Women and Politics in Latin America and the Caribbean

views updated

Women and Politics in Latin America and the Caribbean

Politics in the Latin American and Caribbean region owes as much to women, whether they are revolutionary or reform-minded, as it does to their male counterparts. Women have been successful in a range of political activities: rebellion against slavery, attainment of voting rights, and national independence. The growth of trade unionism and party politics, including Communist Party formation and development, has also relied on women's political participation and overall leadership. Street protests, public education, and advocacy as responses to the injustices of late twentieth- and early twenty-first-century globalization have often been advanced by working-class women and female policy analysts in Latin America and the Caribbean. Importantly, where governments have engaged with liberalization and the Washington consensus, women have also helped to clarify, amplify, and modify policy choices.

Women's many contributions to Caribbean and Latin American politics date back at least to the eighteenth century, when brown women and black women dared to do as much as men so they could be participant-subjects and not mere observers in a public sphere controlled by the legitimacy of Europeans, whiteness, male dominance, and upper-class status. All across the Americas, the early and continuing advent of women in the political arena would change the presumption that public political intercourse was and remains bounded by gender exclusions of female actors and the values associated with them.

Seen from the point of view of all who contest and hold office, it appears that politics are a man's world. Though attitudes are changing, studies show, for example, that both women and men believe that men are emotionally better suited for politics than women. Other studies show that women are generally more likely to vote for a man than for a woman. Gender biases against women have contributed to women's limited public-sphere roles, and such exclusions have added to their political invisibility. More, for example, is recorded about male Carib or Kalinago warriors than about females who played equally pivotal roles in the development of today's Caribbean. This is not to deny that women themselves have shied away from politics for a variety of reasons, including the fact that in its public culture and representation, politics carries an unhealthy masculinist identity, largely anathema to the values of cooperation and justice which themselves are ascribed more to women than to men.

Undeniably, if societies are to be democratic and progress, women's equitable and meaningful participation is mandatory. Only a few women served as parliamentarians in the West Indies Federation (19581962), a political and administrative grouping of English-speaking colonies. In 1995 the United Nations recommended that at least 30 percent of all decision-making bodies be female, especially parliaments, cabinets, and other political and policy-level structures. According to a survey conducted by the Inter-Parliamentary Union in early 2005, parliaments across the Latin American and Caribbean region were about 19 percent female; the upper houses included only about 19.5 percent women and lower houses about 18.8 percent. These figures represent improvements from 1997. Moreover, the 2005 ratio of women to men in Caribbean and Latin American parliaments is better than in many other parts of the developing world: Sub-Saharan African parliaments, for example, are only about 10 to 15 percent female, while the governments of Arab states are only about 3 to 8 percent female. Worldwide, woman made up about 12 to 16 percent of parliamentarians in 2005. All, however, are still far from the fifty/fifty democratic ideal.


Women's participation in Latin American and Caribbean politics included running away to become maroons or bush-based freedom fighters before emancipation. Cubah, a Jamaican slave revered as an African Queen Mother, is recorded as committed to fighting the white slavery establishment in the 1680s (Mathurin, 1975, p. 21). Nanny, a celebrated and "remarkable Ashanti chieftainess," is perhaps the best known of the eighteenth-century figures. For a half century until her death in the 1750s, Nanny combined the private role of wife with the public roles of priestess, community organizer, military strategist, guerilla leader, wartime negotiator, and peacetime political leader (Mathurin, pp. 3537). She was so politically successful that a village for free people was named Nanny Town in her honor. Nanny laid a foundation for the role of black women's resistance to injustice, and it is said that "of all the black resistance leaders of her time Nanny was foremost among those who resolved never to come to terms with the English [colonial presence in Jamaica]" (Mathurin, p. 37).

Nanny was not the only woman who dared to confront the militarism and injustice of colonialism. Gammay of Grenada was as fierce a freedom fighter against slavery in the 1790s as was her better-known male contemporary, Julien Fedon. Their joint leadership gave birth to the first successful rebellion against British slavery in Grenada (17951796). So strategic was Gammay's political-military advisory role to Fedon that it is said he was unable to launch his revolt until Gammay, his principal field lieutenant, operating as a vendor in the only market allowed at the time in Grenville, had canvassed supporters and gathered enough intelligence to guide the operations. Gammay's invisibility in recorded history may well be explained by her gender and social status: as a slave woman, she would be seen only as a market vendor and not as a complex political analyst shielded by a vendor's identity; as a full-blooded African female, she would not be recognized in the way that the schooled, French-mulatto Fedon was. This would have been true for innumerable women, accounting in part for their absence in recorded history.

