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Women have long played significant roles in the history of Latin America. Awareness of their participation and experiences offers a useful lens through which to understand the vast region that lies between the Rio Grande and Tierra del Fuego. There is no one Latin American woman, but women from diverse cultures, ethnicities, classes, racialized categories, professions, ages, and sexual orientations, among others. Whether we are speaking of a woman from Mexico, Peru, Brazil, Haiti, or Guyana, these factors merit consideration. These women might not be able to speak to one another since their respective national languages are Spanish, Portuguese, French, and English. Moreover, it is not unlikely that a Guatemalan woman's first language is Maya-K'iche', not Spanish, that a woman of the Andes speaks only Quechua and that a woman of the Amazon speaks only a Tupi dialect. Despite the many differences in life experiences, women's diverse experiences in Latin America often share common themes.


Only a very small number of Spanish, Portuguese, French, and enslaved African women were present in the Spanish Conquest, as such a dangerous voyage was not considered appropriate for women. Rather, the women who did come were most often poor and their status did not preclude them from undertaking such a trip and struggling for survival in unknown lands. Indigenous women, consequently, figure logistically and symbolically in the Iberian conquest of the Americas. Spanish and Portuguese colonization was a deeply gendered process. Colonizers depicted America as a feminized space or the colonized, native population as emasculated. Indigenous women mediated between these different cultures, serving as interpreters, negotiators, trophies, and sexual partners. Though some Europeans raped and kept native women as concubines, they relied upon indigenous women for food preparation and child rearing.

This ambivalent positioning of native women in the colonial order later became a focus of debate among Spanish American and Brazilian intellectuals, who became historians of national identity and origins. Many of the post-independence nationalists, described how seafaring European males encountered the indigenous women of Middle, Central, and South America and produced a "new race." with the best qualities from both "races". The story of La Malinche/Doña Marina/Malintzín (1504?–1528), an Aztec woman given in tribute by a Tabascan ruler to conquistador Hernán Cortés, is representative of this allegory. Her knowledge of languages played a pivotal role in the Spanish overthrow of the Aztec regime in central Mexico. La Malinche became a founding myth of modern Mexico, symbolizing indigenous women as mothers of Mexico's mestizo culture. Yet La Malinche is also regarded as a traitor, further illustrating the long association of women with weakness and deceit.

Not only in Mexico but throughout the Americas indigenous women are similarly at the center of national origin myths and mestizaje. Often, as in the case of Brazil, African and Afro-Brazilian women are also considered symbolic mothers of the national "race."

In addition to these early groups and native inhabitants, slaves and immigrants contributed greatly to the diverse population of Latin America. Between 1513 and 1850, more than 5 million Africans were brought as slaves to the region. Moreover, since the late nineteenth century the large Latin American nations have received successive waves of immigrants from Europe and Asia. Spaniards, Portuguese, Italians, and Germans settled in significant numbers in Mexico, Argentina, Uruguay, Chile, and southern Brazil. Koreans, Chinese, and Southeast Asians have also immigrated to the Latin American nations; outside of Japan, Brazil has the largest population of citizens of Japanese descent. Immigrants from India, Pakistan, Syria, Lebanon, Iran, and Iraq have made their way to South America. Although in some cases the first generation settled in rural areas, the daughters and granddaughters of these European, African, Asian, and Middle Eastern immigrants now live in Latin American cities as well.


As scholar Susan Socolow argues, women in the colonial period "were defined first and foremost by their sex and only secondarily by their race or social class." This statement illustrates the role patriarchy—a social system where men are regarded as the authority in family and society—played in shaping the life possibilities of colonial women. Yet Socolow and others emphasize the importance of colonial racial, caste, ethnic, and class hierarchies, and how demography, life cycle, time, regional variations, and local economies impacted women's experiences.

