Feminism and Feminist Organizations

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Feminism and Feminist Organizations

The rise of a feminist consciousness in Latin America has often been obscured by assumptions about Latin American society, cultural Catholicism, and stereotypic ideas of "Latin" femininity as well as by ahistorical assertions that feminist thought in the "Third World" is derivative rather than sui generis. The historical record belies these assumptions.


The issues of full citizenship for women and access to education for girls were addressed in the immediate aftermath of the Wars of Independence. An 1824 petition presented to the government of Zacatecas, Mexico, states: "Women also wish to have the title of citizen … to see themselves counted in the census as 'La ciudadana.'" In Argentina, the Society of Beneficience was created in 1823 to establish public elementary schools for girls.

Women who founded girls' schools were among the first voices calling for women's rights in Latin America. Nisia Floresta Brasileira Augusta, who took a patriotic name (Nisia of the Majestic Brazilian Forest) to illustrate her claim to full citizenship, translated Mary Wollstonecraft's A Vindication of the Rights of Women into Portuguese in 1832 and sold out two printings. She wrote numerous articles on the education of women, published in O Liberal, and ran a girls' school from her home.

The periodical or political journal has a long history as a central forum for the public debate of women's issues in Latin America. Argentine writer Juana Manuela Gorriti founded La Alborada del Plata (1850), which engaged in the intense international debate surrounding women's role in the modern state. Juana Manso, while in exile from Argentina in Brazil, founded O Jornal das Senhoras, which dealt primarily with female education and politics. Similar journals appeared in Mexico (La Semana de las Señoritas Mejicanas [1851–1852]), Cuba (Album Cubano de lo Bueno y lo Bello, founded in 1860 by Gertrudis Goméz De Avellaneda), Peru and Bolivia (El Album, 1860s), and elsewhere. In the prestigious El correo del Perú, Carolina Freyre de Jaimes engaged in an ongoing debate on the role of women in society with the well-known writer Francisco de Paula González Vigil. The linkage of the ideas of independence, the emancipation of slaves, and the drive for political and economic modernity with full citizenship for women permeates the writings of these early feminists, as in the 1869 speech by Cuban patriot Ana Betancourt de Mora to a constituent assembly of male patriots: "Citizens: … you have emancipated men of servitude …. [Now] the Cuban male … will also dedicate his generous soul to women's rights."

By the latter half of the nineteenth century, arguments for women's equality were cast in terms of progressivism and the hope of a better life in the New World. The first issue of O Sexo Feminino, edited by Francisca Motta Diniz and "dedicated to the emancipation of women," appeared in Campanha, Minas Gerais, Brazil, on 7 September 1873, Brazil's independence day, as a symbol of patriotism—one of the hallmarks of Latin American women's movements. O Sexo Feminino declared: "It will be seen that America will give the cry of independence for women, showing the Old World what it means to be civilized, that women are as apt for education as young men." La Mujer, published in Chile in the 1890s, was committed to the idea that "woman is the basis of universal progress."

The emergence of women novelists, poets, journalists, and political activists and the development of a shared feminist consciousness in Latin America are directly linked to trends that combined to produce a modernization process in certain nations. Feminists found their voice—and their audience—in Argentina, Uruguay, Chile, and Brazil, states that received thousands of European immigrants and that had significant social and political reform movements, as well as in Mexico and Cuba, countries that experienced major social upheavals.

It was female schoolteachers who formed the nucleus of the first women's groups to articulate what may be defined as a feminist critique of society, that is, to protest the pervasive inequality of the sexes in legal status, marriage, access to education, and political and economic power. The teachers represented a new group in Latin American society—the educated middle sector—that included skilled workers, clerks, and government employees as well as educators. These groups were in touch with one another through their institutions of learning and through professional associations, forums where they could share their common experiences.

In Mexico, poet and educator Rita Cetina Gutiérrez, Cristina Farfán de García Montero, and several primary schoolteachers formed in 1870 La Siemprevivia, a female society dedicated to overcoming women's unequal status and to fighting social problems by improving hygiene and by educating mothers in nutrition and child care. By founding a publication to espouse their ideas and by opening schools to train a new generation, the members of La Siemprevivia employed tactics used by earlier advocates of women's rights; the critical change was that their activities were collective, not individual.

