Women's Movements in the Americas: Feminism's Second Wave

September 25, 2007

A second wave of feminism has swept Latin America. Women are discussing the kinds of power they have in their "public" and "private" lives, the kind of power they would like to have, and how to go about getting that power.

Under the healing rays of the sun and the salty ocean air, some 500 Central American women gathered at the beach resort of Montelimar, Nicaragua in March of last year to discuss the question of power. They talked about the power Central American women have in their "public" and "private" lives, the kind of power they would like to have, and how to go about getting that power. The encuentro was the largest and most diverse gathering of Central American women in history, and the first to include lesbian groups and discussion of lesbianism as a formal part of the program. Black women educated conference participants about the pain and joy of the black female experience in the Central American context, and Indian women conducted a workshop comparing and contrasting Indian and mestiza women's identities and relations. 
The encuentro was a significant milestone in Latin America's nascent women's movement. During the 1970s and 1980s, the media, the Catholic Church and many political parties promoted pejorative caricatures of feminists as self-indulgent and egotistical, anti-family and anti-male, and divisive of community and class solidarity. Such stigmas made it difficult to imagine that a feminist movement of any significance would ever take root in Latin America. 
By the end of the 1980s, however, a "second wave" of feminism–following the first surge of women's mobilization in the late nineteenth and early twentieth century–did occur. The significant role women played in popular and social movements throughout the hemisphere, the exposure to feminism and women's organizations that Latin American women got while in exile, and exchanges with North American and European feminists through solidarity movemerits created fertile ground for the emergence of feminism in a number of Latin American countries, in particular Peru, the Southern Cone, Brazil, Mexico and the Dominican Republic. 
Feminism arrived late in Central America–with the exception of Costa Rica. In part, this was due to the overriding priorities created by war and revolution. The fierce grip on power which foreign and domestic elites have traditionally had in the region also quelled new social movements and kept countries isolated from one another. Multinational corporations have historically made it easier to telephone and trade with the United States than communicate with or travel to another Central American country. 
The Montelimar encuentro marked the first time that Central American feminists had ever tried to work together on a region-wide event. Illustrative of the tentative nature of the project, the word "feminist" did not appear in the title of the event because organizers from some countries felt that many women had not yet had a chance to explore the idea in a safe context. Feminism was, however, clearly the driving force behind the questions that framed the discussion groups and workshops, the process or metodologia which guided them, and the encuentro's focus on regional strategies for increasing women's power. 
Women were encouraged to discuss and organize as women–"for, of, and by women," as one organizer put it. The participants shared their assessments of how Central American women were faring in their daily lives, as well as their aspirations and dreams for the future. Thus the women focused on transforming social reality not only for others, but for themselves; in that way the political became personal, and the personal political. "Many women in Central America don't have an explicit name for what they think or do; that is, they can't say 'I am a feminist for this and this reason,’” said Carmen Lucía Pellecer, a member of the Guatemalan women's organization Tierra Viva, the first group to have an explicitly feminist as well as popular movement focus. "But they start to develop a feminist perspective when they begin working with women from the point of view of women. They start out working for other women, and they end up working for themselves as well. It's at that point that the women begin to look for or demand their own spaces."[1] 
Implicit in discussion at the encuentro was the assumption that all women–not just poor and working-class women–share to some extent the experience of sexism and subordination, and that crossclass coalitions and alliances can be formed to work on common projects. Implicit as well, although not shared by all the women present, was the assumption that even though women's subordination is interrelated with other forms of exploitation and oppression–such as those based on class, imperialism or ethnicity–it must be addressed directly. The Regional Organizing Committee's statement provides a good working definition of feminism: 
Our politics are feminist because feminism proposes a personal and collective way of life that rejects unequal power relations not only among the sexes but also in society as a whole. Feminism is a traditional social practice in Latin America and we Central American women are contributing our own elements to this tradition. We are a large constituency that seeks to build a kind of feminism that is rooted in our material conditions of life and from which we seek to develop proposals for overall change.[2] 
In the idyllic setting of Montelimar, many women broached potentially controversial and previously "taboo" topics, ranging from women's power in "mixed" organizations and institutions, to domestic violence, reproductive rights, sexual orientation, and sexuality. For many women, the encuentro not only represented a well-earned respite from years of back-breaking labor in the service of others, but also the discovery of a dormant feminist orientation that had always been repressed or put on the back burner in favor of what seemed to be (or what were said to be) more pressing priorities: war, revolution, the defense of national sovereignty, the reduction of social and economic inequality, and economic survival. 
The women discussed what kind of power they have in mixed-gender organizations, and how much autonomy women's groups, caucuses, or secretariats should have. Drawing on their years of experience as Sandinista activists, Nicaraguan women–some of whom now identify primarily as independent feminists–warned Salvadoran and Guatemalan women not to equate participation with gender equality. They also advised their counterparts not to expect that dedication, sacrifice and heroism would automatically guarantee women's interests in the peace process, or women's leadership in the new civil institutions and organizations being established. 
The Nicaraguan women argued that women need to demand recognition as women, independent of whatever social sectors or groups they represent. They contended that women should present the state and their social, religious, educational, and political organizations with gender-specific and feminist demands, such as the right to autonomous women's spaces within and outside other sectoral and political organizations, direct representation of women's interests, and the promotion of women's leadership and women electoral candidates at the municipal and national levels. 
