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date: 07 May 2021

Latin American Women’s Movements: A Historical Overview

Abstract and Keywords

This chapter provides an overview of women’s movements in Latin America, from their early emergence at the turn of the twentieth century until today, as well as of the scholarly discussions that followed. The chapter identifies the similarities and differences with mobilizations of women in industrialized northern countries while also highlighting the contributions of Latin American scholars and experiences to the analysis of women’s movements. It explores the national, regional, and international contexts that influenced women’s mobilization throughout the years and discusses the internal tensions around goals and strategies among women’s organizations. It argues that Latin American women’s movements have been behind significant political and cultural transformations. Through the struggles for women’s suffrage, labor rights, human rights accountability, democratization, equal parental rights, indigenous rights, sexual and reproductive rights, and against sexual violence, women have contributed to the democratization of families, societies, and nations.

Keywords: Feminism, sexual and reproductive rights, women’s movements, women organizations in Latin America, women’s suffrage

What they call love is unpaid domestic labor” declared the feminist activist and political scientist Florencia Freijo, quoting Italian feminist theorist Silvia Federici. That the seasoned activist would cite the famous theorist is unsurprising; what was startling, however, was the venue. Freijo made this statement while discussing feminism on the Argentinean TV program Intrusos, which until early 2018 had been known as a tabloid show dedicated to reporting on the lives of the rich and famous. Departing from its usual fare, the program switched gears and dedicated five shows to discussing feminism and the legalization of abortion, a 180-degree shift for Intrusos in particular but also for Argentine TV at large. For those familiar with such programs, the shift is startling and more than a little amusing, but it also shows the inroads that women’s movements have made in popular culture. The fact that Freijo was discussing unpaid labor and feminist theory on primetime television in a Latin American country is indicative of the impact women’s activism has had in the region.

As in Western countries, women began engaging in collective action in Latin America toward the end of the nineteenth century around the civil status of women, labor rights, education, and suffrage. Throughout the twentieth century, these Latin American movements acquired their own characteristics. While sometimes influenced by northern feminisms and global events, the region’s specific political and cultural context created unique expressions of women’s mobilization. The region has therefore made important contributions to the global women’s movement and to scholarly theories: the notions of “militant motherhood,” the emphasis on autonomy as a key element of women’s mobilization, and a focus on the experiences of Afro-descendant and indigenous women that has emphasized the diversity of multiple feminisms on the continent.

This chapter provides an overview of women’s movements in Latin America from their early emergence until today, as well as of the scholarly discussions around them. (p. 340) Women’s movements are defined here as the “organizing of women explicitly as women to make any sort of social change as ‘women’s movement’ regardless of the specific targets of their change efforts at any particular time” (Marx Ferree & McClurg Mueller, 2007, p. 577). This definition is purposefully all-encompassing so that it includes both left- and right-wing movements, as well as feminist and non-feminist identified movements. However, as shown later in this chapter, the distinction between the latter two is not clear-cut. Over the years, movements have alternately embraced or avoided the “feminist” label. Until the past decades, the word “feminism” had a negative connotation in Latin America; because it was a label to avoid, only a few organizations openly identified as “feminist.” The term was thought to signify “anti-men” and be used in opposition to machismo (Craske, 1999). Today, however, the cultural climate has changed, and women’s organizations that reject that label are the exception.

Latin American women’s movements have been behind significant political and cultural transformations. They have contributed to the democratization of families, societies, and nations. They were the first to fight for women’s civil, political, and labor rights in the first half of the twentieth century. They have played a key role in the region’s democratization in the 1980s and 1990s, as well as in enhancing the quality of democracy. Women’s movements have also pushed for more inclusive policies, an expansion of rights (e.g., equal parental rights, divorce, and sexual and reproductive rights), and measures to combat violence against women. In addition, they have been at the forefront of a cultural revolution that is challenging traditional gender relations and is gradually spreading throughout Latin America, a movement activists describe as the marea feminista (the feminist tide). Increasingly, feminist ideas and notions are becoming mainstream, as can be seen in the opening vignette about these discussions taking place on primetime television.

Despite these advances, however, democratic transitions in the region posed a number of challenges for women’s mobilization. Fragmentation and divisions emerged around both principles and strategies. Disagreements abounded around how activists should position themselves vis-à-vis the government, international institutions, and neoliberalism. Strengthening indigenous, Afro-descendants, lesbian, and trans movements questioned the inclusivity of women’s organizations and demanded to have a voice at their meetings and campaigns.

