Women and Politics in Latin America


Nikki Craske

Polity Press

Copyright © Nikki Craske 1999

The right of Nikki Craske to be identified as author of this work has been asserted in accordance with the Copyright, Designs and Patents Act 1988.

First published in 1999 by Polity Press in association with Blackwell Publishers Ltd.

Reprinted 2005

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List of Tables



1   Argument

Why women?

Political exclusion

The shifting terrain

Mothers, women, citizens: tensions

Organization of the book


2   Women and Political Identity in Latin America


Constructing gender relations

Machismo and marianismo

Conceptualizing women’s political participation

Gender interests

Developing citizenship


3   Setting the Scene


Latin American political systems in the twentieth century

Economic developments

Social structures

Latin American women: a glance at the statistics


4   Formal Political Representation: Governments, Parties and Bureaucracies


The struggle for formal citizenship

Women’s legislative representation and office holding

Government impact on women’s political participation

Political parties



5   The Impact of Work on Political Identity


Changing work experiences

Collective action in the workplace

The political implications of work


6   Social Movements: Consumer and Human Rights Organizations


The rise of social movements

The development of consumer organizations

Human rights organizations: the origins

Structures and organization

Facilitating organizations: professionalization of protest

Political implications of social movements



7   Revolutionary Empowerment?


The armed struggles

The revolutionary states





8   Feminisms in Latin America


Feminist or feminine?

The roots of feminism in Latin America

Second-wave feminism

Contemporary feminism and the Regional Feminist Meetings

State feminism

Conclusions; challenges to feminism in the 1990s

9   Conclusions: Politics: an Ambivalent Experience

Changing gender relations

Political motherhood

Redefining politics

Gender interests

The 1990s and beyond




List of Tables

3.1   Urban income distribution

3.2   Life expectancy and population distribution

3.3   Indigenous population and percentage of population under 15

3.4   Females per 100 males

3.5   Average household size; contraceptive use; birth rates; and percentage of births attended by a trained attendant

3.6   Illiteracy rates and education

3.7   Public spending on health care

3.8   Marital status

3.9   Female employment: by sector and EAP

4.1   Dates of women’s enfranchisement

4.2   Women’s representation in Latin American chambers of deputies

4.3   Women’s representation in Latin American senates


Firstly I wish to thank the British Academy for funding my field-work trip to Argentina and Chile in 1995. In Argentina special thanks go to Andrea Conde, of the British Council in Buenos Aires, who provided many invaluable contacts, practical help and friendship. I also wish to acknowledge the friendship of María Luisa Livingstone, who made my stay in Buenos Aires particularly enjoyable. While in Argentina I enjoyed the institutional support of CEDES (Centro de Estudios de Estado y Sociedad) and wish to thank, in particular, Silvina Ramos and Mónica Gogna for their kindness. In Chile the help, advice and friendship of María Luisa Rojas at SERNAM (Servicio National de la Mujer) proved indispensable. Thanks must also be given to all those I interviewed during the research in both countries.

The incalculable help of friends in developing ideas over the years must be acknowledged: particular gratitude to Fiona Macaulay, whose research trip to Chile coincided with mine, making it much more enjoyable and productive thanks to her generosity; to Alejandra Massolo, whose friendship over many years has been inspirational; to Mariela Méndez, whose kindness in Argentina and support throughout the writing of the text is greatly appreciated; and to Paul Cammack, who gave me sound advice when embarking on the research, filled many gaps in my knowledge of Latin American politics, and made many helpful comments on the manuscript. Thanks also to Mark Jones for responding promptly to queries and advising me on errors. Special acknowledgement must go to Adrian Leftwich, who gave insightful criticisms and encouragement in the final stages. Particular gratitude to Jim Martin for the enlightening discussions and for the patient reading of certain sections of the text. Thanks also to Liam O’Hagan for compiling the tables in Chapter 3. During my research trips my family has always provided much practical support, as well as a quiet corner in which to work when needed: in this regard special thanks must go to Pippa Craske and Val Hodges.

The writing of the book took place in the Department of Politics at Queen’s University, Belfast. I wish to thank my Head of Department, Bob Eccleshall, and colleagues for providing a positive environment in which to complete the task. The staff at Polity were always helpful and supportive, and I particularly wish to thank Caroline Richmond for her excellent editorial work. Many friends and colleagues read all or part of the text and made valuable comments which helped improve it: Vittorio Bufacchi, Judith Clifton, Richard English, Alice Feldman, Moya Lloyd, Kate Lynch and Maggie McBride. Any errors, of course, remain mine.