"We have come from a very long war, a difficult process in which our needs and demands have been postponed by the war and the specific circumstances we have faced," said Morena Herrera, a Salvadoran activist and leader of Mujeres por la Dignidad y Is Vida. "At this moment, the familiar argument is that national reconstruction and the upcoming elections in 1994 are important and that women's concerns should wait until after the elections. This conference has allowed us to say 'No more.' We are not going to keep postponing our needs, our demands and our struggles." 
The women spiritedly debated how much and what kind of autonomy should be sought in the consolidation of Central American feminism. They agreed that autonomy is multi-dimensional-personal, economic, institutional, political, and ideological. For example, non-governmental organizations (NGOs) that are focused on explicitly feminist projects may be politically and organizationally independent of the state and leftist political parties, but economically dependent on external funding, which may carry certain ideological and political conditions. Likewise, women in unions and political parties may gain the right to select their own leadership and determine their own agenda, but they may lack personal autonomy with respect to families, boyfriends, and spouses. 
The women were divided over the question of whether to build autonomous feminist groups or work within existing mixed organizations. Those who favored autonomy argued that women should make a clean break with the hierarchical, male-dominated political organizations of the past, and create their own organizations in which they don't have to constantly justify the importance of their projects to men. Those who favored working for feminist agendas within mixed organizations countered that women risk becoming isolated politically if they do not struggle for power and influence within existing political organizations. Moreover, they contended, the feminist movement should take advantage of the many women–especially working-class, poor and "minority" women–who may already be organized. They also worried that with human and material resources scarce, a dispersion of effort may concede territory to the enemies of feminism in the broader conservative political context. 
This debate was a reflection of that taking place in Nicaragua where tensions have appeared between independent feminists and female political-party militants. A number of party militants feel that the independent feminists regard them as impure in their feminism and inherently subordinate to men in their political-party activities. Independent feminists, on the other hand, feel that their credentials as revolutionaries and commitment to class struggle in Latin America are being questioned. The tension between the two sides is reminiscent of that between "las politicas" and "las feministas" in the early stages of the feminist movement in the Southern Cone. The difference, however, is that in Central America, both sides have a history of feminist activism. Exacerbating the tension is the fact that many of the Nicaraguan women who line up on opposing sides of the debate were once comrades in the Sandinista Front. 
In Nicaragua, as well as at the encuentro, there is agreement on the importance of promoting a feminist agenda within mixed organizations. Everyone agrees that women in mixed organizations should have the right to discuss and rank their priorities and choose their leadership. Autonomous women's institutions and organizations, most activists believe, play an important role by providing a safe place for women to recharge their batteries, accumulate independent resources, and unleash their creativity. Moreover, the women in autonomous organizations can also still pursue close links to women who are organized or can potentially be organized around other issues and movements–for example, human rights, class, neighborhood, religion, environment, or ethnicity. 
Bridging their differences, a number of the women at the encuentro felt that given the diversity of women activists and the degree to which their personal as well as political lives may be in flux, women may feel comfortable in different organizational forms at different points in time, or may burn out in one organizational form but blossom in another. Some women may prefer working in all-female, explicitly feminist groups, while other women who strongly identify with a community or sector may prefer to promote a feminist agenda within mixed groups. The challenge is to link up the various organizational forms and forge a powerful collective political force. 
Central American women are not alone in debating the question of how women's movements should relate to the state, to each other, and to other progressive sectors, organizations and issues. In Chile, for example, where women played a central role in resistance to the military dictatorship, the feminist movement has worked hard to push for the inclusion of women's demands in the platforms and agendas of political parties, and to generate awareness of women as a political constituency. Nevertheless, the women's movement seems to have been, to a large extent, marginalized by political parties since the transition to electoral democracy.[3] 
The Chilean government has been able to coopt the feminist agenda by creating a national women's office with ministerial rank–Servicio Nacional de la Mujer (SERNAM). SERNAM was established not only to propose and develop programs to improve the lives of women, but also to monitor other state agencies. It thus gives a public, state-legitimized face to the struggle against discrimination against women. Like any regulatory agency which is both part of and dependent upon the state while at the same time charged with monitoring the state, its position is, by definition, contradictory. While there are several well-known feminists in key positions in SERNAM, the majority of the appointees, including the director, are women who have little history or experience working in or with women's organizations. Moreover, with its conservative discourse on family preservation, SERNAM has seemed to go out of its way to antagonize the women's movement. 
In part, SERNAM's ability to establish itself as the interlocutor for women is a reflection of the weakness of the women's movement itself. This weakness, in turn, is a reflection of how difficult it is to re-define and re-orient a women's movement born in unified opposition to a dictatorship in order to create a strong mass-based, cross class movement. In the fledgling democracies of the Southern Cone, the independent feminist movement must define itself not only in relation to the state and political parties, but also in relation to well funded non-governmental organizations (NGOs) which carry out much of the community-based, grassroots work that many pre-democracy women's organizations used to do. 
The question of what relationship the women's movement should establish with NGOs–even feminist NGOs–has become vital in countries experiencing the repercussions of neoliberal economic reforms. In Chile, for example, the external funding that once supported women's political activism has greatly diminished. That which still exists has largely reverted to its traditional pattern of favoring social and economic development projects, albeit with a greater gender consciousness than before. 
In a time of dramatic cutbacks in state spending and heavy downward pressures on the standard of living, the importance of having paid organizers and professionals on staff at NGOs cannot be discounted. This makes it possible for a certain number of women to devote themselves fulltime to working for change on behalf of women and to promoting general projects that are “gender-conscious." But some women activists argue that in the context of a weak women's movement, NGOs can become the substitute for a broad-based, cross-class feminist movement. In this scenario, the NGOs might wrongly conflate their own desire to survive and grow with the needs of women as a whole. 
