A woman’s place is in her movement

Jane Jaquette brings readers interested in Latin American feminism up to date on why progress in some areas has been so limited


Feminist Agendas and Democracy in Latin America
Edited by Jane S. Jaquette
2009, Duke University Press
260 pages

Reviewed by Gavin O’Toole

PERHAPS it is predictable: women played a pivotal role in the democratisation of Latin America yet, as democracy has taken hold and party politics have prevailed, women’s movements appear to have lost momentum and progress has been diluted on issues that remain of crucial importance to feminists.

There have been genuine advances in addressing some issues of key importance to women across the hemisphere – constitutional reforms and new laws in virtually every country aimed at equality and tackling domestic violence – but implementation remains poor.

Government ministries have institutionalised women’s issues and political quotas have been established to increase their representation. But official initiatives remain underfunded and quota rules are routinely ignored. Machismo persists and shows no sign of weakening, and the Catholic Church – an enemy in so many respects of female equality – has obstructed progress on reproductive rights and sexual preference.

This collection of essays brings readers interested in feminism in Latin America up to date on these developments and explores both why progress in some areas has been so limited and, as a result, the need for new strategies for addressing women’s issues within democratic politics.

The authors look at how women’s movements have adapted to political and economic change and how feminists today are pursuing their agendas in the Southern Cone, Venezuela, Peru and internationally.

Political dilemma

The volume amounts to essential reading for students of feminism in Latin America by filling a gap in literature that has been created by the drift towards the left across the region. Such a drift inevitably confronts feminists with a dilemma about the extent to which gender issues are pursued in their own right regardless of the implications this may have for parties that advocate a primarily class ideology.

Accordingly, Gioconda Espina explores how changes in the Venezuelan political landscape within the climate of polarisation under Hugo Chávez – whose commitment is to the marginalised in general and whose regime has turned increasingly personalist – are shaping options for feminists who may hitherto have joined forces, regardless of class, to press government on women’s issues.

Venezuelan feminists remain cautious, trying to co-operate with parties that make up the chavista power base while all the while testing the parameters of a rapidly changing political landscape. Espina writes:

“It is very difficult for those who are not in Venezuela to understand that for us the days do not have twenty-four hours, but double or triple that, so that, from one day to the next, things are resolved or come apart, or both at the same time, at such a speed that it seems that more than one day has passed.” [p. 65]

It is at an international level, however, that Latin American feminists have been able to shape a clearer progressive voice, the most recent manifestation of which has been the contribution of women’s activists at the World Social Forum.

Virginia Vargas explores the different feminisms that have come together at the WSF, including the work of the Latin America-based Articulación Feministas Marcosur (AFM), whose Feminist Dialogues brought together women from all over the world to examine ways of approaching the basic goals of the WSF – confronting neoliberalism and militarism.

Feminist movements have had less impact on the quality of democratic practice than many expected and Jane Jaquette argues in her concluding remarks that one way of trying to gauge how the shift to democracy has affected feminist thought is to trace how concepts central to the heart of past debates – maternal citizenship and autonomy – have taken on new meanings reflecting debates about what political priorities should be.

But feminists also need to take seriously institutions, without which the vision of improving women’s rights and achieving full citizenship will go unfulfilled. Jaquette writes:

“Politics today is a process of negotiation and compromise over outcomes that ultimately only states can provide. This process needs the generative dynamism, plural perspectives, and utopian idealism of social movements, both local and global. But it also requires respect for ‘politics as usual’, for organizations and institutions, and for the predictability that makes it possible for people to plan and hope. Feminists must be committed to the institutional means, as well as the utopian ends, of social justice.” [p. 217]

Gavin O’Toole is Editor of the Latin American Review of Books

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