Where Nanny would lay the foundation for the model of the daring, lone woman leader, Gammay set the stage for the more traditional, gendered division of labor between women and men in today's political life: women perform the behind-the-scenes analysis and mobilization, and men undertake the role of public leadercommander, spokesperson, and titleholder. That partnership has become the model for how women and men share political leadership. However, by the end of the twentieth century, unequal and stereotypical male-female power sharing would begin to unravel as women ascended, on their own, to significant places in government and other leadership positions. Both models of women's engagement in politics continue today.

Roots from the Nineteenth Century

The participation of the region's women in contemporary public political life evolved from diverse historical backgrounds. For the majority of political women, activism arose from more traditional roles of mothering and caregiving in household, village, and community. Cleaning the church, washing and ironing the robes of the priests and the ceremonial clothes of male religious leaders, taking care of the sick, elderly, and homebound in the communitythese activities were a continuation of what women did in their homes. Thus, one model of the political engagement of women was politics as the art of mothering (caregiving, nurturing, negotiating difference). For some observers this also explains the agenda that many women bring to political leadership in national governmentmotherhood in and as policy formulation, and thus a focus on issues such as child welfare, health care, and social security protections for the vulnerable. The politics of mothering took radical form in the 1970s in such groups as the Argentinean Mothers of the Plaza de Mayo, mothers and grandmothers mobilized to petition the state for answers to the disappearances of their children and grandchildren. In Catholic Latin America, the model is Mary, the mother of Jesus, who is held up as an icon of humility, submission, and sacrifice for others. Thus marianismo (subservient female culture and behavior) characterizes the political culture of many ordinary Latin American women.

For others, such as Haitian women, experiences as resistance leaders in the fight against slavery and for independence in the late 1970s inform current struggles for survival and justice. Such Haitian groups as Kay Fanm (Women Stand Strong) are made up of activist feminists who are engaging in antidictatorship and anti-imperialist organizing among women. These groups draw inspiration from the lives of such Haitian women as Poto Mitans, that is, women as the main supporting beams of home, church, and community going as far back as the slavery period.

For still others, experiences as subjugated black females continue to inform political engagement and nonengagement. In the post-emancipation Anglophone Caribbean, women's early public roles were very much in the social sphere. They formed mothers' unions in Christian churches, friendship groups in secular society, and savings or susu collectives for financial viability in the economic sector. They were also leaders in such organizations as the Young Women's Christian Association (YWCA), the Soroptimists, and other women's clubs. Women who come into politics from social work and social activism seem to carry with them experiences of being negotiators and bridge builders, and they are attentive to people's needs. Coming into the political sphere from these civil society groups, they also seem to have gained, prior to coming into office, self-confidence that allows them to be flexible, risk-taking, and politically generous. Finally, they often have developed the formal and informal support networks that are so useful when they enter politics.

Large numbers of women have also entered politics directly, through the struggle for political rights and freedoms and the attainment of power through electoral office. Mary Eugenia Charles, who served as prime minister of Dominica from 1980 to 1995, began her political career fighting for the right to political expression. Janet Jagan, president of Guyana from 1997 to 1999, was a founding member and political activist in the People's Progressive Party, one of Guyana's foremost socialist parties. Thus, women in Latin America and the Caribbean have taken various paths into national political life.

Twentieth Century

Cuban women became the first women in the region to gain the right to vote in 1934. Today adult suffrage is enjoyed by almost all in the region, with the important exception of indigenous women in many countries. Women have gone further and played their role in the revolutionary seizure of power. Celia Sánchez fought Cuban dictatorship from the mountains to bring about the 1959 Cuban revolution. Grenada's Jacqueline Creft, Scotilda Noel, Claudette Pitt, and Murie François joined the revolutionary New Jewel Movement and helped support both women and revolutionary Grenada. For three decades, Guatemala's Rigoberta Menchú, the 1992 Noble Peace Prize laureate, followed the political tradition of resistance to the injustice of dictatorship and championed human rights, especially those of indigenous Central Americans.

Caribbean women have also filled the ambassadorship ranks. A leading pioneer was the Dominican Republic's Minerva Bernardino, representative to the United Nations for twenty-one years (19501971); she later represented her country in various European capitals. Chile's Ana Figuero Gajardo was a delegate to the UN Security Council in 1952, a very rare achievement for a woman, even today. Jamaican scholar Lucille Mathurin Mair became one of the Caribbean's most accomplished diplomats, serving as Jamaica's ambassador to Cuba, the United States, and Canada. She also served as assistant secretary-general for the United Nations Decade for Women (19761985). Nora Astorga Gadia was revolutionary Nicaragua's UN ambassador in the 1980s, and she went on to become her country's deputy minister of foreign affairs before her untimely death in 1988. Mexico's Rosario Green served for a short period as UN deputy assistant secretary-general.