The emergence of feminist and women-oriented NGOs–such as cultural projects, service centers, and independent research groups–gives Latin American feminism a stability and wealth of resources that never existed before. At the same time, the growth of these institutions results in a potentially problematic distinction between "professional feminists" who arc "credentialed" by the national and international development establishments as "women's advocates," and "militantes" who may be "increasingly marginalized from both policymaking and funding networks."[4] At the same time, financing for feminist institutions can be very fickle. It can vary greatly over time, depending on the political context and the momentary popularity of different causes for funding sources. 
Brazilian feminists face many of the same strategic challenges as their Chilean counterparts in their relationship to the state as a result of the transition to electoral democracy. Despite the fact that feminisin is less visible than it was five years ago, and some feminists are disappointed with how political parties have appropriated their claims, the Brazilian feminist movement continues to be the largest, most vital and diverse in the hemisphere. 
The current expressions of Brazilian feminism are cultural as well as political. On the political front, women have fought to make government-sponsored women's police stations more responsive to women's needs, and to ensure that the municipal, state and regional governments effectively implement progressive gender laws. In the cultural realm, women have developed popular feminist film and video, and Afro-Brazilian feminist aesthetics in the fields of music, dance and theater. Like Chile, Brazil has feminist newspapers, radio stations, publishing houses and bookstores, as well as women's studies programs and research centers. A number of open lesbian groups now participate in both the feminist and gay liberation movements. 
The focal point of much of the Brazilian feminist movement, however, continues to be the state.[5] During the 1980s, the Brazilian state went from being considered "women's worst enemy" to "women's best friend" as the result of the formulation of many feminist demands into public policy proposals, and the unprecedented inclusion of women's rights provisions in the new federal constitution. In addition, the national government created women's spaces, such as councils on the status of women and women's police stations. 
The transition to democratic rule did not, however, abolish the essentially patriarchal and racist character of the Brazilian state. Nor did it slow down the rush to neoliberal state policies. Confronted with these limits, especially at the federal level, Brazilian feminists have continually had to think creatively and strategically about how, at what level, and in what ways to intervene in the state to ensure that their efforts to extend and redefine women's citizenship have the greatest possible impact. 
Urban movements, often led by the Brazilian Workers Party (PT), have managed to successfully organize and secure political and social rights at the municipal and state levels. The overwhelming majority of participants in these movements continue to be women. As a consequence, many Brazilian feminists, while not abandon'ng efforts to change federal policies, have chosen to focus on influencing local levels of government that are "closer to home, potentially more permeable, and more vulnerable to citizen scrutiny and intervention." [5] The São Paulo Council on the Status of Women, for example, last year launched a campaign for "The Year of the Implementation of Legislation on the Equality of Women." This year they persuaded Sdo Paulo Governor Luiz Antonio Fleury Filho to promulgate a state-sponsored "Convention on the Rights of Women," to be signed by the governor and dozens of mayors in September of this year. 
The Workers Party's conscious policy of pressuring for greater decentralization of state authority and resources, and its unexpectedly successful 1988 electoral victories in São Paulo and two dozen other Brazilian cities have helped to focus grassroots activism on local and regional government to a degree that is unusual in Latin America. While the states and localities are chronically underfunded, the focus on local governance deepens democratic participation in ways that mitigate the effects of structural adjustment on poor and working-class citizens. This focus on local and regional struggles, underpinned by neighborhood and grassroots organizing, cannot help but strengthen women's activism and leadership. 
If there is one trend which characterizes women's organizing throughout the hemisphere, it is the growing diversity of organizational forms, strategies, and creative efforts. This diversity is both a reflection of the great vitality and strength of the women's movement in this profoundly conservative era and an enormous strategic challenge. How can women's diverse expressions of discontent and resistance be coordinated so as to expand and defend grassroots democracy? How can the movement recognize and accept, for example, that women come to feminism and gender-specific activism through a multiplicity of paths–through religious activity, in defense of their families and children, through activism around racial, ethnic, environmental or sexual orientation issues, or in response to the economic crisis? How can a feminist current be injected into other Struggles without forcing them to be ranked in order of importance? 
The political, economic, and cultural room within which feminism has to maneuver in the Southern Cone (as well as Mexico and Costa Rica) still seems great in comparison to the obstacles that feminists and women activists still have to overcome in Nicaragua, El Salvador and Guatemala. In the latter three countries, feminism was born out of war and revolution, with all the deprivations and sacrifices cataclysmic events brought with them. While, to a large extent, the disruption of the old order made feminist and gender-specific organizing possible, the rebuilding process is much greater than in the Southern Cone where a political infrastructure and culture are already in place. 
Throughout the hemisphere, however, women's movements face significant challenges. The disastrous effects of neoliberal economic policy makes this a difficult moment in history for women's struggle. "We feminists began to talk about wanting power at a very difficult moment in history, at precisely that moment when the power slipped away from our closest allies, that is, leftist men," veteran Dominican feminist Magali Piñeda observed. "At this moment in history, it seems that all societies have entered into a conservative stage, where deep [structural] changes don't appear possible. But it is better that we arrive late to the idea than not at all."[6] 
But precisely because the situation calls for imaginative responses and new visions, Latin American women are increasingly dissatisfied with promises of indirect access to power. To those who continue to underestimate the potential power of Latin American feminism to redefine power and politics, Piñeda has a warning: "If people were afraid of communism as a radical specter that would haunt the world, they should really be afraid now because the specter of feminism is the one that is really radical…radical because we want to change things at the root…”[7] 

