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Why is Feminist Activism Thriving in Latin America?

Updated: Jan 1

Argentina has just legalised abortion - thanks to relentless feminist activism.


Latin America can now boast rapid social change: with rising female employment, soaring representation (outpacing Europe), protections for domestic workers, and ginormous rallies against sexist violence. This sharply contrasts with entrenched patriarchy in the Middle East, North Africa, and South Asia.


What is different about Latin America? I would stress relatively weak constraints on women's mobility, economic development and democratisation. These deep roots and disruptors create a fertile environment for sustained mobilisation. If you'd rather listen than read, I have recorded an audio version for 'Rocking Our Priors' – available on Spotify etc.


Rising female employment, economic development & democratisation create an enabling environment


Latin America’s republics reinforced men's control. Legislation curtailed women’s freedom to work outside the home, open bank accounts, sign contracts, and appear in court. Divorce was illegal for much of the twentieth century – given Church opposition and legislators’ acquiescence. Housebound with multiple children, women remained economically dependent on husbands. Men decided the laws of the land.


Female employment rose from the 1970s thanks to falling fertility, education, economic insecurity, the expansion of the service sector and rising demand for cheap, docile labour. Given shifting opportunity costs and no tradition of female seclusion, families increasingly saw female employment as advantageous. By contrast in MENA and South Asia female employment remains low notwithstanding economic development.

Female labor force participation (Chioda et al 2014)

To support their families, women in squatter settlements and barrios pooled resources and strategised in neighbourhood associations. Communal kitchens became political hubs in Argentina – women questioned their subordination. At mothers’ clubs (often supported by the Church), women sought to collectively resolve their problems: sewage, day care, and domestic violence. To secure better health care in Buenos Aires, women joined urban social movements. Harnessing their legitimate identities as mothers, women's organisations pushed for human rights and democratisation. They protested disappearances in Argentina, Brazil and Chile.

At a suburban women’s meeting in the late 1980s, they reworked an old Brazilian country tune, championing their political efficacy:


‘Hello lace-making woman, hello woman of lace

If women stay at home, they’ll never conquer freedom

My mother had three daughters, all of them named Maria

The three would stay at home, only my father could go out’


‘Hello lace-making woman, hello woman of lace

If women stay at home, they’ll never conquer freedom

Women from the subúrbio, earned the fame of being brave

Even those who are illiterate, in their work are very competent

For justice and for freedom, they’ll fight even the president’.


Building on local organising, Latin American feminists have forged solidarity through Encuentros (national and regional activist meetings). Encuentros bring together tens of thousands of women: feminist collectives, poor people’s movements, indigenous groups, neighbourhood associations, rural women’s organisations, and student associations. For four decades, feminists of different ethnicities, races, classes, generations have shared experiences, reflected on their lives, recognised common grievances, analysed diverse forms of oppression, and exchanged campaign strategies.


Latin America's strong regional feminist network has provided hope, support, and solidarity for campaigns on quotas, domestic violence, and reproductive rights.


Feminist activism has also been enabled by democratisation and economic development (with attendant urbanisation, media access, secularism and more institutionalised parties).

With booming cities, Latin America is now 80% urban. This provides fertile grounds for activism. People living in interconnected, heterogeneous, densely populated areas with greater access to mass communications are perhaps more likely to hear critical discourses; see slogans of resistance emblazoned in political graffiti and murals; and learn about successful activism from their large, diverse social networks. By seeing successful resistance, others gain confidence in the possibility of reform and join forces.


Democratisation is fundamental. A permissive environment for myriad struggles catalyses a culture of resistance. Citizens realise that they can secure socio-political change through relentless mobilisation.


Argentinian women came out en masse in 2001: they organised factories, joined neighbourhood associations, marched with baby strollers, blocked roads, banged their cacerolas (pots and pans), rallied demonstrators with megaphones, chanted protest songs, and shouted ‘Que se vayan todos’ (they all must go!). Through relentless mobilisation, women became accustomed to resistance, they gained esteem, and built broader networks. In Bolivia’s Gas and Water Wars, women mobilised neighbourhood associations. Likewise in Chile, feminists have been emboldened by parallel struggles for social justice, like student mobilisation. Gender gaps in political efficacy and engagement still persist, but they are closing.