Nikki Craske


APDH:Asamblea Permanente de Derechos Humanos Permanent Assembly for Human Rights
CGT:Confederación General de Trabajadores General Confederation of Workers
CNM:Consejo Nacional de la Mujer National Women’s Council
FREPASO:Frente País Solidario Country Solidarity Front
PJ:Partido Justicialista Justicialist Party (Peronists)
PPF:Partido Peronista Femenino Women’s Peronist Party
UCR:Unión Cívica Radical Radical Civic Union

MNR:Movimiento Nacional Revolucionario National Revolutionary Movement

CNDM:Conselho Nacional dos Direitos da Mulher National Council for Women’s Rights
PT:Partido dos Trabalhadores Workers’ Party

EPF:El Poder Femenino Women’s Power
PD:Partido por la Democracia Democracy Party
PS:Partido Socialista Socialist Party
SERNAM:Servicio Nacional de la Mujer National Women’s Service

Costa Rica
PLN:Partido de Liberación Nacional National Liberation Party

CCP:Cuban Communist Party
CDR:Comités de Defensa de la Revolución Committees for the Defence of the Revolution
FMC:Federación de Mujeres Cubanas Federation of Cuban Women

DIF:Desarrollo Integral de la Familia Integral Family Development
EZLN:Ejército Zapatista de Liberación Nacional Zapatista Army of National Liberation
PAN:Partido de Acción Nacional National Action Party
PRD:Partido de la Revolución Democrática Party of the Democratic Revolution
PRI:Partido Revolucionario Institucional Institutional Revolutionary Party

AMNLAE:Luisa Amanda Espinosa Nicaraguan Women’s Association
AMPRONAC:Nicaraguan Association of Women Confronting National Problems
APMN:Alianza Patriótica de Mujeres Nicaragüenses Patriotic Alliance of Nicaraguan Women
FSLN:Frente Sandinista de Liberación Nacional Sandinista Front for National Liberation
OMDN:Organización de Mujeres Democráticas de Nicaragua
Nicaraguan Organization of Democratic Women

APRA:Alianza Popular Revolucionaria Americana American Popular Revolutionary Alliance

CEDAW:Convention on the Elimination of all forms of Discrimination Against Women
EAP:economically active population
EPZ:export processing zone
ISI:import substitution industrialization
NAFTA:North American Free Trade Agreement
NSS:National Security States
PGI:practical gender interests
SAP:structural adjustment policy
SGI:strategic gender interests



Women have played a central role in the development of Latin American societies and have had a substantial impact on the political systems which have emerged. This book gives an account of women’s political participation in Latin America since the 1940s. As it is used here, the term ‘political’ includes a wide range of activities in which women have participated and through which they have had an effect on political institutions and practices. A central theme in the book is the relationship between motherhood and citizenship and the extent to which the two are compatible. Further, the book considers the political development of a region which has been dogged by authoritarianism and exclusion. By looking at women, the nature of that exclusion and the challenges to it are brought into greater focus. From such a perspective, then, it is also a book about the increasing democratization of Latin America.

In the remainder of this chapter I shall lay out the basic arguments that inform the separate chapters of the book.

Why women?

I start from the premise that women’s participation in all aspects of any democratic society is crucial to the quality of democracy itself. Fundamentally, this includes their participation in political institutions. For a political system to be representative, members from all sections of society need to be brought into the decision-making community. Women’s participation, therefore, is important for the interests of democracy. This does not imply that there is something inherently unique about women that allows them a greater claim in the political sphere. Yet in many democratic societies women have specific experiences which are systematically excluded from the usual practice of politics. These experiences tend to be associated with ‘private’ and ‘domestic’ issues and as such conform to a public-private divide which, as the following chapter argues, is an arbitrary but powerful categorization. As a result, many women have come to organize and resist the constraints on their representation. Often this resistance begins from within the very same conditions of subordination: this is a key feature of women’s participation in Latin America.

Politicized mothers

Not all women are mothers; nevertheless, many identify with a notion of womanhood which emphasizes nurturing and caring as ‘natural’ female characteristics. Women’s engagement with caring can add important dimensions to the development of political institutions, and the focus on caring has certainly been a catalyst for many potent political movements in Latin America. If this aspect of life is to be valorized adequately, women have an interest in a democratic practice which ensures that ‘their interests’ are represented. By including women’s concerns, the practice of politics and citizenship can be more sensitive to issues of difference. Yet it is important that these differences should not imply hierarchies. By examining women’s increased political participation, we are made aware of how citizenship is a continually developing and dynamic concept.

