Radical Women in Latin America – Left and Right

VICTORIA GONZÁLEZ & KAREN KAMPWIRTH (eds.):University Park, PA: Pennsylvania State University Press, 2001.

Starting in the early 1980s, and influenced by the second wave of feminist writings, a relatively large number of books were written which focused on the experiences of women in radical left-wing organizations and parties. In recent years, these have been followed by a smaller, but constantly growing, number of monographs paying similar attention to women on the Conservative Right and Radical Right of the political spectrum. Yet, amidst all of these, one would be hard pressed to find a comparative project that looks at women on both left- and right-wing organizations. Radical Women in Latin America – Left and Right, edited by Victoria González and Karen Kampwirth, is an outstanding effort to fill precisely this gap in the historiography.

The ten articles in the book deal with the experiences of women throughout most of the 20th century, and are divided into two main sections: one devoted to Central America (Nicaragua, El Salvador and Guatemala), the other to South America (Argentina, Brazil and Chile).

The editors' introduction goes to great lengths to provide some basic definitions in order to accommodate the diverse organizations and experiences examined by the contributors. González and Kampwirth define Radicalism in terms of both means and goals, and stress the fact that all of the women dealt with, regardless of whether they embraced violence as a political option or not, chose paths that took them beyond electoral politics. Yet in countries where electoral politics was not a viable option for long periods during the 20th century, this in itself would not be considered radicalism without additional qualification. For González and Kampwirth, that further qualification is the fact that all of the women mentioned in the book strove to transform, rather than merely reform, the societies in which they lived. Radicalism thus defined can be usefully extended to include the Somocista Women in Nicaragua (during and after the Somoza regime) or the Chilean group Poder Femenino, which mobilized opposition to Salvador Allende's government throughout 1972-1973.

Terms such as Left and Right, in themselves problematic in Latin American politics, are also constructed by the editors in such a way as to be as inclusive as possible, without losing their usefulness. The Right is defined by its anti-communism, opposition to class struggle and to imposition of equality by the state, and preference for hierarchical survival strategies. The Left is defined by its call for social justice, its preference for state intervention to promote social and economic equality, and also, to a large extent, its support of class struggle.

One of the great merits of Radical Women in Latin America is the contributors' efforts to construct their analysis around four key themes, namely: feminism, autonomy, coalition building across political lines, and maternalism. In so doing, they are forced to reexamine the role assigned to the discourse of "maternalism" and "feminism" - as used by both radical right - and left - wing women - within feminine organizations and in national politics.

By focusing on the issue of autonomy (from political parties and guerrilla organizations), the contributors have been able to show its direct relation to the question of coalition building across political divides. In tying the two together, they have pinpointed the issues on which such coalitions have been based (the demand for paternal responsibility and child-support), as well as those that have led to their break-up (legalizing abortions and contraception or ending discrimination against gay communities). In this respect, María Teresa Blandón's article about her experiences with the Coalición Nacional de Mujeres in Nicaragua during the early 1990's is an excellent example of the problematic yet advantageous functioning of such coalitions.

Analyzing all four themes in a comparative perspective of the political left and right might be considered problematic by some readers, but as the present volume demonstrates, such a perspective has unique merits. It shows that the use of maternalistic discourse, for example, transcends political divides. One is faced with right-wing organizations that chose to avoid such discourse, and at the same time with a large number of feminist activists who were politicized through maternalistic mobilization (such as the Sandinistas in Nicaragua, for example). In view of this, we have to consider whether such language really points to women's motivation for activism or simply serves to justify such activism, and we must also ask ourselves in what cases a maternal identity would be chosen as representative before all others.

Another issue to be considered is the double-edged nature of organizational autonomy. Undoubtedly, it is this autonomy that facilitates feminine coalitions across political lines. Yet, as some of the articles ably show, the same autonomy works sometimes to marginalize women within their respective political camps. Three articles in this collection specifically demonstrate the way in which such coalitions undermined the effective political cooperation of large-scale feminist organizations with other left-wing party organizations. María Teresa Blandón and Ilja Uciak both point to the troubled, and sometimes even conflictive, relations between the feminist movement in Nicaragua and the Frente Sandinista de Liberación Nacional (FSLN), from which it initially emerged. Liesl Haas raises a similar point, outlining the great difficulties encountered by Brazilian feminists when trying to promote issues such as the legalization of contraception and abortion as part of the official platform of the Brazilian Workers' Party (Partido dos Trabalhadores – PT). Through their comparative analysis of organizational autonomy and coalition building, the editors have also been able to advance some hypotheses regarding the limits of such coalitions. Most interesting is the suggestion that feminine groups working across political divides succeeded only when they chose not to challenge two pillars of Latin American politics: the Catholic Church and the Neo-liberal elites.

In conclusion, Radical Women in Latin America – Left and Right points to the advantages of formulating gender issues not only in an interdisciplinary perspective but also in a comparative one, in a way that cuts across both national and political divides. Without doubt, such a perspective raises new issues for research, while also focusing on old ones, and helps one gain a better view of gender politics within individual countries and societies.

Inbal Ofer Tel Aviv University

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