The chapter is organized chronologically, starting with the first expressions of collective action at the end of the nineteenth century and ending with today’s activist scene around femicide and abortion. It uses the frame of waves of mobilization that is frequently used to analyze women’s activism in the Western world but also highlights how the region’s mobilizations have diverged from these patterns. That is, the chapter identifies the similarities and differences with mobilizations of women in the industrialized northern countries while also highlighting the contributions of Latin American scholars and experiences to the analysis of women’s movements. It explores the national, regional, and international contexts that influenced women’s mobilization throughout the years and discusses the internal tensions around goals and strategies among women’s organizations. While the chapter identifies general regional trends, it is important to (p. 341) consider that Latin America is a heterogeneous region, and therefore not all countries took part in every stage of women’s mobilization.

First Wave of Women’s Activism: 1890s–1950s

The first wave of women’s mobilization in Latin America, which took place in the late nineteenth century, coincides with that of the industrialized northern countries and evolved around similar issues: the civil status of women, labor laws, education, and political rights (Craske, 1999; Lavin, 2007; Miller, 1991). However, because some of the main demands, such as female suffrage, were not addressed by most Latin American governments until after World War II, the region’s movements did not weaken in the 1920s, as they had in the United States after women gained the right to vote, but continued to strengthen until the 1950s (Miller, 1991). Women’s mobilization was present in different political spaces, from liberal to socialist movements, and across classes, from the educated elite to working class union organizers, although it was mostly an urban phenomenon.

Women’s mobilization in Latin America coincided with their growing voice in society. At the end of the nineteenth century, educated women began publishing poetry and prose and created women’s magazines, one of the first public expressions of female consciousness and interests (Lavin, 2007). Upper- and middle-class women concerned with their educational opportunities and their civil status began to meet among themselves to advance women’s education and equality. One of the first venues for these discussions were the Latin American Scientific Congresses held between 1898 and 1909 (Miller, 1991). At this time, the liberal elite that ruled most Latin American countries was committed to creating new institutions of learning. Convinced of the need to embrace modernization and bring civilization to Latin America (by which they mostly meant European ideas and culture), they supported women’s education in public institutions as a way of increasing secularization and eliminating religious influences from women’s educational life (Miller, 1991). This trend was particularly strong in the Southern Cone countries and Mexico.

This was also the period of the first waves of union organizing in the region, and working-class women participated: maids, launderers, and tobacco and textile workers, among others, began to strike together with their male colleagues.1 Influenced by socialist and anarchist ideas imported by European immigrants, these women organized to protect their rights, demanding maternity leave and dignified wages, particularly within the Southern Cone, where immigration was more significant (Lavin, 2007). From the start, one of the characteristics of Latin American women’s mobilization has been its transnational character. In 1910, Buenos Aires was the site of the International Feminine Congress, which brought together women from different class backgrounds and political affiliations, evidencing the heterogeneity of this first wave of women’s organizing.

(p. 342) One of the key differences between the first wave of women’s mobilization in the industrialized north and Latin America involved a woman’s place in society. While Latin American feminists stood for equality between women and men, they for the most part accepted women’s special role in society (Craske, 1999; Miller, 1991). This wave embraced motherhood wholeheartedly and demanded equal civil rights coupled with certain protections. This position also led them to choose different tactics. They felt that public violence and street demonstrations were not necessary and opted for a less confrontational style than their northern counterparts (Lavin, 2007).

The impact of this first women’s mobilization was mixed. In the interwar era, political parties made room for female blocs, which, while advancing women’s political participation, at the same time enabled male leaders to control this new social actor and prevent women from reaching leadership positions. Women suffrage was the main demand. Surprisingly, left-wing parties were the staunchest opponents of women’s suffrage. Seeing Spain as a cautionary tale, left-wing parties were convinced that women would vote for conservative and religious candidates. In the end, women’s suffrage was passed across the region, and, by 1961, every Latin American country had granted them electoral rights. In some cases, such as Mexico, Argentina, and the Dominican Republic, corporatist or dictatorial regimes embraced women’s suffrage to expand their popular support. In others, such as Venezuela, Guatemala, and Peru, women’s suffrage was introduced by reformist progressive administrations (Miller, 1991). Women’s suffrage brought mixed results in terms of political representation as few women were elected to congress, and, when they were, they were mostly conservative (Lavin, 2007). In terms of the civil status of women, this first wave, which ended in the 1950s, saw notable gains. Women were granted increased authority over their children and the freedom to administer and dispose of their property and income. As for women’s labor rights, by the end of this period most countries had passed the basic protections that had been demanded by working-class women: limits on the working hours of women and children, paid maternity leave, and protection from being fired while pregnant. Notwithstanding these legal reforms, problems continued, given that these regulations were not effectively implemented (Lavin, 2007).