The focus on women also highlights the diversity of women’s experiences. In the past there has been a tendency to see women as a unitary category with specifically ‘women’s interests’. As a subordinate group women may have some interests in common, but, like men, they have numerous facets to their identities which can lead to a variety of different political agendas. In many cases, identities other than those of gender are at the centre of political mobilization. As Jean Franco suggests, there are moments when ‘women’s emancipation is bound up with the fate of the larger community’ (in Molyneux, 1998: 227).

A common identity among Latin American women is that of motherhood. In Chapter 2, I discuss how motherhood is central to women’s identities and cuts across class, ethnicity and nationality. It has significant cultural and political currency and as such lends legitimacy to demands made within this rubric. Thus women often make it a strategically useful mobilizing point. Given this connection between political action and a mothering role, there has been a tendency to view women’s collective action as part of the social rather than the political sphere. Latterly, however, the increased involvement of women activists in various arenas and the new research uncovering hidden histories of participation have shown that the stereotype of women’s apolitical character has not always been reflected in reality. These developments have challenged some of the paradigms we use to understand political action.

As we shall see in the rest of this book, there is a growing tension between the identities that women have employed in order to gain a foothold in the political arena and the diversity of experiences that characterize their lives in society.

Political exclusion

Women’s growing participation has to be understood in the context of a generalized exclusion which has characterized the region’s political systems and the long-term struggle for democracy challenging this exclusion. Although political exclusion has been generalized, women have been absent from political participation to a greater degree than men. A number of factors explain these conditions: i) Latin American political systems have been largely authoritarian and have discouraged popular participation except for moments of populism; ii) gender construction in the region has decreed that politics is part of a man’s world and an inappropriate activity for women; iii) this in turn has resulted in women’s political involvement being ignored, since it has been interpreted as social rather than political. Yet, despite the many constraints which limit their participation in the region, women have succeeded in claiming and colonizing political spaces during the course of the century.

The predominance of authoritarianism and political corruption has had two important consequences for the development of opposition movements. One is the emphasis on autonomy and distance from the institutional political arena: it is often difficult to strike a balance between autonomy and co-optation. The other consequence, particularly for women, is the stress on moral superiority of opposition organizations. For women this becomes linked to motherhood by reinforcing ideas of self-abnegation and rejection of self-interest, thus reflecting an idealized motherhood where women are encouraged to deny their own interests and concentrate on the needs of their children. This suffering for others is often interpreted as women being more able to ‘feel’ the needs of the community. Both of these factors, however, can act to constrain political activity, not only by limiting tactics and strategies, but also by restricting the possibilities for negotiation, which is an intrinsic part of the political process.

Institutional empowerment

It is my contention that contemporary political, economic and social structures have the potential to aid the empowerment of citizens by conferring and acknowledging rights, providing transparent procedures for the exercise of those rights, and providing support in demanding and claiming rights. Such structures, however, tend towards inertia and are resistant to change; pressure is consequently required to effect and maintain the momentum for change. Given women’s participation in all aspects of national development, this is necessary from many sectors: feminist organizations, social movements, workplace organizations, within bureaucracies and from political parties. In my view it is important that the pressure is multifaceted to ensure against a single interpretation of women’s interests.

The shifting terrain

Although the region’s political systems have tended towards exclusion, there have been important, positive developments linked to women’s political participation. There is a dialectical relationship between political change and women’s participation, as one reinforces the other. The most salient moments are: i) the democratization struggles which dominated the region in the 1970s and 1980s and which presented new opportunities for women through their involvement in social movements; ii) the re-evaluation of political participation to include previously hidden ‘women’s issues’; and iii) the development of feminist debates which have an impact on political discourses. This has encouraged a more inclusive notion of citizenship in the new democracies and has stimulated women to claim more rights. This is not to say, however, that the majority of women embrace feminism.

In the following chapters I analyse different areas of social, economic and political life and the impact of women’s participation in them. I demonstrate that different arenas present both opportunities and constraints for women’s political participation and have different consequences for the development of women’s political identities. Since women do not form a homogeneous category, it follows that the impact of parties, work and feminism will vary depending on class, ethnicity, age, access to education and other variables. Women use the resources available to them to further their aims: they conform to social norms in some moments and subvert them in others. The military governments of the 1970s closed traditional political spaces and created the catalyst for new forms of political activity where women were key participants. The transition to democracy was an important moment for making gains while the political process was more fluid. The process of consolidation, however, has resulted in the demobilization of these ‘new’ actors, and the continuing economic difficulties have reinforced the narrowing of political activity to electoral participation. Consequently, while important gains have been made, particularly for women, for many political participation has declined as social movements have been side-lined by political parties. Furthermore, governments continue to focus on economic restructuring rather than social provision, which was the focus of social movements.