In South America a collective female critique of discriminatory practices based on gender occurred at a series of scientific congresses held between 1898 and 1909. Men and women delegates presented papers on health care, hygiene, the welfare of mothers, and botanical research. The divisive issue proved to be female education: Should women have equal access or be educated only in "suitable" professions, such as primary teaching? The women delegates were indignant that the debate should be cast in these terms and broadened the discussion into a wide-ranging attack on the pervasive inequality of the sexes within their societies.


In the following decades, women called numerous conferences to discuss these issues. In 1910, the date of the centennial celebration of Argentine independence, the first Congreso Femenino Internacional convened in Buenos Aires with more than 200 women from Argentina, Uruguay, Peru, Paraguay, and Chile in attendance. The congress was organized by the National Women's Council with Cecilia Grierson presiding. Sponsoring groups included the Association of University Women, the National Argentine Association against the White Slave Trade, the Socialist Women's Center, the Association of Normal School Teachers, the Women's Union and Labor Group, and the National League of Women Freethinkers.

The wide differences in political orientation among the women at the Congreso Femenino reflected the enormous political diversity of Buenos Aires, Montevideo, São Paulo, Santiago, and Lima at the time. Many of the reformist women belonged to the Argentine Socialist Party; others rejected the Socialist platform as too concerned with class and labor and aligned themselves with the anarchists, whose platform called for a complete reform of the bourgeois household. The loyalties of others lay with the Argentine Radical Party, a more traditional form of political opposition. Topics addressed ranged from international law, particularly as it related to the rights of married women to retain their citizenship, to health care and the problems of the married working woman, to equal pay for equal work. A resolution was passed commending the government of Uruguay for the enactment in 1907 of the first divorce law in Latin America.

Universal suffrage was part of the Socialist Party platform and women's suffrage was an issue of debate at women's congresses in Latin America in the first half of the twentieth century. In 1916 two feminist congresses were convened in Mexico to discuss the future role of women in post-Revolutionary Mexico and to attempt to influence the Mexican Constitutional Convention then meeting in Querétaro. On its promulgation in 1917, the Mexican Constitution was hailed as the most advanced social and political document of its day; political rights, including the right to vote, were granted "to all Mexican citizens." Women, however, were excluded from the category of citizen.

The history of feminism in Peru offers an example of a woman's movement in a country where a strong middle class had not developed by the early twentieth century and the secularization of schools had not occurred. María Jesús Alvarado Rivera, who studied at feminist thinker and author Elvira García y García's private secondary school for girls, founded Evolución Femenina in 1914 to discuss "the woman question." The core group of members had all attended the Congress Feminino Internacional in 1910. Also in 1914, Zoila Aurora Cáceres, a novelist and essayist, founded Feminismo Peruano, an organization dedicated to women's right to vote. The conservatism and class bias of the Peruvian political milieu is apparent in the women's nine-year campaign not for access to government positions but merely for the right of women to be appointed as directors of the powerful private charitable organization Sociedades de Beneficencia Pública.

In the 1920s and 1930s, a number of national and international women's conferences met to discuss civil, legal, and educational reform; suffrage; and the rights of working women. In 1922, with the example of U.S. women's successful drive for suffrage (1920) and in the wake of World War I, the war to "make the world safe for democracy," 2,000 women from throughout the hemisphere convened in Baltimore and formed the Pan-American Association for the Advancement of Women. Veterans of the scientific congresses, such as Amanda Labarca of Chile and Flora de Oliveira Lima of Brazil, were among the Latin American delegates, as was a rising generation of feminist leaders that included Elena Torres, who was at that time designing the radical rural education program in post-Revolutionary Mexico; Sara Casal de Quirós of Costa Rica; and Bertha Lutz, founder of the Liga para a Emancipação Intelectual Feminina in Rio de Janeiro in 1920. Lutz's vision contrasts with that of the Peruvian women: "In Brazil the true 'leaders' of feminism … are the innumerable young women who work in industry, in commerce, in teaching."