Women’s Mobilization Under Military Dictatorships and Civil Wars: 1960s and 1970s

During the second wave of feminism in the decades that followed, Latin American women actively mobilized, but they did so in different arenas and for different issues than their northern counterparts. Most women in the region had their first experiences with mobilization through leftist and popular activism, and therefore the Latin American women’s movement has traditionally placed a strong emphasis on class and (p. 343) social justice issues (Saporta, Navarro, Chuchryk, & Alvarez, 1994). The 1960s and ’70s was a period of intense political instability when almost all Latin American countries saw the rise of military dictatorships or the eruption of civil wars. At the same time, there were increasing opportunities for Latin American women to make their demands on the world stage. The UN International Women’s Year (1975) and a series of conferences on women, the first one held in Mexico City, provided an international context conducive to women’s mobilization.

Women responded to the tensions between their national and international contexts in diverse ways. On one hand, women actively participated in guerrilla movements to topple dictators and advance socialist revolutions (Craske, 1999; Kampwirth, 2001, 2002; Viterna, 2013). Lured by the success and the mystique of the Cuban Revolution, guerrilla movements arose throughout most Latin American countries in the 1960s. Women were active in these revolutionary forces, though their participation has been downplayed and only a few individual women are noted in the history books. For example, approximately 30% of combatants in the Sandinista National Liberation Front (FSLN) in Nicaragua were women (Kampwirth, 2001), a significant number of whom were leaders. In other cases, women took more supporting roles, such as keeping safe houses, acting as messengers, and transporting weapons (Craske, 1999). In general, leftist organizations at the time were male-led and as patriarchal as any right-wing organization. According to the male leadership, the debate around women’s issues was merely a concern of the upper bourgeoisie, as any oppression women were experiencing would disappear once socialism became the law of the land (Saporta et al., 1994). Women within peasant and indigenous movements experienced similar situations. While these movements emerged in full force during the 1970s, women played mostly logistical and supporting roles, as in Mexico (Hernández Castillo, 2002), or through parallel, women-only organizations acting alongside their male counterparts, as with the Housewives Committees in mining communities in Bolivia (Rousseau & Morales Hudon, 2017).

On the other hand, many women chose to organize in nonviolent human rights movements. They mobilized to search for their disappeared children who were victims of government repression, bring down dictatorships, and hold them accountable for mass atrocities. The Madres de Plaza de Mayo in Argentina and the COMADRES in El Salvador are clear examples of this tactic (Feijoo & Nari, 1994; Guzmán Bouvard, 2004; Stephen & Tula, 1994). These movements transformed the meaning of motherhood and embraced the practice of socializing maternity, epitomized by their statement, “We are the mothers of all the oppressed” (Guzmán Bouvard, 2004, p. 185). These cases of activism have more recently become an inspiration for contemporary movements, such as the Central American mothers of disappeared migrants en route to the United States (Rivera Hernández, 2017). Later, in the 1980s, a new kind of movement emerged in response to the “lost decade,” a prolonged economic and debt crisis in the region. Women in popular sectors organized communal kitchens and health and housing initiatives to address their urgent survival needs (Barrig, 1989; Chant & Craske, 2003; Conger Lind, 1992; Stephen, 1997). The Women’s Regional Council of CONAMUP (Council of the Urban Popular Movement) in Mexico is an example of the grassroots (p. 344) way in which women organized to respond to an increase in poverty, joblessness, and workloads (Stephen, 1997).

