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“Reclaiming the Canon” is a series of posts that aims to bring attention to historical women who are often excluded from the narrative of their field — whether in literature, music, science, or other areas. Each post features a woman whose name we feel everyone should know. Readers are strongly encouraged to explore further resources, spend quality time with primary sources when possible, and self-educate — because re-claiming the canon starts with you!
Who Was Felisa Rincón de Gautier?
Felisa Rincón de Gautier was the first female mayor of any capital city in the Americas. After she was appointed mayor of San Juan, Puerto Rico in 1946, she continued to serve in office (winning four re-elections) until 1969. Her political career came after her start in life as a talented seamstress with her own successful clothing shop.
Known affectionately as Doña Fela, Rincón de Gautier was a fierce activist for women’s rights. She worked hard to promote public health, offer public services, and protect San Juan’s cultural heritage. She called her political philosophy “benevolent maternalism.”
Felisa Rincón de Gautier was born in Cieba, Puerto Rico in 1897 to an upper-class family. Young Felisa was the oldest of nine children, and she left school to care for her younger siblings after their mother passed away when Felisa was 11. By the time she was a teenager, she was a talented seamstress with big fashion dreams. She moved to New York City to study fashion design and learn how to run a clothing business. After her studies and work in New York during the Great Depression, Rincón de Gautier returned to San Juan and opened Felisa’s Style Shop. Part of her goal was to start a clothing factory that would create more jobs in Puerto Rico. (She also managed a flower shop, because why not?)
As a young businesswoman already known for her distinguished style, Rincón de Gautier belonged to the Liberal Party (note: do not confuse the moniker “Liberal Party” with current standards of liberalism as these things shift over time). Against her father’s wishes, she became the fifth woman on the island to register to vote. She was passionate about women’s suffrage, and she traveled door-to-door to inform women of their rights and encourage them to register to vote once it became possible in 1935. While canvassing, Rincón de Gautier became more aware of the poverty in San Juan. She grew even more determined to help people.
Through her activist work, Rincón de Gautier became a friend of Luis Muñoz Marín (who would go on to be governor of Puerto Rico from 1949-1965). She helped him found the Popular Democratic Party in 1938, and she was named President of the Popular Democratic Party’s San Juan Committee. In 1944, fellow party members encouraged her to run for mayor, but she decided not to run due to the disapproval of her father and husband (a lawyer she’d married in 1940). However, in 1946 Mayor Roberto Sánchez Vilella resigned, and Rincón de Gautier was happy to accept an appointment of Mayor of San Juan—making her the first female mayor of any American capital city.
Rincón de Gautier served as Mayor of San Juan for over two decades. She was dedicated to improving public services, prioritizing public health and continuing to advocate for the needs and rights of women. San Juan built new schools and housing projects under her leadership. In 1949, Rincón de Gautier established “Las Escuelas Maternales” (“Maternal Schools”), centers that were a mix of preschool and childcare meant to help women pursue careers outside of the home. These centers became the model for the Head Start program in the United States.
After her retirement, Rincón de Gautier served as the American Goodwill Ambassador for four United States Presidents in Asia, Latin America and Europe. Rincón de Gautier was also a delegate to Democratic Party nominating conventions, and in 1992 she was the oldest delegate in attendance at age 95. When she passed away two years later, she was given burial honors as a head of state. Dignitaries from all around the world attended her funeral.
Rincón de Gautier never lost her passion for fashion. All who knew her remembered her consistent personal style—she always wore her hair in a chignon updo, and she never went anywhere without her signature bright red lipstick and nail polish.
In Her Words
Rincón de Gautier was re-elected mayor of San Juan four times between the 1940s and 1960s, due to her committed efforts to connect with her constituents. As Mayor, she held weekly open houses to connect with San Juan residents.
“My opponents campaign just before elections and then they disappear. I start campaigning the day after the election and never stop.”
– Felisa Rincón de Gautier (Doña Fela)
Learn more about Doña Fela at the National Women’s History Museum.
It might take a little effort to find this out-of-print biography, but Ruth Gruber published Felisa Rincón de Gautier: The Mayor of San Juan in 1972. And for kids ages 8-11, check out Elizabeth Wahn’s inspiring Felisa and the Magic Coquí (closest I found was on Youtube read by the author herself).
The Puerto Rican Arts Alliance created the Felisa Rincón de Gautier Distinguished Woman Award in 2017. Take a look at their work and learn about other distinguished women.
The Casa Museo Felicia Rincón de Gautier is in Old San Juan, an area of the city whose historic architecture Rincón de Gautier worked to protect.
This short video from Wander Women Project will show you a statue of Felisa Rincón de Gautier in San Juan.