A gender united

In Why Women Protest Lisa Baldez demonstrates how Chilean women activists on both left and right employ common strategies and frames of reference


Why Women Protest: Women’s Movements in Chile
Lisa Baldez
2002, Cambridge University Press
234 pages

Reviewed by Patience Schell

IN HER MONOGRAPH Why Women Protest: Women’s Movements in Chile, Lisa Baldez analyses how women of both the right and the left responded to the same catalysts for forming mass movements based on gender identity, while sharing strategies and discourses of gender. Chile offers an interesting case study for recent women’s political movements as it was among the first countries in Latin America to produce an educated middle class of professional women who lobbied for equal rights, while women’s involvement in Chilean elected politics includes the first women mayor of a Latin American capital city (Santiago in 1939).[1] Moreover, for reasons that Baldez discusses, Chile was one of the first Latin American countries to take up gender studies as its own. The 2005 election campaigns, which I observed in November while preparing this review, show that the political parties believe that women voters can be won by appealing to gender issues. Failed Unión Demócrata Independiente (Independent Democratic Union) presidential candidate, Joaquín Lavin, dedicated entire television advertisements to convincing women that he would represent their interests. Lavin and Sebastián Piñera, the candidate of the right Renovación Nacional (National Renovation) who is in the run-off in January 2006, have both included in their platform a retirement age and personal pension for housewives, as they have mentioned in television debates. The presidential candidacy of Michelle Bachelet for Concertación Democrática (Democratic Alignment), moreover, as well as women running for deputy and senatorial seats under different party banners perhaps suggests that women are gaining ground in formal Chilean politics. Yet women’s parity in terms of opportunity and wages in Chile remains distant, while abortions in all cases continue to be illegal and the year old divorce law has yet to end any marriage because of the lengthy bureaucracy involved. Reading Why Women Protest provides a basis for understanding political discourses in Chile now, as much as women’s political participation and wider political activism in 1970-1997, the era she addresses.

Tipping, timing and framing

Baldez’s work is notable for another reason: while the extensive literature on feminist women from a historical and political point of view has become part of the mainstream, only recently have scholars begun to take conservative women seriously. [2] Baldez goes a step further, analysing Chilean women’s activism on the left and the right in parallel to demonstrate common strategies and frames of reference, which she expands into a model of why women protest that she proposes has wider application. In the first chapter, she describes the key stages in her model: tipping, timing and framing. ‘Tipping’ is the exact moment at which social movements transform from small independent protest movements to mass, broad-based activism. Tipping happens when activists explain external factors in such a way as to mobilise a wider audience. ‘Timing’ refers to the moment when there is realignment of the political situation, especially among parties, creating new opportunities. Challenging the standard political science view, based on the experience of the United States, Baldez argues that even short term realignments, such as those found more frequently in Latin America, can have significant impacts. Her third concept, ‘framing’, ‘explains why women perceive these conditions as opportunities, why they perceive them in gendered terms, and why they perceive these conditions as requiring them to take action’ (p. 10 italics in original). Thus, ‘framing’ creates the conditions for re-alignment (‘timing’), which in turn provides a trigger for ‘tipping’. Baldez does not address, however, how this model might work with other types of movements or if there is something unique about women’s movements organised around gender. This first chapter, discussing her model, and the final chapter, in which she uses the model to compare Russian, Brazilian and East German women’s movements, are really for fellow political scientists. For other readers her carefully researched and detailed history of gendered politics in Chile, focusing 1970-1997 is laid out in chapters 2-8.

The material in these chapters is based not only on archival research, particularly newspapers, magazines and documentation of the organisations she studies, but also on interviews of fifty women, including leaders, followers, politicians and academic figures from both ideological camps. Using this body of material, Baldez discusses women’s activism as well as the discourses through which it was understood. Baldez begins her second chapter with a brief history of the women’s movement in twentieth-century Chile, providing useful background context as well as identifying historical patterns and actors which influenced women’s political involvement in the later period. She then focuses on women’s activism in the period of President Salvador Allende and his Unidad Popular (Popular Unity – UP) government that, she argues, differed from women’s movements elsewhere at the time because in Chile the activists were conservative women who intended to push Allende from power. Although conservative women responded to his election with almost immediate, and unofficial, protests in front of the presidential palace La Moneda, these early protests did not develop into a major opposition movement. Baldez explains this failure in September-October 1970 because there was no realignment of the conservative Partido Demócrata Cristiano (Christian Democratic Party – PDC) and the Partido Nacional (National Party); rather the PDC supported Allende in the congressional round of voting.