The fact that during this period many women mobilized around their identities as mothers or nurturers generated an academic debate around whether these mobilizations could be categorized as feminist movements (Feijoo & Nari, 1994; Guzmán Bouvard, 2004; Navarro, 1989). Concepts of “female consciousness” (Kaplan, 1982) and “militant motherhood” (Alvarez, 1990) were used to explain the politicization of previously apolitical groups of women. Scholars created categories to define the two different kinds of movements prevalent in the region: those with pragmatic interests that mobilized when women could not fulfill their traditional roles but did not challenge gender relations (women or feminine movements) and those with strategic interests that erased the division between the private and the public and fought to bring down the patriarchy (feminist movements) (Craske, 1999; Kaplan, 1982; Molyneux, 1985; Stephen, 1997). While initially useful for academic purposes, this binary came under strong criticism, and a new consensus emerged around its limitations. A more complicated picture developed as scholars considered organizations that initially embraced purely pragmatic interests, such as alleviating land or housing problems, and then evolved. Through their activism, these organizations became acquainted with feminist ideas and broadened their activities to challenge the current social order by taking on issues such as domestic violence and reproductive rights (Stephen, 1997). The binary categorization was also masking a class distinction: Practical interests were assigned to the working and popular classes, while middle-class white and mestiza women supposedly embraced strategic interests (Lebon, 2010). By the end of the twentieth century, the increasing diversity of the feminist movement ended up eroding this distinction even more.

A less studied but equally relevant development has been the organization of conservative and right-wing women during this period (Kampwirth & González Rivera, 2001). The most well-known example is the women’s movement that opposed Salvador Allende’s government (1970–1973) and supported Pinochet’s dictatorship in Chile (1973–1989) (Baldez, 2001; McGee Deutsch, 2001; Power, 2001, 2002). Contrary to general belief, this was a diverse movement in terms of class and age. These were women united by their patriotism, their fear and rejection of the Allende years, and their belief that only the military could restore the traditional order in society and the family (Power, 2001).

Women and Democracy: 1980s and 1990s

Women’s movements were key actors in the democratic transitions of the 1980s and 1990s (Jaquette, 2009; Waylen, 2007). In light of their experience with authoritarianism and government repression, women placed a special value on the “right to have rights” and worked tirelessly to restore democracy (Craske & Molyneux, 2002). The “mother” movements and grassroots organizers joined forces with unions and opposition political parties to put an (p. 345) end to the military dictatorships of the 1970s in South America and participated in the peace processes of the 1990s in Central America.

Once the democratic transition was in place across the region, women’s movements were influential in enhancing the quality of democracy by pushing for more inclusion and rights. In many of these countries, women from all arenas (political parties, professional associations, popular movements, unions, etc.) came together to draft agendas for women for the incoming new democratic administrations. The experience of participating in civil wars and/or human rights movements empowered many women and pushed them to question their role in society (Herrera, 2010). Some women had for extensive periods lived in exile in Europe, where they were exposed to feminist ideas and organizations that would shape their activism once they returned home. Others arrived to feminism through frustration with their own leftist organizations and parties and the failure of these groups to address women’s issues (Craske, 1999; Saporta et al., 1994).

Once democracy restored basic rights and freedoms to Latin American citizens, women were ready to ask for more. Deploying slogans such as “Democracy in the country, in the house and in bed” (Chile) and “Without reproductive rights women are second-class citizens” (Uruguay), (Abracinskas & López Gómez, 2007), women used the political experience gleaned from opposing dictatorships to advance their rights in the new democratic arena. For the first time, their political and public policy agenda explicitly concerned their oppression as women. This agenda included equal parenting and marriage rights, divorce, gender quotas, violence against women, and sexual and reproductive rights (Blofield, 2006; Dosek, Freidenberg, & Caminotti, 2017; Haas, 2010; Htun, 2003; Htun & Jones, 2002; Piscopo 2015; Weldon, 2002). Scholars have shown the influence of women’s organizing on such public policies (Htun & Weldon, 2017; Weldon, 2002), while others have explored the power of alliances between civil society and governmental actors (Htun, 2003) and the power (and weaknesses) of state feminism (Haas, 2010; Phillips & Cole, 2009).

One of women’s organizations’ biggest victories during the first years of democracy was the creation of women ministries to address their specific agenda. However, these ministries have functioned unevenly throughout the region depending on the authority and funding they were given and on their connection with civil society (Jaquette, 2009). A second significant victory has been the degree of political representation achieved by women in the region. Nearly every Latin American country has introduced quotas or parity regulations in its electoral code. As a result, the average number of women in the lower chambers of congress went from 9% to 27% between 1990 and 2015, with that figure exceeding 40% in several countries (Bolivia, Mexico, Ecuador, and Nicaragua). Moreover, six female presidents have been elected since 1990 (Dosek et al., 2017).

