Gender in the Revolution

Against the Current, No. 40, September/October 1992

Ann Ferguson

THE FIRST CENTRAL American Women’s Movement Encuentro took place March 23-27, 1992 at Montelimar, dictator Somoza’s former villa and now a luxury beach resort on the Pacific Coast of Nicaragua. The idea of an “encuentro,” or “encounter” of women working for social change is not new in Latin America: There have been five international Latin American feminist encuentros since 1981. What was new was to hold such an event in Central America, far from the ordinary sites of international conferences in or near large cities.

Since the area has many strong movements for national liberation and social justice well represented by the delegates, the event became a hopeful sign that there is still a vision and political practices that can frame new possibilities of a democratic socialist and feminist world order to contrast the nightmarish “end of history” based on the unjust, imperialist and patriarchal new world order of George Bush and General Norman Schwartzkopf.

The conference had been proposed at the Fifth Latin American Feminist Encuentro in Argentina in 1990, in order to provide a special space for reflection and theorizing over women’s history and political practice in Central America. Historically it seemed the right time for Central American women social justice activists to consider gender issues in ways characteristic of autonomous feminist organizing–whether or not they work in mixed organizations with other priorities, from indigenous rights in Honduras and Guatemala, workers’ and peasants’ rights in all the countries, to anti-imperialism in Panama.

In any case the organizers were careful not to beg the self-definition question by defining the Encuentro as a get together of feminists. Instead it was defined simply as a Central American Womens’ Encuentro, and was open to individuals who engage in any social organizing in Central America for which a gender analysis is relevant.

Putting Feminism on the Agenda

Yet if the self-definition of the five hundred participants in the conference was less than half feminist, this was not so for the key organizers in Nicaragua, who not only defined themselves as feminist but articulated specific feminist goals for the conference. As Maria Teresa Blandon, member of the Regional Organizing Committee put it, “the motto of the encuentro is a feminist transformation of the lived reality of men and women in all spheres of life,” or, as was regularly chanted in large plenaries of the conference, UNA NUEVA MUJER, NUEVO PODER (a new woman, a new power). She said the goal was to analyse “the gendered distribution of economic, affective, political and social powers, given that the hierarchical patriarchal structure locates women in a subordinate and disadvantaged role due to biological differences.”

The general theme of the conference, “a new woman, a new power,” was subdivided into various questions addressed on different days. For example, the key question for the first two days was, what is our reality as women in Central America (como vivimos las mujeres en Centroamerica)? This was divided into three smaller emphases: the intimate, the domestic and the public. The first day, Monday, involved workshops on intimate and domestic spheres such as sexuality, pleasure, motherhood, domestic violence and money management in the heterosexual couple.

Included were workshops on lesbian sexuality and power relations between lesbian women, formerly taboo topics for discussion in Central America, and in which the majority participating were heterosexual women. There was also a workshop on abortion and a self-examination workshop provided with fifty speculums to teach women about their bodies.

The second day of the conference concentrated on power in the public sphere, for example in popular organizations, the church, language, science, art, law, education, etc. The theoretical starting point of the organizers was to reject the idea of a monolithic patriarchal power, in favor of a more dialectical conception of patriarchal powers constantly challenged by various subversive powers that women have developed. Thus, there were emphases not only on how patriarchal power operates in art, religion etc., but also on how women are developing practices which resist and challenge this power. For example, feminist artists and feminist educators dis cussed how to create non-patriarchal art and public school curricula.

The last three days of the conference were dedicated to the women’s movements in Central America (Wednesday); feminism in theory and practice generating power for women (Thursday); and on Friday, plans for the Sixth Latin American Feminist and the Second Central American Women’s Encuentros. There were also talks and workshops on how autonomous the women’s movement should be in relation to other movements for social justice and on the problem of how to build a new empowering horizontal power and feminist leadership, given the reality that popular organizations need to respond to vertical and authoritarian state and economic power.

There were lists of demands drawn up from the women’s movements of each country, many of whom see themselves as inseparable from other movements for social justice and were concerned that the conference support their issues<197>for example, agrarian reform, indigenous and refugee rights–as a mark of solidarity by members of the autonomous feminist movements.

Building Power and Community

The methods and organization of the “encuentro” owed much to feminist theory and practice. The program of the week involved a mix of small workshops, more than fifty in all, presentations (ponencias) related to the theme of the conference, and large plenaries designed both to summarize the conclusions of the small workshops and to vote on various political resolutions developed during the week. The small workshops were all designed by experienced popular educators and were much more engaging and participatory than (for example) academic conferences. Methods used included a mix of popular theater, personal testimonies, discussion questions framed by the facilitators and breaking into smaller groups to brainstorm about the questions, then reports and discussion with the full group.