Yet, a year later, when the PDC had shifted to the right and was prepared to form just such a coalition, the opportunity emerged for conservative women to change the terms of the political debate and play a fundamental role in Allende’s overthrown. Beginning with the March of the Empty Pots, conservative women’s protests spurred other widespread protests and opposition to Allende. The march, although always paid lip service in the extensive literature on the period, is not given due consideration, according to Baldez. In her account, the march, coinciding not only with the end of Fidel Castro’s divisive visit to Chile but also to a moment when opposition parties were prepared to act against the government, becomes a pivotal event determining the course of Chile’s future. How these women depicted themselves and their political activism was as key as the protests themselves: women of the right proclaimed their unique ability to transcend party infighting which characterised masculine politics because they were outsiders to politics and their activism was non-political. As outsiders, they wanted to push the men in power into action. Male opposition leaders responded to their challenge, using the march as justification for impeaching Allende’s Minister of the Interior, José Tohá, in December 1971, for example. Baldez argues that, because of the UP’s contradictory views on gender, it was never able to mobilise or inspire a comparable movement of women on the left.

Shaming men into action

The conservative women’s movement Baldez examines was single issue – shame men into action to remove Allende from power – and their reason for existing died on 11 September 1973. Yet Baldez argues that the rhetoric of women as political outsiders had taken on a life of its own, even to the detriment of women who had been active in conservative politics. Augusto Pinochet pushed this rhetoric to its logical extreme, only appointing women who had not been involved in political parties to positions within his government. Women in opposition parties were ostracized and even became ‘targets of hostility’ (p. 117). Pinochet still encouraged women’s mobilisation during the dictatorship but these women had not been seen at the anti-Allende protests: they were military wives. Still, the dictatorship eulogised the women’s movement in its discourse during the entire period. On the second anniversary of the coup, for instance, Pinochet reminded listeners of Chilean women’s belief, during the UP era, that violence had undermined their families. Baldez even credits Pinochet with increasing the importance of the March of the Empty Pots through its frequent invocation.

While Pinochet continued to remind Chileans about the work of a women’s movement that was gone, Baldez describes how the violence and terror of the regime created the conditions for new women’s movements. As the majority of the disappeared were men, the majority of human rights activists were women. Gradually, women involved in human rights activism turned to feminist activism, partially because human rights groups, often organised through the Catholic Church, brought them face to face with the limits placed on their gender in Chilean society. Formal feminism also grew among middle-class women through 1970s-style consciousness raising groups and among the exiles who came into contact with feminist groups abroad. At the same time, women’s mobilisation in the shantytowns that surrounded Santiago flourished, partially because of difficult economic situations. Economic discrimination against those who had worked within or were affiliated with the left in the 1970s was compounded by the neoliberal shock treatment which the country underwent in the 1980s, making life precarious for many Chileans.

When the 1982 recession brought further hardship, the symbol of the empty pot took on a new meaning. Pinochet’s refusal to lessen the recession’s impact hurt his popularity and, in May 1983, the leader of the Confederation of Copper Workers called on Chileans to bang on pots from darkened homes as a protest. Although the leftist women Baldez interviewed refused to make a connection between this cacerola and the earlier anti-Allende ones, the movements show a clear convergence of methods. These protests helped bring together the disparate strands of women’s activism into a women’s movement of the left. Among the techniques of this new opposition were flash protests, during which women would gather at farmers’ markets, shout that they were women against the dictatorship, and hide before the police arrived. Newly re-emerged political parties were unable to claim leadership of the growing opposition, as they remained mired in infighting.