The new democratic context also created challenges. Divisions emerged around the different strategies of advancing women’s rights, the impact of neoliberalism, and the diversity of women’s organizations. These divisions gave rise to theoretical debates among scholars around the definitions of women’s and feminist movements (Alvarez, 1990; Molyneux, 2001) and the notion of autonomy within women’s organizing (Alvarez, 1990; Jaquette, 2009).

(p. 346) No longer unified in fighting dictatorial regimes and with democracy having opened up the political field for new players, the movement went through a process of fragmentation and specialization. Some women chose to join political parties or government bureaucracies, particularly in the newly created women’s ministries. Others chose to remain active within civil society, questioning the patriarchal character of the state even in its new democratic expression. Still others practiced “double militancy,” active in leftist political parties and feminist organizations simultaneously. The different logics operating across these arenas meant that tensions quickly emerged (Craske & Molyneux, 2002; Jaquette, 2009). Those who criticized any involvement with the state came to be known as autónomas. Scarred by a history of state authoritarianism and corporatism and a political system plagued by corruption, activists were cautious of working too closely with the government and being coopted. Conversely, those who collaborated with governmental institutions were known as institucionalizadas. This division between autónomas and institucionalizadas could be seen at the local, national, and even regional level and was reflected in many of the Regional Feminist Encuentros. Similar divisions emerged between those activists who participated in the UN conferences of Cairo and Beijing on population and women’s issues, respectively, and those who declined to attend, charging that such conferences ignored marginal voices from the grassroots movements (Vargas, 2009) and reflected the priorities of donors rather than popular organizations. Moreover, the uncritical acceptance of the neoliberal project among some of the institutionalizadas was another source of conflict (Bastian Duarte, 2012).

The division between autónomas and institucionalizadas was not only a strategic issue among activists but also a definitional issue among academics, who wondered whether autonomy should be an essential element of a women’s movement (Alvarez, 1990; Molyneux, 2001). For example, Alvarez included autonomy in her definition of women’s movements, thereby excluding state-linked organizations, women’s branches of political parties, and unions. By contrast, Molyneux preferred a more generic definition that included all kinds of women’s activism (Molyneux, 2001).

Democracy in Latin America came hand in hand with neoliberalism. As the region sank into deep economic crisis in the 1980s, international organizations like the International Monetary Fund (IMF) and World Bank blamed the nationalist model of import substitution industrialization for the debacle and recommended an economic program known as the “Washington Consensus” as the only way out. The Cold War having ended and capitalism having triumphed, governments across the region implemented structural adjustment programs. The retreat of the state from the economy and the emphasis on reducing public deficits led to the elimination of social programs; women and children were most hurt by these reforms. Structural adjustment therefore resulted in the feminization of poverty (Chant & Craske, 2003). As state companies were privatized and unemployment increased, men lost their life-long jobs, forcing women to enter a more flexible labor market and take on the most precarious and worst-paid jobs, with the Mexican and Central American maquiladoras being the paradigmatic example. However, in some cases, these experiences pushed women to become key actors in the (p. 347) mobilization against neoliberal policies. For example, women played a leading role in Argentina’s Piquetero movement, which comprised unemployed workers who blocked highway traffic to protest economic policies (Auyero, 2003). Women also became a strong force in the anti-globalization movement, and feminist ideas spread through sites such as the World Social Forum and Solidarity Economy networks (Phillips & Cole, 2009; Vargas, 2009, 2010).

Within the neoliberal program, nongovernmental organizations (NGOs) rushed in to fill the gaps left by the retreating state, and this new structural reality shaped the women’s movement as well. The 1990s has been dubbed the decade of the “NGOization” of the women’s movement (Alvarez, 1999, 2009; Lang, 1997). Many movements took advantage of the increasing international funding flowing from UN conferences to institutionalize and become more professional. This new trend also introduced major challenges (Alvarez, 1999). Feminist NGOs were treated by the state as gender experts and were hired to execute government women’s programs. As a result, the state ignored any other form of grassroots organization, viewing NGOs as the sole expression of women’s civil society. This state of affairs increased tensions between NGOs and grassroots women’s organizations, the latter accusing the former of depoliticizing women’s agendas, betraying feminism, and selling out the movement.

