Women and Democracy: For Home and Country

September 25, 2007


“When the democratic government took over, the men around here said, ‘It’s okay, Rosa, you can leave it to us now.’ We thought, ‘have they forgotten everything we did during the dictatorship?’” Rosa ignored the men’s advice. Instead, supported by the women’s center she helped set up in 1989 in the shantytown of Santiago de Chile, she became the first woman ever to be elected to the neighborhood committee. She is now responsible for representing the interests of some 12,000 residents. Standing outside the women’s center, a rickety wooden building that stayed closed thoughout the 16 years of General Pinochet’s dictatorship, Rosa comments wearily about Chile’s new political representatives: “They’re not interested in women’s issues. When you talk to them, you end up fighting.” 
From trade unions and shantytown organizations to political parties and national government, the stories are similar. While working-class women like Rosa played key roles in the resistance to military dictatorships across Latin America's Southern Cone, the return of constitutional rule has, ironically, presented them with new challenges. Women in human rights, workplace and feminist organizations must now find new ways of influencing the political process and fighting for their rights. 
The military dictatorships which seized power in Chile (1973), Uruguay (1973) and Argentina (1976) all exalted the traditional ideals of motherhood and the family. Their brutal, repressive policies, however, drastically transformed women's lives and created the conditions for their widespread mobilization. With trade unions and political parties banned, public meetings prohibited, and tens of thousands of activists murdered or 'disappeared,' it was women who took center stage in the struggle against the dictatorships.[1] Not only were the first public challenges to military rule in all three countries led by women and their human rights organizations, but behind the scenes women's networks of workshops, communal kitchens, popular canteens and health-care projects helped working-class families survive military experiments in monetarism and years of economic crisis. 
In the beginning, at least, women did not consider their actions 'political,' but their natural duty as good mothers and wives. In the words of their president, the Mothers of Plaza de Mayo searched for their children with "the desperation of a lioness who has lost bet cubs." In Chile, the Catholic Church set up many women's groups to encourage women to find new ways of supporting their families. It was precisely because they evoked the powerful image of motherhood and the family that women posed problems for dictatorships claiming to represent those same values. In addition, the military fell victim to the misconceptions of its own machismo. By not considering them a serious challenge, the military gave women the breathing space they needed to set up their organizations. "They said we were mad," said one Mother. "How could the armed forces admit they were worried by a group of middle-aged women?" 
Nevertheless, women found themselves in the firing line of military repression. Thirteen members of the human rights movement, including the first president of the Mothers, disappeared into Argentina's death camps. Police continually raided the communal kitchens in Chile, where groups of up to 100 women cooked together. "Suddenly the police would arrive and find the food, kick people, destroy all the food stores and arrest everyone," said one member of a communal kitchen in a shantytown outside Santiago de Chile. The Chilean arpiIleras–appliqué patchworks which depicted the persecution and deprivation of the everyday lives of the poor–were considered subversive material which had to be buried in the ground when the police or army entered the shantytowns.[2] But women were not deterred, even when the hypocrisy of the military proclamations about the sanctity of the family was exposed. The kitchen and the home became political. Protests like the marches of empty pots, shopping strikes, and the banging of saucepans bore the distinctive hallmark of women's participation. 
The process of women's politicization led to a growing awareness of the importance of gender. By sharing experiences, women found not only a source of mutual support, but they also began to recognize that the roots of their problems were not individual but social. "You realize that a lot of your problems aren't just yours alone, that all women have got them and that means we can work together to change our lives," said one member of the Community Health Workers, a women's organization in the poor outskirts of Buenos Aires. However much women saw their public participation as a natural extension of their family role, their new activities took them away from the home and transformed their daily lives. Domestic routines were disrupted by their absence, and husbands, children and housework became obstacles to women's participation. In order to take part in the resistance to military rule, women had to find ways to deal with these constraints. 
Many of the organizations working-class women created bore little resemblance to conventional ones, not only because of the problems of working under dictatorships, but also because the organizations had to be adapted to meet women's needs. Either meetings were arranged around the duties which punctuate a woman's day–collecting the children from school, making the dinner–or women simply took their children to the meetings with them and improvised day care. Women created loosely-knit, nonhierarchical groups, based on solidarity and mutual support. They wrote little down, and spoke in the language of their everyday lives, instead of the language of conventional politics. 
