A Growing Movement: Latin American Feminism

September 25, 2007

A powerful new political force is on the horizon in Latin America. In recent years, religious, labor and human rights movements have spearheaded efforts for grassroots participation in the political pro- cess. Now feminism is joining this political arena. The second Fem- inist Conference of Latin America and the Caribbean illustrates the movement's potential. The mere increase in attendance-from the 230 women at the first conference in Bogota to the 700 who came to Lima last July--demonstrates fem- inism's growing popular appeal. More significantly, links forged at the gathering between middle- class intellectual feminists and women working on the grassroots level have increasingly made fem- inism a force that reaches far be- yond the boundaries which tradi- tionally define "women's issues." The conference participants were united ideologically by a reso- lution passed in Bogota a year before. Full equality for women, the resolution states, cannot be achieved without socialism; yet socialism itself does not guaran- tee equal rights. One could ask, as someone did in the plenary session, "How can we, at a time when Nicaragua is being invaded and nuclear war threatens our very existence, convene a femin- ist conference?" In response, the conference or- Jill Gay, Associate Director of the Third World Women's Project of the Institute for Policy Studies, attended the Lima conference. 44 Nellie Rumril ganizers clarified why women from over 15 countries had gathered: "It is the feminist movement which has been crucial in countering the rebirth of conservatism in the in- dustrialized countries. Without a change in patriarchal power, the problems will persist." Feminists share a commitment to social change. The presence of workers and peasant women ensured that their pressing concerns-hunger, poverty and repression-were addressed. While intellectuals or academi- cians had been designated work- shop leaders, the participation of feminist activists from unions, peasant and shanty town organi- zations changed both the focus and approach. The conference offered 20 workshops around the theme of patriarchy: the Church, domestic work, literature, devel- opment projects, power, rural wo- men, sexual violence and wage labor. The workshop leader for alter- native media found herself play- ing a role she hadn't envisioned. "I had to teach women how to dis- seminate information, write leaflets, do radio programs in the most re- mote, rural areas, areas which for me are the end of the earth!" "I went to the workshop on de- velopment projects to learn how to get money for our project," re- calls Isabel Espinosa, a former Lima factory worker. "In our shanty town we gather women together to learn to value ourselves. We discuss magazines and songs to learn how they manipulate women. I didn't come here to discuss theories of development." The academic women found that their priorities were not nec- essarily shared by other feminists. "As most of us are professional women, I am sure all of you will be interested in my doctoral thesis NACLA Reportupdate update . update , update 0 "Middle-class feminists may well become more responsive to grassroots needs. on this subject," began the work- shop leader of the panel on wage labor. A black Peruvian assembly line worker for a pharmaceutical multinational countered that the workshop should address the needs of working-class women: unionization, unpaid maternity leave, runaway shops and low pay. The workshop focus shifted dramatically. Sexuality Rejected Middle-class feminists were un- expectedly responsive to the prob- lems of black and lesbian women. The workshop on lesbianism had to be moved from the assigned room, which could only accom- modate 20 women, to the largest hall, where over 200 women crowd- ed together. Heterosexual women, the majority of the participants, discussed whether machismo was replayed in the lesbian relationship and if lesbians were just imitating a fad from the United States. Novl/De 1983 "Our sexuality is not just an im- port from the United States," chal- lenged the lesbians. "Lesbianism is universal." Another commented: "The feminist movement has influ- enced us to have more egalitarian relationships." Such dialogue is rare in a conti- nent which is particularly hostile to homosexuality. Widespread press coverage of AIDS in the United States prompted a Lima newspaper headline: "Gay illness menaces humanity and is trans- mitted by conversation." Appar- ently not worried by the article's advice to avoid homosexuals at all costs, the participants issued a call for the movement to fight for lesbian rights. Said one woman, "It is society's rejection of women's sexuality which unites us." While no workshop on racism was planned, a meeting to discuss the issue was sparked by a radio interview with the Black Women's Collective of Rio de Janeiro. "The conference has not been respon- sive to our reality. We are discrimi- nated against as women and as blacks," Adelia dos Santos of the collective asserted in the radio interview. Yet the black feminists achieved a clear commitment from the fem- inist movement to combat racism when the conference approved the following resolution: "There is a profound lack of knowledge about the reality of racism in our countries, as is evident in [Peru where] the majority of the popula- tion is Indian and suffers discrimi- nation along with other ethnic groups such as blacks, Chinese and Japanese. Racial discrimina- tion is present in all Latin Ameri- can countries and is accompanied by economic exploitation. We re- quest that: racism be included as a theme in future conferences and that the conference denounce ra- cism as an inherent part of the feminist struggle." 45update update update update A women's bookstore on Lima's Avenida Republica de Chile. Luxury of Discussion In planning the meeting, a coali- tion of seven middle- and working- class Peruvian groups tried to break away from the patriarchal power structures they condemned. Decisions were made by concen- sus. The conference schedule was flexible, allowing participants to shape events, and children were welcome. Scholarships were given to women who could not afford to attend. Nellie Rumril, the head of wo- men's affairs for a federation of 300 Lima shanty towns, spoke for many of Lima's poor who do not have the luxury of discussing their problems. "In the past, shanty town women were organized into mothers' clubs to sew and cook. We learned as girls how to do this kind of tradi- tional labor. We want new goals, so we organized training sessions for women to discuss national and shanty town problems. We dis- cussed the situation of women, and the relationships of couples. We taught family planning." At the conference Rumril put out a call for women to assist, both financially 46 and by lending their expertise, in the development of these courses. Nellie Rumril was puzzled by some feminists in Lima who did not "really see people's extreme poverty. When I see people's needs, I feel my problems are very secondary and unimportant in comparison to the problems of others. And I had no childhood, because when I was six, my father died, and I have had to work ever since." If women like Rumril succeeded in making an impact at the confer- ence, middle-class feminists may well become more responsive to grassroots needs, rendering the movement a major force in social change. Upper-class women have been traditionally mobilized by the Right in Latin America. Femin- ists are now building a base for the Left which they hope will pre- empt future rightest mobilizations of women such as those which occurred in Brazil in 1964 and in Chile in 1973. Mobilization by the Right was possible, in part, because of the Left's failure to include women as political partners. Neither Brazil's Goulart nor Chile's Allende changed many of the laws prejudicial to women. Neither saw women as crucial to their political success. The Right was able to play suc- cessfully upon upper-class wo- men's fears that the Left would destroy the family. Extending Women's Issues But now feminists are putting pressure on churches, unions and human rights organizations to in- clude women's issues. A growing feminist alliance of middle-class, worker and peasant groups will ensure the inclusion of women's rights on the Left agenda. "When Pinochet is overthrown," the Chileans at the conference stated clearly, "and we have de- mocracy, women's rights must be addressed. We are planning now for the changes we want." This new middle-class/grassroots alli- ance gives what has been a mid- dle-class feminist movement, new credibility in addressing the press- ing needs of the continent. In return, grassroots groups are beginning to acknowledge the uni- versality of women's issues. "We are willing to march together with our men," said Nellie Rumril, "to coordinate with them, to inform them. But we must have our own independent organization for wo- men." Conflicts remain. In a play per- formed at the conference by Bruja, a Chilean theater collective, mid- dle-class feminists discuss their dilemma. One says, "If I am afem- inist, don't I need to fight for my rights, my problems, my needs?" Another screams back, "How can I call myself a feminist if I don't work with shanty town women?" The impact of the conference will be measured by how the middle- class women, returning to their countries, answer these questions.

Tags: feminism, organizing, race, Sexuality

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