In the 1920s Cuban women were heavily involved in the effort to establish democratic practices and social equality in their newly independent nation. In 1923 the Club Feminino De Cuba (1917) formed the Federación Nacional de Asociaciones Femeninas, an umbrella group of thirty-one women's organizations, led by Pilar Morlon de Menéndez, to plan the First National Women's Congress, held in Havana on 1-7 April 1923. Government officials were invited to the event in an effort to influence national reform policy. A Second Congress met in Havana in 1925 to call for social equality between men and women, protection of children, equal pay for equal work, equality of the claims of illegitimate children, elimination of prostitution, and a prohibition against the unequal treatment of women.

In Mexico, Sofia Villa de Buentello organized a Congreso de Mujeres de la Raza in July 1925. The ideological splits that were to characterize the women's movement in the hemisphere in later decades were manifest at the congress. Irreconcilable differences emerged between the socialist left, led by Elvia Carrillo Puerto and Cuca García, who insisted on the economic basis of women's problems, and conservatives and moderates, led by Sofia Villa, who believed female inequality to be rooted in social and moral conditions.

In Argentina, feminists Alicia Moreau De Justo and Elvira Rawson joined with a broad umbrella of reformist groups, including the conservative Catholic women's trade union, to support passage of protective legislation for women industrial workers in 1924. Encouraged by this success, the National Feminist Union and the Women's Rights Association formed a coalition to push a comprehensive reform of the Civil Code through the legislature in 1926. The reform granted married women civil rights equal to those of adult men; mothers parental rights over their children; and married women the right to enter professions, make contracts, and dispose of their earnings without spousal permission. In order to maintain the coalition, the Argentine National Council of Women agreed not to connect the reform to the divisive issue of women's suffrage.

In 1928 Cuban women's associations, including the Alianza Femenina Cubana and the Club Femenino de Cuba, hosted women from all over the hemisphere who came to Havana as unofficial delegates to the Sixth International Conference of American States. By the end of the conference, the women had presented an equal rights treaty for the consideration of the governments of the hemisphere and successfully lobbied for the creation of an officially designated body, the Inter-American Commission of Women (IACW), charged with the investigation of the legal status of women in the twenty-one member states. The use of the transnational forum for the discussion of women's issues proved particularly efficacious for Latin American women, who often found it difficult to create sympathetic political space in their own communities. Bringing international attention to an issue was a political strategy that Latin American feminists helped to pioneer, and it was one that would serve them well over time.

The enactment of women's suffrage should not be viewed as a signpost that the women's program had triumphed: The meaning of the vote and the reasons women's suffrage was enacted in a particular nation at a particular time vary greatly. In Brazil, Uruguay, and Cuba, the enactment of women's suffrage was the result of years of hard work and carefully planned campaigns by groups of women who were prepared to act when a political opening occurred. When the Brazilian Revolution of 1930 brought a reformist government to power, the Federação Brasileira Pelo Progresso Feminino, led by Bertha Lutz and Carlota Pereira de Queiroz, presented the leaders with a platform of thirteen principles that included women's suffrage and equality before the law. In Cuba numerous women's organizations, including the Alianza Nacional Feminista, the Partido Nacional Sufragista, and the Partido Demó-cratica Sufragista were in the forefront of groups fighting for political reform and were poised to demand the extension of the franchise to women when the new provisional constitution was drafted in 1934.

The 1920s and 1930s saw the emergence of the first generation of educated, urban women. This was notably so in Cuba, Argentina, Uruguay, and Chile, where the number of women attending post-grade-school institutions was nearly equal to that of male students, if teacher preparation is included in the count. New associations of women seeking broad-based reform, inclusive of women's suffrage, appeared in the 1930s. One example is the Movimiento Pro-Emancipación de la Mujer Chilena (MEMCH, 1935–1953), established by Chilean university women under the leadership of lawyer Elena Caffarena. Journals such as Nelly Marino Carvallo's Mujeres de América (1930–1935, Buenos Aires) appealed to an international audience and carried articles written by Bolivian, Paraguayan, Peruvian, and Uruguayan women as well as Argentines.