Whether it was mothers in Argentina searching for their disappeared children, or housewives in Chile faced with the privatization of health services and education, women realized they needed to educate themselves to understand what was happening around them. Women who went out to work for the first time became aware of the need not only for child care facilities, but also for vocational training. To varying degrees, issues such as birth control, child care and domestic violence stopped being private matters of the home and became subjects for public discussion within working-class women's groups. 
But while they began to talk about machismo, these women rarely identified themselves as 'feminist.' They saw feminist organizations not only as middleclass and failing to take into account their practical concerns, but also as anti-men and anti-family. Even those who have in recent years come to define themselves as feminists prefer to use the term 'popular feminism,' differentiating themselves from the 'traditional' women's movement and identifying closely with working-class organizations. "We have things in common with middle-class women, but we also have other problems that middle-class women don't have, like the housing shortage, debt problems, unemployment," said a member of a Chilean popular feminist organization, "and we're not going to advance as women if the two things aren't closely linked." 
Working-class women's growing concern with gender issues and the common goal of opposition to military rule did, however, help open the possibility of a dialogue with the new feminist organizations which sprung up in the closing years of the dictatorships. The extent to which working-class women and feminist organizations have been able to work together has depended on the degree to which they recognize the diversity in each other's situations. It has also depended on historical factors that affected the development of the women's movement in each country. In Argentina, feminist groups played little part in the movement for democracy and developed few links with the women who led the struggle against the dictatorship. In Chile and Uruguay, by contrast, where the feminist movement clearly identified with the struggle against the dictatorship, and where feminists set out to make contact with working-class groups, women marched together under the banner of "Democracy in the Country and Democracy in the Home.” “We wanted to play a part in the working-class struggle for democracy but we also wanted to fight for our needs as women," said one member of a shantytown women's organization in Santiago. "We wanted a cultural transformation, a society with many changes in values. It wasn't just that we wanted democracy, full stop. We didn't want women to go back to their houses when the struggle against the dictatorship ended." 
In 1983 the Malvinas debacle, combined with the economic crisis and widespread public discontent, precipitated the fall of the military regime in Argentina. Uruguayans and Chileans had to wait longer as the military scrambled unsuccessfully to legalize their regimes with plebiscites and then to negotiate to insure that their own impunity was guaranteed in the transition agreements. The Uruguayan military withdrew in 1985. General Pinochet, after 17 years in power, finally handed over the reins of government to an elected president in Chile in 1990. 
In Chile and Argentina the transition to constitutional rule was primarily hammered out between the political parties and the military. Working-class women's organizations found themselves increasingly marginalized from decision-making processes. "After the dictatorship, people stopped going to the street to fight for their rights and suddenly there are hundreds and hundreds of men in offices making decisions that affect us, without even talking to us," complained one grassroots leader in a Santiago shantytown. Even in Uruguay, where the process was more open–involving social movements as well as political parties–women had to struggle to win a place at the negotiating table and to make gender issues a legitimate concern for the new government. "When the men came out of prison or returned from exile," said one Uruguayan trade unionist, "they took up all the spaces, sat down in the same chairs, and expected the women to go back home." 
The re-emergence of political parties and trade unions put new demands on the women's movement. Organizations made up of women with no political allegiance or from different political parties suddenly had to decide where they stood in terms of traditional politics. "The question of political parties was very important when the [public] demonstrations started," said one member of a Chilean grassroots women's group. "One group would say you had to meet in a certain place and another group would say you had to meet in another place and those of us from the social movements were left in the middle.... We didn't know where we were." These problems were compounded by lack of experience and unfamiliarity with the array of political institutions restored by parliamentary democracy. "Not being part of a political party," she continued, "we had no back-up and we didn't understand anything. There was a problem of language, because we didn't understand the concepts, including the word 'concept.' We didn't understand what the parties stood for...” 