The colonial church provides a telling example of the ways in which women worked within and sometimes exceeded standard social and legal restrictions. The church largely determined social mores and reinforced the strictures that propertied families placed upon their daughters, for whom marriage or a religious vocation as a nun were the respectable choices. Convents acquired wealth and served as important sources of credit for elite society. Consequently, despite the images of cloistered women, these religious communities tell more complicated stories of social hierarchies and illustrate women acting independently and having strong influence in the colonial economy. Yet, convents cloistered women and reproduced social hierarchies—criollas and Spaniards in the Santa Clara convent of Cuzco, Peru, could wear the coveted black veil; while mestizas and Andean women were only allowed to wear the white veil—but did not disconnect the sisters from the outside world.

Elite women also fought for their rights in the larger public sphere. Women's economic influence was not limited to convents, for they also ran large estates and oversaw the complex business affairs of their families. In Mexico, the Marquesa de San Francisco served as the executor of her father's estate until her brother returned from Spain and resumed family leadership. By choice, and at the expense of leaving the elite culture in the capital, the Marquesa regained her autonomy by moving to oversee family land in the Bajío. Scholarship challenges the idea of the secluded, elite colonial woman further still by exploring cultural categories like honor and illegitimacy. For instance, numerous women of privileged status engaged in sexual relations outside of marriage or became pregnant out of wedlock. For a woman, public honor was crucial. However, pregnant elite women could preserve their public honor, if they married or kept the pregnancy and birth secret except from select family members and friends.

Lower class and indigenous women also became crucial actors in both the public and private sphere of colonial Latin American society. Indigenous women were widely involved in small-scale trade, such as in the sale of chicha, or corn beer, in the Andes and pulque in New Spain. Throughout the Americas, women owned taverns, chicherias and pulperias. Women in colonial Potosí and Spanish, mestiza, and native women elsewhere made loans, creating vibrant petty credit systems throughout the Americas. The large degree to which rich, poor, and the middling sectors of colonial women resorted to the courts to defend their honor and claim social status illustrates the significance of these distinctions in their everyday lives.

Slavery, like colonialism, was profoundly gendered. Because of their strength, more enslaved African men than women were sent to the Americas, though women of African descent were soon present in every region, from Mexico City to Buenos Aires. Many slave women worked at field labor on the sugar, tobacco, cotton, and coffee plantations of the Caribbean and mainland Latin America. They were concubines and petty marketers during the gold mining boom in colonial Minas Gerais, Brazil. Female slaves were found in larger concentrations in urban areas, working in households or earning money for their owners as market women, street vendors, wet nurses, or prostitutes. To the extent that their particular situations allowed them to do so, they recreated their African religious and cultural practices and deeply influenced the formative national cultures in Brazil, the Caribbean, Colombia, and Venezuela.


Female patriots were vital to the success of the independence movements and played a wide range of roles in the struggles. In addition to the biographies of these women used to rouse patriotic fervor, women were outspoken activists, nurses, and resistance fighters. In later years, Latin American women pointed to the loyalty of their predecessors in the effort to gain rights and citizenship for women.

In the transition from colonialism to nation-state formation, scholars continue to explore and debate the legacy of gender relations. Some argue that women emerged from independence with improved legal, political, and social status. Others maintain that governments in the new republics guaranteed expanded rights to men of all classes, but left women in a position more marginal than they occupied under colonial rule. This research calls into question broader teleological narratives of women's progress under liberal states providing a more complex picture. While continuity in patriarchal control continued from the colonial era, women from all sectors of society contested such authority.

While an ideology of domesticity in the nineteenth century reaffirmed women's traditional roles as mothers and caretakers, it also opened new arenas of public participation, particularly for elite women. As wives and mothers, women became involved outside the home, championing moral reform, founding publications, and engaging in debates over education throughout Latin America. Teresa González de Fanning in Peru called for educating women in order to improve the lives of future generations. In the struggle between secular liberal values and religious corporatist politics that marked the nineteenth century, the question of who would educate young women was played out among Catholic female teaching orders, independent dames' schools, and the new public schools. Though they might have been excluded from formal politics, it is not to say that Latin American women were not politically active.

