The women’s movement emerged in the United States in the 1840’s, and until the 1860s it offered a critique of fundamental cultural assumptions with respect to gender, and it advocated full legal, political, economic and social rights for women. Beginning in the 1870s, the nation became more conservative with respect to the rights of blacks, workers, and the peoples of color in the world. Adjusting to this ideological environment, the women’s movement narrowed its focus to the single issue of the right of women to vote, which it attained at a national level through constitutional amendment in 1919. As a result of the increasing occupational attainment of women during the twentieth century, and with the eruption of the black power and student/anti-war movements in the late 1960s, the women’s movement rediscovered its radical roots, and it provided a broad critique of patriarchy. During the 1960s and 1970s, it accomplished a transformation of ideas and practices with respect to gender, establishing the fundamental principle of the full political and civil rights of women in all social institutions. At the same time, reflecting the segmentation of the various popular movements in the United States, the women’s movement never became integrated with other movements formed by the people (see “The rights of women” 11/11/13).
The US women’s movement stimulated the emergence of a women’s movement in Cuba in the 1920s, in Mexico in the 1970s, and in Central America in the 1980s. However, in contrast to the United States, as a consequence of the integrationist tendencies of the popular movements in these Latin American nations, the women’s movement was integrated into the general social struggle for the sovereignty of the nation and for the social and economic rights of the people. In the process of integration, the women’s movement was transformed, as it adjusted its discourse to the requirements of the general social struggle, and accordingly, it was careful to avoid formulations and proposals that would offend the people active in the social struggle (see “The rights of women” 11/11/13 and “The Cuban women’s movement of the 1920s” 7/11/2014.
There are cultural differences between the North and Latin America with respect to gender, which have caused some to describe Latin America as macho. However, I believe that this interpretation is superficial. In comparison to the North, Latin American culture has: a much more strongly entrenched gender division of labor in the home, but much less so in the workplace; a much higher level of verbal sexual play between men and women, indulged in by both sexes; a much greater tendency for men to turn heads and to make “catcalls” to women in the street, which women often receive as compliments; and a profound mutual respect between men and women. This last point should not be underestimated. And it should not be forgotten that managing a household is a much more time consuming task in Latin America, so that the fact that women cook and men drive and repair cars and make house repairs has a degree of functionality. And perhaps the games between men and women simply reflect that men and women enjoy each other and enjoy life.
In addition to gender dynamics, there also has been a tendency in the Latin American left in recent years for political discussions to be carried out in a tone of mutual respect. It is not uncommon for political disagreements to be expressed indirectly, in order to avoid conflict. This dynamic may be driven by a desire to avoid the divisive sectarianism of the 1960s, widely acknowledged today as an error of the popular movements.
As a result of all of these historical and cultural factors, feminism in Latin America is less conflictual than is white feminism in the North. The Latin American women’s movement has been more diplomatic and more sensitive toward the sentiments of men, even while affirming fundamental principles with respect to the rights of women. This was to some extent driven by movement politics: many of the male movement leaders had earned prestige with their courage and commitment to the people, and women who sought to put the issue of gender on the table did not want to undermine the movement by creating disunity, nor did they want to provoke a popular backlash against them. It also was in part driven by the integrationist tendency of the popular Latin American movements, so that women could see the possibility of including the issue of gender on the agenda of the popular movement, if the matter were to be managed with intelligent tactics. And it was driven by a culture in which mutual respect in difference rather than antagonism is the norm.
The agenda of the Latin American feminists, with their own form of feminism adapted to their particular political and cultural conditions, has been attained. Fundamental principles of the women’s movement have been incorporated into the general social struggle of the people, such as the advocacy of the full participation of women in the social and economic development of the society, including having positions of authority in political and economic institutions; and programs for the elimination of all forms of violence against women. These demands have become standard themes in the Third World popular movement for a just, democratic and sustainable world-system; and they are being implemented in those progressive nations in Latin America, where movements of the Left have come to power.