Mothers, women, citizens: tensions

Despite the increased political participation of women over the past few decades and the development of a more inclusionary notion of both citizenship and politics, there are new challenges. I argue that there remains a gender division of labour within institutional politics. Women and men both participate to defend and promote their ‘interests’, and, in so doing, construct their interests in particular ways. These interests reflect gender construction in society which, for women, still privileges the identity of motherhood. Although motherhood is a key element in gender construction, women have other identities which may challenge motherhood ideals. The emphasis on motherhood has resulted, however, in women focusing more on social and domestic issues when engaging in political activity, as I demonstrate throughout the book. Although motherhood may underpin certain forms of women’s political action, there is no direct relationship between motherhood and particular political agendas, actions and ideologies: motherhood does not determine women’s interests within traditional political discourses such as left-right or progressive–reactionary. Furthermore, parties and regimes of all political hues have embraced the idealization of motherhood. This idealization tends to essentialize the mothering experience, seeing it as ‘destiny’ for women, and reinforces the links between womanhood and social reproduction.

This book also discusses democratization and the development of citizenship in the region. Most Latin American governments today endorse liberal democratic values and, consequently, a liberal concept of citizenship. If citizenship is to be meaningful and open to all adults, it cannot be predicated on an exclusionary identity. For this reason, among others, motherhood cannot be the basis of citizenship, but some of the characteristics currently associated with motherhood, such as caring and life preservation, can inform and expand an understanding of citizenship. Mothering is a personal experience which gives rise to particularistic demands among women: citizens’ rights must have universal application.

Although women have been able to forge their own spaces, organizations and agendas, there are still many limitations and constraints on their political participation. Many women still insist on an apolitical identity which removes them from long-term participation in the institutional political arena. As such, they are choosing to reject political participation. This, perhaps, is not surprising given the nature of many political regimes in the region, which have depended upon coercion and corruption to maintain control. In these circumstances, it is not unexpected that politics should remain tainted by these practices and that women should choose to distance themselves from the political arena. Other limitations and constraints reflect a number of issues: i) that old vested interests (particularly, in this case, those such as the Catholic Church, which wishes to preserve traditional gender constructions) are capable of regrouping and reasserting themselves anew; ii) that the energy needed for ongoing mobilization is great and that ‘mobilization fatigue’ sets in; and iii) continued economic difficulties both generate political demands and limit government options. Despite women’s increased participation, particularly in social movements, it is the institutional arenas in which the longer-term consequences are likely to be felt, particularly since social movements have been on the wane following the return to elected governments in the 1980s.

Organization of the book

The discussion of women and politics in this book examines different arenas of politics in which women have participated: namely, institutional politics, the workplace, social movements, revolutionary movements and feminism. The institutional political sphere is important as the major decision-making arena and where citizens rights are conferred and defended. Women’s legal rights have been established and parties and governments are quick to use women-friendly rhetoric, but they are less keen to promote women representatives. The workplace is a potential area of empowerment since financial independence has helped many women negotiate shifting gender relations. For men paid work remains a principal identity, while for women it is secondary at best. This has implications for workplace struggles and deciding which issues are seen as workers’ concerns. Despite women’s engagement in wage labour, to date, mainstream unions are not very attractive to women; however, women workers are having an impact in certain professions, most notably teaching. There are also interesting examples of a more holistic approach to union activity, one which does not try to separate rigidly public and private issues and one which is more appealing to women. These may have lessons for the labour movement generally in an era of deregulation.

A discussion of social movements is essential given their important contribution to the development of citizenship and democratization in the region. This is all the more necessary since women have been major protagonists in the rise of social movements. Chapter 6 demonstrates that women are successfully mobilized when their interests, however they define them, are at the centre of campaigns. Women’s political education through these movements has had broad implications for the post-authoritarian settlement, but it has been difficult for women to maintain the pressure on government when economic conditions are governments’ main concern.

The region has experienced a number of revolutions and armed struggles over the years, and the advancement of women has often been caught up in these struggles. In the case of Cuba and Nicaragua, the new states addressed women’s concerns directly. Consequently no discussion of women and politics in the region would be complete without an analysis of revolutions. Chapter 7 shows how resilient gender discourses are, and how revolutionary regimes mobilize women around the same motherist ideals prevalent in other political systems. Revolutionary states have provided some important opportunities and structures for improving the lot of women, but many ‘women’s issues’ remain side issues and have been sacrificed in difficult times.

