Elisabeth Jay Friedman
(University of San Francisco)
(University of Buenos Aires-CONICET and UN Women)
(Latin American Faculty of Social Sciences [FLACSO] Campus Mexico)
As U.S.-based activists have demonstrated, this current shift in regional feminist politics reveals there is much that U.S.-based scholars can glean from Latin American thinking on contemporary feminist organizing. In this short piece, we choose to highlight three key takeaways whose insights apply beyond reproductive justice. The activism that enabled progress on sexual and reproductive rights in Latin America has not only promoted advances on other gender-related issues, but also remains central to pro-democracy movements.
Feminists are fierce defenders of an expansive and substantive vision of democracy
Four decades ago, as they marched against the brutal dictatorship of Augusto Pinochet, 1980s Chilean feminists called for democracy both in ‘the street’ (the public sphere) and in ‘the home’ (the private sphere), acknowledging the links between broader democratic and social justice aspirations and their gender equality activism. Across the region, feminists' demands and tactics have been deeply shaped by the brutal history of military dictatorships spanning the 1970s and 1980s, as well as by a series of harsh economic crises that followed in which low-income women bore the brunt of ensuring their families’ survival. Those difficult experiences of upholding democracy and human rights sparked feminist coalitions with other progressive forces—such as trade unions, students, peasant movements and political parties. Coalitions that then made room for women’s interests and agendas of political representation, economic justice, reproductive rights, and ending gender-based violence as part of new or restored democracies (Craske and Molyneux 2002).
Perhaps these links are best captured by the example of how the symbols of the ‘Mothers of Plaza de Mayo,’ initially meant to defend human rights, have been re-imagined in current abortion rights mass mobilizations. During Argentina’s military dictatorship (1976-1983), this paradigmatic human rights group staged weekly protests wearing white headscarves to signal the peaceful nature of their protests demanding justice for their children, who were persecuted for their alleged engagement in labor, student or popular movements (Sosa 2014). With the return to democratic politics, the National Campaign for the Right to Legal, Safe and Free Abortion coined in 2008 repurposed the scarf in a different color (Di Marco 2011). It has since spread across the region and beyond, as people in street rallies and in everyday activities alike wear a green scarf or tie one to their bags to signal support for abortion rights.
All in all, this struggle for democracy, often lacking in the US, has meant that Latin American feminists have long viewed their gender claims as part of democratic consolidation, and actively explored democratic engagement through all its institutions, especially the legislative and judicial, in addition to marching in massive protests when official channels are unresponsive. Embedded in this history, feminist agendas have remained broader than merely focusing on women’s individual rights or gender-neutral incorporation into labor markets and political institutions (Sutton and Vacarezza 2021).
Consequently, today feminists remain fierce defenders of democracy against a range of efforts to impose authoritarianism. For instance, feminist movements have been central to the opposition to Nicaraguan President Daniel Ortega’s 15-year rule (2007-2022), mobilizing against the closure of civic space and the outright persecution of feminist activists (Larracoechea Bohigas 2019). Similarly, in South America, Brazilian feminists took to the streets and social media to rally against the 2018 election of extreme right-wing and anti-gender equality presidential candidate Jair Bolsonaro through their ‘Not him (Ele nao)’ campaign (Melo 2020). In perhaps the most successful pro-democratic mobilizations to date, young Chilean feminists have been at the forefront of the October 2019 social uprising to demand a more equal society and fully democratize the country, leading to a long-overdue constitutional reform process. This emerging new draft constitution to be approved by referendum this September defines Chile as a ‘social state,’ recognizes indigenous rights, and mandates gender parity in all public institutions.
