Latin American Women: “We’re All Feminists”

Against the Current, No. 14, May/June 1988

Joanne Rappaport

AN ENGLISH-SPEAKING Chicana from California, meeting a Chilean woman, begins to discover that she, too, is a Latin American. A Guatemalan Indian refugee living in Mexico City tells a group that she feels naked in the trousers she wears to hide her Quiche identity. A Black unionist from Peru describes how on the street, her sister would introduce her as the maid, because she had the darkest skin of all the members of her family. A Salvadoran activist meets and speaks for the first time in her life to a lesbian mother. The Honduran delegation, who at the beginning of the week had emphasized that they were not feminists, by the plenary session joins their sisters in chanting, “We’re all feminists.”

From Oct. 18 to Oct. 24, 1987m more than 1,500 women from every country in Latin America except Panama, as well as numerous women from the United States and Europe, came together at the Fourth Encounter of Latin American and Caribbean Feminists in Taxco, Mexico, to discuss the future of feminism in their continents.

They hailed from diverse backgrounds: long-time feminist intellectuals; Nicaraguan peasants who had never before left their country; Peruvian unionists; Mexican seamstresses; Guatemalan Indians; mothers of the disappeared from Honduras, from Argentina and from Uruguay; Chilean exiles living in New York and their sisters who continue to work in the barrios of Santiago; Chicanas and Puerto Ricans from Los Angeles and New York seeking to build ties with the women of Latin America; lesbians from almost all countries.

Although some had reached a consciousness of feminism years before, others were only just beginning to understand the importance of formulating ideas and demands relating to gender. In fact, many participants had rejected feminism outright, preferring to structure their activities and theories around class perspectives that did not include gender. The diversity and multiplicity of the Encounter was unique in the history of Latin American feminist organizing and perhaps in the history of feminism in the United States as well.

This was the fourth of a series of Latin American feminist meetings that began in 1981 in Bogota, Colombia. Before Taxco, the Encounters had been substantially smaller, ranging from 300 participants in Bogota, to 900 in Bertioga, Brazil, in 1985. At these meetings, women discussed issues of interest in Latin American feminist circles, including feminist theory and the patriarchy. But the scope of the Encounters was limited, as few women from popular sectors participated.

Only in Lima in 1983 did a large number of women working in shantytowns and the mothers of the disappeared join the feminists. In Bertioga a group of Black women from a favela were turned away because they did not have the money to pay their registration. Thus, the broad and large participation in the Taxco meeting represented a huge step in the organizing of women in Latin America.

In some ways Latin American feminism(1) as it unfolded at the Encounter was similar to feminism in the United States, but in other ways, quite different. Many issues that concern feminists here — abortion rights, domestic violence, sexuality and sexual preference, women’s health, the rights of women in the workplace — were also key discussions in Taxco. Latin American feminists are aware of the writings of feminists in the United States. This was expressed in discussions as well as in the identification buttons that all participants wore: portraits of well-known feminists, including some from the United States and Europe.

Nevertheless, many of those issues currently being discussed by feminists in the United States were not central topics of conversation in Taxco, and vice versa. For example, there was little discussion of the right of women to collect wages equal to those of men: in Latin America most men do not earn a living wage and women’s demands must therefore be phrased in other terms. There was also little talk of such issues as surrogate motherhood, still very distant from the Latin American reality.

But other questions that still elude many U.S. feminist organizations took center stage. The effects of dictatorship, of violence, of war and of revolution on women and on the growth of feminist consciousness, for example, reflect the conditions under which women live in many Latin American countries. These issues came up repeatedly, not only in workshops dedicated to Central America, to human rights and to the situation in Colombia, but in many of the speeches and comments of participants in other sessions.

In addition, serious consideration was given to the place of feminism in the work of women in popular sectors: in shantytowns, in unions, among the families of political prisoners and the disappeared. Latin American feminism grew out of and responds to conditions very different from those in the United States.

