Women on the Right

September 25, 2007

On December 9, 1998, British Minister of the Interior Jack Straw ruled that General Pinochet could be extradited to Spain to stand trial on charges of murder, terrorism and genocide. By late that afternoon, a crowd of Pinochet supporters, outraged at Straw's decision, had gathered at the Alcántara metro stop in the upscale Santiago neighborhood of Las Condes. This metro stop, located between the Spanish and British Embassies, has become the public meeting spot for the Chilean right since Pinochet's arrest. Here, as in the pro-Pinochet demonstrations in London, rightist women dominated the crowd. Just as they have been for much of the last 25 years, conservative Chilean women are the most fanatic and public face of the right's defense of its privilege and position within Chilean society.

Many of the women gathered at the metro stop sported T-shirts or buttons that said "I love you Pinochet." Pinochet, they shouted, is an "illegally seized hostage." In order to create the image that widespread popular support exists for the General's return, many women wore yellow ribbons, hoping to associate him with the U.S. hostages seized by Iran in the early 1980s.

How do these pro-Pinochet women explain their support for their general? They, like all the right, fervently declare that Pinochet saved them from Communism and disaster. In an attempt to justify the 1973 coup, Pinochet's female supporters tirelessly denounce the shortages, chaos and violence that existed during the Popular Unity years, problems for which they hold Allende completely responsible. Far from criticizing or even acknowledging the economic misery or the massive human rights abuses of the dictatorship years, they express their gratitude to Pinochet for having ended the shortages and restoring order and tranquillity to the country. As they chanted "we will never, never forget you, the liberator of Chile," they simultaneously expressed their passionate support for the General, protested his arrest as an example of British colonialism, and defined Pinochet as the twentieth-century equivalent of Bernardo O'Higgins, the man who led the fight for Chile's independence against Spanish colonialism in the 1820s.

Ideas about masculinity permeate their discourse. In rightist women's eyes, Pinochet is a real man since he successfully defended them against the dangers of Communism. Those who attack him are not. And that, for these women, goes a long way to explaining why there is so much anti-Pinochet sentiment in the world. As a number of women informed me, Pinochet was arrested because "the British Cabinet is made up of a bunch of homosexuals." Using most unladylike language, one of their favorite chants conflates the left with homosexuality in an attempt to link opposition to Pinochet to what they view as gender, political and sexual deviations: Comunistas, maricones, coma mierda, coma mierda, por huevones (Communists, fags, eat shit, eat shit, you assholes).

Although some young women attend the pro-Pinochet demonstrations, most of the protesters are middle-aged or elderly. They are proud of their years of anti-Communist activity and boast of their work against Allende and in support of Pinochet. Just as today women make up the majority of the public pro-Pinochet activists, during the Allende years women became the opposition's symbol of resistance to the Popular Unity government. Several of the women protesters at the metro stop were veterans of the December 1971 March of the Empty Pots and Pans. A few had been members of the anti-Allende women's organization Feminine Power, while others had been members of the mothers' centers led by Lucía Hiriart, Pinochet's wife, during the dictatorship.

The right has worked very hard and expended enormous resources to portray the Allende years as a time of economic disaster, corruption and political abuses. In an attempt to evoke this image of the past and to use it to explain their ardent defense of Pinochet today, many of the female anti-Communist activists have resurrected the tactics they used to undermine the Allende government and legitimize the coup. Following the March of the Empty Pots and Pans, anti-Allende women frequently banged pots at night to indicate that they had no food and it was the government's fault. In the months leading up to the 1973 coup, many of these same women threw feathers and wheat at the military to shame them into overthrowing Allende. Failure to do so, these women implied, could only be explained by the fact that they were chickens, since real men would spring to women's defense.

In order to encourage the armed forces to stand firm in their defense of Pinochet against the "international socialist conspiracy," rightist women have once again gone to the military barracks and thrown grain at the troops. Not only do women bring pots and pans to the pro-Pinochet rallies, they have also begun to bang them in the upper-class neighborhoods of Santiago. However, their actions are not merely the spontaneous response of individual women driven by their love for Pinochet. Rather, they are part of a coordinated attempt to create a pre-coup atmosphere in Santiago and to remind people that the right and the military retain the capacity and the willingness to inflict terror on the Chilean people should Pinochet be extradited to Spain.

Rightist women have played active roles in the two rightist parties, Independent Democratic Union (UDI) and National Renewal (RN). Like their male colleagues, rightist women deputies hastened to London to negotiate Pinochet's return to Chile and to demonstrate their support for the General. Women are also participating in the nonparty right. On December 9, the day Jack Straw first announced that Pinochet could be extradited to Spain, the neofascist Fatherland and Liberty held a press conference to announce that they exist because "the fatherland, the Chilean people need us." Pacha, a woman in her thirties and one of the four "commanders" who spoke, said she joined the group because "my General gave me the fatherland. As a woman and a mother, I want to make sure that my children and grandchildren do not inherit Communism."

Since the early 1960s Elena Larraín has been a leading figure in the nonparty right. In 1963 she organized the anti-Communist women's group, Action: Women of Chile, and in 1972 she helped to form Feminine Power. On December 30, she, along with several other nonparty conservative activists, announced the formation of the Committee for the Honor and Dignity of Chile. The organization denounced the "arbitrary detention of Senator Augusto Pinochet," announced that their goal was to "defend patriotic values," and called for "another September 11."

These women's ardent defense of Pinochet illustrates the success of the right in organizing women, and challenges the myth that women are necessarily more progressive than men. Their public adulation of Pinochet, in which militant anti-Communism and patriarchal ideas about social relations and masculinity and femininity are combined, is critical to the right's efforts to depict Pinochet as a national hero who enjoys a base of popular support, not a ruthless dictator who ruled through repression and brutality.

Margaret Power teaches history at the Illinois Institute of Technology. She is the author of Gendered Allegiances: The Construction of a Cross-Class Right-Wing Women's Movement in Chile (Penn State University Press, forthcoming).

Tags: Chile, Augusto Pinochet, women, conservative, politics

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