Ruth Nita Barrow, who served as governor-general of Barbados, was that country's representative to the United Nations from 1986 to 1990, emerging from leadership posts in the World Council of Churches, the YWCA, and the global anti-apartheid movement. This route through the social-service and social-justice sector remains typical of the women who reach top political posts. Nita is held up as one of the region's most successful women in politicsin the nongovernmental world, as well as with the state. Nita followed Nanny's model of standing largely on her own power base and not that of others, even though her brother, Errol Barrow, was prime minister of Barbados and would have contributed to her political ascendancy. Former dean of the Faculty of Arts and Sciences of the University of the West Indies, Marjorie R. Thorpe served as Trinidad and Tobago's permanent representative to the United Nations from 1988 until 1992. Female diplomats from Belize, Jamaica, and the Bahamas have followed at the United Nations, including Grenada's Ruth Rouse, who began serving as her country's UN ambassador in 2004.

Women as National Political Leaders

Among the first women to hold high public office in Latin America in the early twentieth century was Eva Duarte de Perón, second wife of Juan Perón, president of Argentina from 1946 to 1955 and 1973 to 1974; both were left-wing populist leaders with a large working-class following. Never elected to office and reviled by Argentinean elites, Eva Perón was adored by poor and ordinary people who saw her exercise of political citizenry to be a great achievement for the excluded, the poor, the rural poor, and of course, women. Evita, as she was affectionately referred to by the Argentinean masses, made her mark in politics by taking up the needs of the social class from which she emerged, the poor and downtrodden. As the wife of a powerful president, the female Perón's vantage point in the public arena was that of proximity to power, if not elected power itself. She performed as a politician with unparalleled success for a decade before her premature death at age thirty-three.

Eva Perón was among the first of "first ladies" to transform that office into an active political staging post to benefit her husband and herself. This is yet another way in which women have been political actors. In the Anglophone Caribbean, political strategist, journalist, and effective social activist Beverly Anderson Manley occupied the post of first lady from 1972 until her divorce in the 1980s. She helped her husband, Jamaican prime minister Michael Manley, raise the profile of Jamaica in regional, third world, and global politics. Beverly Manley also raised the visibility of Jamaican women as political players by being an active spokesperson rather than a demure wife and first lady. In Costa Rica, Margarita, and in Peru, Fujimura both attempted runs as president while being first ladies.

Argentina gave the world the first elected female president: Maria Estella Martínez Cartas de Perón, who was elected in July 1974 and was removed in a coup in March 1976. (The first woman elected to the office of head of government was Prime Minister Sirimavo Bandaranaike of Ceylon [Sri Lanka] in 1960. She was followed by Prime Minister Indira Gandhi of India in January of 1966.) Maria Perón's electoral achievement was followed by that of the interim executive president of Bolivia, Lydia Gueiler Tejada, who served for nine months between November 1979 and July 1980. Haiti's Ertha Pascal Trouillot, a supreme court judge, served as president from March 1990 to February 1991, a postdictatorship period in Haiti.

Latin America's longest-serving female president was Nicaragua's Violeta Barrios de Chamorro, a devout Catholic, marianismo, and political centrist who served as president from 1990 to 1997. Widow to a newspaper publisher with presidential ambitions, Chamorro was recruited to head a warring political opposition to a revolutionary government. In December 1997 Guyana, an Afro-Indian country, elected its first woman president: Janet Rosenberg Jagan, a United Statesborn white Jewish activist whose husband, Cheddi Jagan, had also been president. She served two years before an early resignation for health reasons in July 1999. Mireya Moscoso Rodríguez was elected and served as executive president of Panama in September 1999. She served until September 2004. Like Chamorro and Jagan, Rodríguez was a widow of a former president. Though few in number, and often criticized by feminists, these women have helped to erase female invisibility in Caribbean and Latin American politics.

One of the first women in the region to serve as head of state, and the first woman governor in the British Commonwealth, was Hilda Louisa Gibbs Bynoe, a Grenadian medical doctor appointed to be governor of nonindependent Grenada, Carriacou, and Petite Martinique in 1968. She resigned during a popular uprising over dictatorship and independence in 1974. As a powerful and accomplished black woman, Bynoe captured the attention of women across the region. In 2005, women are governor generals in the Bahamas, St. Lucia and Canada.