The Rise of Latin American Feminism

Although the roots of Latin American feminism are in the struggles of tum-of-the-century upper-class women for the right to vote, to be educated and to have access to professions, as well as in the participation of women in civil rights organizations linked to various communist parties in the 1920s and 1930s, feminist groupings did not take hold in Latin America until the 1970s.(2) They originated among middle-class women who dedicated themselves to the discussion of feminist theory and the development of a feminist consciousness.

Although these small feminist collectives did have an impact in the mass media, they were unable to integrate a large number of women from the popular sectors because they ignored the level of understanding of gender-related issues of most Latin American women and the needs and demands of working-class women. The groups remained isolated and by the 1980s had become virtually invisible on the political scene.

Other women’s organizations grew up to take their place. Some of these, which receive international support, provide legal and medical services to women of popular sectors or conduct research on their problems. Although these organizations provide needed services in communities, their participation as activists in more demand-oriented struggles has been limited. Representatives of many of these organizations were present in Taxco.

Other groups conduct support work without outside funds, and many are closely linked to women in working-class sectors, especially in capital cities, as well as to peasant women. Some of these groups help women in barrios to feed themselves and their families by setting up communal soup-kitchens and through campaigns to demand lower prices for basic foodstuffs. Others have established day-care centers in these neighborhoods.

Political parties and coalitions of the left have supported some of these movements and have met with success in organizing working-class women: the Izquierda Unida (United Left) of Peru, for example, has played an important role in the organizing of 100,000 Lima women to lower milk prices.

Political conditions have spurred the founding of numerous women’s organizations in Latin American cities. Members of base communities have formed Christian women’s groups, and several workshops in Taxco were dedicated to the formulation of Christian feminist ideas. Dictatorships and political repression in El Salvador, Argentina, Colombia, Uruguay and even Mexico have led to the appearance of committees of relatives of political prisoners and the disappeared; an overwhelming number of their members are women. The Taxco meeting concluded with the establishment of a feminist human-rights network.

The conflict in Central America has given birth to a number of women’s organizations. Besides the more well-known movements of Nicaragua and El Salvador, there also exists a Honduran peace movement staffed mainly by women.

Collectives are producing feminist journals and newspapers throughout Latin America in an attempt to define the nature of feminism in the continent. The best-known of these is Fem, published in Mexico, but a visit to the bookstore at the Encounter indicated that feminist literature is published in most countries.

Within unions, feminist consciousness is beginning to develop. Many Latin American women work in the informal sector as domestics and street-vendors, as well as in the exploitative manufacturing industry that has taken root along the U.S.-Mexico border and in the free-trade zones of major cities.(3) Latin American feminist unionists must confront the reality of a large number of women workers employed outside the sphere of union activity.

They must also contend with the traditional notions of female roles that their male and female co-workers bring to the workplace, including a fear of feminism. Organizing is made difficult as well by women workers’ resistance to participating in strikes and union activity for fear of losing the jobs by which they eke out a precarious existence, and because their double day consumes the time and energies of most female workers. In some countries, such as Chile, feminist unionists work in semi-clandestinely: the largely female teacher’s union, for example, was destroyed by the Pinochet dictatorship.

Some of these feminist union movements have created novel solutions to the problems of female workers. In the Guatemalan textile industry, for instance, women receive a subsidy once they have given birth:

“We guarantee that it goes exclusively to mothers themselves or to the wives of fellow workers: this benefit will only be paid directly to them. That is so that the money will be used effectively for the costs of childbirth. If the man received the money, if the male worker received it, he would spend it and not take it home.”(4)

In Colombia and Peru, unions have been founded for domestic workers, ensuring them such basic rights as the minimum wage, clearly delineated tasks and hours, and medical insurance. Some organizations are also working with housewives, and a Colombian unionist in Taxco told of their participation in a future congress of women unionists:

“We want to break the traditional notion that the woman worker is only she who receives a salary. We believe that many women workers are not paid, as in the case of housewives, who are performing labor, who are participating in a series of activities that contribute to resolving problems of the subsistence and the reproduction of the workforce; they, too, must be considered as workers. This helps us begin to confront the traditional ideas of female unionists about women, given that this meeting should question hierarchical structures and discrimination against women; all those factors have fostered the low participation of the Colombian woman in unions.”