The use of culture to create a sense of community and to deepen the involvement in the Encuentro was very effective. There were many wonderful cultural events, for example, there was popular music by the Costa Rican women’s band ClarOscuro (everyone sang along) and a moving poetry reading/music concert by Nicaraguan poet Daisi Zamora and musician Norma Helena Gadea. These were scheduled during the plenaries to counteract the tendency for boredom and burnout.

In general the plenaries, which summarized the various workshops, were much more creative than the average conference, for participants were encouraged to create songs or sociodramas or other cultural means to convey the experience. Examples included a Black Women’s Power reggae song and a sociodrama about the second shift and sexist discrimination on the job.

A further bond for women from very different ethnic and class backgrounds was the positive use of rituals of women’s spirituality during the week, including workshops on women’s spirituality, several informal ceremonies of pinatas representing lavender witches (the color of feminism, not lesbianism in Central America) and a wonderful, improvised witches’ ceremony on the beach one evening. This latter included chants to the goddesses to give us strength and power (“Diosa Diana! Danos tu fuerza y tu poder!”) that ingeniously ended with a circle go round, in which each woman in turn was asked to call out her name as a goddess so the rest of us could invoke it to give us strength and power.

Politics, Participation, Pleasure

Ironically, one of the strengths of the conference in uniting women across class, race and ethnic privilege was the site of the conference at the luxury resort of Montelimar. The expense of the week, more than 250,000 dollars, and the choice of a resort site were heavily criticized by some groups in the host country Nicaragua as evidence of the class privilege of the participants and a skewed set of moral values in a country where that money could have been used to meet much more basic needs of women and children starving because of IMF- and government-imposed unemployment and lack of basic food rationing.

Others, however, pointed out that granting Dutch foundation ECCO was not likely to give a grant for these other purposes, and that holding the event in such a site offered women, particularly poor and indigenous women, the chance to relax, reflect and network in ways that they rarely had available. Furthermore, the composition of the delegates was fairly distributed across race, ethnic and class due to careful admissions procedures. As none but a few North American visitors had to pay their own way, the issue of economic access did not come up as it had for other Latin American encuentros.

Another plus of the site was the way the physical resources allowed delegates to get in touch with issues dealing with patriarchal repression of women’s bodies. Several of the workshops, particularly one on Sexual Pleasure, were held in the enormous central luxury swimming pool with the disco bar in the middle. There was something at once incongruous and viscerally moving in the sight of indigenous Guatemalen women in their beautiful dresses (for of course none of them owned bathing suits) side by side with sophisticated Costa Rican women in the latest high leg bathing suits using the pool in relaxation and trust exercises to validate the right to bodily pleasure.

One of my Nicaraguan working class friends who participated in the Sexual Pleasure workshop told me she had a re-birthing experience in the floating exercise which changed her life completely for the better, creating for her a much less repressive relation to her body and to her teenage daughter.

Differences Without Divisiveness

One of the hopeful aspects of the participatory methodology used in the conference was the way political and moral disagreements were able to be aired without totally dividing those present. For example, whereas recent disagreements in the so-called “sex wars” among U.S. feminists concerning pornography, consensual S/M sex and lesbian separatism have left self-proclaimed sex radicals and radical feminists incapable of speaking to each other or organizing coalitions around common causes, disagreements among activist women in Central America have not yet created such hopeless divisions.

It seems to me that there are several reasons for this. First, there is the fact that all those interested in gender organizing can unite around other more general progressive politics around class justice or anti-imperialist struggles. Secondly, “identity politics” of the sort we have developed in North America have not yet developed to the point where the importance of drawing boundaries has forced a homogenization of the community or a divisive haggling as to the “real” feminist or lesbian identity. Finally, the use of popular theater and testimonials on such controversial issues as abortion and lesbianism have allowed people to disagree yet empathize to some extent with those on the other side.

I want to give two examples of how disagreements were aired and success fully negotiated at the Encuentro, in part because they suggest directions for the way that a revitalized progressive women’s movement in this country might deal with our own disagreements without self-destructing. First, in the abortion workshop at least half of the women participating were either opposed to abortion or uncertain about it on moral and religious grounds. But instead of presenting the issue as a moral one on which we would have to take sides, the facilitators first led an exercise in association in which the group expressed words summarizing feelings and thoughts connected to abortion, all of which, pros and cons alike, were written on a large sheet of paper with a magic marker.

Then the excellent Matagalpa women’s theater group presented a play about an illegal abortion which causes the death of a peasant woman. After this there was a general discussion of the issues, but even then abortion was not presented as a black or white; the discussion became a space in which many women present were moved to give testimonies of their own illegal abortions, and the contradictory feelings they had experienced.