Like the first wave of women’s activism in Latin America, this period of women’s organizing also had a transnational dimension. In the 1980s, women came together to participate in the Latin American and Caribbean Feminist Encuentros. Launched in 1981 in Colombia, these gatherings have been held every two to three years since (Miller, 1991; Saporta et al., 1994; Stephen, 1997). These meetings have been a space for women activists from different countries to connect and learn from each other and to advance regional initiatives such as the September 28 Campaign for Safe and Legal Abortion in Latin America (launched at the 1990 meeting in San Bernardo, Argentina). They have also been a space for women to express their different interpretations of feminism or women’s issues and to debate the intersection of other identities, such as class and race. As such, they have not been free of tension and divisions.

Multiple Feminisms in the 2000s

American scholars have defined the period that began in the 1990s as “third wave feminism,” a phase in which the women’s movement emphasized the diversity of women’s experiences and interests in opposition to the mostly white upper middle class and professional movement of the second wave (Evans, 2015; Walker, 1992). Similarly, in Latin America, scholars point to this phase as the moment at which those who had long been classified as “the other”—the poor and working-class women, lesbians, Afro-descendants, and indigenous women—take over and redefine feminism (Alvarez, 2010). However, Latin Americanist scholars are quick to clarify that the wave metaphor applied to this region can be misleading. After all, these “other” women had been organizing for (p. 348) years in autonomous or mixed movement spaces (Alvarez, 2010). The difference, scholars note, is that liberal feminism finally began embracing this diversity. Thus, the mobilization of indigenous, Afro-descendant, and lesbian movements paved the way for the emergence of multiple feminisms, or feminismo con apellidos (with last names or qualifiers) (Bastian Duarte, 2012; Ríos Tobar, Godoy Catalan, & Guerrero Caviedes, 2009). In the midst of multiple emerging feminisms, scholars began using the concept of intersectionality to explain the various oppressions experienced by women from minority groups. First used by African American scholar of critical race theory Kimberley Crenshaw in 1989 to understand the experiences of black women in the United States, the concept was quickly applied to indigenous and Afro-descendant women oppressions in the Latin American region (Alvarez, 2010; Celiberti, 2015).

Although the mobilization of indigenous movements in Latin America was not new, it increased its density through the 1990s and beyond.2 The Zapatista uprising of 1994 in Chiapas, Mexico, and the 2006 election of the first indigenous president in Bolivia (Evo Morales) are two clear examples of indigenous movements’ impact. Within this wave of indigenous mobilization, women have been particularly vocal. Initially, indigenous women did not identify with feminism since they considered it a white imperialistic and Western movement. In the first UN Conference on Women that took place in Mexico City in 1975, Bolivian indigenous activist Domitila Barrios de Chungara denounced white northern feminists who ignored the plight of poor miners and peasants in the Global South (Barrios de Chungara & Viezzer, 1978). Increasingly, though, many indigenous women began practicing double militancy: organizing within their own ethnic communities to demand respect for their land, culture, and language while at the same time advocating for feminist concerns, such as denouncing domestic violence and women’s lack of rights within those same communities (Hernández Castillo, 2002). Zapatista women are a clear example. They have taken a leading role in their people’s struggle to preserve their land and ethnic identity. At the same time, they pushed for the famous Women’s Revolutionary Law, which outlined their demands within their community: the right to participate in the revolutionary struggle and occupy leadership roles, the freedom to work and to earn a just salary, and the ability to decide the number of children they would have among others. Stuck between two systems of oppression, that of the white and mestizo Latin American societies and their male dominant indigenous communities, indigenous women constructed their own concept of an indigenous feminism. As an example of what this looks like, while the Aymara women in Bolivia have denounced the patriarchy that colonialism instilled in their communities, their own tradition calls for complementarity, not equality, between men and women (Paredes, 2010). More broadly, indigenous women tend to be skeptical of the primacy individual rights have gained within liberal feminism, offering a different cosmovision in which collective rights take precedence (Bastian Duarte, 2012).