For the moment, however, most Latin American unions have not dealt with feminist issues. Although women are, in some instances, active as leaders of their unions, they still do not have a substantial base of support that would allow them to attack issues of interest to women. Feminist unionism in Latin America is still in its first stages.

The Latin American women’s movement is highly fragmented.(5) The women in Taxco were not familiar with many of the other organizations in their countries.

Groups are often locally based, and few countries — with the exception of the Central American nations-have national feminist organizations. Many of the demands of Latin American women’s groups are as local as their memberships, confined to narrow issues. There is, thus, not yet a broad feminist movement in Latin America, but instead a variety of issue-oriented groups, many of them isolated from one another.

Feminism vs. Women’s Organizations

I was surprised to hear many women at the Fourth Encounter declare that they were not feminists. They were active in a broad array of women’s organizations and were deeply concerned with questions of gender oppression. But they did not think of themselves as part of the feminist movement. To me, this stands in clear contrast to the women’s movement in United States, where women activists almost always consider them­ selves to be feminists, regardless of the focus of their activities.

Latin Americans distinguish between two parallel movements: feminist groups and women’s organizations. Latin American feminist groups subscribe to feminism as we know it, working to understand and to transform gender relations in their societies; they are strongest in Mexico, Brazil and Peru.

On the other hand, women’s organizations exist throughout Latin America, organizing women around specific issues-usually of survival-but on the whole, have not incorporated an understanding of gender oppression into their more class-based programs. The women’s organizations take on an array of social issues, but only infrequently do they link them to the more traditional feminist concerns of domestic violence, female sexuality and health, or abortion.

In general, the two movements – feminist and women’s – correspond to distinct visions of the class content of women’s struggles. Feminists are for the most part, middle-class and intellectual, while many of the members of the women’s movement are from peasant communities, shantytowns, unions and leftist political parties.(6)

In Taxco, the two groups participated in separate sessions and workshops. But repeatedly they addressed similar issues that linked political life and labor with machismo at home. The women’s activism demonstrated a more sophisticated analysis of the political and economic conditions of their countries, but since they had only a slight understanding of feminism, their discussion with feminist activists was limited.

On the last day of the Encounter the organizers suggested that the next meeting be limited to feminists. The 1,500 women present at the plenary session were enraged and began to chant, “We’re all feminists!” Ultimately, it was decided that the next Encounter, to be held in Argentina in 1990, would be open to all women. This does not mean that all of the 1,500 women in Taxco had thoroughly accepted the premises of the Latin American feminist movement, or that they knew or understood feminist theory, or that they had begun to effectively link gender demands to the demands of the broader social movements within which they worked. But their eyes had been opened to the importance of fighting gender oppression, and they would begin to learn more about how feminism could be incorporated into their other concerns.

This was perhaps the most exciting moment of the Fourth Encounter, one that we have yet to witness in the United States: the coming together in a single meeting of middle-class feminists with their working-class sisters, the acceptance of working-class demands, the understanding that without the participation of women of popular sectors feminism would have only a limited future.

Only a small number of the members of the feminist movement denied this by the end of the Taxco meeting. In fact, in a theoretical contribution written by ten feminists and read at the plenary session, the acceptance of diversity and the dangerous consequences of ignoring class were outlined as fundamental lessons to be drawn from the history of Latin American feminist organizing and elements upon which women must build in order to break out of feminist ghettos.(7)

Women and War

The radicalization of Latin American women was evident from the first moments of the Encounter. At the opening session the Nicaraguan representatives were greeted by chants of “No pasaran!” Puerto Rican speakers drew a marked anti-imperialist response from the audience. The Colombians concentrated most of their remarks on the political violence that has beset their country. Uruguayans and Argentine women referred constantly to the mothers of the disappeared. The sentiments expressed in Taxco would not have taken center stage at a NOW convention; at most they would have been limited to a leftist minority.