On abortion what is common in Latin American countries is the taboo on discussing the issue in the face of the reality of a massive and deadly practice of abortion. Even those who did not agree morally with abortion could agree that this taboo-imposed silence prevents Latin American societies from dealing with the number one cause of death among women of childbearing age and perpetuates a lack of sex education, provision of safe contraceptives and other methods to handle the problem.

The outcome of this workshop indicated that there is a way to explore disagreement and yet come to some agreements on common problems. Though the final discussion ended with a disagreement over whether fathers should have veto powers over abortions in order to encourage them to feel equally responsible for childcare, the general effect of the workshop was to emphasize women’s common problems of controlling our reproduction in patriarchal societies, rather than focusing on the split between pro- and anti-choice positions.

On the issue of lesbianism, too, there was political and moral disagree ment, but here again, the upshot was not the sort of split that often seems to occur these days in the United States between lesbian separatists and heterosexual feminists. Rather, at the opening convocation, in the same breath that trade union activists, indigenous women organizers and delegates from national liberation struggles were welcomed, the conference organizers, influenced no doubt by the strong presence of the pro-gay Nicaragaran autonomous feminist movement, openly welcomed lesbian delegates fighting for the right to a free sexual preference.

This immediately legitimized lesbian sexuality as a political issue, and though a number of homophobic delegates were displeased with this inclusion, many of them were impelled to come to the workshops on lesbian issues in order to try to understand what is involved in a lesbian lifestyle. Not everyone was won over, of course: Some Guatemalean women were heard muttering that they would not welcome openly lesbian activists if a future Central American women’s encuentro were to take place in their country. Other Guatemaleans, however, were more open: One who attended one of the lesbian workshops said that her sexuality had been so repressed she had no idea of whether she was a lesbian or not, and was anxious to find out more so as to increase her options in the future.

Since heterosexuals were welcome to come to the lesbian workshops and there was a fairly even mixture of lesbians and heterosexuals at the workshops on sexual pleasure, a great amount of dialogue on women’s common sexual interests and education to combat homophobia occurred that would not have been possible with a lesbian separatist focus.

Structure and Power

An important theoretical issue that may have the chance to resolve itself in a different way than it has in the North American and European women’s movements is the question of vertical vs. horizontal power in the organization of the autonomous women’s movements. Sophia Montenegro, well-known feminist Sandinista editor of Barricada, gave a presentation in which she argued that it is important to appropriate some of the state terrain that modern liberalism has opened to push for legal reform and broader women’s rights, and that if the insistence on lack of vertical organization in order to promote horizontal empowerment succeeds as in the U.S. and European movements of the sixties and seventies, the resulting tyranny of structure lessness, lack of accountable leadership and fragmentation will destroy the opportunity for the women’s movement to make real gains against the patriarchal right.

Sophia argued that the women’s movement needs a representative, but vertical, structure to be effective, and it needs women skilled in old style politicking, debating and individualist styles of charismatic leadership. Others challenged her ideas on the grounds that a new kind of facilitating leadership, which tries to empower the group rather than to achieve personal representative leadership, is more important at this historical juncture. From this perspective the informal coalitions that the autonomous women’s movement in Nicaragua has set up this year since its split with AMNLAE (the FSLN’s women’s organization), represent a sufficient degree of organization at the present. These coalitions include those organized about Sexuality, Violence Against Women, Women and the Economy, Health, Communications and Mixed Organizations.

While the debate was waxing hot and heavy the whole time I was in Nicaragua (from February through April of this year), it is not so clear that there is a way to resolve the dispute on theoretical grounds. It seems much more to be a question of timing and personal power struggles than an ultimate value conflict between “anarchists” and the “representativists.” In any case, in the other Central American countries the debate simply doesn’t have the same resonance. In all but Costa Rica, existing women’s movements are embedded in mixed organizations or coalitions for social justice where some sorts of so-called representative women’s organizations already exist; and in Costa Rica there is an autonomous women’s movement, but as yet it has not made sufficient connections to popular sector groups to be able to raise the practical question of representation.

At any rate, I left the Encuentro, and Nicaragua, filled with the hope that the ongoing commitment of Central American women to social justice activism, where representative structure has proved a necessity in social movements, and the new concern for a more horizontal autonomous feminist participatory democracy, would allow feminist organizers there to resolve this controversy in a way that could learn from the mistakes of the U.S. movement.

If this first Central American Women’s Encuentro is any model, they will, eventually, find a way to create representative structures for the women’s movement and simultaneously incorporate a horizontal political process of consciousness-raising and group empowerment. All this, hopefully, can also be achieved in this political and historical context in which the worst flaws of identity politics, division and fragmentation, can be avoided while the political issues of rights and priorities that need to be raised around sexism, class privilege, racism/indigenous rights and homophobia, can be included in a ground made fertile by long-term coalitions for class justice and anti-imperialist struggles.

September-October 1992, ATC 40