These big structural shifts - economic development, female employment, and democratisation - provide an enabling environment for campaigns on gender quotas, domestic workers' rights, sexist violence, and abortion.


Gender quotas


95% of legislative seats in the first post-transition elections were won by men. Over the 1990s, men continued to account for more than 90% of lower or unicameral legislatures. Autonomous women’s movements decried this exclusion from political decision-making. Male legislators acquiesced to feminist pressure for quotas, but with loopholes. Feminists in civil society and public office maintained momentum. They strengthened gender quotas, closed loopholes, and raised thresholds – under both left and right wing governments. Women’s legislative representation increases citizens’ support for female leaders – fostering a positive feedback loop.

Women’s representation in Latin America’s legislatures, 1997 & 2017 (Hinojosa and Kittilson 2020)

Emboldened, feminists now campaign for #ParidadEnTodo (parity in everything). This is framed as an expression of democracy and human rights:


‘[It’s] is not making space [for women], it is not implementing a quota, it is sharing in decision-making so that together we [men and women] can be co-responsible in the true development and advance of democracy’ (Mexican senator Adriana Díaz)
‘Parity is not a quota in favour of the participation of women, but the widest expression of the universality of human rights’ (Costa Rican Deputy Hilda González Ramírez).

Ten Latin American countries now require gender balance among legislative candidates. With stronger quotas, Argentina, Bolivia, Costa Rica, Ecuador, Mexico and Nicaragua now elect an average of 46% of women to their lower/ single chamber of congress. Mexico’s 2019 constitution mandates parity for the executive, judiciary and state organs. In Chile, women marched, staged protests, and wrote op-ed pieces demanding a constitutional assembly with gender parity. In October 2020, voters approved: #NuncaMasSinMujeres (never again without women). This attests to broad public support for women’s representation.


Domestic workers’ rights


Many poor black and indigenous girls start domestic service at a vulnerable young age. Their low wages and long, solitary workdays inhibit organising. Elites (as well as middle class women) tend to ignore their plight. Servitude has a long history in Latin America and is still seen as natural.


Creuze Oliveira started domestic work at the age of ten. She was routinely psychologically, physically and sexually abused. Until age 21, she only received clothes and food, not pay. Like many other domestic workers, Creuze Oliveira thought her situation was unchangeable.


But then she heard a radio programme on domestic workers’ rights. Curious to learn more, she snuck out and clandestinely gathered with activists in church. By networking with other domestic workers and expanding her horizons, Creuze Oliveira came to believe she could change her circumstances, and would be supported. She became President of the National Federation of Domestic Workers in Brazil, securing progressive legal reform.

Collaborating with labour advocates in Europe, Latin American domestic worker leaders successfully lobbied for an ILO Convention on Domestic Workers. Domestic workers's organisations then pushed for domestic ratification and implementation.


With the support of institutionalised left governments (as in Brazil, Chile and Uruguay), domestic workers’ organisations have pushed for labour rights and stronger enforcement. Their lives have materially improved, with shorter workdays and broader social security. Domestic worker organisations were also strong in Peru and Mexico, but they were unable to secure support from non-left-wing presidents. Most continue to work without contracts or social security.


Representation also matters. In Bolivia, labour inspectors became more empathetic to domestic workers after Morales’s election. This led domestic workers to anticipate state support and increasingly report labour rights violations.


Sexist violence


In the 1980s, Brazilian feminists successfully pushed for women’s police stations. Over the 2000s, there were fewer female homicides in municipalities with women police stations. This effect was especially large for young women in major cities, i.e. those who likely had more economic autonomy and supportive communities. To politicise patriarchal violence and shift public opinion, women's movements continue to agitate. This struggle has blazed across Latin America.