As for Afro-descendant women, they have been active since the 1970s in some countries like Brazil (Caldwell, 2010), but they gained widespread visibility across the region around the 1990s. Their experience is similar to that of indigenous women as both have had to fight racism within the women’s movement and sexism within their communities. (p. 349) However, their activism has been marked by another difficulty: the need to mobilize in a region that has denied the existence of racism and even the presence of Afro-descendants themselves (Falcon, 2016). In 1992, they created the Network of Afro Latinas, Afro Caribbean, and Diaspora Women to build a regional space in which to share their experiences. This was a crucial precursor to the World Conference Against Racism held in Durban, South Africa in 2001, and ensured that the experiences of Afro-descendant women would not be subsumed under a male-dominated narrative (Falcon, 2016).

Lesbians began to organize collectively in the late 1970s in the Southern Cone countries, Brazil, and Mexico, and in the 1990s in Central America, Ecuador, and Bolivia (Bastian Duarte, 2012; Mogrovejo, 2010; Thayer, 1997).3 While indigenous and Afro-descendant women’s organizations had established strong relations with one another and coordinated strategies in many regional forums to position themselves vis-à-vis liberal feminism, lesbian organizations have been historically marginalized by all the other feminisms due to a general lesbophobia and a lack of agreement around sexual rights within some of these communities (Celiberti, 2015). In addition, they also experienced discrimination from gay men within their own collectives. In this context, lesbians began to organize autonomously. With the international advancement of a discourse around sexual rights and parallel national campaigns for equal rights for same-sex couples, the initially tense relationships between lesbian and other feminist groups improved and led to some instances of collaboration. For example, in both Chile and Argentina, the organization Lesbianas y Feministas has been responsible for setting up the first abortion hotline to provide information on how to perform your own medical abortion (Drovetta, 2015; McReynolds Perez, 2017). In a similar vein, the mobilization of transgender people, increasingly visible in the 1990s throughout the region, generated opposition from certain feminist organizations known as trans exclusionary radical feminists (TERF), who reject the identification of transwomen as women and exclude them from women’s spaces. However, this is now a minority position and cis-feminists have been increasingly supportive of LGBT organizations in the push for same-sex marriage, gender identity laws, and nondiscrimination policies throughout the region.

The particularity of third-wave Latin American feminism is that it coincided with left-wing governments coming to power in almost every country. For the first time, left-wing parties were able to govern without the menace of military coups or foreign interventions. The organized left has historically had a complex relationship with feminism (Blofield & Ewig, 2017; Friedman, 2009; Miller, 1991). As we have seen, leftist parties were reluctant to support the suffragist movement since they thought giving women the right to vote would benefit right-wing parties. In the 1960s and ’70s, at the height of the socialist revolutionary movements, feminist demands were considered a bourgeois distraction from the coming revolution. By the third wave, leftist parties had finally begun to embrace feminist demands and incorporate them into their programs and electoral campaigns. The years of women practicing double militancy and female politicians educating their male colleagues on feminist issues paid off. However, scholars studying the relationship between left-wing governments and feminist policies have found mixed (p. 350) results (Blofield & Ewig, 2017; Friedman, 2009). The regimes associated with the moderate left (as in Uruguay) have made more progress than the most radical ones (as in Venezuela). In addition, moderate issues such as gender equality and women’s participation in politics have received more attention than more controversial ones like abortion (Blofield & Ewig, 2017; Friedman, 2009).

Feminism Today: Femicide and Abortion

Most recently, scholars have distinguished a “fourth-wave feminism” marked by the use of social media and a thematic focus on sexual harassment, abuse, and all forms of violence against women (Chamberlain, 2017; Evans & Chamberlain, 2015). They date its beginnings to approximately 2012, when social media networks became crucial to organizing. We should note, however, that while women in Latin America are part of the global wave of young activists on social media, they have not abandoned more traditional strategies. Street demonstrations and grassroots and community organizing are as relevant as they ever have been. As for the thematic focus, this new wave concentrates on practices that are used to discipline the female body: femicide and abortion.