While most political parties addressed some of the issues raised by women, this reflected their interest in winning the female vote or taking advantage of women's organizational strength in the neighborhoods, rather than a fundamental rethinking of their programs. This was reflected in the absence of women from the decision-making posts of the party structures. The new parliaments were almost exclusively male affairs, and in some countries even fewer women held elected office than before the dictatorships. In Argentina, not since 1951, the first election in which women could vote, were so few women voted into parliament.[3] In Chile, of the 158 people elected to parliament in 1989, only 10 were women. In the 1985 election in Uruguay, for the first time since 1942, not a single woman was elected to parliament. 
The difficulties women faced with the return of traditional politics not only reflected the resistance of male-dominated organizations to change, but also the diversity of women's interests. Differences hidden by the common struggle against military rule now came to the surface. "In all the discussions the underlying debate is about the relationship with the state," said one Uruguayan trade unionist, echoing the concerns of the women's movements across the region. "The problem is, should the women's movement just be demanding from the government or should we be participants in the process? Should we risk governments and parties capturing and braking the momentum of the women's movement, or should we remain autonomous and risk powerlessness?" The differing approaches to this key question not only hindered cooperation between women's organizations but also caused internal tensions and divisions. 
The experience of the human rights movement in Argentina illustrates this dilemma. The Mothers and Grandmothers of the disappeared not only saw human rights as an ethical matter which transcended party political interests, but they also harbored a deep distrust of party politics, based on the lack of support they received from political figures during the dictatorship. Like many other women's organizations, the Mothers grew up outside the traditional political system, and created a way of hacer política–making politics–that was based on direct action, rather than negotiation. When the new government, elected on a strong human rights platform, limited its prosecution to a showcase trial of members of the junta, the Mothers saw their mistrust vindicated. 
In 1985, against a background of growing hostility between the Mothers and the government, a small group of Mothers, including some of the original founding members, left to form their own breakaway group because–although they also condemned the government's handling of the military–they saw the Mothers' style as too abrasive for an elected government. For the Grandmothers, the return of their missing grandchilden–the children of 'disappeared' couples who were illegally handed over to childless military and police couples–has depended on working closely with the courts and the government. The Grandmothers have cooperated with other organizations, including the breakaway Mothers' group, to present various proposals to parliament aimed at changing the law for the benefit of the dependents of the disappeared. The original group of Mothers, however, have remained steadfast in their refusal to negotiate with the government. "The people of Argentina can't solve their problems in the courts," said their president. "We can only do it by participating and fighting.... We will never negotiate with the blood of our children." 
Other grassroots women's groups share the Mothers' mistrust of political parties and are working to establish their autonomy. This is true even in Argentina, where there is little tradition of independent social organizations. "Politicians have tried to persuade people to leave us and join their parties. The women don't go because they want to do something to improve their neighborhood and all the political people do is have barbecues and fight among themselves," said one member of the Community Health Workers in Argentina, echoing the sentiments of women in the shantytowns of Santiago de Chile. "They've done nothing to stop the spread of cholera. We're still not connected to the water mains or sewerage systems, and it's been left to us to educate people .... We don't want to depend on the politicians." 
With government help limited, much of the work of working-class women's organizations continues to depend on the personal sacrifices of members and small-scale fund-raising activities. Some women's groups are turning to international aid organizations for support. But ties with foreign and national institutions have sometimes put at risk their objective of self-education. "We've been on the verge of tears," said one leader of a grassroots women's project in Chile. "We've got to fill in a 22-page form, and every heading has a word that no one here understands. The institutions don't want to contribute towards wages for the people who work here unless they’re professionals. That's bad because we don't want someone to come from outside and install herself in the office here–we can do it ourselves." 
While many groups have introduced more formality into their procedures, not all have simply duplicated traditional forms. Their limited resources and lack of access to institutional power often led working-class women's organizations to reject bureaucratic procedures and the legalistic processes of negotiation which characterize constitutional politics. Partly out of a desire to preserve their independence from political parties, many have adopted imaginative ways of promoting internal democracy, encouraging all women to participate in leadership roles. Women have worked to overcome the problems associated with their lack of political experience by providing training in decision-making, and delegating responsibilities. 
