Feminism in Latin America

Feminism is a collection of movements and ideologies that share a common goal: to define, establish, and achieve equal political, economic, cultural, personal, and social rights for women.[1][2] This includes seeking to establish equal opportunities for women in education and employment. A feminist advocates or supports the rights and equality of women.[3]

Feminist movements started in the West in the late 12th century and its development has three ways of evolution. First-wave feminism was about the status of white women of middle and upper-classes, suffrage and their political equality. Second-wave feminism went further in dealing with inequalities in social and economic spheres. Third-wave feminism deals with financial, social and cultural inequalities and women’s rights in politics and media. Feminism may be found almost in each country around the world. This article will focus on the case of Latin America and peculiarities of feminism there, as well as the concept of Latin American Feminist Theory.

However, there is an opinion that the classical division of the periods taken from the example of the USA does not fit to some extent feminism evolution in Latin America, namely the time of second and third waves in Americas are different.[4] On the one hand, there is an opinion shared by many people that feminism in Latin America was a western product. On the other hand, some studies, for example, Francesca Miller’s Latin American Women and the Search for Social Justice,[5] prove that it has been rather an ideology that appeared in the region over the last century. However, evidence also points to Latin American women advocating for equal rights as early as the seventeenth century.[6]

Causes of the emergence of feminism in Latin America

There is a fairly solid consensus among academics and activists that women’s participation in leftist movements has been one of the central reasons for the development of Latin American feminism.[7] However, some Latin American countries were able to attain legal rights for women in right, conservative contexts.[8] Julie Shayne argues that there are 5 factors, which contributed to the emergence of revolutionary feminism: 1) experience in revolutionary movements showed challenge to status-quo perception of gender behaviour; 2) logistical trainings; 3) a political opening; 4) unmet basic needs by revolutionary movements; 5) a collective feminist consciousness.

Evolution of feminism in Latin America


Although the term feminist had not yet been used to describe women’s rights advocates until the 1890s, many women of the nineteenth century, mostly elite or middle class, tried to challenge dominant gender norms.

Born in Quito (now Ecuador), in 1797, Manuela Sáenz was a “precursor to feminism and women’s emancipation. History has both vilified and glorified Manuela Sáenz - for her affair with Simon Bolivar, and for accusations that say she only “manipulated gender norms to advance her person and political interests.” As an early supporter of the independence cause, she spied on Spanish royalty and held intellectual gatherings called tertulias.

Juana Manuela Gorriti, an Argentinian journalist and writer born in 1818, advocated greater rights for women and wrote literary works with women protagonists that were both “romantic and political.” Similar to Sáenz, Gorriti held tertulias for literary men and women, one of whom included Clorinda Matto de Turner, a novelist sympathetic towards Indians and critical of the priesthood in Peru. Gorriti also worked with Teresa González, an avid writer who ran a girls’ school and advocated education for women.[6]


In the late half of the 19th century there were three main areas of feminists' discussions: suffrage, protective labour laws, and access to education. 1910, Argentina — the first meeting of the organization of International Feminist Congresses (topic of equality). The second meeting was in 1916 in Mexico.

The 1910s saw many women, such as Aleida March, gain prominence during the revolutions of Mexico, Cuba, and Nicaragua. Additionally, Amelio Robles, born in 1889, was a notable man in a peasant army and the Confederation of Veterans of the Revolution who by modern United States standards would be considered a trans man.

A prominent international figure born during this time was Gabriela Mistral, who in 1945 won the Nobel prize in literature and became a voice for women in Latin America. She upheld conservative gender norms, even at one point saying, “perfect patriotism in women is perfect motherhood,” and that as a teacher she was “married” to the state. However, feminist theorists contend that her personal experiences contradict her language, because she never married, had a “mannish” appearance, and her close personal relationships with women suggest that she might have been a closest lesbian.[6]


The 1930s, 1940s, and 1950s were full of Latina feminists the pioneered the current Latin American Feminist movement. It was the beginning of the suffragist movement for many Latin American women. The first elected woman major of any major capital city in the Americas, Felisa Rincon de Gautier, was “an active participant in Puerto Rico's women's suffrage movement” that was won in 1932, and her child care programs “inspired the United States' Head Start program." [9]

Most women advocating for equal rights had to cling onto femininity to gain respect, but feminist theorist Julia de Burgos used her writings to “openly contest the prevailing notion that womanhood and motherhood are synonymous.” Additionally, Dr. Leila Gonzalez was involved in the “Brazilian Black movement” and helped develop “the practice of Black Feminism in Brazil.”[9]


At the end of 1960s, many Latin American females started forming groups of reflection and activism for defending women’s rights. Initially those women were from the middle class; a significant part came from the various left groups.[10] However, unlike their predecessors, Latin American feminists of the 1960s focused on social justice rather than suffrage. They emphasized “reproductive rights, equal pay in the job market, and equality of legal rights.”[11] It is important to note that this type of Latin American feminism was a result of Latina women’s activism against their position of sub-ordinance, not a reaction to women gaining more legal rights in the United States and Europe. As Gloria Anzaldúa said, we must put history “through a sieve, winnow out the lies, looks at the forces that we as a race, as women, have been part of.” [12]

Such female groups arose amid the sharp radicalization of class struggle in the continent, which resulted in labor and mass rising whose most evident manifestations were the Chilean industrial belts Cordón Industrial,[13] the Cordobazo in Argentina (was a civil uprising in the city of Córdoba, Argentina, in the end of May 1969), student mobilizations in Mexico etc. These facts could be regarded as the sharpest experience and numerous movements of urban and rural guerrilla came to the scene.