Norma Stoltz Chinchilla is a professor of sociology and director of the women's studies program at California State University, Long Beach. She has published articles on women and social movements in Latin America and is working on a book of oral histories of Guatemalan women. 

1. Interview by Feminist International Radio Endeavor (FIRE), for the four-part series "Historia de Género en Centroamerica. " 
2. Sergia Galván, Itziar Lozano, Clara Murguialday, Sara Elva Nuño, Norma Stoltz Chinchilla, and Norma Vasquez, "Central American Women's Encounter: More Than A Meeting, a Process to Build Central American Feminism," Mexico, June, 1992 (unpublished). 
3. Nancy Chuchryk, "Feminist Anti-Authoritarian Politics: The Role of Women's Organizations in the Chilean Transition to Democracy," in Jane Jacquette, ed., The Women's Movement in Latin American Feminism and the Transition to Democracy (Boulder: Westview Press, 2nd edition, forthcoming). 
4. Sonia Alvarez, "The (Trans)formation of Feminism(s) and Gender Politics in Democratizing Brazil," in Jacquette, ed., The Women's Movement. 
5. Alvarez in Jacquette, ed., The Women's Movement. 
6. Memorias: Encuentro Centroamericano de Murjeres: Historia de Género, Una Nueva Mujer, Un Nuevo Poder, March, 1993, Managua, Nicaragua, p. 180. 
7. Memorias: Encuentro Centroamericano, p. 180. 

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

Tags: women, feminism, Latin America, Montelimar, civil society

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