‘Women actors, politicians, artists, entrepreneurs, social activists . . . all women, are we not going to raise our voice? THEY ARE KILLING US – tweeted Argentinian journalist Marcela Ojela.

Her appeal went viral. With 75% internet penetration, Argentinian social media was a catalyst for discussions nationwide. Feminists organised local assemblies, panels, protests, public testimonies, and street actions. Two hundred thousand marched in 2015, shouting ‘Ni Una Menos’. Young feminist groups in Buenos Aires formed ‘siluetazo’ (the silhouettes of murdered women, like the desaparecidos from the dictatorships). Building on Argentina’s long tradition of social mobilisation, allying with parallel struggles, demonstrators shouted ‘¡Vivas, libres y desendeudadas nos queremos!’ (We want us alive, free, and without debts).


These protests and public discussions politicise abuse:


‘What Ni Una Menos has done is that it made the demand (not one less) clearer and made us more attentive about the fact that they are killing us, repressing us, the inequalities that exist, to question the male-chauvinism, to question the system that we are living in’,


‘It helped me realise.. with more clarity, that I have been a victim of violence in my life, that I have been in violent relationships, and that I have been harassed in public spaces for being a woman’.


Protests quickly spread to Mexico, Uruguay, Chile, then later in Peru, Bolivia, Paraguay, El Salvador, Guatemala, and Spain. Regional networking emboldens women across the continent. Hundreds of thousands of women continue to march, mobilise, and demonstrate resistance.

Reproductive rights


For decades, women across Latin America have struggled to secure sexual and reproductive rights. Intransigence means unsafe abortions and maternal deaths. Despite these costs, abortion has seldom been a political priority. Voters are more concerned by the economy and crime, women are silenced by stigma, while politicians are reticent to antagonise the Church.


Democratisation, growing secularism, left-wing governments, and institutionalised party systems have enhanced opportunities for women’s mobilisation. Church attendance is falling and trust is weakening – especially with reports of paedophilia.


Capitalising on these structural shifts, pro-abortion coalitions have leveraged support from centre-left governments, ministries of health, unions, lawyers, doctors, and journalists. Over a thousand Uruguayan public figures signed an open letter, ‘Aborto: No mas silencios públicos!’ (Abortion: no more public silence). 9000 people (including eight ministers) shared their experiences on the blog ‘Yo Aborte’ (I aborted). Young Argentinian activists deck their wrists, necks and backpacks with the green kerchief (symbolising Latin American feminism, alluding to Argentina’s Madres de Plaza de Mayo who wore white handkerchiefs to protest disappearances). To demonstrate support and create festival spirit, they paint their lips, eyelids and faces bright green. As a 27 year old woman exclaimed,

‘The Fourth wave is going to be green, glittery, and Latin American!’.

Demonstrations, petitions, and street performances showcase widespread support. Legal abortion is framed as critical for public health, human rights, and full democratic citizenship. Recent successes in Uruguay and Argentina offer hope for feminists across the continent.


In sum, deep roots and disruptors enable relentless activism


There is much to learn from Latin American feminist movements – demanding gender parity in governance, protecting domestic workers, politicising sexist violence, and legalising abortion.


Their successes reflect two key features of the continent: weak constraints on female mobility (enabling rising female education, employment, female-headed households, and networking) as well democratisation and economic development (with attendant urbanisation, internet penetration, secularism, and more institutionalised parties). These deep roots and disruptors enable sustained feminist activism.



Excellent Readings on Gender Relations across Latin America


Historical overviews

O’Connor, Erin E. 2014. Mothers Making Latin America: Gender, Households, and Politics Since 1825. Wiley

Chant, Sylvia, and Nikki Craske. 2002. Gender in Latin America. London: Latin America Bureau.

Dore, Elizabeth, and Maxine Molyneux. 2000. Hidden Histories of Gender and the State in Latin America. Duke University Press.

Kinship & the family

Carlos, Manuel L., and Lois Sellers. 1972. ‘Family, Kinship Structure, and Modernization in Latin America. Latin American Research Review 7(2): 95–124.