Slavery persisted into the late-nineteenth century throughout Latin America, affecting the lives of African and Afro-Latin American women and their descendents. Though difficult, enslaved women were sometimes able to save enough money from their earnings to purchase their freedom. A woman's status as slave or free was critical because it directly affected the status of her children. Perhaps because they generally lived in greater intimacy with their masters as domestic servants, manumission of women outnumbered that of men in Salvador and Rio de Janeiro, Brazil.

Women participated in the social and class conflicts occurring from the 1890s through the 1920s. Several examples can be cited. In the long guerrilla wars that led to Cuban independence from Spain in 1898, female soldiers known as mambisas distinguished themselves in battles against the Spanish troops and became part of the formative myth of the Cuban nation; they were viewed as warriors, patriots, revolutionaries, and the moral center of national sovereignty. Female schoolteachers and factory workers played a crucial role in the politics that led to the Mexican Revolution of 1910. Women were at the heart of the great Río Blanco textile workers' strike of 1907. Soldaderas, women who fought with the revolutionary troops, became folk heroines. Such organizations as the Hijas de Cuáuhtemoc demanded the resignation of President Porfirio Díaz and staged public protests against the regime. In contrast, Carmen Romero Rubio y Castelló, the president's wife, symbolized the alliance of the regime with the conservative hierarchy of the Catholic Church.


The history of women in paid occupations in Latin America underwent extensive change during the twentieth century. On the one hand, there was the emergence of the middle-sector working woman—skilled factory workers, teachers, government clerks. While great differences in the social and economic statuses of these women existed, their pay scales, benefits, and relative job security distinguished them on the other hand as a group from women in the unregulated, informal sectors of the economy, which included domestics, market women, vendors, laundresses, prostitutes, and rural laborers.

Women were the preferred labor force in the textile and tobacco industries after 1900, prized for their smaller hands and lower pay. Yet female laborers often faced social stigmas because working outside the home and in an industrial setting particularly were not considered a woman's proper place. Social reformers argued that such work would destroy a woman's innocence and cause moral degradation. Men opposed women's industrial work because it threatened their masculinity and their higher wages. To counter these claims, a number of responses were constructed. For example, textile mill factory owners in Medellín, Colombia, successfully ameliorated concerns by promoting an ideal of sexual chastity among their female labor force, demanding employees remain single and not become pregnant during their tenure.

Women did not prove to be the docile labor force their employers anticipated, as they engineered strikes and slow-downs to improve their livelihoods. However, as women, they faced greater difficulty in organizing to improve their working conditions: the hostility of employers and officials, lack of support from their male coworkers, long working hours, and family demands left scant energy for union work. Not only work, but also struggling for better job conditions was viewed as transgressing women's idealized domestic role.

Although women had begun entering new fields in urban areas, in 1930 the great majority of them still lived in the country. Rural women's work was immensely varied: women carried out mining-related tasks in Potosí; worked communal agricultural plots and ran trade networks in the Peruvian sierra; hulled and sorted spices in the Caribbean; worked the sugar, rubber, and banana plantations of Brazil, Haiti, and Cuba; harvested the wheat and grapes of Chile and Argentina; and did domestic labor on ranches, estates, and plantations. And everywhere women prepared daily meals, cared for children, and maintained their own households in addition to whatever other work they might perform. Yet life in rural areas saw change as well. Chile's Agrarian Reform between 1964 and 1973, for instance, expanded women's paid agricultural employment in the fruit and vegetable sector, while at the same time promoted women's domesticity, which differed from previously held campesina notions.


Prior to the twentieth century, women's civil status was governed by a complex body of statutes rooted in Iberian and ecclesiastical law; in practice, the legal status of most women was determined by their relationship to the male heads of household. Indigenous women living within their traditional communities (Maya, Guajira, Aymara, Guarani) conformed to the customs of each community. Although elaborate sets of laws governing slave women had evolved by the nineteenth century, individual slave women had little true legal recourse. In all cases, full citizenship was limited to men of property.