While anti-imperialist sentiment is to be expected at a Latin American meeting, the forceful statements that characterized the Fourth Encounter had not been a part of earlier feminist encounters. In fact, the middle-class Mexican organizers bitterly resisted the participation of the more than 130 Central American women whose trips were financed by granting agencies. However, the presence of the Salvadorans, Hondurans, Guatemalans, Costa Ricans and above all, the Nicaraguans, was the high point of the Encounter, providing for most women a new orientation for defining the distinct nature of feminism in Latin America.

Of all the nationalities that arrived in Taxco, the women of the Central American countries were perhaps the least familiar with the ideas of feminism. The feminist movement had earlier grown and prospered in neighboring Mexico, had begun to take hold to the south in Colombia and had become an important force in such Caribbean countries as the Dominican Republic, principally through the efforts of middle class intellectuals. In Central America, however, a consciousness of gender oppression only arose on a mass scale much later and within a different segment of the population-one that was confronted by war and that embraced revolution. The more provincial ideological conditions that characterized pre-revolutionary Central America did not lead to a significant feminist consciousness among middle-class women.

Thus, many of the questions that Latin American feminists have traditionally raised are marginal to Central American women or have been focused in different directions. Honduran women have had to contend with four invading armies-Honduran, U.S., Salvadoran, and the contras — which have spawned such ills as prostitution and high rates of domestic violence. These problems cannot be attacked without confronting the broader situation of war and foreign occupation.

Guatemalan Indian women eloquently articulated at the Encounter the specifics of their triple oppression of class, gender and culture. These women are now suffering a fourth type of oppression, living as undocumented refugees in Mexico.(8)

A Salvadoran mother of disappeared children was more concerned with the fate of those children than with her own gender oppression. Although Salvadoran women are steadily growing conscious of the importance of gender and have founded numerous women’s organizations, they face a constant barrage of political violence that draws their attention toward broader issues.

One of the speakers, whose country, Nicaragua, is swiftly becoming a model for Latin American feminists, detailed some of the difficulties of understanding the link between the more public manifestations of gender oppression-slow-moving government policy, the war, sexism in the workplace-and the domestic sphere. In Nicaragua as in the rest of Latin America, women must contend with the problems of the double day, but their solutions to these difficulties are of necessity different from those posed by other Latin American feminists.

A large proportion of Nicaraguan households have no man attached to them because they have been called away to war or have died at the hands of the Contras; but in a great many others there never was a man at home. The speaker characterized Nicaragua as a country of single mothers: single mothers who participate actively in production in the place of men, single mothers whose presence in the army has made Nicaragua the only military to provide maternity uniforms to its soldiers.

A Costa Rican speaker traced the contours of Central American feminism, or at least, of the Central American feminism that has yet to develop. To date, many Central American women have ignored questions of gender because of the more pressing social problems that plague them and because of a lack of experience with feminist ideas. But in the course of revolutionary struggle, a consciousness of gender, still weak and in need of stimulation, has begun to materialize.

While participation in questions of the broader society has undoubtedly led women to reflect on their condition as women, this has not yet been enough to lead to conscious feminist practice. This was clearly stated at the Encounter:

“We venture to suggest that deep down, an unconscious feminist practice is more developed in Central America. That is, women are, in one form or another, linked to struggles and are themselves the protagonists of popular struggles in general terms. We also understand that feminist consciousness arises out of a conscious act of appropriation It is a result, and not something that comes mechanically through participation in a given movement. In other words, it requires an additional effort that on the one hand, forces the woman of the people to advance in her valuation of herself, and on the other, is manifested in alternative political leadership, in a struggle for the transformation of the mentality of the man-woman relationship, which is in itself profoundly political. This is precisely the role of feminist militancy in Central America: to break with the ideological vision that separates the feminine from the political.”