Despite the antagonism towards feminism from all types of political actors and institutions, feminist thought and activities have had an impact on political development in Latin America. The discussion on feminisms in Chapter 8 demonstrates the dynamism of women’s activism at all levels. There is much tension between different women’s organizations in the region, which reflects the many feminist theories that abound as well as the conflicts between ‘womanist’ and ‘feminist’ perspectives. Although the majority of women do not identify with feminism, it has had an undeniable effect on political discourses and participation by bringing new debates into the arena.

However, before we look at women’s substantive, material participation, chapters 2 and 3 will review the context in which that activity occurs. Chapter 2 discusses the development of gender construction in the region. Gender relations are constantly being renegotiated at the personal level, but ideal types are much more resistant to change and are reflected in public discourses across the political spectrum. Chapter 3 surveys the social, political and economic context, as well as looking at the ‘average’ Latin American woman through a discussion of demographic characteristics.


The underlying claim of this book is that it is important to note the many changes women have effected in the development of citizenship and political structures without denying the continued problems and challenges. These challenges continue in a time when, increasingly, the Latin American political arena is narrowly focused on the electoral stage. The political arena is itself constrained by stringent economic limitations, given the costly restructuring which is ongoing in the region: these issues pose particular problems for women. I would suggest that the 1990s represents a period of consolidation and political quiescence after the years of struggle against authoritarianism. Even in the heyday of political activism, only a minority of women were involved. The gains made through women’s participation can be enormous for individuals, but on the broader canvas they can be small and, regrettably, often reversible.


Women and Political Identity in Latin America


In this chapter I focus on the development of gender construction in Latin America and how this is reflected in the political identity of women. It is important to examine the different cultural constraints and opportunities which dictate ‘appropriate’ behaviour for women and how these constructions are continually challenged by them. Over the course of the century women have become greater players in the politics of the region. Women’s exclusion from the power arenas must be understood in the context of highly authoritarian and exclusionary systems (discussed in the following chapter), but systems have been gendered in a way which leaves women in a weaker position than men. Clearly, there are other constraints, such as ethnicity, class, geography and age, but the main focus here is on the constraints gender construction places on women.

Despite the difficulties, women have achieved a greater voice and presence in the region’s politics, and consequently they have had an impact on the development of citizenship. For the majority their political identity remains tightly linked to the mothering role. Motherhood offers a particular entry into politics and has significant cultural value which allows a power base for women, but it brings with it certain constraints. The discussion of gender constructions here includes an analysis of machismo and marianismo. This is followed by an examination of the role of motherhood within political identities, which draws on Kaplan’s (1982) notion of ‘female consciousness’ and Alvarez’s (1990) formulation of ‘militant motherhood’. Defence of motherhood roles has led to the emergence of new rights, which have been incorporated into discourses around citizenship and which, in turn, have become more sensitive to ‘gender interests’: to understand this, I analyse the development of gender interests and citizenship.

Constructing gender relations

Gender construction is a cultural phenomenon, inasmuch as the content and significance of being a woman (or a man) is not constant across different countries or indeed necessarily within one country. It is clear that being a twenty-year-old working-class woman in Buenos Aires is very different from being an elderly peasant woman in the Bolivian Andes or a professional in Mexico. So while there are biological distinctions between women and men, the most obvious being the ability to bear children, these do not explain the gendered power relations that exist. Nevertheless, there are trends underpinning gender relations in many societies which give rise to biological explanations for the subordinate position of women. The role of motherhood is a biological function but its value is culturally given.1

In Latin American societies, as in many others, motherhood is seen as the primary role for women, although fatherhood is not seen as the overriding role for men. Emphasis is placed on the complementary nature of the roles of women and men in society but with the authority of the male (Martin, 1990), which can disguise subordination. Many factors influence the development of gender relations: Latin America has many ethnicities and races, including indigenous peoples, colonizers predominantly from the Iberian peninsula, entrepreneurs (especially from Britain in the nineteenth century), slaves from Africa, and, latterly, immigrants from southern Europe (particularly Italians in Argentina). All these peoples brought with them social formations which included particular gender relations, but the dominant form was set by the colonizers and reinforced by the Catholic Church.2 Gender relations both shape and are shaped by political structures in society; consequently there is a dialectical relationship between gender relations and political change. Changes in one lead to changes in the other, with a constant set of (re)negotiations.

