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
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
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
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
"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
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
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
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
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
"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
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
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-
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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