The results have been mixed in Central America. Most advanced, of course, is Nicaragua, where the women’s association AMNLAE works openly and effectively in all sectors of society, where women are steadily becoming a central component of the workforce and of government, where feminists are able to counter sexism through policy, where women are increasingly becoming conscious of the burden of the double day and seeking solutions to the problems posed by childcare and housework, where feminism is now a legitimate area of investigation and-unique in Latin America-an area of study in the university. Most advanced also is the Nicaraguan embracing of a feminism linked with class, a firm determination to disseminate feminist ideas among working-class and peasant women.

On the other hand, feminist consciousness is least developed in Honduras, where women’s organizations have only just been established, where government repression limits their influence in society, where the immediate problems of invasion take precedence over questions of sexuality and the private sphere.

The contributions of the Central American woman are forcing Latin American feminists in general to re-think some of the foundations of their movement. Although conditions of imperialism, war, invasion and repression are heightened in the Central American context, they must be confronted by women throughout the continent.

The very presence in Taxco of mothers of the disappeared-who in many cases were the founding mothers of their countries’ women’s movements — as well as of women involved in organizing subsistence committees in urban slums lends testimony to the broad awareness of need for a distinct Latin American feminism. This vision of feminism is linked to the conditions lived by Latin American women and firmly rooted in a comprehension of class.

While the conditions giving rise to this new Latin American feminism are quite different from those under which we live in the United States, the advances taking place in Latin America can serve as lessons for North American feminists. The heightened vision of class that is emerging in Latin American women’s organizations, the focus on some of the problems faced by working-class women, the call for diversity, the existence of more open forums for feminist discussion that can begin to unite isolated and fragmented organizations are beneficial developments. They can stimulate us to take a look at our own fragmentation and our own resistance to linking feminist struggle and popular movements in our own country.

Notes

  1. A number of English-language publications have come out in recent years on Latin American feminism. The NACLA Report, SeptJOct.1980, “Latin American Women: One Myth Many Realities,” gives a useful overview. Also interesting is the Latin American and Caribbean Women’s Collective’s Slaves of Slaves: The Challenge of Latin American Women (London: Zed Press, 1980). off our backs March 1988, includes a series of articles on the Fourth Encounter and on women in different Latin American countries.
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  2. Much of the information in this section was taken from Heather Dashner’s America Ultina: mujeres en desaf o (Mexico: Partido Socialista de los Trabajadores, 1987), as well as from the “Unionism and Feminism” workshop held in Taxco.
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  3. The 1980 NACLA Report includes an article on the border sweatshops, called maqui1as. Patricia Fernandez-Kelly, a Mexican anthropologist, recently published a study of women in these factories: For We Are Sold, I and My People: Women and Industry in Mexico’s Frontier (Albany: SUNY Press, 1983).
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  4. Contribution of Amparo Castillo to the “Unionism and Feminism” workshop.
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  5. I have not included lesbian organizations in this list of Latin American feminist groups. There are few exclusively lesbian organizations in Latin America, although there were many lesbians at the Encounter who work with a variety of feminist groups. Many Latin American homosexual organizations have both male and female memberships and thus do not have feminist issues as their first priority.
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  6. Nevertheless, a large number of feminists are former left activists, and almost none of them have a history of collaborating with traditional establishment parties. An exception to this has recently arisen in Mexico, where some feminists are now supporting the presidential campaign of Cuauhtémoc Cardenas, a former member of the party in power.
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  7. The statement, “Del amor a la necesidad,” was published in the Mexican feminist journal Fem 60 (1987): 15-17, and appears in translation in off our backs March 1988: 30.
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  8. Their contribution to the workshop, “The Central American Woman: Violence and war,” appears in English in off our backs March 1988: 31, 34.
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May-June 1988, ATC 14

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