Strong feminist mobilization is grounded in longstanding collective movement infrastructure
Feminisms, like all social movements, are always time-bound and dynamic, with periods of effervescence and of quiescence. Within social movement theory, this rise and fall in movement activity are commonly referred to as ‘protest cycles’ (Tarrow 1989). The feminist literature opts for the metaphor of a succession of ‘waves’ to describe different periods in feminist activism in the U.S. and globally (Molyneux et al. 2021). Yet abortion mobilizations in Latin America are not characterized as ‘waves,’ which points to a short but visible event. Instead, activists opt for the metaphor of a ‘tide’ to signal a longer-term, slower yet sustained, rise in activism. The Marea Verde or ‘Green Tide’ refers to the complex network of movements, organizations and activists across institutional spaces that for over four decades have used a variety of strategies to promote safe and legal access to abortion for all. Extending from Tijuana, Mexico to Ushuaia, Argentina, this ‘Green Tie’ in part reflects a distinctive feature of regional feminist politics.
Latin American sets itself apart for having built longstanding and robust autonomous and institutional mechanisms to embolden transnational civil society and regional policy dialogues meant to pollinate policy ideas across countries and/or build international momentum and influence to support national or local initiatives–what Keck and Sikkink (1998) call having a “boomerang effect.”
Since the first Latin American and Caribbean Feminist Encuentro (encounter) was organized in Bogotá, Colombia, in 1981, this regular space for dialogue bringing together a wide range of feminists and women’s organizations has been central to building and consolidating alliances and networks among autonomous women’s groups (Alvarez et al. 2003). Between that first encounter in 1981 and the latest one (Uruguay, 2017), these regional gatherings spanned the continent growing in salience and attendance: from 250 feminists in 1981 to 2200 feminists in 2017 representing many organizations. These spaces have served as arenas for movement development and debate, where participants articulate their identities, build their communities, and hone their strategies – and then take their insights home to spur further growth of local and national organizing.
In parallel, regional institutional policy dialogues were also established. Under the aegis of the Economic Commission for Latin America and the Caribbean, ‘femocrats’ working within national women’s policy agencies have agreed to policy roadmaps in various official forums. Since the first Regional Conferences on Women took place in La Habana Cuba in 1977, such conferences’ results include the Consensus of Quito (2007), Brasilia (2010) and Santo Domingo (2013), which express the will to ensure women’s equal participation in all areas of social and political life, eradicate violence and guarantee co-responsibility in unpaid domestic work; the forthcoming conference in Buenos Aires in 2022 will put the spotlight on strengthening care systems and policies. Similarly, the first Regional Conference on Population and Development in 2013 produced a unique progressive agenda: the Montevideo Consensus—signed by 38 countries—that reaffirms state commitments to universal access to sexual and reproductive services and guarantees sexual rights.
Because these forums have enabled networks and movements to accumulate resources and consolidate shared identities over longer periods of time, they undergird the organizational capacity that has spurred multiple cycles of protests and strands of Latin American feminism—including the ‘Green Tide.’ These less visible coalition-building spaces have facilitated the construction of shared framings and understandings of existing problems; expanded internal mobilization capacity, action repertoires, knowledge and skills; and built common loyalties among state officials and activists in a variety of positions.
Inclusive, intersectional and inter-institutional activism is equipped to promote positive change and withstand gender backlash.
Since their emergence in the mid-19th century, Latin American feminisms have evolved from elite activism, composed mainly of educated, urban, middle-class women, to become more inclusive, intersectional mass movements (Ewig and Friedman forthcoming). Although not escaping the temptations and tribulations of technocratic “NGOization” popular in the 1990s (Alvarez 1998), feminisms have moved away from representing light-skinned, middle-class interests. More often than not, in the thick of the organizational landscape that characterizes hyper-mobilized Latin American societies, think tanks and professional NGOs co-exist and actively collaborate with grassroots, localized forms of feminism: ranging from popular or shantytown feminisms organizing in informal settlements (Campana and Rossi Lashayas 2020), to community forms of indigenous feminism leading protests against extractivist mega-mining projects (Cabnal 2010), to Black feminist groups active in some urban peripheries (Sueli 2011).
