.

In 1978, President Carter created the National Advisory Committee on Women and appointed Votaw as a co-chair with former New York representative Bella Abzug.30 Abzug was a fiery personality that the media adored, and Votaw often spoke of feeling overshadowed by her famous colleague. The co-chairs also had conflicting working styles; while Bella Abzug was a quick and acerbic, Carmen Delgado Votaw was more reserved and practical. Distance was also an issue, as Abzug lived in New York and couldn’t always attend the Washington, D.C. meetings.31 Votaw was often the one who oversaw most of the day-to-day work. Unpaid, and often under-acknowledged, Votaw and her colleagues was nonetheless able to implement the National Plan of Action for Women created through the Houston Conference, as well as develop her skills as a feminist leader.

In a scandalous event dubbed the “Tuesday Massacre,” by Gloria Steinem, the National Advisory Committee on Women was broken up soon after it was initiated.32 On January 12, 1979, President Carter fired Abzug as a co-chair, and, in a show of solidarity, Votaw resigned along with just over half of the 40 person committee.33 34 Carter’s reasoning for such a drastic move was that the group was working beyond the power he had initially intended for it. Votaw recalled that he described the committee as confrontational and that he had wished to have a more collaborative relationship with them.35 As Votaw also remembers, the committee had tried countless times to include the president, but were often rebuffed because they were not viewed as a top priority for the administration. Granted few resources to secure even an office, Votaw and Abzug had worked diligently to make something out of nothing with the committee. They saw the need to understand how women were affected by many different national issues, and were adamant in advancing the status of women with a multi-faceted, dynamic approach that to some could seem over-reaching, but to many was necessary for a better life.36 Votaw remembers this moment with some regret, because the mass resignation did not lead to any gains for the women’s movement and the power of the committee was severely limited thereafter; however, the former co-chair also understands this event as a time when she chose herself and her principles over authority. She reflected,

“I… took the road less traveled to find a sense of inner power, not in order to contravene authority but to deeply scan what my values are and where they come from… Was I willing to compromise a lifelong promise to do everything to ensure women’s voices rise loudly and sonorously on behalf of those elusive goals we continue to pursue into the next century? Caution must not be forgotten; it must be treasured as an opportunity to know ourselves and to ourselves be true.” 37

Though she resigned from the advisory committee, Votaw continued to head national and international women’s and human rights organizations. In 1976, she was appointed as the U.S. Delegate to the Inter-American Commission of Women of the Organization of American States; while chairing the advisory committee, Votaw was also elected the president of the commission, a position she held from 1978 to 1980. She remained a delegate till 1981.38 On her time with the OAS and being an international diplomat, she remarked that, “It was very important to help create a symbiosis between the women in the U.S. and the women in Latin America, because we have a lot to learn from each other.”39 Just as she had done with the Houston Conference, Votaw was working towards the further inclusion of minority women in the women's movement and the human rights movement.

With enormous success on the local, national, and international levels, Carmen Delgado Votaw’s achievements were celebrated by Hood College in Frederick, Maryland with an honorary Doctor of Humanities in 1982. A year later, Votaw received her Bachelor of Arts in International Studies from American University in Washington, D.C. Votaw then worked as Chief of Staff for Jaime Fuster, the Puerto Rican representative in Congress, from 1985 to 1991. 40  With this position, she also became the first Hispanic female Chief of Staff for a member of Congress.41 42 While working in Congress, Votaw was able to not only serve her beloved home of Puerto Rico, but she also built a network in the federal government and learned more about the nuances of getting things done at the federal level.43 This expertise would be especially useful when she became the director of government relations with the Girl Scouts of the USA, an organization made up of over 3.5 million members. Votaw held this position from 1991 to 1997 and also chaired the Coalition for Women and Girls in Education from 1993 to 1995.44 In 1997, Votaw moved on to work for the United Way till 1998, and then to work for the Alliance for Children and Families.45 Though retired in 2006, she led the Public Members Association of the Foreign Service until 2012, and has remained active with the Maryland Women’s Heritage Center since its inception in 1980. She is currently the organization’s Vice President.46

Votaw has seen the many different sides to policy making. From chairing national and international committees, working in Congress, and then joining the lobbying team. Carmen Delgado Votaw worked hard to have women’s rights included in agencies’ political work. She lobbied governmental agencies and independent entities to ensure that women were included in progressive work.

One of Carmen Delgado Votaw’s proudest achievements came when she authored biographical collections of important women in Puerto Rican history. Impassioned by the exclusion of Puerto Rican women in the effort to write the history of women, Carmen Delgado Votaw initially wrote a critical email to publishers of a women’s biographical series.47 She tells the story:

“I was so incensed when Schlesinger started making books on women across the centuries who had done things, and there were no women from Hispanic descent. So I wrote a letter to Harvard and Schlesiger and so on, I said, “How come there are no [Hispanic] women in these books?” And so they hired me to write two biographies of Hispanic women, and I wrote two biographies and then they included a third one… I told all my sisters that we have to make our own history if other people don’t do it.”48

Her biographies of Julia de Burgos and María Cadilla de Martínez were published in the 1980 edition of Notable American Women.49 Energized by this project, Votaw published her own series of biographies in 1978 with Puerto Rican Women: Some Biographical Profiles. She later updated and enhanced this biography in 1996.