It is for those reasons that Latin American feminist theorists, such as Ros Tobar, say that Chilean feminism is closely tied to socialism. Authoritarian regimes reinforced “the traditional family, and the dependent role of women, which is reduced to that of mother.” Dictatorships institutionalized social inequality, so many Latin American feminists tie authoritarian governments with less rights for women. Slogans, such as “Women give life, the dictatorships exterminates it,” “In the Day of the National Protest: Let’s make love not the beds,” and “Feminism is Liberty, Socialism, and Much More,” portrayed the demands of many Latin American feminists.[11] Latin American feminist theorist Nelly Richard of Chile explored how feminism and gay culture broke down rigid structures of life in Chile and was essential to the liberation of women in her novel Masculine/Feminine: Practices of Difference.[14]

There appeared feminist meetings (initially, every two years; later — every three years). They discussed recent accomplishments, strategies, possible future conflicts, ways to enhance their strategies and how to establish through such ways varied, rich and immense coordination between the national and transnational levels.

However, the mid-70s saw the decline of such movements due to the policy of neoliberalism in the region. Then came dictatorial regimes that settled over the majority of the continent and prevented the development of feminist movements, not only due to the establishment of a reactionary ideology based on the defense of tradition and family, but also due to the political persecution and state terrorism with its consequences such as torture, forced exile, imprisonment, disappearances and murders of political, social and trade union activists. While the right wing of politicians considered feminists to be subversive and rebellious, the left, by contrast, named them as «small bourgeois».

It also was during this time that leftist feminist organizations gained attention for their efforts. This is most prominently seen in the “Women of Young Lords” of Puerto Rico. The Young Lords were at first, Boricuan, Afro-Taino men who fought for basic human rights and “openly challenged machismo, sexism, and patriarchy.” Bianca Canales, Luisa Capteillo, Connie Cruz, and Denise Oliver became leaders in the Young Lords, and facilitated a “Ten-Point Health Program." [9]

Most feminisms in Latin America arose out of the context of military dictatorships and masculine domination. However, a lot of marginalized women began questioning hegemonic feminism in the 1970s. These women, whether they were Afro-descendant, lesbians, Indigenous, transgender, sex workers, domestic workers, etc., began to look at different, interlocking types of oppression.[15] Gloria Anzaldúa, of Indigenous descent, described her experience with intersectionality as a “racial, ideological, cultural, and biological crosspollination” and called it a “new mestiza consciousness.” [12]

Various critiques of “internal colonialism of Latin American states toward their own indigenous populations” and “Eurocentrism in the social sciences” emerged, giving rise to Latin American Feminist Theory.[16]


The feminist movement returned to be an important protagonist in the early 1980s after the fall of dictatorships and the establishment of the new democratic regimes throughout the region, with the dictatorship managing to interrupt the continuity with the previous stage. Feminists of 1980s, e.g. Nancy Fraser, referring to violence against women, questioned the established limits of discussion and politicized problems which before had not ever been politicized, expanded their audiences, created new spaces and institutions in which the opposing interpretations could be developed and from where they could reach wider audiences.[17]

During the repressive period and particularly during the early years of democracy, human rights groups played a major role in the continent. These movements organized to denounce the torture, disappearances, and crimes of the dictatorship, were headed mainly by women (mothers, grandmothers and widowed). In order to understand the change in the language of feminist movements, it is necessary to bear in mind two things: the first is that it was women that headed revelations and subsequent struggle for the punishment of those who were responsible for the state terrorism, and the second is the policy-especially of the United States- to prioritize human rights in the international agenda.[18]

Feminists were able to achieve goals because of political parties, international organizations and local labour groups. Latin American feminist movements had two forms: as centers of feminist work, and as part of broad, informal, mobilized, volunteer, street feminist movement. At the IV meeting in Mexico in 1987 [19] there was signed a document on the myths of the feminist movement impeding its development. This document has a great impact; it states that feminism has a long way to go because, it is a radical transformation of society, politics and culture. The myths that were listed are: • Feminists are not interested in power • Feminists do politics in a different way • All feminists are the same • There is a natural unity for the mere fact of being women • Feminism exists only as a policy of women towards women • The movement is a small group • The women’s spaces ensure for themselves a positive space • Personal is automatically political • The consensus is democracy. This is important because each country in Latin America was able to push feminism in different ways – for example, through democracy, socialism, and even under authoritarian regimes (although this was less common).[8]