Collier, George A. 1978. ‘The Determinants of Highland Maya Kinship’. Journal of Family History 3(4): 439–53.

De Vos, Susan M. 1995. Household Composition in Latin America. Springer Science

Deere, Carmen Diana. 1978. ‘The Differentiation of the Peasantry and Family Structure: A Peruvian Case Study’. Journal of Family History 3(4): 422–38.

Kuznesof, Elizabeth Anne. 1989. ‘The History of the Family in Latin America: A Critique of Recent Work’ eds. Diana Balmori et al. Latin American Research Review 24(2): 168–86.

Kuznesof, Elizabeth Anne. 2018. Household Economy And Urban Development: Sao Paulo 1765-1836. Routledge.

Kuznesof, Elizabeth, and Robert Oppenheimer. 1985. ‘The Family and Society in Nineteenth-Century Latin America: An Historiographical Introduction. Journal of Family History 10(3): 215–34.

Wainerman, Catalina H. 1978. ‘Family Relations in Argentina: Diachrony and Synchrony’: Journal of Family History 3(4): 410–421. (March 9, 2020).

Nazzari, Muriel. 1990. ‘Parents and Daughters: Change in the Practice of Dowry in São Paulo (1600-1770)’. Hispanic American Historical Review 70(4): 639–65.

Socolow, Susan Migden. 2015. The Women of Colonial Latin America. CUP

Safa, Helen. 2005. ‘The Matrifocal Family and Patriarchal Ideology in Cuba and the Caribbean’. Journal of Latin American Anthropology 10(2): 314–38.

Insurgencies

Kampwirth, Karen. 2002. Women and Guerrilla Movements: Nicaragua, El Salvador, Chiapas, Cuba. Penn State Press.

Lutjens, Sheryl L. 1995. ‘Reading Between the Lines: Women, the State, and Rectification in Cuba’. Latin American Perspectives 22(2): 100–124.

Viterna, Jocelyn. 2013. Women in War: The Micro-Processes of Mobilization in El Salvador. OUP

Rural economies

Deere, Carmen Diana. 1982. ‘The Division of Labor by Sex in Agriculture: A Peruvian Case Study’. Economic Development and Cultural Change 30(4): 795–811.

Deere, Carmen Diana. 1995. ‘What Difference Does Gender Make? Rethinking Peasant Studies’. Feminist Economics 1(1): 53–72.

Deere, Carmen Diana. 2005. The Feminization of Agriculture? Economic Restructuring in Rural Latin America | UNRISD.

Deere, Carmen Diana. 2017. ‘Women’s Land Rights, Rural Social Movements, and the State in the 21st-Century Latin American Agrarian Reforms. Journal of Agrarian Change 17(2): 258–78.

Katz, Elizabeth. 2003. ‘The Changing Role of Women in the Rural Economies of Latin America’. FAO.

Rural-urban migration

Brumer, Anita. 2008. ‘Gender Relations in Family-Farm Agriculture and Rural-Urban Migration in Brazil’. Latin American Perspectives 35(6): 11–28.

Lawson, Victoria A. 1998. ‘Hierarchical Households and Gendered Migration in Latin America: Feminist Extensions to Migration Research. Progress in Human Geography 22(1): 39–53.

Radcliffe, Sarah A. 1991. ‘The Role of Gender in Peasant Migration: Conceptual Issues from the Peruvian Andes’. Review of Radical Political Economics 23(3–4): 129–47.

Falling fertility

Guzmán, José Miguel. 1991. The Onset of Fertility Decline in Latin America. | ECLAC

Martin, Teresa Castro, and Fatima Juarez. 1995. ‘The Impact of Women’s Education on Fertility In Latin America: Searching for Explanations’. International Family Planning Perspectives 21(2): 52–80.

Potter, Joseph E., Carl P. Schmertmann, Renato M. Assunção, and Suzana M. Cavenaghi. 2010. ‘Mapping the Timing, Pace, and Scale of the Fertility Transition in Brazil’. Population and Development Review 36(2): 283–307.