Periods of enactment of female suffrage in Latin America
Pre-World War II
World War II
El Salvador1939
Dominican Republic1942
Post-World War II
Costa Rica1949
Table 1

Female suffrage in Latin America came about after years of continued struggle. The history of female suffrage offers an illustration of the politics involved in seeking redress through legal change. The struggle for suffrage grew out of women and feminist movements pursuing reforms linked to family and motherhood and developed into demands for women's equality. Effective universal suffrage, male or female, did not exist in any Latin American nation until after World War II. Requirements concerning property, employment, and residence largely restricted the vote to elite sectors. Moreover, irregular transitions of power and the suspension of civil liberties, including elections, characterized the political environment in many Latin American nations between 1929, when female suffrage became law in Ecuador, and 1961, when women obtained the vote in Paraguay. Three periods of enactment may be distinguished (see table 1).

Examination of the list of the first group of states to enact suffrage for women points to the variety of motives that prompted governments to bring women into the national polity. In Mexico, Argentina, Brazil, Colombia, Venezuela, Chile, and Cuba, suffrage resulted from long-fought campaigns on the part of thousands of women and their male allies. In contrast, in Ecuador, the political coalition that promulgated the female vote was deeply conservative; it viewed women as loyal to the Catholic Church and politically malleable and believed that the female vote would buttress the conservatives' political base vis-à-vis challenge from the Socialist Party. Members of the political left largely concurred with the conservative assessment. Argentine women had waged a half-century-long campaign for the vote; woman suffrage laws had been passed in many other nations of the Western Hemisphere; and commitment to equal political rights was part of the charter of the United Nations, to which Argentina was a signatory. Finally in 1947 Eva Perón delivered the new female vote for the Peronist Party.

Despite the passage of woman suffrage in every Latin American country by 1961, voting continued to be limited by language and literacy requirements. Rural women were often excluded. In some countries, such as Guatemala, male suffrage was universal, but female suffrage was restricted to women who could read and speak Spanish; thereby significantly reducing women's participation in Brazil, Guatemala, Bolivia, and Ecuador. In Peru, Quechua-speaking Peruvians did not receive the franchise until 1980, a restriction affecting the women who stayed in the sierra and maintained the home community more than the men who migrated out to work or fulfill military service.

THE PERIOD 1959–1989

The Cuban Revolution in 1959 raised new questions about social hierarchy, race, and class throughout the hemisphere. Symbolic of the shift in public consciousness is the 1960 publication in Brazil of Carolina Maria de Jesus's Cuarto de Despejo (Child of the Dark). Carolina, who lived in a São Paulo favela, described in her book the daily ordeals she faced collecting and selling rags and paper in order to provide for her three children. Shedding light on Brazil's urban poor and women of color, the book sold 90,000 copies in six months.

Women joined the emerging revolutionary movements of the 1960s and 1970s in response to authoritarian rule throughout region. Young women made up almost half of the "soldiers"—those who carried out bank robberies and kidnappings—of the Tupamaro movement in Montevideo, Uruguay. In rural guerrilla groups, women were more apt to be seen as compañeras, companions of the male revolutionaries. Haydée Tamara Bunke Bider (1937–1967), known as "Tania," was an exception; she was key to Che Guevara's effort to establish a revolutionary front in Bolivia and became a martyr to a generation of young women after her death under fire.

Liberation theology, which emerged from the Latin American Catholic Church in the wake of the Second Vatican Council (1965) and the Second Latin American Bishops' Conference (1968) in Medellín, Colombia, did not address the specific needs of women; but women of the church—lay-women, nuns, congregants, and participants in Base Communities—were deeply involved in the church's commitment to "the poorest of the poor." Women were also active in defending conservative politics. In Brazil in 1964 and in Chile in 1973, upper- and middle-class women organized street demonstrations, such as El Poder Femenino in Chile to protest the erosion of homemakers' buying power, the spectre of communism, and the threat to the family, and to call for military intervention to "restore order."

