Agony aunt takes on macho Brazil

SHE was Brazil's equivalent to the American agony aunt Dr Ruth, shattering taboos with a daily television show which answered the questions of millions of women, many of them illiterate, about sex. Then she went into politics, forming the feminist "Lipstick Lobby" to challenge Brazil's long-standing male dominance of public life.

Even at 53, Marta Suplicy has trouble casting off the sex symbol image which was imposed on her by the many Brazilian men who used to tune into her show. But she has been instrumental in changing the lives of millions of Brazilian women.

The former sexologist is now a member of parliament for the left-wing Workers' Party, which has been down on its luck during recent years but is attempting a comeback with the help of women candidates. Soon she is likely to run for governor of the nation's most powerful state, Sao Paulo. She may have little chance of winning but she is bound to strike further blows against Brazil's traditional machismo during her campaign.

Ms Suplicy predicts that Brazil will have its first woman president within the next eight years. Given her party's humble recent fortunes, she is too realistic to say it will be her. But if she is right, it will be in no small part due to her efforts.

She comes from one of Sao Paulo's high-society families and, as a fashion trend-setter known for her French designer suits, she at first seemed an odd choice to represent the downtrodden in a country with possibly the biggest gap between rich and poor in the world.

But her daily television show put her into the homes of many of the 80 million or more women in Brazil, who make up 52 per cent of the population. And that meant votes.

When she started her television programme in the early Eighties, men still had the constitutional right to prohibit their wives from going out to work. That clause was scrapped only in 1988.

After being elected to parliament, Ms Suplicy pushed the so-called "quota law", requiring political parties to make at least one in five of their candidates a woman. Her "Lipstick Lobby", an informal group of women legislators from all parties, passed the Bill two years ago.

"Unfortunately, both men and women always saw politics as a male domain," congresswoman Sandra Starling said at the time. "We hope this Quota Law will change that mentality. We hope it will spark a cultural revolution." Ms Suplicy hopes to amend the law this year to make it one female candidate for every two males. To press her point, Ms Suplicy issued a handbook entitled Women Without Fear Of Power: Our Time Has Come. However, there are still only half a dozen women senators out of a total 81 and only 34 female MPs out of 513.

Despite her bourgeois image, Ms Suplicy's feminism has boosted the fortunes of the Workers' Party, long associated with bearded leader Luiz Inacio Lula da Silva. "Just as in the US and Britain, the political divide has become less black and white here," said a diplomat in the capital, Brasilia. "Ms Suplicy is to a large extent the symbol of Brazil's New Left."

While her present power base is restricted to the city and state of Sao Paulo, Ms Suplicy's feminist policies - including free choice on abortion - are increasingly finding an echo elsewhere, mainly in other cities. But she will have to make her mark among the poor and often illiterate inhabitants of Brazil's countryside if her party is seriously to challenge President Fernando Henrique Cardoso in presidential elections in October.

Despite his "neo-liberal" capitalist economic policy, Mr Cardoso, 66, is expected to win a second term.

Ms Suplicy and her party claim Mr Cardoso's economic policies are widening the rich-poor divide. Brazil has been rocked in recent weeks by clashes involving farmers who are suffering serious famine as a result of drought. Accusing the authorities of doing nothing to help them, farmers have been looting shops for basic foods. Both Ms Suplicy's party and the Catholic church have condoned the looting, saying the farmers are starving and have no other choice.