From the middle of the nineteenth century to the 1920s, the early forms of feminism throughout the world advocated equality of rights between women and men. Latin American feminists were no exception, but they distinguished themselves from their European and North American peers by also insisting, from the outset, on fundamental differences between the sexes—a view now mainstream among feminists in the West. Latin American feminism has also been distinctive in its struggle against the Latin culture of machismo (from macho—literally, "male"). In Latin America, this is the term of choice for the social and cultural tendency to underestimate women's achievements and capabilities and to overrate those of men. Owing to machismo, even women of unquestioned ability, such as Clorinda Matto de Turner (Peruvian, 1852–1909), Alfonsina Storni (Argentinean, 1892–1938), and Frida Kahlo (Mexican, 1907–1954), faced obstacles in their careers.
That this bitter legacy of male dominance affects the lives of nearly all Latina women today is beyond dispute. But the historic roots of this phenomenon can be traced to the Spanish Conquest, which conferred a tacit entitlement on the Iberian invaders in failing to stop their common abusive practices toward native women. The relationship between the Spaniard Hernán Cortés (1495–1547) and Doña Marina or "La Malinche," one of twenty Indian women presented to him as human "gifts," is a notorious example. She traveled with Cortés as his companion and translator of the native languages—thus becoming instrumental in the fall of the Aztecs and ultimately of Mexico itself. The case of Malinche has achieved a certain iconic status among Latin American women, who have been assigned subservient roles for centuries.
Even so, there is in Latin America also a long tradition of women's vigorous defense of equal rights. A pioneer among them was Sor (Sister) Juana Inés de la Cruz (1651–1695). Often referred to today as "the Tenth Muse" and "the Phoenix of Mexico," Sor Juana was a Mexican nun of considerable accomplishments as a poet and playwright. Together with her scientific and philosophical interests, unusual for a woman at the time, these achievements gained her a wide reputation in colonial Mexico. Her erudition, learned conversation, and literary talent impressed the participants of animated tertulias (literary social gatherings) which often included prominent intellectuals and leaders of local society. The church's unofficial criticisms of her intellectual activities as inappropriate for a woman were rejected by Sor Juana in her Reply to Sor Philothea. This important work is at once a feminist manifesto and also a memoir describing the development of her passion for learning. It is perhaps the earliest modern vindication of women's intellectual competence and rights.
During the struggle for independence and national organization that took place in the nineteenth century, Latin America produced no fully articulated defense of women's rights. Yet some feminist stances are detectable in the writings of women such as Turner. In the late nineteenth century, the first stirrings of modern Latin American feminism began to proliferate, but were manifested in different ways in various Latin countries, sometimes through minor political factions, but more often through social movements and in informal meetings. In the early twentieth century, women's organizations began to emerge across the subcontinent, mostly devoted to obtaining suffrage and cultural, social and economic rights for women—e.g., Club Femenino, Alianza Sufragista and Unión Laborista de Mujeres (Cuba, 1920; 1928); Frente Femenino Anticlerical and Alianza Femenina, and Rosa Luxemburgo (Ecuador 1920; 1922); Agrupación Cultural Femenina (Venezuela 1934); Asociación Feminista Popular (Puerto Rico 1920); Evolución Feminina (Peru 1915); Federación Obrera Femenina de la Paz (Bolivia 1927); Unión Feminista Nacional (Argentina 1918); Consejo Nacional de Mujeres (Chile 1919); Sección Uruguaya and Consejo Nacional de Mujeres (Uruguay 1911, 1919); and Primer Congreso Feminista (Mexico, 1917).
Contemporary Latin American feminists have also struggled tenaciously for equal rights, focusing, through the 1990s, on a strategy of grassroots organizing. But both traditionalist and progressive male political leaders have continued to resist these efforts, the former appealing to conventionalist and religious arguments, the latter holding that feminist concerns are less pressing than other problems facing Latin American society (Álvarez, 1998). Today Latin American feminists pursue a more global, top-down strategy, through nongovernmental organizations (NGOs) and the United Nations. Although considerable progress has been made, independent-minded women in Latin America continue to feel-stifled in a machista society that ignores their capacity for achievement and restricts them to subservient roles, as attested in the work of Rigoberta Menchú (Quiché Guatemalan, 1959–) and Gloria Anzaldúa (Mexican American, 1942–2004). The repudiation of machismo is also echoed by the "liberation philosophers" Ofelia Schutte, Linda Alcoff, and Enrique Dussel, who hold that there can be no liberation of society without the liberation of women.
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