Socio-political structures have been predicated upon a separation of public and private spheres. Within this model men were actors in the public, powerful world of politics and the economy, while women have been dominant in the private world of domestic organization and responsible for reproduction. This separation represented an idealized type mediated by class and ethnicity, and corresponded more to the lives of the rich. Safa (1995) suggests that the distinction is greater in Latin America than in industrial Western societies. Here, poorer and subordinate ethnic groups crossed the divide particularly in relation to work, stigmatizing wage-earning women given the strong associations with these subordinate groups (ibid.). Most aspired to conform to the ideal of woman as home-maker and man as breadwinner, so the home became women’s priority, regardless of other responsibilities. Since the public and private dichotomy is not a description of lived realities of the majority, it frequently contributes to making women invisible or undervalued by, for example, depicting them as ‘unproductive housewives’ when they are involved in income-generation activities (see Chapter 5).

The importance of the divide for this analysis is its influence in constructing the ideal of a non-working woman whose main role is mother and housewife, and the degree to which women identify with this regardless of personal circumstances. Although women cross the public–private divide to work and involve themselves in community activities, these are often perceived as secondary or complementary to their home-making activities. The distinction helps reinforce exaggerated gender stereotypes of machismo and marianismo, to which we now turn.

Machismo and marianismo

The term ‘macho’ has inveigled its way into the English language to mean sexist attitudes and behaviour coupled with masculine bravado. Stevens (1973: 90) describes it as ‘the cult of virility [whose] chief characteristics are exaggerated aggressiveness and intransigence in male-to-male relationships and arrogance and sexual aggression in male-to-female relationships’. It incorporates a notion of fearlessness and honour which gives men certain rights over women, perhaps best reflected in the laws which, in certain circumstances, allowed men to kill with impunity adulterous wives,3 and granted them control over children (patria potestad). In addition there are cultural norms which reflect machismo, including excessive drinking, domestic violence, insistence on a large family to indicate virility, and the demand that a wife stay at home to concentrate on family life and be a ‘good woman’.4

The notion of honour is important to these constructions of both femininity and masculinity. Within this model it is accepted that men enjoy sex and have relationships outside marriage while women do not. Women are classified as good women (‘pure’ women: mothers, sisters and wives) or whores (effectively the rest). Obviously, these characteristics do not reflect the attitudes of all Latin American men, but they do indicate certain parameters of acceptable behaviour and the lack of sanctions for behaviour which is prejudicial to women’s welfare.

The female corollary is marianismo, where the ideal of womanhood is self-abnegating motherhood. This is very much reinforced by the iconography of the Virgin Mary that is central to Catholicism. The key to understanding the cult of the Virgin is that it is an impossible role model to follow: a virgin mother. Evelyn Stevens (1973) points out that the cult of motherhood can be traced back to pre-Christian times and has certain parallels in the pre-Hispanic Americas: the apparition of the Virgin of Guadalupe in the early years of conquest was on the site of worship of a mother goddess (Stevens, 1973: 94). Although her essay may seem dated and gives exaggerated examples of appropriate female behaviour, the basic underpinnings of the construction of womanhood, and thus gender relations, hold true. The key aspects are moral superiority and spiritual strength combined with a submissiveness towards men. But latent in this submissiveness is the conviction that men are like children who need to be humoured. These characteristics are seen throughout this book as lying behind official discourses on women, public pronouncements by politicians of all political shades, and women’s views of themselves. As Stevens acknowledges, women have rarely conformed to this ideal type; however, like machismo for men, marianismo does influence women’s views and activities and sets parameters for ‘appropriate’ female behaviour.

Like women everywhere, however, Latin American women are taking on new roles in all areas, involving both costs and benefits at the personal level, but ‘decent’ women have to be wary of moving too far beyond the idealized types. Despite the changes, it remains unusual for women to live alone outside the grand metropolis; many women, if they are financially able, give up work on marriage or when they have children; and men are still expected to pay for women on dates: these hold true to varying degrees depending on the country. I would suggest that at present there are frequently clashes between what women expect as of right, resulting from recent struggles, and what they think due to them as a result of more traditional gender constructions.5 To put it bluntly, they want the best of both worlds, understandably maybe.