In the 1970s, ideas of the international feminist movement spread throughout the region. The Latin American feminist movement emerged during the somber climate of the 1970s. Many early feminists came from leftist opposition movements whose male leadership was sometimes sexist. Moreover, members of these groups, both men and women, often viewed feminism as an imperial or elite concern and its issues secondary to larger revolutionary goals. Likewise, the gender ideology of military regime dictatorships promoted a conservative view of women as mothers and wives, and thus, feminism was considered subversive. Early feminist groups in Chile, Argentina, and elsewhere functioned inconspicuously, and though they denounced patriarchy, principally they joined in solidarity with the many multi-class movements denouncing social, economic, and political oppression brought on by the authoritarian military regimes. For many women, it was not feminist ideology but the widespread political mobilization against reactionary social and political policies in the late 1970s in Chile, Argentina, Brazil, and Uruguay and against economic austerity in the 1980s that marked a watershed in women's political activism and made possible lasting legacies. In 1981 in Bogotá, Colombia, feminists organized the first Feminist Encuentro, a space for dialogue and collective action among women from Latin America and the Caribbean, and conferences were held every two or three years after. It must be noted, however, that class and ethnicity often divided early second wave feminists.

In the nations of Brazil, Uruguay, Paraguay, Argentina, and Chile, the 1970s and early 1980s were marked by the suppression of civil liberties, the ascension of bureaucratic authoritarian military regimes, and a politics of terrorism, including mass arrests, the disappearing of political activists, torture, imprisonment, and death squad assassinations. A similar politics of terrorism prevailed in Guatemala and El Salvador and reverberated in the civil war in Nicaragua. Like their male counterparts, women were visible throughout the political spectrum: as victims of political oppression, supporters of incumbent regimes, perpetrators of torture, members of the armed resistance, and pro-regime supporters. Las madres, the mothers of those who had disappeared in the government's war against terrorism emerged from this era. On April 30, 1977, in Buenos Aires, seven of these women—las madres—went to the Plaza de Mayo, the historic center of Argentine government, and staged a silent demonstration on behalf of their disappeared loved ones; four years later, on 1 May 1981, over six thousand Argentines joined them to protest the continued violation of human rights by the military regime. Las madres became a metaphor for the thousands of Latin Americans who dared protest through nonviolent means the practice of state terrorism against the populace. In the wake of the military regimes' crumbling in the mid-1980s, women were successful in bringing women's issues—health care, divorce, domestic violence, political access—into debates surrounding the redemocratization process in which they had played an important part.


By 1990 evidence indicating dramatic change in the traditional patterns of life for Latin American women converged. First, contemporary Latin American women were overwhelmingly urban. Rural to urban migration between 1930 and 1970 spurred rapid urbanization. More than 75 percent of all Latin Americans live in urban areas. In 1980, only 2 percent of the female labor force in Argentina was described as rural; in Mexico, only 12 percent; in Brazil, which has the highest number of rural women of any major Latin American nation, the figure is 20 percent. Second, the visible entry of middle-class women into the paid labor force—an 83 percent increase between 1970 and 1990 in all areas of Latin America except the Caribbean—closely resembled the work participation profiles of women in the industrialized West. Driven partly by the harsh inflationary conditions of the 1980s, women's employment outside the home, combined with higher levels of education and greater access to birth control information in urban areas resulted in a significant drop in the birthrate. In Mexico, in 1950, each woman bore an average of six children but by 1990, the number was halved. In 2007, it fell slightly further to just over two children. Birth rates in Cuba, Argentina, Uruguay, and Costa Rica also fell. In countries and regions where women are primarily rural and where female literacy remains low, such as Guatemala and Ecuador, birthrates and infant mortality rates are moderately higher. Further, there was greater continuity in women's careers, meaning that they remain employed during their child-bearing years and do not quit their jobs to bring up children. In urban areas, women represent 40 percent of the economically active population in the twenty-first century.