The neoliberal economic policies adopted by the new constitutional governments have exacerbated social inequality. Growing poverty has forced communities to rely more on self-help, increasing women's burden. Although the economic crisis is a major reason for the continued growth of women's organizations, it is not the only explanation. Despite some improvements in the Chilean economy, for example, the number of communal kitchens is still increasing. These organizations have continued to grow not just because they help solve immediate practical problems but also because they offer women other benefits, from friendship and company to the possibility of more far-reaching changes in their lives. Campaigns against domestic violence, for example, not only challenge the authoritarianism embedded in everyday life and personal relationships, but also contribute towards a more democratic future, making it more difficult for tyrannical regimes to win legitimacy. "It was accepted that men were dictators and women were dictated to," said one member of a grassroots women's group in Chile. "Men and women were used to dictatorships. Until that changes, the conditions for more military coups will always exist in our societies." 
As well as creating their own community organizations, women have also begun to make inroads into traditionally male spheres of working-class politics. Despite the huge increase in women in paid work in recent years and their role in rebuilding unions under military rule, the labor movement which emerged after the dictatorships was led almost exclusively by men. In Argentina, where almost one-third of the workforce is female, only six of the country's 229 main trade unions are led by women. Even during the dictatorships women had begun to create their own sections inside the underground trade-union movement. "Why did we meet separately from the men?" asked one Chilean woman who attended clandestine union meetings under military rule. "Because when we put forward ideas in the meetings, no one took any notice of us. The same idea that we'd suggested was then put forward by a man from a political party or a union, using different words and he'd get the applause. The men gave their big political speeches and no one took any notice of us." 
A Uruguayan factory worker recounted how male unionists reacted to a proposal to set up a women's commission. "They all fell about laughing and joked, 'Yes, we'd been thinking about forming a men's commission,’” she said. "We were never able to forget this remark because we've heard the same thing everywhere, ever since." Unions have usually been hostile to anything which might be construed as 'women's issues,' believing them to be divisive of the working class. Despite this hostility, in Uruguay, where there has been a massive increase in women in the paid workforce over the past 20 years, women have succeeded in establishing their own commission inside the national trade-union organization. 
The commission has been instrumental in winning equal pay, health services and child care facilities and encouraging the growing number of women employed in the informal market to organize. However its aim is not only to introduce women's concerns into union policy, but also to change union practices which exclude women. "We've got to find other ways of working," said one member of the commission. "We don't want this type of unionism–it doesn't serve women.... The meetings are late, you have to find someone to look after the kids, you have to wait a long time for the bus and it's dangerous at night.... And then when you get to the meeting, you find that it's the men who speak all the time–you can't get a word in edgewise." The language used at union meetings reinforces the idea of the union as a man's world. "It's not a bad thing that the political economy is explained in terms of a football game," she continued, "but how many women understand football? Why not recipes or language related to the family economy?" 
Recognizing the ways in which women's domestic and working lives are so intimately bound up, women's commissions have concerned themselves with discrimination in society and the inequalities in personal relationships in the home. They have worked with other women's organizations, both feminist and nonfeminist, in campaigns, training, and research projects, and have introduced new issues into the union world, such as domestic violence, sex education, and even abortion. They have encouraged unions to move beyond traditional areas of action and to become involved in community issues and develop links with local organizations. 
In Argentina there has been a unique attempt to bring women and the work they do inside the home into the scope of union concern. The idea of classifying unpaid work done in the home as a job like any other formed the basis for a series of demands made by the Housewives' Union, set up in 1984. "First we demanded the right to organize a union, like all workers in Argentina," one member of the Housewives' Union said. "Secondly we wanted our work recognized through the payment of a salary, a pension and health benefits." The Housewives' Union represents a new 'territorial' kind of trade unionism, but unlike most neighborhood women's groups, it maintains a traditional centralized structure and allies itself closely with the Peronist Party. Its huge increase in membership, currently claimed to be 450,000, is the result of the tangible benefits the Union offers women, in particular its system of health insurance, which covers a vast section of the female population that previously had little access to medical services. 