Jamaica's Portia Simpson, who grew up in her country's lower socioeconomic strata, is one of Jamaica's most admired national politicians. Simpson's career has been a long ascendancy within the party system, amid debates about whether or not a woman can lead a dynamicsome would say turbulentJamaica.

In trade union activism, from Bolivia to Trinidad, from Mexico to Barbados, women have made their markone example from the mid-twentieth century is Elma François of Trinidad and Tobago. In addition, Guatemala's Rigoberta Menchú has helped women across the region in the politics of human rights and peace.

In the diaspora, black Caribbean women have been political pioneers. United States congresswoman Shirley Chisholm, daughter of a Barbadian mother and a Guyanese father, became the first black woman elected to the U.S. House of Representatives. She was also the first black person to make a serious run for the presidency of the United States. Representative Chisholm was tireless in her efforts to promote racial justice via the political rights of ordinary black men and women in inner-city New York. Audre Lorde, a feminist activist born of Grenadian parents in Brooklyn, would mirror Shirley Chisholm's influence within nongovernmental, academic, and lesbian organizing circles.

Transformational Women Leaders

Grenadian-born scholar Peggy Antrobus has both written about and at times exemplified what a transformational woman leader is and can achieve. Typically, she has argued, such women leaders arise from the nongovernmental sector, where there is more room for creativity in the use of power as something more than the exercise of control by and for small and often elite groups. For example, in Guyana, Viola Burnham, Andaiye, Jocelyn Dow, and many other women working in nongovernmental organizations have been effective in spearheading sustainable development, as well as promoting the rights of racial groups and indigenous people. Thus, for every woman or cluster of women in high office of state politics, there are comparable groups of highly skilled and dedicated women who are building the politics of transformation, most often in nongovernmental women's groups.


If women in Latin America and the Caribbean are to make a mark on and in politics, it will not be because of mere access to high office. That has already been achieved. Evidence suggests that effectiveness in carrying out a given political agenda requires political access in large numbersa critical massand that has been in development for some time. The important mark is for women in the Caribbean, Latin America, and worldwide to be able to change the public agenda of civil society and of the state in relation to contemporary critical issues, such as ending poverty, addressing environmental dangers, and eliminating moral and ethical injustices caused in no small measure by the global, preponderantly masculinist culture in which women actively participate. Exercising leadership within that environment has all too often meant conforming, which has further meant ignoring the real needs of women, men, and society in the interest of a stifling agenda.

The challenge now for women in Latin America and the Caribbean is to transform the sphere of politics into a more user-friendly and empowering arena for those occupying that space, as well as for those who depend on politicsthat is, the global citizenry. It is the politics of transformation, and not just entry and accommodation, to which women must now address themselves. In a postcolonial Latin America and Caribbean, politics must become an ethical, connective tool for management and change. The question is whether women can effect such a shift while working inside the arena of traditional party politics that lead to the holding of office. Perhaps they can work more effectively outside traditional political structures to help create an alternative system to deal with the agenda of people-centered development and democracy.

Much depends on the commitment of the state to change, which would include promoting gender justice and encouraging the appropriate culture to support it. Black women and brown women in the postcolonial American hemisphere are actively pursuing both paths to effective participation in politicsas lone heroines and as behind-the-scenes supporters of other political women and men. Altogether, the presumption of politics as the work of men crumbles even as women resocialize and empower themselves.

See also Barrow, Nita; Charles, Eugenia; Chisholm, Shirley; Da Silva, Benedita; Lorde, Audre; Politics and Politicians in Latin America; Politics in the United States; Simpson-Miller, Portia


Antrobus, Peggy. The Global Women's Movement: Origins, Issues, and Strategies. London and New York: Zed, 2004.

Barriteau, Eudine. The Political Economy of Gender in the Twentieth-Century Caribbean. London: Palgrave Macmillan, 2001.

Inter-Parliamentary Union. "Women in National Parliaments: Statistical Archive." Available from <http://www.ipu.org/wmn-e/world-arc.htm>.

Mathurin, Lucille. The Rebel Woman in the British West Indies During Slavery. Kingston: Institute of Jamaica, 1975.

Waring, Marilyn, Gaye Greenwood, and Christine Pintat. "Inter-Parliamentary Union PresentsPolitics: Women's Insight, Survey at Headquarters, March 6." Released March 2000. Available from the United Nations Information Service: <http://www.unis.unvienna.org/unis/pressrels/2000/wom475.html>.

dessima m. williams (2005)

About this article

Women and Politics in Latin America and the Caribbean

Updated About encyclopedia.com content Print Article


Women and Politics in Latin America and the Caribbean