These dense and plural networks can simultaneously challenge and cooperate with state actors and have proven to be an important driver of positive policy changes. For instance, in Mexico and Colombia, elite networks including advocates in key judiciary positions played a catalyzing role in progressive Supreme Court rulings (Ruibal 2021). ‘Multi-sited and multi-nodal’ (Johnson et al. 2018), or ‘nested’ (Zaremberg and Rezende 2022) networks, skilled in combining outside and inside pressure, have facilitated policy changes in other contexts. In Argentina, alongside elite networks in Congress well positioned to rally legislative support and rights-based NGOs spearheading strategic litigation efforts to expand access to safe abortions through courts, mass street protests succeeded in capturing hearts and minds, turning public opinion in favor of decriminalizing abortion (Tabbush at al. 2018). In Brazil, a broad-based network coordinated national legislative action and street mobilizations to block more than 76 restrictive sexual and reproductive bills presented between 2015 and 2022. They achieved this by disputing policy content, foreclosing or delaying anti-choice voting sessions in Congress, pressuring their Congressional party leaders to block conservative proposals, or inviting pro-abortion rights activists into plenary sessions (Zaremberg and Rezende 2022).
Grassroot women’s and feminist movements in particular have experimented with horizontal, participatory internal decision-making tools, striving to better reflect the interests of different groups of women and gender non-conforming people. For instance, Argentina’s National Campaign for the Right to Legal, Safe, and Free Abortion set up a federal umbrella structure to make joint decisions in national plenaries that included representatives from different provinces and movements. More recent organizing efforts focused on gender-based violence such as the powerful ‘Ni Una Menos’ (Not One Less) movement have broadened their agenda to encompass abortion, unpaid care work, and economic exploitation through the use of highly diverse, face-to-face assemblies that function as “apparatuses of collective intelligence" (Gago 2019) to define the course of the movement.
Through these experiences, feminist activism acquires a strong affective component that enables it to withstand setbacks and advance capacious agendas. ‘Militancia,’ as the act of being involved in politics is known to activists, is woven into everyday life: feminist spaces have fostered identities, strong relationships, and a deep sense of belonging. Such bonds may explain why feminists in contexts such as Colombia and Mexico continue to mobilize despite the risks to their lives and their loved ones (Zulver 2021); why a fierce younger generation has taken to the streets throughout the region (Larrondo and Ponce Lara 2019); and why activists routinely mobilize regardless of whether their own interests are at stake.
In the face of the Supreme Court’s enormous setback to gender-based rights in the U.S., the honed strategies revealed by deeply engaged research on Latin American feminist activisms offer critical tools to uphold democratic values, withstand backlash and advance gender justice. Feminists and their supporters in the U.S. should recognize that democratic erosion – whether in the justice system, the electoral system, or the legislative branch – poses a threat to their goals as well as their country, and should be part of a capacious activist agenda. Building and reinforcing coalition-building and spaces for encounter would strengthen the resilience of feminist organizations to future shocks as well as their capacity to promote legislative changes (which is the main option open for policy change in the U.S. currently). And moving beyond elite networks to create and sustain inclusive, intersectional mass movements may be the best antidote to backlash.
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Zaremberg, Gisela and Deborah, Rezende de Almeida. 2022 (in print). Feminisms in Latina America: nested pro-choice networks in Mexico and Brazil. Cambridge University Press (Serie Elements Politics and Society in Latin America).
 See: https://conlaa.com/feminismo-y-proceso-constituyente-en-chile-el-protagonismo-de-las-mujeres/
 See: https://www.americasquarterly.org/article/chiles-proposed-constitution-7-key-points/
 See: https://www.cde.org.py/tiempodecoronavirus/2020/06/26/el-xv-encuentro-feminista-de-latinoamerica-y-el-caribe-sera-en-2021/
Elisabeth Jay Friedman, University of San Francisco; email@example.com
Constanza Tabbush, University of Buenos Aires-CONICET and UN Women; Constanza.firstname.lastname@example.org
Gisela Zaremberg, Latin American Faculty of Social Sciences (FLACSO) Campus Mexico; email@example.com