Women's sections inside political parties also got their parties to endorse many key gender demands. In Argentina, for example, in a rare example of cooperation across political-party lines, women activists from all the major parties agreed on a joint campaign for positive discrimination in order to improve women's representation in parliament. The 'Quota Law,' passed in 1991, made it obligatory for political parties to field a minimum of 30% women candidates in national elections. Similar legislation is being considered in Uruguay. Women have also won space inside the state apparatus. In Chile, some women's groups have successfully promoted their members as independent candidates in elections to local government and community organizations. The proportion of women councillors voted into office in Santiago's most recent municipal elections is double the national government rate.[4] In Uruguay, Argentina and Chile, women's government departments were set up to develop and promote policies for women. Many demands high on the agenda of feminist organizations have been won–although not always in the form desired–and some of the more crude examples of discrimination have been removed from the statute books. In Argentina the United Nations convention on discrimination against women and the law on nursery-school education have been ratified, patria potestad–which gave privileges to men in decisions over children–has been reformed, and divorce has been legalized. In Chile a campaign to legalize divorce is underway. In all three countries, new domestic-violence initiatives have been implemented, including women's refuges and police stations staffed by women for the survivors of rape and domestic violence. 
While the combined efforts of the women's movements have transformed many aspects of women's social, economic and political roles, women continue to face formidable challenges. The gains women can make at the level of the state–whether for better health services, equal pay, or jobs–are limited by the current economic and political climate in the Southern Cone. Women's government departments may have certain powers but decisions about women are also made in other ministries where they are scarcely represented. Within state structures women are often isolated and underfunded, no match for the powerful alliance of forces which they must sometimes confront. At a time of cutbacks in public expenditures, gender issues are often seen as a luxury that the state can ill-afford. In Argentina, for example, the Women's Secretariat had its budget slashed and was finally dissolved as part of a process of state ‘rationalization.' The government has begun to take steps in Argentina to establish a cabinet-level minister for women, reinforcing fears that women's organizations are being manipulated by the state. Commissions set up inside unions across the Southern Cone have not yet achieved real independence or significant decision-making powers. And despite winning authorization to establish a union social-security fund, the Argentine Housewives' Union has not yet secured legal tradeunion status. 
Many women's organizations now see a strong, unified movement as an essential prerequisite for further advances. Women are challenging discrimination as it appears in many different areas of their lives–inside political parties, unions and communities, and at home. These challenges, however, often take the form of separate initiatives, with little cooperation between feminists and non-feminists, or among women of different classes or political allegiances. Working-class women do not always agree that feminist campaigns concerning divorce, domestic violence and abortion are political priorities. Moreover, these initiatives sometimes fail to take into account the situation of working-class women. 
Progress toward a consensus on basic demands may be emerging. The National Women's Meetings in Argentina provide a forum for growing numbers of feminists, as well as women from neighborhood groups, political parties, trade unions, and human rights organizations. Widespread support among women at these meetings for the 'Quota Law' contributed in large part to the bill's successful passage through Congress. The first Feminist Conference in Uruguay in 1992 also embraced a wide range of women's groups with the explicit aim of building a more cohesive movement. In Chile, feminism has taken up the challenge of incorporating the concerns of grassroots women's groups with annual Popular Feminist Meetings, as well as by offering leadership training and professional services. 
At a time when the political and economic outlook is bleak and the power of traditional working-class organizations is threatened by conservative legislation, unemployment and public disenchantment, the women's movement represents a force for revitalizing and democratizing working-class politics. Similarly, the presence of working-class women and the variety of interests with which they are concerned can also be a source of strength to the new women's movement. In the words of a member of a women's center in a Chilean shantytown: "Without us there won't be an effective working-class movement or a women's movement because we are the majority. Without us there will be no democracy." 

Jo Fisher is the author of Mothers of the Disappeared (1989). This article is based an research carried out for Out of the Shadows: Women, Resistance and Politics in South America (Monthly Review, 1993). 

1. In the name of ‘national security’ one in 30 Uruguyans spent time in prison; in Argentina, 30,000 people ‘disappeared’ and thousands more were murdered; in Chile over 30,000 were killed and tens of thousands were imprisoned. 
2. The arpilleras were sold abroad to help families of the victims of political repression and poverty. 
3. In the 1991 elections, women made up only 3% of the members of Congress, compared with 12% in 1983, and 22% in 1951. 
4. In the 1992 municipal elections, 11.5% of elected councillors were women. 


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

Tags: women, feminism, labor rights, civil society, grassroots movements

Like this article? Support our work. Donate now.