Speaking Out for Themselves

— Deborah Billings

“Creators of Theory and Agents of Change”(1)

Compañeras:
Voices From the Latin American Women's Movement
Edited by Gaby Küppers
London: Latin America Bureau, 1994, 188 pages, $15 paper.

DURING THIS TIME of feminist backlash in the United States, when feminism itself is blamed as a major source of social injustice and discontent and when many women are hesitant to advocate feminism, it is both enlivening and inspiring to read the collection of interviews which Gaby Küppers has compiled in her edited book, Compañeras.

Throughout the text we witness the strength and vitality of women in movements for social change, and hear their conviction as they embrace feminism -- a kind of their own making -- as a tool in their struggles to substantially transform the conditions in which they, their families and their communities live.

Küppers traveled throughout Latin America and the Caribbean where she interviewed politically active women during the early 1990s; she also spoke to women during their visits to Germany. The result is a collection of abbreviated interviews and articles in which women speak for themselves about their political involvement and activism.

General themes which they discuss include: autonomy (women from Nicaragua's Atlantic Coast, unfortunately, are not included in this section), reclaiming politics, human rights and women's rights, debating the social movement, feminist publications, and the future. While countries of origin are diverse, the voices of Chilean, Costa Rican, Dominican, and Puerto Rican women, all of whom have been involved in important women's organizing efforts, are notably absent from the collection.

Perhaps Küppers' most important goal in compiling this book (and its most important contribution to an ever-growing literature on women's movements and feminisms in Latin America and the Caribbean) is, as she states, “...to make women visible as politically organized and organizing participants and [to] let them describe the process in their own words” (2).

This is particularly important, in my view, considering the dearth of available literature in which women speak for themselves rather than having others, usually Western academics, represent them. The women with whom Küppers speaks are profound in their articulation of their needs, demands, and struggles.

Their words sound an important lesson to European and North American-based feminists who continue to portray Latin American women solely as “...victims of oppression rather than as creators of feminist theory [and] as agents of change.”(2) Clearly, these activists are far from being victims and are working diligently so that other women will recognize their own potential power.

Claiming Feminism

Common threads of concern connect women's discussions of their political activism and leave the reader with a sense of some of the most important issues facing women throughout the region. The first, which I think will compel many readers to re-evaluate or reframe presently-held conceptions of Latin American women's movements, involves the use of the term “feminist” to describe such movements and their active participants.

Throughout the interviews, women note that the term is used, but often-times with caution since it carries with it heavily-laden notions of subversion and division. All of the women are involved, both directly and indirectly, in challenging such negative connotations by systematically countering popular misinterpretations with their own definitions based in concrete action.

What does feminism look like according to these activists? Olga Benoit and Marie Frantz Joachim, from Haiti's SOFA (Solidarité Fanm Ayisyen -- Haitian Women's Solidarity -- a forum for rural women and market sellers), note that through their feminist organization:

“...[w]e work to achieve women's liberation and to create a new self-awareness among women. Women who are not aware of their own problems are not in a position to change the world either.... [W]omen who've developed their own self-awareness can take their own action.” (37)

Thus, the important element for SOFA is the development of a critical self-consciousness with which women can come to recognize, analyze, and confront the challenges facing them.

Jael Bueno of Bolivia talks about feminism in a related way: “For us, feminism means changing our lives and our attitudes, but also our relationships with women as well as with men -- in fact, with everyone around us.” (18)

In Bolivia, Buento explains, indigenous women have a strong influence on feminist thinking. Through one organization, Federación Nacional Bartolina Sisa (named for an Aymara woman who fought against the Spanish), women argue that:

“(T)he world used to be more harmonious because men and women were on an equal footing. Today there's no longer this equality, this balance. To unite all our forces once again in the struggle for a better world and to be effective as men and women working together, the women from Bartolina Sisa say the old balance must be reinstated. We women must regain our rights, we must speak with the same energy and the same confidence as men. And we must introduce our own demands into the general demands of our people. In my opinion that is the most obvious characteristic of feminism in Bolivia.” (20)

Struggles on Many Fronts

Linking women's demands to more general social demands is one of the strategies which makes Latin American feminism unique and in many ways quite different from Western, white, middle-class feminism.