The pattern of greater female involvement in the formal labor force has occurred concurrently with the growth in concrete numbers of women whose economic status is precarious. In the twenty-first century, millions of poor women and their families live in and around the megacities of Latin America—São Paulo, Rio de Janeiro, Buenos Aires, Lima-Callao, Santiago, Bogotá and Mexico City—and attempt to eke out a daily living in the informal economy. In 1994, 36 percent of the working poor were women but by 2002 the proportion had increased to 43 percent. In addition, the percentage of poor households headed by women has also grown.

Women are overrepresented in the urban and rural informal sector. Between 1990 and 1996 in urban zones, women's participation increased from an estimated 59 to 65 percent. While poor and working-class women have long-held informal jobs selling food and in domestic service, previously middle-class women joined the ranks owing to the privatization of formerly state-run industries, layoffs in government bureaucracies, and cuts in social spending during the 1990s.

Representative of this phenomenon is the social movement of unemployed workers in Argentina known as the piqueteros, or picketers. Women comprise a majority of the piquetero movement, which has spread throughout the country since 1997 in the Jujuy province and is known best for its strategies. Nationally, piqueteros have a wide range of demands and protests, though many have organized at a neighborhood level where residents devise creative strategies to cope with economic depression, particularly in the form of soup kitchens, bakeries, and barter.

Poverty tends to be higher in rural areas, and due to economic decline in this sector, an increasing number of women have sought paid employment. Women in the twenty-first century make up the majority of the workforce in Colombia's cut flower industry, Mexico's strawberry production, and Chile's fruit and vegetable sector. What these women share in common is their jobs' temporary status; their work is without benefits and either without a contract or with one that only officially employs them for a short period of time.

Tax incentives and low labor costs have encouraged multinational corporations to establish manufacturing facilities throughout the region, and women comprise the majority of the labor force. Begun in the 1960s along Mexico's border with the United States, "export processing zones" expanded especially during the 1990s especially to the Caribbean and Central America. In Puerto Rico and the Dominican Republic, female employment in the export processing zones grew largely in response to economic crisis and the need to supplement declining male wages. The unsolved murders of more than 700 women in Ciudad Juárez, Mexico, many of them maquiladora workers, has brought attention to women's increasing participation.

In the Caribbean, coastal Mexico, Belize, Guatemala, and Costa Rica, the international tourism industry is a primary and fast-growing employer of female hotel clerks, tourist guides, maids, waitresses, and cooks. Similarly, the picking and packing of agricultural goods for the global market, largely the work of women, puts money directly into the hands of female workers, a practice that is visibly altering traditional male-female and generational relationships in many communities. Increased integration into the global economy is also visible in changing social mores. Latin American women are still largely culturally Catholic, but in practice society is increasingly secular.

Linked with women's increased participation in the labor force is migration. Latin America was the first region to reach parity in the numbers of men and women migrants. In the past, women principally traveled from rural to urban areas in the company of partners. Today, migrant women are young, single mothers who are the main economic providers for their families. Though rural to urban migration remains important in countries with higher rural populations, such as Paraguay, international migration between urban areas has increased significantly. Women account for more than half of all international migrants. In 2000, the South American countries that absorbed the most migrants were Argentina (35 percent) and Venezuela (26 percent). There were considerable flows of Colombian women to Venezuela and Ecuador, Nicaraguan women to Costa Rica, and Peruvian women to Chile.

The results of over two decades of women's political activism were visible with more women in political office, new legislation that expanded women's rights in divorce and marriage, in the creation of all-female police stations, and in increased attention to domestic violence against women. Liberalization of family laws in Chile following the return to democracy in 1990 improved women's rights. Yet it was only in 2004 that Chile finally legalized divorce, the last country in the region to do so. The divorce law was important for women because until its implementation, husbands were considered the legal head of the family, oftentimes leaving women beholden to their husbands for financial decisions. In 2007, legislators in Mexico's Federal District voted 46 to 19 to legalize abortion during the first 12 weeks of pregnancy, joining Cuba, Guyana, and Puerto Rico.

