Feminism in Latin America


Feminism was born out of the need to fight historical male dominance in society. For instance, in the US, it was only until the early 1930s when women acquired the ability to participate in political processes. Women were denied suffrage rights in historic America. In some states, they had no legal capacity to own property, especially land. Women were at their best part possession of their husbands. These oppressive cultures hindered their progress and contribution to building societies and securing a better future.

Quoted by Blofield and Haas (2005), in her 1990 scholarly work, Sonia Alvarez, a Latin American feminist scholar, regards any action as feminist in nature if “It strives to transform social roles assigned to women while simultaneously challenging gender power arrangements, and advancing claims for women’s rights to equality and personal autonomy” (p.41). This definition makes it sufficiently safe to conclude that feminism is about women’s rights, especially when gender power imbalances are put into perspective.

Different nations have documented diverse aspects of women’s struggles in their history of feminism. Such history is extensive and impractical to discuss in a limited context. Hence, it is only imperative to restrict the discussion on a given nation or region. This paper discusses feminism in the context of Latin America with a particular focus on Chile. It is divided into five sections. The first section offers a historical perceptive and evolution of feminism in Latin America. The second section discusses the basis of feminism in the region while the third section offers an insight into feminism and women’s political or social activity in Latin America. The fourth section narrows the discussion to the feminist movement in Chile. The last section discusses feminism in relation to the progress of the nation.

The History and Evolution of Feminism in Latin America

The history of feminism can be divided into three main phases: first-wave, second-wave, and third-wave. The first wave deals with suffrage rights, political equality, and the status of white women who belong to the upper and middle class (Blofield & Haas, 2005). The second-wave deals with economic and social inequalities encountered by women.

The last wave deals with social, cultural, media, political, and financial equality of women (Hawkesworth, 2006). However, this classical division of feminism in the US faces criticism in the context of a discussion of feminism in Latin America. Shyane (2004) argues that there is an opinion that feminism is foreign to Latin America. Quoted by Franceschet (2003) in her work titled Search for Social Justice, Miller Francesca argues that feminism in Latin America is an ideology that was experienced starting from the last century.

In the early 20th century (1910), International Feminist Congress, a Latin American feminist movement, met in Argentina. Majority of those attending the meeting belonged to political parties, especially anarchist coupled with socialist bodies. Other members belonged to segregated women groups. The congress’ main theme oscillated around the need for equality between women and men in Latin America. In 1916, another congress followed in Mexico. Other national meetings took place over the next 20 years. The meetings addressed particular women issues in any one nation. For example, among the Peru women, the issue of race took a center stage in the meetings (Hawkesworth, 2006).

The historical development of the achievement of women’s struggle for equality with men supports Miller Francesca’s view that the three phases of feminism in the US are not applicable in the Latin-American context. For example, in the US case, the first phase was marked by giving women suffrage rights as declared in the 19th Amendment of 1920 (Hawkesworth, 2006). Comparably, women in Latin America did not gain such achievement within this period. Women in some Latin-American countries acquired suffrage after several years. For example, Belize women got voting rights in 1964 (Shayne, 2004). Hence, if females enjoying election liberties denoted the initial phase of feminism, this accomplishment occurred in the 1960s in Latin America.

Post-suffrage Latin-American women rights revolved around various classes. One class brought together all women in political parties. The second one had women feminists. The third one encompassed women who belonged to popular classes. Post-suffrage feminism in Latin America was dominated by struggles for issues such as voluntary maternity, the enactment of divorce law, pushing for responsible paternity, fair labor law, ensuring personal autonomy, and challenging the dominant negative and sexist media portrayals of women (Hawkesworth, 2006). The scope of feminism in Latin America continues to expand, although it mainly focuses on better women political representation, ethnic justice, racial justice and economic survival. Hence, feminism in Latin America has diverse goals just like the way women in the region come from diverse backgrounds.

The basis of Feminism

Feminism implies women’s’ awareness on issues that influence their lives. Such issues include oppressive and exploitative work environments and attempts to overcome social and domestic attitudes that lower their contribution in social development (Paula, 2009). Feminism also implies the consciousness of women to take roles in political actions while participating in economic and social development programs. The primary focus of feminism in Latin America is on guaranteeing women equality in the society and appreciation of the fact that they play pivotal roles in ensuring economic, social, and political development.

In the 19th century, Latin America’s women rights focused on political franchise, schooling admission for women, and the annihilation of defensive labor policies. Women roles were limited on the grounds of lesser capacity to execute certain social roles in comparison with their male counterparts. For instance, women were perceived as being incapable of making familial decisions that influenced their lives such as raising legal proceedings in courts or seeking divorce from abusive marriages.