Rosero-Bixby, Luis, Teresa Castro-Martín, and Teresa Martín-García. 2009. ‘Is Latin America Starting to Retreat from Early and Universal Childbearing?’ Demographic Research 20: 169–94.

l Policy & Administration 40(4): 425–49.

Rising female employment

Arceo-Gomez, Eva, and Raymundo Campos-Vazquez. 2010. Labor Supply of Married Women in Mexico: 1990-2000. El Colegio de México, Centro de Estudios Económicos. Serie documentos de trabajo del Centro de Estudios Económicos.

Busso, Matias, and Dario Romero Fonesca. 2015. ‘Determinants of Female Labor Force Participation. In Bridging Gender Gaps? The Rise and Deceleration of Female Labor Force Participation in Latin America.

Chioda, Laura. 2016. Work and Family: Latin American and Caribbean Women in Search of a New Balance. World Bank.

Filgueira, Fernando, and Juliana Martínez Franzoni. 2017. ‘The Divergence in Women’s Economic Empowerment: Class and Gender under the Pink Tide’. Social Politics: International Studies in Gender, State & Society 24(4): 370–98.

Gómez-Galvarriato, Aurora, and Lucía Madrigal. 2016. ‘Women’s Labor Force Participation in Mexico During the 20th Century: Childbearing and Career Decisions’. In Gender Inequalities and Development in Latin America During the Twentieth Century, eds. María Magdalena Camou, Silvana Maubrigades, and Rosemary Thorp. Routledge.

Raynolds, Laura T. 1998. ‘Harnessing Women’s Work: Restructuring Agricultural and Industrial Labor Forces in the Dominican Republic’. Economic Geography 74(2):

Youssef, Nadia H. 1972. ‘Differential Labor Force Participation of Women in Latin American and Middle Eastern Countries: The Influence of Family Characteristics’. Social Forces 51(2): 135–53.

Serrano, Joaquín, Leonardo Gasparini, Mariana Marchionni, and Pablo Glüzmann. 2020. ‘Economic Cycle and Deceleration of Female Labor Force Participation in Latin America. IDB working paper.

Chant, Sylvia. 1991. Women and Survival in Mexican Cities: Perspectives on Gender, Labour Markets and Low-Income Households. Manchester UP.

Rocha, Mercedes González de la. 2007. The Construction of the Myth of Survival’. Development and Change 38(1): 45–66.

Gaddis, Isis, and Janneke Pieters. 2012. Trade Liberalization and Female Labor Force Participation: Evidence from Brazil. Institute of Labor Economics (IZA).

Mendez, Jennifer Bickham. 2005. From the Revolution to the Maquiladoras: Gender, Labor, and Globalization in Nicaragua. Duke University Press.

Pieters, Janneke. 2018. ‘Trade Liberalization and Gender Inequality. IZA World of Labor.

Safa, Helen I. 1995. The Myth Of The Male Breadwinner: Women And Industrialization In The Caribbean. Westview Press.

Salzinger, Leslie. 2003. Genders in Production. UC Press.

Activism

Alvarez, Sonia E. 1990. Engendering Democracy in Brazil: Women’s Movements in Transition Politics. Princeton

Anderson, Cora Fernández. 2020. Fighting for Abortion Rights in Latin America: Social Movements, State Allies and Institutions. Routledge.

Baldez, Lisa. 2010. Why Women Protest: Women’s Movements in Chile. CUP.

Blofield, Merike, and Christina Ewig. 2017. ‘The Left Turn and Abortion Politics in Latin America’. Social Politics: International Studies in Gender, State & Society 24(4): 481–510.

Blofield, Merike. 2012. Care Work and Class: Domestic Workers’ Struggle for Equal Rights in Latin America. Pennsylvania State University Press.

Borland, Elizabeth, and Barbara Sutton. 2007. ‘Quotidian Disruption and Women’s Activism in Times of Crisis, Argentina 2002-2003’. Gender & Society 21(5): 700–722.