Marianismo and politics

The persistence of marianismo with particular emphasis on motherhood is seen in women’s involvement in Latin American politics. Politics is viewed as part of the male arena and tainted by corruption. Consequently, it is not the place for ‘decent’ women unless (as is demonstrated in chapters 4 and 6) extreme circumstances prevail or their participation reflects ‘social issues’. Martin (1990) suggests, in the Mexican case, that the use of the image of the Virgin of Guadalupe in crisis moments in the nation’s history underlines the association of women and exceptional politics. In the political arena there is still a strong association between woman, mother and social reproduction, which is reflected in the areas in which women participate. In her work on ‘supermadres’, Chaney (1973) demonstrates how women have entered the political arena as an extension of their domestic role and use the language of the home. She also shows how women were often set apart from the ‘serious’ side of politics in women’s sections that dealt with ‘appropriate’ feminine concerns of welfare: there was a concern that women would find politics too seamy – ‘the wife might hear something not nice for her ears’ (in Chaney, 1973: 117).

Although these views are changing, the perception of the moral superiority of women, especially if they are mothers, still permeates ideas regarding their role in politics. This occurs both in the formal sphere of institutions and the informal arena of social movements (Martin, 1990). The populist discourse of the 1940s placed particular emphasis on marianist ideals of motherhood and submissiveness, which is exemplified by Eva Perón’s speeches. Furthermore, people on both the left and the right emphasize the superior moral qualities of women, whom they see first and foremost as mothers.6 In the 1990s there are indications that there is a new breed of female politician emerging who has broken away from identifying too strongly with these stereotypes: it is difficult to imagine Argentina’s Julia Alsogoray or Mexico’s Beatriz Paredes conforming to these norms. But change is slow, and one of the region’s most high-profile politicians, Garciela Fernández Meijide, commented that many male politicians still saw her as ‘Mrs Mop’, there to clean up politics. Furthermore, as Molyneux (1998: 222 fn 7) notes, women have made inroads into traditional male preserves, but ‘this has not implied an erosion of gender roles as such; rather it has required a redefinition of women’s place within society as a whole, one which has added on to, rather than eliminated, their traditional gender responsibilities, while leaving men’s largely untransformed.’

Motherhood and paid work

The centrality of the motherhood role has withstood the transformations brought about by changing work patterns. Despite the increased participation of women in paid labour, a recent study on working mothers in Mexico indicated how motherhood remained their prime identity. Furthermore, this was changing slightly only for the few women who were engaged in ‘the professions’: ‘many women from different social classes still consider motherhood as their source of identity and only a very educated and privileged group speaks with ambivalence regarding their mother’s role’ (García and de Oliveira, 1997: 382). In this study, however, the authors comment ‘that the ideology of motherhood hardly touches upon the real content of mothering, its contradictions, its conflicts and the heavy burden that it entails’ (ibid.: 370). Biology may not be destiny but it does overshadow women’s lives, and motherhood seems to be remarkably resistant as a cultural identity. Changes in work patterns may be quite marked, but the commitment to the reproductive arena generally takes precedence over work and careers.

The more extreme elements of marianismo have waned,7 but there remains a construction of womanhood which emphasizes mothering and nurturing as the natural destiny for women. The maintenance of the good moral characteristics of women has been predicated on excluding them from key areas of power. Consequently, women’s freedom of movement is more constrained than men’s: they cannot come and go with the same ease, and this has an impact on their political participation. Women (or more particularly girls) are still occasionally discouraged from pursuing education; are sometimes forbidden, or strongly discouraged, from working outside the home, particularly after having children (yet women’s income generation remains vital to the survival of many families); and cannot go out with friends easily in the evening. While these constraints may be more prevalent in Latin America, they can still be found alive and well in many ‘progressive’ northern countries as well. Nevertheless, although motherhood remains central to women’s lives, reflecting many marianist ideals, what it signifies does not remain static. It may constrain women and limit their choices but it has also given them certain rights in the public domain in defence of nurturing roles (see particularly Chapter 6). Below we discuss female consciousness and militant motherhood as politicized versions of marianismo.

Conceptualizing women’s political participation

Given its cultural importance, it is not surprising that motherhood should be central to the political identity of many women. This sometimes leads to what Alvarez (1990) terms ‘militant motherhood’ or politicized motherhood (see also Bouvard, 1994; Perelli, 1994; Craske, 1993). Throughout this book it is clear that the mothering role specifically has pushed many women into political action. Temma Kaplan’s (1982) work on female consciousness has focused on this type of political action and has been used in the literature on Latin America. She identified it when examining the activities of women strikers in Barcelona in 1919–20. She maintains that there is something unique about women’s view of the world which gives them a particular attitude to political activity that is closely allied to protecting life: ‘the bedrock of women’s consciousness is the need to preserve life’ (Kaplan, 1982: 546). This resonates with Catholic teaching on women: a woman ‘cannot find herself except by giving love to others’.8

Female consciousness

When examining women’s collective action, Kaplan uses the language of life preservation in a broad way which generally corresponds to daily reproduction. In her analysis, women’s defence of the gender division of labour is central; that is, the action does not challenge dominant gender constructions. Kaplan’s concept is particularly useful in focusing on women from the popular classes and how they mobilize in defence of their interests, and it brings the domestic arena into the political picture. Generally these issues conform to Molyneux’s (1985) concept of practical gender interests (see below).