The dynamics of the women's movement mobilized international support for a focus on women. Individuals and local groups of women were increasingly interconnected through global and regional networks. Since the Fourth World Conference on Women in Beijing in 1995, Argentina, Brazil, Chile, Ecuador, Mexico, and Central American nations have created councils, commissions, and institutes tasked with women's advancement.

In Argentina in 1991, women's advocates succeeded in passing the Ley de Cupos, which set a quota requiring that one-third of all candidates be female. The law increased women's participation from 4 percent to 34 percent, placing Argentina among the top ten countries in the world with regards to women in national parliaments. While in 1993, 30 women were elected to the House, in 2005, 120 women were in the Upper and Lower House. Additionally, since 1999, 22 of 24 Argentine provinces had adopted quota rules for state and local posts. Thirteen more countries in the region have since implemented similar national laws. Besides national representation, female politicians succeeded in creating new laws that increased women's participation within political parties. Such measures, undertaken in Argentina, Bolivia, Costa Rica, Chile, and Mexico, for instance, have increased female involvement significantly. Moreover, in Mexico, women have served as presidents of the Partido Revolucionario Institucional (PRI) and the left-leaning Democratic Revolution Party (PRD), both major parties. Finally, women in Latin America have attained the highest political office. In Nicaragua, Violetta Barrios De Chamorro was elected president in the closely monitored elections of 1990. Rosalia Arteaga briefly acted as president of Ecuador in 1997, and voters elected Michelle Bachelet, Chile's first woman president, in 2006. Cristina Fernández de Kirchner, wife of Argentine president Néstor Kirchner announced her candidacy for the presidency in 2007.

While gains in formal political settings and on paper are impressive, barriers to entry, discrimination, and setbacks persist. In 2001, Colombia's high court ruled the 1999 quota law for women unconstitutional in 2001. Elsewhere, many women have argued that provisions for women, especially within political parties are only weakly enforced. In Mexico's 2000 election, though both the PRI and PRD complied with the 30 percent candidate quotas, most women candidates were placed in difficult districts or were listed as substitutes for male candidates. Moreover, formal political gains have been outpaced by the rise of women in informal politics. Women lead and comprise the majority of non-governmental organizations (NGOs) and social movements in Latin America. Representative of this is the K'iche' Indian Rigoberta Menchú (b. 1960) who was awarded the Nobel Peace Prize in 1992 for her work on behalf of human rights, notably among the indigenous people of her homeland in northwestern Guatemala. Menchú remains a prominent advocate for the rights of indigenous people everywhere.

Significant challenges to women's rights persist in the areas of domestic violence, sexual rights, and reproductive health. In many countries, domestic violence is only classified as a misdemeanor rather than a felony. Outside of the home, pregnancy-based discrimination and sexual harassment confront the greater numbers of women in the formal workforce.

In the new millennium, women are more highly educated, more urban, and more engaged in activities outside the household (economic, political, and social) than ever before. Women have won important institutional spaces—university women's studies programs, NGOs, and governmental positions. Modern communications systems, technology, globalization, radio and television, patterns of migration, and access to transportation have all contributed to an expanded worldview. Throughout Latin America deep political and economic instabilities that threaten efforts to revise gender-based social and cultural attitudes persist. The ostensible gains—political citizenship for women, a focus on the double burden of poor women, racial discrimination, greater access to schooling for girls, labor regulations that take women's work into account—are under constant threat of erosion. Women are not coincidental but vital to democracy if it is to prove viable, and they are central to overcoming seemingly implacable social and economic problems. In this effort the importance of collective memory, of bearing witness, of knowing the history of women cannot be underestimated.

See alsoBachelet, Michelle; Feminism and Feminist Organizations; Feminist Congresses, First and Second, 1916, Yucatan; Liberation Theology; Malinche; Marriage and Divorce; Menchú Tum, Rigoberta; Migration and Migrations; Piqueteros; Pulperos; Río Blanco Strike; Soldaderas; Women in Paraguay.


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                                        Francesca Miller

                                        Meredith Glueck

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