Women leaders also emerged within the political left, though their politics as spokeswomen on behalf of their own sex often put them in sharp conflict with their male comrades, as illustrated by the career of Patricia Galvão, known as Pagú, who joined the Partido Comunista Brasileira (PCB) in 1930. Pagú shared the scorn of most radical women for bourgeois feminists, but she had a feminist vision of her own. In her novel Parque industrial (1933), she described the sexual discrimination and duress experienced by female industrial workers. While her Marxist analysis of labor and call for revolution were orthodox enough, Pagú had the temerity to link the issue of sexual inequality with that of racism in the Brazilian work force. The leadership of the PCB was outraged by the sexually explicit descriptions in the book and even more so by Pagú's daring to address the taboo subject of race; the party demanded that the book be suppressed.

In Mexico, women loyal to the Revolutionary Party were deeply disappointed when reformist president Lázaro Cárdenas (1934–1940) failed to fulfill his campaign promise to "reform the constitution to grant equal rights." At the Eighth International Conference of American States at Lima in 1938, it was the Mexican delegation to the IACW, led by Amalia González Caballero de Castillo Ledón, which successfully lobbied for passage of the Declaration in Favor of Women's Rights. The resolution established the precedent for incorporation of the phrase "the equal rights of men and women" into the charter draft of the United Nations in San Francisco in October 1945.


During World War II and its immediate aftermath, many women's groups were incorporated into established political parties, often in "women's sections." Those who maintained their autonomy took on patriotic nomenclature and sought to draw on their wartime loyalty to demand full citizenship in the late 1940s. Incorporation, combined with the repression of women's associations involved in community action in many areas of the hemisphere, effectively muted a separatist woman's politics in the 1950s.

Taking their political cue from the Cuban revolutionary experience, women who joined the revolutionary left in the 1960s adopted a class analysis that repudiated "feminism" as bourgeois and divisive to the cause. Liberation theology, the other potent social critique to emerge in Latin America in the 1960s, retained a traditional view of women. But it was from this generation of women activists—the most highly educated generation of women in Latin American history—that the feminists of the 1970s emerged, giving up not a whit of their commitment to radical social change but adding to it a new brand of gender analysis. By 1985 these feminists had developed a stinging critique of the traditional left within their own communities, challenged the "First World" view of European and U.S. feminists, and contributed organizational models, political strategies, and a new understanding of grass-roots social movements to global feminism.

In 1975 the Conferencia Mundial del Año Inter-nacional de la Mujer convened in Mexico City to draw up the World Plan of Action for the United Nations Decade for Women 1976–1985. It was at the sessions of the Tribune of Non-Governmental Organizations, where representatives of voluntary associations and individuals could speak, that Latin American women made their presence felt. The majority of the 6,000 women who attended the Tribune were from North, Central, and South America; 2,000 were from Mexico alone. The lines of debate that were to dominate the first half of the UN Decade emerged in the confrontation between Betty Friedan and Domitila Barrios de Chungara, who came to Mexico to represent the Housewives Committee of Siglo XX, an organization of Bolivian tin miners' wives.

By 1977 the incorporation of a feminist political critique was visible in the new women's movement in many areas of Latin America. Over the next decade newsletters, feminist journals, and women's movement periodicals appeared, indicating the presence of women's groups in every region of the continent. One of the earliest and most notable is fem, produced since 1976 by a collective editorship, Nueva Cultura Feminista, in Mexico City. The subjects addressed provide a microcosm of the concerns of Mexican feminists over the years: abortion, work, sexuality, feminism, language, family, education, mothers and children, women writers, the history of women in Mexico, and women in the struggle for social justice. MUJER/Fempress, published monthly in Santiago, Chile, carries articles by correspondents in every country in the hemisphere. In 1984 the independent women's studies group, Grupo de Estudios sobre la Condición de la Mujer en Uruguay, began publication of La Cacerola (referring primarily to the banging of casseroles with spoons as part of demonstrations against the military regime). In Peru the Centro de Flora Tristán publishes VIVA; Movimiento Manuela Ramos (Manuela Ramos signifying "everywoman") issues pamphlets on health and community resources; Mujer y Sociedad addresses the politics of violence in the nation and in the home. Brazilian women have been leaders in the innovative use of film and have succeeded in incorporating the concerns of the women's movement into popular tele-novelas such as Malu mujer. Since the late 1980s new journals have continued to appear: Feminaria in Buenos Aires and Enfogues de Mujer, published by the Grupo de Estudios de la Mujer Paraguaya.