The cultural revolution produced by feminist movements has not been welcomed by everyone. In the first decade of the twenty-first century, the region has experienced a violent backlash against women’s autonomy in what has been defined as femicide: the killing of a woman by a man on account of her gender (Fregoso & Bejarano, 2010). Every two hours, a woman falls victim to femicide in Latin America (ECLAC, 2016). Ciudad Juárez in Mexico has become globally known for its thousands of femicide victims, but the problem has spread throughout the region. The increase of femicide has been linked to male frustration arising from limited economic opportunities, evolving gender relations, and increasing women’s autonomy (Maier, 2010). In the face of this violent threat, women have begun to organize. In 2015, in Rufino, Argentina, a teenage girl’s body was found buried in her boyfriend’s yard after being beaten to death. She was three months pregnant. The particularly gruesome character of the case made it a highly publicized crime and sparked massive mobilizations across the country. The hashtag Ni una menos (“Not one less [woman]”) trended on social media, and a movement against gender violence was born. The movement gradually spread throughout other Latin American countries that were also struggling with high levels of gender violence. Sixteen Latin American countries already have laws that define femicide as a crime, but their implementation remains haphazard (ECLAC, 2016). In order to make rights real, activists demand that the state take action by producing accurate statistics of these cases and ensuring an efficient judicial system to investigate and condemn those responsible. They are also pushing for a cultural change, challenging the way in which these cases are dealt with in the media and society at large, which tend to blame the victims for their fate.

The campaign to legalize abortion is also gaining strength across the region. Latin America is characterized by its strict abortion laws. Abortion is legal by request in Cuba, (p. 351) Uruguay, and Mexico City. There are four countries in which it is banned under all circumstances: Honduras, El Salvador, Nicaragua, and Dominican Republic. In light of this restrictive context, various regional (e.g., the September 28 Campaign) and national efforts have been launched to legalize abortion. The Mexico City and Uruguay laws (from 2007 and 2012, respectively) were one of the few successful results of these campaigns. The lack of government response in most of the countries has led activists to take direct action by providing information on the abortifacient qualities of the ulcer drug misoprostol so that women can terminate their own pregnancies. Las libres in Mexico and Socorristas en Red in Argentina are some examples of this growing trend.


Women’s mobilization in Latin American has been growing steadily since the nineteenth century, with each new decade bringing new developments with new organizations, demands, campaigns, and strategies. While influenced by theories and experiences in the northern countries and the international community, particularly the UN conferences, women in Latin America organized in a manner that responded to their particular political and cultural context.

Women’s organizing has had a significant political impact over the years. While there are still many issues to be resolved and demands to be met, women’s situation has improved dramatically in terms of civil, labor, and political rights. The role of women’s movements in these struggles has been key. As in other regions of the world, women’s movements are usually the first to enunciate the demand for rights as such, to introduce and frame them in the societal and political agenda. Successful political reform results from the combination of many factors, but the presence of an organized women’s movement almost always speeds the process along.

Women’s movements have not only shaped public policy but also produced cultural change, achieving what scholars call the “side-streaming of feminism” (Alvarez, 2010). Feminist ideas have gone mainstream, extending vertically to all government scales—the local, national, and international—as well as horizontally into class and ethnic communities, social and cultural spaces, and other social movements as never before.

As feminism penetrates other spaces, new identities, interests, and dynamics emerge. While the diversity within feminism enriches the movement with a multitude of perspectives, groups, and identities, this heterogeneity has created challenges in terms of praxis and decision making. In the midst of this fragmentation, however, two central women’s rights issues in the region—the increasing number of femicides and the lack of access to sexual and reproductive rights—appear capable of uniting this multiplicity of identities into broad national and regional campaigns. These coalitions are fighting for policy and cultural changes aimed at eradicating patriarchal violence and expanding the rights of women to make decisions about their own bodies.

(p. 352) In addition to an increasing heterogeneity, the women’s movement faces another challenge: defeating the forces that oppose the advancement of women’s rights in the region. Groups opposing any changes in the traditional structure of gender relations have created the concept of “gender ideology” to lump together all the demands coming from feminist and LGBT mobilization that defy the “natural” relationships between the sexes and within the traditional family. With the Catholic and Evangelical churches as the leaders of this countermovement, their strength varies by country depending on the political, economic, and cultural power these religious institutions have. However, while these forces might delay the advancement of women’s rights, younger generations across the region seem to be less persuaded by the principle of an existing “natural order,” which augurs well for a brighter future for feminist mobilization and women’s rights.


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(1.) See chapter 22 by F. M. Rossi “Labor Movements in Latin America” in this volume.

(2.) See chapter 25 by R. Rice “Indigenous Movements in Latin America: Tensions, Contradictions, Possibilities” in this volume.

(3.) It is necessary to clarify that not all lesbian organizations identify themselves as women, following Monique Wittig’s analysis that lesbians are not women.