Puerto Rican Women shares the stories of 42 important Puertorriqueñas. Written in both Spanish and English, the book was a labor of love for her heritage, her Puerto Rican sisters, and the expansion of women’s history. In the introduction to Puerto Rican Women, Votaw writes,

“We want our society to understand who we are, where we came from, what our historical antecedents are. We want our culture to be respected, our role models to be our own, our language to be a part of our identity as an ethnic group within the tapestry of the nation. Our goal is to dispel the history of discrimination and the myths about us, to ensure that our women are recognized for their contributions to the island and to the United States and the world, to inform our fellow citizens about our history and about the great need we have for its reclamation and dissemination.”50

Alluding to the famed poet, Julia de Burgos, Votaw ends her introduction by bidding us to, “Raise our voices and bear the torch.”51 With this book, Votaw aims to dispel the silence around Puerto Rican women in history by producing a series of biographical portraits that proudly represent the achievements of Puerto Rican women. Through this effort to commemorate the powerful and inspiring women in Puerto Rican history, Votaw reinvigorates pride in a minority identity. In speaking about her work to remember Puertorriqueñas, Votaw bestowed this wisdom: “Inscribing our past empowers our future, [and] enables us to better negotiate the complexities of the present.”

Votaw has received many awards and honors for her work as an international proponent of civil and human rights. She is honored by the National Conference of Puerto Rican Women, the Cuban American Women’s Association, NASA, the National Hispanic Heritage Foundation, the Institute for Women of Color, and many other organizations.52

Votaw is a Renaissance woman who has worked for women, children, and human rights in many different capacities. She is a mother, a grandmother, a teacher, a lobbyist, a government leader, a world traveller, an international diplomat, an author, and an historian. She continues to be inspired Gloria Steinem’s famous words: “Do an outrageous thing every day.”53 54 Though she continues to influence the world we are proud to commemorate her constantly expanding list of achievements in the Maryland Women’s Hall of Fame.


Endnotes:


  1. “Carmen Delgado Votaw,” in Notable Hispanic American Women, 20 August 1998. Accessed 12 August 2015. Return to text.

  2. Carmen Delgado Votaw, “Veteran Feminists of America: Carmen Delgado Votaw Autobiography,” accessed 19 August 2015, http://www.vfa.us/Carmen%20Delgado%20Votaw.htm. Return to text.

  3. Carmen Delgado Votaw, “TOP OF THE MORNING Carmen Delgado Votaw,” interview with Diana Bailey, YouTube video, 59:31, posted by “Loretto Gubernatis,” 11 December 2014, https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=g9x3DVRqeTE. Return to text.

  4. Delgado Votaw, “Veteran Feminists of America: Carmen Delgado Votaw Autobiography.” Return to text.

  5. Dima Vitanova, “Carmen Delgado Votaw: From An Outstanding Young Latina To An Outspoken Women’s Rights Advocate,” Hispanic Link D.C. (blog), 6 August 2014, accessed 19 August 2015, http://hispaniclinkdc.org/2014/08/06/carmen-delgado-votawfrom-an-outstading-young-latina-to-an-outspoken-womens-rights-advocate/. Return to text.

  6. Ibid. Return to text.

  7. Ibid. Return to text.

  8. Ibid. Return to text.

  9. “Carmen Delgado Votaw,” in Marquis Who’s Who™, 2006, courtesy of the Maryland State Archives. Biography Resource Center. Return to text.

  10. Delgado Votaw, “Veteran Feminists of America: Carmen Delgado Votaw Autobiography.” Return to text.

  11. Vitanova, “Carmen Delgado Votaw: From An Outstanding Young Latina To An Outspoken Women’s Rights Advocate.” Return to text.

  12. Biography Resource Center, “Carmen Delgado Votaw.” Return to text.

  13. Delgado Votaw, “Veteran Feminists of America: Carmen Delgado Votaw Autobiography.” Return to text.

  14. Carmen Delgado Votaw, “TOP OF THE MORNING Carmen Delgado Votaw,” interview with Diana Bailey. Return to text.

  15. Ibid. Return to text.

  16. Delgado Votaw, “Veteran Feminists of America: Carmen Delgado Votaw Autobiography.” Return to text.

  17. Ibid. Return to text.

  18. “Carmen Delgado Votaw,” in Notable Hispanic American Women. Return to text.

  19. Ibid. Return to text.

  20. Carmen Delgado Votaw, “Carmen Delgado Votaw: Talks about her work in Washington and the Women’s Movement,” I Care Village video, 7:58, n.d., accessed 19 August 2015, http://www.icarevillage.com/videos-womens-history-carmen.aspx. Return to text.