These myths were commonly disputed at Latin American and Caribbean meetings in the 1980s called Encuentros, a space created to “strengthen feminist networks,” exchange analysis, and confront “conditions of oppression.” Though the Encuentros constructed a common space, the people there made sure it was a place of political dialogue, not of a sisterhood.[20] One of the few points of unity found during these Encuentros was the effect colonialism and globalization had on their respective countries.[8]


The neoliberal policies that began in the late 1980s and reached their peak in the continent during the decade of the 1990s, made the feminist movement fragmented and privatized. Many women began to work in multilateral organizations, finance agencies etc. and became bridges between financing bodies and female movements. It was around this time that many feminists, feeling discomfort with the current hegemonic feminism, began to create their own, autonomous organizations.[6] In 1994, the Zapatista National Liberation Army (EZLN) became “a catalyst for indigenous women's organization in Mexico” and created “The Women's Revolutionary Law." Their example of indigenous feminism led the way for other indigenous tribes, such as the Mayans, Quechuas, and Quiches.[9] In 1993, many feminists tried to bring together these autonomous organizations in Latin America and the Caribbean, which led to the Beijing Global Conference on Women of 1995.[8]

Scholars argue that there is a strong correlation between the improvement of legal rights for Latin American women and the country’s struggle for democracy. For example, because of women’s active protests against President Abdala Bucaram’s government, Ecuador’s Constitution of 1998 saw many new legal rights for women. MUDE, or Women for Democracy, have stated that “what is not good for democracy is not good for women." However, this is not always the case. Peru had an authoritarian regime, but they had a quota for at least thirty percent of candidates in race to be women. It is important to note though, that the advance of Latin American women’s legal equality does not get rid of the social and economic inequality present.[8]


The emergence of economic neoliberal models at the beginning of the 21st century led to a revival of the movement in the world, which was accompanied by an attempt of feminist dialogue with other social movements. A new feature is the feminist participation in global mobilization at different governments meetings and in multinational organizations where there is a discussion of the humanity’s future.

With the rise of globalization and international policies, many feminist political and academic organizations have been institutionalized. The more professional tactics of NGOs and political lobbying has given Latina feminists more influence on public policy, but at the cost of giving up “bolder, more innovative proposals from community initiatives."[21]

Current Latin American Feminist Groups include Ecuador’s Flor De Azaela, which started in 1982, making it the oldest movement for sex workers in Latin America. Many Afro-Indigenous women have also created organizations, such as the Fraternal Black Organization of Honduras, that advocate for more land rights.[22] In addition, the Colectivo Feminista Sexualidade Saude (CFSS ) of Brazil currently “provides health education for women and professionals,” where they encourage self-help and focus on “women's mental health, violence against women, and child mortality.” [9]

Revolutionary/Feminist mobilization

Some experts, for example Julie Shayne, believe that in Latin America the phenomenon of female, feminism movements should be called «revolutionary feminism». Julie Shayne argues that a revolutionary feminism is one born of revolutionary mobilization.[23]

Issues on agenda

Post-suffrage feminism in Latin America covers mainly three big streams: the feminist stream, the stream in political parties and the stream of women from political parties.[24] Issues of great concern are: voluntary maternity/responsible paternity, divorce law reform, equal pay, personal autonomy, and challenging the consistently negative and sexist portrayal of women in the media; access to formal political representation, whereas women of the popular classes tend to focus their agendas on issues of economic survival and racial and ethnic justice.

Latin American feminist theory

Because feminist theory often relies on Western literary works rather than personal experiences, Latin American feminist theory is a construct that has appeared only recently in order to give Latina women legitimacy in Eurocentric contexts. Latin American feminist theorists have been known to not only get their sources from Western countries, but also from Latin American history, personal accounts, and research on the social sciences. There is a controversy, called “epistemic privilege,” as to how most Latina feminist philosophers enjoy cultural and economic privilege that distances them from the living conditions of the majority of Latin American women. Ophelia Schutte, a feminist philosopher, has argued that “feminist philosophy requires a home in a broader Latin American Feminist theory and not in the discipline of philosophy in Latin America.” [25]

Because Latin America is vast, this type of feminist theory is diverse and hard to characterize. However, there are several notable Latin feminist theorists, many of which have already been mentioned in this article, like Ros Tobar, Ophelia Schutte, and Gloria Anzaldúa. Latin American feminist theorist Maria Lugones addressed ethnocentric racism, bilingualism, multiculturalism, and “interlinking registers of address.” Many Latina feminists borrow concepts that Lugones introduced, such as “the role of language, bodies, objects and places.”[26] Graciela Hierro, born in 1928 in Mexico addressed “feminist ethics and the roles of feminism in public and academic spaces.[25]


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