In July 1981, 250 women from Brazil, Chile, Colombia, Ecuador, Mexico, Panama, Peru, Puerto Rico, the Dominican Republic, and Venezuela met in Bogotá at the Primero Encuentro Feminista Latinoamericano y del Caribe. The encuentros feministas have since convened in Peru (1983), Brazil (1985 and 2005), Mexico (1987), Argentina (1990), El Salvador (1993), Chile (1996), the Dominican Republic (1999), and Costa Rica (2002), with upwards of 2,000 women in attendance.

Numerous organizations grew out of the Sandinista revolution in Nicaragua, among them Asocia-ión de Mujeres Nicaraguenes Luisa Amanda Espinoza (AMNLAE), dedicated to making the FSLN more gender conscious. Since the mid-1980s a number of women's studies programs have been instituted in Latin America. Almost without exception, the programs grew out of independent feminist study groups and women's community action collectives that are only now finding an institutional home. These include the Programa Interdisciplinario Estudios de la Mujer (PIEM) at El Colegio de México, the Programa Interdisciplinario Estudios de la Mujer (PIEM) at La Universidad Autónoma de Costa Rica, the Nú cleo de Estudos Interdisciplinares sobre a Mulher (NEIM) da Universidade Federal da Bahia, and Carreras de Posorado Interdisciplinaria de Especilización de Estudios de la Mujer (CIEM) at La Universidad de Buenos Aires.

Strategies developed by Latin American women activists over the past century have been widely adopted in other areas of the world. The Organizaciones de Trabajadores del Hogar de América Latina y el Caribe, founded in 1988 by women household workers, is a model for similar organizations in Africa and Asia. International Day Against Violence Against Women, observed on 25 November, was initiated by Latin American feminists at the IV Encuentro Feminista in Mexico to commemorate the deaths by torture of six Dominican peasant women at the hands of military troops; in 1992 the United Nations declared 25 November a global day of protest against violence directed at women.

In February 1993 the Programa Interdisciplinario de Estudios de Género (PRIEG), the women's studies program instituted at the Universidad de Costa Rica in 1987, hosted the V Congreso Interdisciplinario y Internacional de Mujeres. Although the 2,000 participants represented women's organizations from throughout the world, the organization and the content of the program were telling indicators of the breadth and depth of feminist thought in Latin America in the 1990s. The concerns included women and the environment, heterosexual AIDS, gender and sexuality, indigenous women and peoples, feminism and democratic practice. These matters of urgent concern in Central America and elsewhere in Latin America dominated the week-long event, which culminated in a march from the university campus to the Plaza de la Democracia to celebrate "Women's Rights/Human Rights."

In the new millennium women, and society in general, are thinking in new ways about women's equality and emancipation. In the context of a transition to democracy in Latin American countries since the 1990s, the feminist movement has made great strides in terms of establishing women's studies programs at universities, nongovernmental organizations (NGOs) and governmental departments devoted to women's issues, and sponsorship of programs in support of women. A younger generation of feminists who have benefited from the earlier struggles has emerged. Yet some women closely attuned to feminist issues view these strides with skepticism. They raise concerns about the "institutionalization" of feminism and feminist organizations, arguing that receiving state or international agency support has resulted in the moderating or "mainstreaming" of feminist agendas. Likewise, some feminists question a divide between scholarship and activism.

