Ruth Cardoso, Ex-First Lady of Brazil, Dies at 77
Published: July 2, 2008
Ruth Vilaça Corrêa Leite Cardoso, a Brazilian anthropologist who carved out a career as one of her country’s most respected intellectuals and feminists before rather reluctantly becoming its first lady, died June 24 at her home in São Paulo. She was 77.
Rooswelt Pinheiro/Agencia Brasil, via A.P.
Ruth Cardoso in 2007.
She died of a heart attack while talking with her son, her family announced to the Brazilian news media. According to Brazilian news reports, Mrs. Cardoso was released a day earlier from a hospital where exploratory procedures had determined that she was suffering from angina and arrhythmia.
“Ruth Cardoso modernized the role of the president’s wife and left a profound mark on Brazilian social policy,” Miriam Leitão, a Brazilian newspaper columnist, wrote in a tribute last week. “There has never been a first lady quite like her, and it may be a while before one appears with the same combination of virtues: Ruth was intelligent, cultured, discreet and extremely capable.”
Mrs. Cardoso, often known affectionately as Dona Ruth, was born in the interior of the state of São Paulo, but went to the state capital to study at the University of São Paulo. While there, she met Fernando Henrique Cardoso, a sociologist, and married him in 1952. She eventually earned her doctorate at the same university, writing a thesis about family structure and social mobility in the local Japanese immigrant population, the world’s largest.
After the Brazilian military seized power in a coup in 1964, the Cardosos, like many other intellectuals who then leaned leftward politically, were forced into exile. Over the next decade, they lived and taught in Chile, France, Britain and the United States. Mrs. Cardoso studied and lectured at Columbia University and the University of California, Berkeley.
Upon returning to São Paulo in the late 1970s, the Cardosos founded the Brazilian Center for Analysis and Planning, one of the country’s first modern public policy, research and advocacy institutes. Mrs. Cardoso was the director of the institute for a time, and it continues to be an important center for research in the social sciences in Brazil.
Mr. Cardoso moved into politics in the 1980s, serving as a senator and cabinet minister before being elected president in 1994, but Mrs. Cardoso preferred to remain in the academic realm. She wrote and taught extensively on subjects that included the lives of slum dwellers, social movements, urban violence, immigration and political mobilization.
As first lady, Mrs. Cardoso was unenthusiastic about some of her ceremonial duties and clearly skeptical about being in the media limelight. After leaving the presidential palace in 2003, she made those views explicit in a memorable interview with the country’s leading newsmagazine, saying, “A first lady is a human being, not a Barbie doll.”
But during the eight years her husband was in power, Mrs. Cardoso transformed that role much as Eleanor Roosevelt did in the United States. She focused her energies on social programs that could test her academic theories, like a “solidarity community” effort that bundled services, including literacy, health and nutrition assistance and loans for microbusinesses, in a way that was later copied by other areas of government in Brazil and abroad, in Latin America and Africa.
Besides her husband, Mrs. Cardoso is survived by her three children, Luciana, Paulo Henrique and Beatriz, and six grandchildren. At her wake in São Paulo last week, a small doll was placed on her coffin as a tribute, manufactured by one of the many thriving cooperatives in poor rural areas that got its start because of her endeavors.