Nancy Saporta Sternbach and her co-authors(3) assert that feminism arose most visibly throughout Latin America during the 1970s when movements for equality and resource redistribution were targeted by military and civilian regimes.

Latin American feminists challenged patriarchy and its articulation through militarism, as well as joining with other social movements to challenge social, political, and economic exploitation. Thus, women link gender-based oppression to other forms of oppression, thereby leading them to struggles on many fronts simultaneously.

While this common basis of feminist thought is shared by women throughout the book, feminism itself is articulated in a multitude of ways, thereby reflecting the great diversity that exists throughout Latin America and the Caribbean. Thus, it is more accurate as well as politically useful to speak of the multiple feminisms which have been developed and utilized by women throughout the region.(4)

The interviews in Compañeras help to take the reader away from a static notion of feminism to recognize that it is instead, “an ideology in the making.”(5)

A second common thread throughout the interviews is women's resistance to the system of “machismo” and its various manifestations, from domestic violence within the home to neoliberal policies now sweeping the globe.

Olga Benoit and Marie Frantz Joachim observe that machismo is often fallaciously portrayed as a part of “the culture” which women readily accept. “When women have the chance to speak, when there's space for that, then they say quite freely that >machismo is a problem for them and they don't accept it” (38); rather they are forced to live with it.

Resistance and the Future

Machismo is also used in the construction of neoliberal economic policies, which often exclude women from fairly-paid work opportunities. Structural adjustment programs, concurrent with most neoliberal schemes, profoundly affect work structures -- and women are the first to be expelled from the formal labor market to the informal sector.

Women continue to be primarily, if not solely, responsible for the maintenance of children, family and the household (another manifestation of >machismo), yet find it increasingly difficult to make ends meet. Thus hunger and poverty, linked to economic restructuring, have compelled women to become politically active in search of solutions to everyday living.

For decades, women have been forced to choose between affiliation with feminist or even women-based movements and affiliation with the left. Some left movements labeled feminism as a tool of the petty bourgeoisie, or accused feminists of weakening the cause by “airing the dirty laundry.”

As we begin to reconstruct alternative futures and as progressive movements rebuild and rearticulate struggles and demands, perhaps what we learn most from these interviews is something that Margaret Randall emphasized in Gathering Rage:(6) Social movements for fair and equal life conditions will never accomplish comprehensive change unless feminism is fully incorporated into their guiding principles and philosophies. Fifty percent of the population cannot be viewed as an afterthought.

Notes

  1. This term is taken from Jane S. Jaquette, The Women's Movement in Latin America: Feminism and the Transition to Democracy (Boston: Unwin Hyman, 1989), 1.
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  2. Ibid.
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  3. Nancy Saporta Sternbach, Marysa Navarro-Aranguren, Patricia Chuchryk, and Sonia E. Alvarez, “Feminisms in Latin America: From Bogota to San Bernardo,” Signs: Journal of Women in Culture and Society, 1992 17(2): 393-433.
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  4. This multiplicity is seen perhaps most vividly in the series of feminist encuentros (time of sharing, meeting, coming together) which have taken place since 1981 throughout the region, growing in size over the years (250 in Bogota, 1981 to 3000 in San Bernardo, Argentina, 1990). These meetings were initially attended largely by middle-to-upper-middle class, educated and professional women of predominantly European backgrounds from larger, more industrialized countries of the region. Today indigenous women, working-class women, refugee women, and women from grassroots popular and community movements from poorer (and especially Central American) countries are attending in greater numbers.
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  5. bell hooks, Black Women and Feminism, in Feminist Frontiers III, eds. Laurel Richardson and Verta Taylor (New York: McGraw-Hill, Inc. 1993).
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  6. Margaret Randall, Gathering Rage: The Failure of 20th Century Revolutions to Develop a Feminist Agenda, New York: Monthly Review Press, 1992.
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ATC 55, March-April 1995

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