Shifts in Feminism and Women's Rights in Latin America: 1960-1990

By Williamson, Robert C. | MACLAS Latin American Essays, March 1998 | Go to article overview

Shifts in Feminism and Women's Rights in Latin America: 1960-1990


Williamson, Robert C., MACLAS Latin American Essays


Males have dominated societal institutions including the family in nearly all cultures throughout human history. For most of the world, women have a double work role with little economic reward. This gender stratification has both micro and macro effects in nearly all societies. The scene shifted slightly in Western society with the romanticism of the Victorian age as well as with urbanization, the franchise, and the spread of new psychological doctrines in the first half of the twentieth century. Along with other minorities, women began their search for liberation in the 1960s--a struggle that continues through the 1990s.

The purpose of this article is to place the change in women's status over the last generation in a broad theoretical and historical context. In Western society from the classical civilizations to the modern age the male has been dominant. Spain, which shaped Hispanic America, was steeped in Roman and Arabic traditions, even more than were its northern neighbors. From colonial times to the early twentieth century men regarded women as chattel; nonetheless, women were asking questions. For instance, in 1879 in La mujer, a women's periodical in Colombia, the editor asks: "Why cannot women enter industrial employment or the university as they do in Europe?" In the 1926 El hogar (a twentieth-century successor to La mujer) a significant question was whether a woman should request her husband's permission to have her hair bobbed!(1) Even in a liberal country like Chile in the early 1900s women could enter the professions but had only secondary rights in the custody of their children and until recently could sign no legal documents without the husband's approval. With exception of the Pinochet dictatorship, Chilean women--unlike their sisters in neighboring countries--probably have as open access to the professions as almost anywhere in the Western world.(2)

As the women's movement for identity and equality surfaced in the 1960s, it struggled against an enormous anti-feminist bias. Moreover, in the redefinition of gender statuses and roles in the 1960s and beyond, a number of theories emerged to clarify the underpinnings of gender inequality. These derive from biology, psychiatry, psychology to anthropology and sociology, with several theorists representing cross-disciplines. For example, according to some observers of preliterate societies the subordinate status of females stems from "menstrual defilement." Psychoanalysis, at least the Freudian version, places gender development within the parental relationship, notably the Oedipal and Electra complexes. These notions are under increasing criticism by behavioral scientists. Indeed, feminist revision of orthodox Freudianism stresses the interplay of personality, particularly the asymmetry in parental and sibling relations. That is, the mother assumes a more passive relationship, and the son asserts the autonomy he acquires from his father.(3)

Beyond the discussion of biological and psychiatric approaches is a fundamental debate about the feminine role in society. Feminist theory is divided into various factions, ranging from "radical" to "liberal." It is an oversimplification to refer to the radicals as seeing women as free agents, whereas liberals lean to the woman's role as rooted in the family but would prefer a widening of her options. The distinction also hinges on differing stances on both methodology and ideology. These ideologies include Marxist, neo-Marxist, and anti-Marxist analyses by a host of other theorists. As one Brazilian Marxist puts it, capitalism turns to gender to limit the number of individuals who may enter the competitive labor market. Marginalization of women arises from the incapacity of capitalism to use all available workers.(4) A number of feminists adhere to poststructuralism as it denotes a reversal of the stream of structuralist-functionalist positions stretching from Herbert Spencer in the nineteenth century to the more sophisticated theorist Talcott Parsons in the mid-twentieth century. …

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