This period of protests peaked in July 1986, when an unprecedented 10 civilians died; in response to the protests, Pinochet declared a state of siege that lasted until January 1987. Unable to demonstrate, women’s groups shifted their efforts towards creating a policy agenda for women while, in preparation for the plebiscite in 1988, the opposition, including some women’s groups, focused on voter registration. Baldez argues that, although Pinochet fully expected to have women’s support in the plebiscite, his campaign still reminded women of the difficulties they had faced under Allende and sought to invoke the spirit of opposition to the UP. Nonetheless, 52.5% of women voted ‘no’. Women’s groups used this narrow majority among women voters to pressurise parties to include their demands in platforms. The Coalition of Women for Democracy also pushed for women to be selected as candidates and published press releases showing how events and policy impacted Chilean women.

Yet the massive nature of the women’s movement only lasted until the dictatorship fell, while genuine incorporation of women into the political system remained unrealised: Patricio Aylwin, president elected in 1989, appointed only men to his cabinet. Baldez describes how divisions within the movement have grown since 1989, and class divisions remain difficult to surmount, with the women of the shantytowns charging that the middle-class feminists are ignorant about the economic and human rights issues that are most pressing for them. Still, in the 2005 election campaign which I observed, women as politicians and women’s concerns – including economic inequalities – have had a high profile. One of Michelle Bachelet’s campaign slogans was ‘La fuerza de mujer’ (women’s strength), while her theme song includes the lyric urging listeners to imagine Chile ‘con el rostro de mujer’ (with a woman’s face), suggesting that depicting women politicians as fundamentally different from their male counterparts still resonates. Thus, even if the unified leftist women’s movement has not re-emerged, women’s concerns have been incorporated into mainstream political campaigning – it remains to be seen if they will be addressed in concrete measures.

While recent politics in Chile make Why Women Protest an even more interesting read, the volume offers a valuable contribution to our understanding of a crucial period in recent Chilean history. In this monograph, Baldez demonstrates that the intersection of gender and politics has never been simple. Men of both the left and the right responded to women’s political activism in terms of traditional gender roles, while women of both the right and the left demanded space for political participation based in part on gender roles and depicting themselves as outsiders. Women’s opposition movements, to Allende and to Pinochet, shared their self-depiction as outsiders to the traditional mechanisms of politics, although Baldez concludes that anti-Pinochet women sought to force women’s equality onto the agendas of the opposition parties.

Precisely because her conclusions signal the pivotal role of gender in the period under study, more analysis of the examples given would have strengthened her argument further. In seeking to cover such a complex period in Chilean history, Baldez sometimes spreads herself too thin, leaving the reader wanting more depth. For instance, she discussing agrarian reform in a page and a half, without addressing the gendered assumptions regarding males heading households that were implicit in the programme. Her discussion of Obligatory Social Service, under Allende, is equally brief. Both programmes, however, deserved more attention especially as they support her argument that the UP was unable to mobilise women on the left because of its own contradictory approach to women’s role in Chilean society. Greater focus on programmes like these would have balanced the work more, providing a counterpoint to her focus on the Pinochet government’s incorporation of women into its ranks. In terms of style, clearer links among the multiple sections within chapters could have made the transitions from one section to another smoother. Finally, a list of abbreviations is necessary, as the acronyms, particularly of the feminist organisations discussed in the second half of the text, become hard to keep straight for the non-specialist. These criticisms aside, Why Women Protest makes a valuable and necessary contribution to the literature on Chilean politics and history and will certainly become an oft-consulted text on the period.

1. Richard J. Walter, ‘Urban Pioneers: The Role of Women in the Local Government of Santiago, Chile, 1935-1946’, Hispanic American Historical Review 84:4 (2004): 664.
2. See, for instance, Victoria González and Karen Kampwirth, eds., Radical Women in Latin America: Left and Right (University Park: Penn State University Press, 2001) and Margaret Power, Right-Wing Women in Chile: Feminine Power and the Struggle against Allende, 1964-1973 (State College: Penn State Univ. Press, 2002).

Patience A. Schell is Lecturer in Latin American Cultural Studies at the University of Manchester, UK