  21. Carmen Delgado Votaw, Puerto Rican Women/Mujeres Puertorriqueñas, Washington D.C.: National Conference of Puerto Rican Women, 1995. Return to text.

  22. Sisters of ‘77, directed by Cynthia Salzman Mondell and Allen Mondell (Dallas, TX: Circle R Media, 2005), DVD. Return to text.

  23. Carmen Delgado Votaw, “Carmen Delgado Votaw: Talks about her work in Washington and the Women’s Movement.” Return to text.

  24. Jimmy Carter, “National Commission on the Observance of International Women's Year, 1975 Appointment of Members and Presiding Officer of the Commission,” 28 March 1977. Online by Gerhard Peters and John T. Woolley, The American Presidency Project. Accessed 19 August 2015,  http://www.presidency.ucsb.edu/ws/?pid=7247. Return to text.

  25. National Women’s History Project, Women’s History 2014 Gazette Vol. 6,  accessed 19 August 2015, http://www.nwhp.org/wp-content/uploads/2014-gazette.pdf. Return to text.

  26. Sisters of ‘77. Return to text.

  27. Ibid. Return to text.

  28. Ibid. Return to text.

  29. Carmen Delgado Votaw, “Carmen Delgado Votaw: Talks about her work in Washington and the Women’s Movement.” Return to text.

  30. Carmen Delgado Votaw, “Face to Face with Power,” in True to Ourselves, edited by Nancy Neuman (San Francisco, CA: Jossey-Bass, Inc., 1998), 69. Return to text.

  31. Ibid., 73. Return to text.

  32. Ibid. 69. Return to text.

  33. Ibid, 69. Return to text.

  34. Richard Halloran, “23 Leave Committee Over Abzug Dismissal,” New York Times (1923-Current file), 14 January 1979, ProQuest Historical Newspapers. Return to text.

  35. Carmen Delgado Votaw, “Face to Face with Power,” 75. Return to text.

  36. Ibid. Return to text.

  37. Ibid, 79. Return to text.

  38. “Votaw, Carmen Delgado,” in Feminists Who Changed America, 1963-1975, edited by Barbara Love and Nancy Cott (Champaign, IL: University of Illinois Press, 2006), 473. https://books.google.com/books?id=HRouCAAAQBAJ&pg=PA473&lpg=PA473&dq=carmen+delgado+votaw+puerto+ric*+wom*&source=bl&ots=geBbVNLL6F&sig=3yPrO4bFinmSrFVNVIidUdVOjG0&hl=en&sa=X&ved=0CCoQ6AEwAzgKahUKEwj8-O7DjabHAhUDNz4KHePEAHk#v=onepage&q=carmen%20delgado%20votaw&f=false. Return to text.

  39. Carmen Delgado Votaw, “TOP OF THE MORNING Carmen Delgado Votaw,” interview with Diana Bailey. Return to text.

  40. Biography Resource Center, “Carmen Delgado Votaw.” Return to text.

  41. Delgado Votaw, “Veteran Feminists of America: Carmen Delgado Votaw Autobiography.” Return to text.

  42. National Women’s History Project, Women’s History 2014 Gazette Vol. 6. Return to text.

  43. Carmen Delgado Votaw, “TOP OF THE MORNING Carmen Delgado Votaw,” interview with Diana Bailey. Return to text.

  44. “Votaw, Carmen Delgado,” in Feminists Who Changed America, 1963-1975. Return to text.

  45. Biography Resource Center, “Carmen Delgado Votaw.” Return to text.

  46. Maryland Women’s Heritage Center, “Executive Board,” accessed 19 August 2015, http://mdwomensheritagecenter.publishpath.com/executive-board. Return to text.

  47. Carmen Delgado Votaw, “Puerto Ricans in Public Service-Washington D.C.,” YouTube video, 1 July 2014, 47:33 (speech starts at 11:39), posted by “Center for Puerto Rican Studies-Centro,” accessed 19 August 2015, https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=n34Cw1v2ogI. Return to text.

  48. Ibid. Return to text.

  49. Carmen Delgado Votaw, Puerto Rican Women/Mujeres Puertorriqueñas. Return to text.

  50. Ibid., v. Return to text.

  51. Ibid. Return to text.

  52. “Votaw, Carmen Delgado,” in Feminists Who Changed America, 1963-1975. Return to text.

  53. Carmen Delgado Votaw, “TOP OF THE MORNING Carmen Delgado Votaw,” interview with Diana Bailey. Return to text.

  54. Montgomery County Commission for Women, “40 Women of Historical Significance in Montgomery County: Carmen Delgado Votaw,” accessed 19 August 2015, http://www.montgomerycountymd.gov/cfw/mcwh/archives/delgado-votaw.html. Return to text.

Biography written by 2015 summer intern Amelia Meman.

Return to Carmen Delgado Votaw's Introductory Page
 


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