Chaney, Elsa, and Mary Garcia Castro. 1991. Muchachas No More: Household Workers in Latin America and the Caribbean. Temple UP

Corcoran-Nantes, Yvonne. 2003. ‘Female Consciousness or Feminist Consciousness?: Women’s Consciousness Raising in Community-Based Struggles in Brazil’. In Feminist Theory Reader, Routledge, 126–37.

Díez, Jordi. 2013. ‘Explaining Policy Outcomes: The Adoption of Same-Sex Unions in Buenos Aires and Mexico City’. Comparative Political Studies 46(2): 212–35.

Drogus, Carol Ann, and Hannah Stewart-Gambino. 2007. Activist Faith. Penn State UP

Fuentes, María Luisa Sánchez, Jennifer Paine, and Brook Elliott-Buettner. 2008. ‘The Decriminalisation of Abortion in Mexico City: How Did Abortion Rights Become a Political Priority?’ Gender & Development 16(2): 345–60.

Htun, Mala Nani. 2003. Sex and the State: Abortion, Divorce, and the Family Under Latin American Dictatorships and Democracies. CUP

Lopreite, Debora. 2014. ‘Explaining Policy Outcomes in Federal Contexts: The Politics of Reproductive Rights in Argentina and Mexico’. Bulletin of Latin American Research 33(4): 389–404.

Roggeband, Conny. 2016. ‘Ending Violence against Women in Latin America: Feminist Norm Setting in a Multilevel Context’. Politics & Gender 12(1): 143–67.

Rousseau, Stéphanie, and Anahi Morales Hudon. 2017. Indigenous Women’s Movements in Latin America: Gender and Ethnicity in Peru, Mexico, and Bolivia. Palgrave.

Safa, Helen Icken. 1990. ‘Women’s Social Movements In Latin America’. Gender & Society 4(3): 354–69.

Sardenberg, Cecília M. B. 2012. ‘Negotiating Culture in the Promotion of Gender Equality and Women’s Empowerment in Latin America’. IDS Working Papers 2012(407): 1–44.

Schroeder, Kathleen. 2006. ‘A Feminist Examination of Community Kitchens in Peru and Bolivia’. Gender, Place & Culture 13(6): 663–68.

Sutton, Barbara. 2020. ‘Intergenerational Encounters in the Struggle for Abortion Rights in Argentina. Women’s Studies International Forum 82: 102392.

Quotas & political representation

Funk, Kendall D, Magda Hinojosa, and Jennifer M Piscopo. 2017. ‘Still Left Behind: Gender, Political Parties, and Latin America’s Pink Tide’. Social Politics: International Studies in Gender, State & Society 24(4): 399–424.

Piatti-Crocker, Adriana. 2019. ‘The Diffusion of Gender Policy in Latin America: From Quotas to Parity’. Journal of International Women’s Studies 20(6): 44–59..

Piscopo, Jennifer M. 2015. ‘States as Gender Equality Activists: The Evolution of Quota Laws in Latin America’. Latin American Politics and Society 57(3): 27–49.

Piscopo, Jennifer M. 2016. ‘Democracy as Gender Balance: The Shift from Quotas to Parity in Latin America’. Politics, Groups, and Identities 4(2): 214–30.

Piscopo, Jennifer M. 2020. ‘When Do Quotas in Politics Work? Latin America Offers Lessons.’ Americas Quarterly.

Schwindt-Bayer, Leslie A. 2010. Political Power and Women’s Representation in Latin America. OUP

Htun, Mala. 2015. Inclusion without Representation in Latin America. CUP

Persistent Inequalities

Rogers, Ashley. 2020. ‘“But the Law Won’t Help Us”: Challenges of Mobilizing Law 348 to Address Violence Against Women in Bolivia’. Violence Against Women 26(12–13): 1471–92

Radcliffe, Sarah A. 2015. ‘Dilemmas of Difference: Indigenous Women and the Limits of Postcolonial Development Policy’.

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