Latin American Women The Gendering of Politics and Culture

September 25, 2007


It is still a commonplace in Latin America that women's place is the private sphere of home and family, and


men's, the public realm of workplace and politics. These sex-role expectations are deeply etched in the collective consciousness. Indeed, the term "public woman" is commonly used as a euphemism for prostitute. 

Yet this neat schema is bumping up hard against a fast-shifting reality. Over the ourse of the last 40 years, the lives of Latin American women have changed enormously. Today, most women live in cities. They are bearing fewer children, staying in school longer, and joining the paid workforce in ever growing numbers. When NACLA last took stock of the condition of women in Latin America in our 1980 Report, "One Myth–Many Realities," many of these changes were already well underway. 
Since that report, the region has been buffeted by tremendous political and economic upheaval, and that upheaval has affected women in specific ways. This new report seeks to trace how women are redefining their traditional roles as they adapt to the changing times–and how, as a consequence, economic and political life have been shaped by gender. 
Women are now a major force in the struggle for social change. Political repression mobilized women to demand an accounting of their missing husbands and children. Central American women also took up arms and fought in revolutionary movements. Southern Cone women took to the streets to defend the livelihoods of their families in the aftermath of the military's failed monetarist experiments. What began as a spirited defense against encroachments on their traditional sovereign domain occasioned women's growing awareness of the need for profound changes in gender roles. 
Today, with political parties once again dominant, women throughout the hemisphere are grappling with the question of how best to intervene in the political process to defend their rights. This struggle occurs, for the most part, on the margins of official politics; indeed, Latin American women remain grossly underrepresented in legislatures and political party ranks. 
Driven by economic necessity, women are taking paid employment in record numbers. According to Inter-American Development Bank figures, women's participation in the labor force leaped 50%, from almost 18% in 1950 to just under 27% in 1990. Because they contribute more to family incomes, women have a greater say in household decisionmaking, though their workload at home has not eased commensurately. Moreover, gender stratification in the job market persists. Women are overwhelmingly employed in poorly paid, menial jobs in the service sector or in low-level manufacturing. 
Despite their unprecedented presence in political and economic life, Latin American women remain hemmed in by a machista culture which restricts their development. And women are divided among themselves by class, ethnicity and region. There is not one women's movement in Latin America, but a multitude of groupings and struggles. A Mayan street vendor in Chichicastenango conceives of herself and her role within family, society, and nation differently than a white, middle-class nurse in Santiago de Chile. Yet in both cases, they are beginning to realize that gender defines their lives in salient, irrevocable ways. It is this commonality that gives women's struggle its lifeblood. 


Read the rest of NACLA's July/August 1993 issue: "Latin American Women: The Gendering Of Politics And Culture."


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