That there are ideas central to the world view of women and which, if under attack, become the basis for collective action is evident in Latin America. The rise of social movements in the 1970s and 1980s which focused on human rights and family welfare illustrate women’s defence of nurturing roles (see Chapter 6), While female consciousness tends to reinforce the distinction between public and private spheres of action by defending the gender division of labour and the domestic world of women, it supersedes the distinction when the conditions are extreme and public action needs to be taken. The concept, I suggest, is more useful for understanding women’s motives when they are mobilizing in ‘women’s groups’9 than when they participate in more ‘conventional’ political organizations, such as parties. It is a rather static concept which may explain the reasons why some women begin to organize collectively, but it doesn’t really allow for growth as new issues and perspectives are introduced. Indeed, as Kaplan acknowledges, it is a concept of conservative political behaviour.

The idea that these activities ‘preserve life’ may be the case in extreme circumstances, such as human rights and communal survival organization. In the Latin American context, however, the issues raised within the rubric of what might be called female consciousness also include projects which improve family welfare. The language of life preservation seems overly emotional and can overemphasize gender differences: good caring women/bad uncaring men. Furthermore, the concept of female consciousness tends towards a monolithic reading of womanhood which positions the protection of life at the centre and thus places women’s political activity within certain confines. So while this vision of womanhood may explain a significant amount of political action, particularly for those women who identify with the nurturing role created for them in marianismo, not all women can be said to conform to it. The idea that women have a ‘unique’ consciousness could lead to the reversing of a hierarchy which has privileged men’s political activity in the past. Are we to assume that women who display another set of motivations for political activity are deviant? One is led to think of classic cases such as Margaret Thatcher, Indira Gandhi or Golda Meir, but also Eva Perón, who may have used the language of motherhood, but whose interest in power was not in defence of the gender division of labour.

Female consciousness may be a politicized version of marianismo and can add to our analysis of women’s political participation, but as it stands it is too steeped in essentialism. It is more useful if we see female consciousness as something learned through identification with certain gender constructions that centre upon nurturing, rather than focusing on the emotive language of life preservation. Thus while more women than men come to politics through issues associated with nurturing, this may shift as gender constructions shift. If Kaplan’s reading of ‘life preservation’ is broad enough to include daily reproduction, it could also include many activities in which men habitually engage: trade union activity is concerned with job security and wages, which have an impact on life preservation in the same broad fashion. The concept, nevertheless, was important for highlighting the connection between motherhood and political action through the politicization of ‘networks of everyday life’ (Kaplan, 1982: 545). Furthermore, it shows how potent motherhood can be as a political identity.

Militant motherhood

Militant motherhood is a more useful conceptual tool for Latin America. Alvarez (1990) sees this in the development of social movements in Brazil during the military government (1964–85). The politicization of daily life was heightened by the extreme conditions of the military National Security States (NSS) coupled with the severe economic crisis from the mid-1970s. The NSS closed off the usual channels of political participation and ignored women’s collective action because the military didn’t understand it as political. Women’s usually social, reproductive role became the centre of a new political identity and militant motherhood became a force to be reckoned with (see Chapter 6). Both female consciousness and militant motherhood indicate that issues previously seen as apolitical and/or social concerns are readily politicized in certain circumstances. Furthermore, mother as political actor subverts marianist notions of motherhood and has great symbolic power. There are many, such as the Argentinian Madres de la Plaza de Mayo, who see motherhood as ‘above’ politics and who engage with marianist ideals of women’s moral superiority. Their claim on the political arena responds to a higher moral claim. Martin (1990) suggests that women’s role of suffering for their children allows them to ‘feel’ the problems of the community more keenly. Despite this emphasis on ‘extraordinary’ politics, chapters 4 and 5 demonstrate that women, like their male counterparts, also become involved in activities which have little direct bearing on their domestic identities. The focus on motherhood can overshadow women’s other interests and demands.

Alvarez sees the process of politicization in a more dynamic waymobilizing referent10