New issues such as neoliberal reforms, technology, globalization, and the environment are on the feminist agenda, along with longstanding questions about race, ethnicity, and class.

See alsoEducation: Overview; Education: Nonformal Education; Gorriti, Juana Manuela; Labarca Hubertson, Amanda; Lutz, Bertha Maria Julia; Moreau de Justo, Alicia; Sociology; Women.


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Marifran Carlson, ¡Feminismo! The Woman's Movement in Argentina from Its Beginnings to Eva Perón (1988).

Jane S. Jaquette, ed., The Women's Movement in Latin America: Feminism and the Transition to Democracy (1989).

Sonia E. Álvarez, Engendering Democracy in Brazil: Women's Movements in Transition Politics (1990).

June E. Hahner, Emancipating the Female Sex: The Struggle for Women's Rights in Brazil, 1850–1940 (1990).

Seminar on Feminism and Culture in Latin America, Women, Culture, and Politics in Latin America (1990).

Shirlene Ann Soto, Emergence of the Modern Mexican Woman: Her Participation in Revolution and Struggle for Equality, 1910–1940 (1990).

Francesca Miller, Latin American Women and the Search for Social Justice (1991).

K. Lynn Stoner, From the House to the Streets: The Cuban Woman's Movement for Legal Reform, 1898–1940 (1991).

Additional Bibliography

Caldwell, Kia Lilly. Negras in Brazil: Re-envisioning Black Women, Citizenship, and the Politics of Identity. New Brunswick, NJ: Rutgers University Press, 2007.

Femenías, María Luisa, ed. Perfiles del feminismo iberoamericano. 3 vols. Buenos Aires: Catálogos, 2002–2007.

French, John D., and Daniel James, eds. The Gendered Worlds of Latin American Women Workers: From Household and Factory to the Union Hall and Ballot Box. Durham, NC: Duke University Press, 1997.

Gargallo, Francesca. Las ideas feministas latinoamericanas, 2nd revised edition. Mexico: Universidad de la Ciudad de México, 2006.

González, Victoria, and Karen Kampwirth. Radical Women in Latin America: Left and Right. University Park: Pennsylvania State University Press, 2001.

Kampwirth, Karen. Feminism and the Legacy of Revolution: Nicaragua, El Salvador, Chiapas. Athens: Ohio University Press, 2004.

Lavrin, Asunción. Women, Feminism, and Social Change in Argentina, Chile, and Uruguay, 1890–1940. Lincoln: University of Nebraska Press, 1995.

Macías, Anna. Against All Odds: The Feminist Movement in Mexico to 1940. Westport, CT: Greenwood Press, 1982.

Molyneux, Maxine. Women's Movements in International Perspective: Latin America and Beyond. New York: Palgrave, 2001.

Montoya, Rosario, Lessie Jo Frazier, and Janise Hurtig, eds. Gender's Place: Feminist Anthropologies of Latin America. New York: Palgrave Macmillan, 2002.

Olea Mauleón, Cecilia, ed. Encuentros, (des)encuentros y búsquedas: El movimiento feminista en América Latina. Lima: Flora Tristan, 1998.

Pinto, Céli Regina J. Uma história do feminismo no Brasil. São Paulo: Editora Fundação Perseu Abramo, 2003.

Rodríguez, Victoria E., ed. Women's Participation in Mexican Political Life. Boulder, CO: Westview Press, 1998.

Rosemblatt, Karin Alejandra. Gendered Compromises: Political Cultures and the State in Chile, 1920–1950. Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 2000.

Shayne, Julie D. The Revolution Question: Feminisms in El Salvador, Chile, and Cuba. New Brunswick, NJ: Rutgers University Press, 2004.

Stephen, Lynn. Women and Social Movements in Latin America: Power from Below. Austin: University of Texas Press, 1997.

Stromquist, Nelly P. Feminist Organizations and Social Transformation in Latin America. Boulder, CO: Paradigm, 2007.

Valdés, Teresa. De lo social a lo político: La acción de las mujeres latinoamericanas. Santiago: LOM Ediciones, 2000.

                                                        Francesca Miller

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