Women duties were restricted to homes. Thus, they could not get involved in paid labor. Therefore, women movements rose to fight for the economic discrimination of women (Valdés, María, Muñoz, & Donoso, 2005). Accessibility to equal education opportunities for both girl and boy child was also highly impaired. Latin-American women never had suffrage rights. Denial of these rights amounted to women discrimination. They also created perceptions that women were inferior people in the society. They were depicted as having a limited capacity to contribute in building the wellbeing of the society. Feminism in Latin America arose to challenge these negative perceptions of women, especially their capability to participate in economic, social, and political development.

In Latin America, the perception of women’s incapacity and inferiority in the society was often explored through traditional conservativeness of male dominance in societal roles. Therefore, feminist movements emerged based on the need to break this ailing force of conservatism. The campaigns sought to ensure that women could have equal say and participation in economic activities with men. Shyane (2004) argues that the basis of feminism in Latin America may be understood from the context of revolutionary women mobilization.

Revolutionary feminism focuses on challenging the concept of sexism “as inseparable from larger political institutions that are not explicitly perceived as patriarchal but entirely bound to the oppression of women” (Shyane, 2004, p.53). This concern underlines the concepts of Salvadoran feminism as the basis of understanding women’s rights in Latin America. Salvadoran feminism argues that political struggles are critical to achieving new type of relations that can lead not only to the economic empowerment of women but also to the breaching of power differences between women and men.

Feminism and Women Political or Social Activity in Latin America

The feminist movements in the Latin America fought for women’s social, political, and economic rights. However, it is not safe to assume that all social and political activities of women in Latin America have had the feminist agenda. Indeed, post-suffrage women struggles in Latin America involved social and political activism that had no feminist motives.

For example, the region had a committee formed by “women of the disappeared” (Shayne, 2007, p.55). Labor union commission formed by women organizations such as Cuban Women Federation, political parties formed by leftists, and groups that include kitchen soups had no feministic agendas. However, due to the immense roles played by women in political and even in the social transformation of various nations in Latin America, there is general tendency to regard all women who are active politically and socially as feminists (Shayne, 2007). Nevertheless, this branding does not hold true.

During the dictatorial era of the 1970s through 1980s, various women came together to form committees in the effort to raise a collective voice. The main theme of these women struggles was not feminist. Rather, they opposed acts such as torture, incarceration, and kidnappings (Shayne, 2004). Some women portrayed significantly large political strength that ultimately led to dissolving dictatorship in Latin America. However, despite the fact that the women did not portray feministic agendas in their political and social activism, they displayed a mobilization model that resembled the feministic struggles through their organizations or social groups.

In the US and Europe, feminists fought against being confined to the execution of domestic roles. However, the Latin American experience through the social and political activism of women indicates that women struggled to ensure that political systems enabled them to play their domestic roles of taking care of their men more effectively by stopping kidnapping and incarceration.

To this extent, women’s social and political activism in Latin America changed the region’s self-identity (Shayne, 2007). Part of the change involved increasing the domestic roles of women in private spheres to their integration into democratic state social and political processes. Hence, women became more than wage earners for supplementary purposes. They progressed from being mild participants in political processes to full participants in the Latin America’s transformation processes. The case of feminism in Chile exemplifies this transformation of women’s role in the Latin-American society.

Feminist Movement in Chile

Chile exemplifies one of the countries in Latin America in which feminism played a central role in helping to define women civil liberty rights. This goal was achieved through various women organizations. For example, Women Studies Circle pioneered the redefinition of women rights coupled with responsibilities in the dictatorial era (1973-1989) (Shayne, 2004).

Indeed Chile encompasses a nation in Latin America that had the most compact feminist movements in the 20th century. Three movements were responsible for advancing and securing women feministic rights. Club de Senoras pursued the interest of the highly prosperous women in Santiago. Consejo Nacional de Mujeres represented the working class (Franceschet, 2003). The third organization fought for the general improvement of living social conditions for women while advocating for increased women education (Franceschet, 2003).

In the 1870s, the Chilean society was highly conservative. However, despite the feminist efforts in the decade, various educational institutions accepted women. While exiled in Santiago, Sarmiento argued that women had liberal rights and that it was necessary to admit them to higher institutions of learning, including universities. The privilege became a reality during the tenure of Miguel Luis as Chile’s education minister.

However, women enrollment into high institutions of learning was incredibly heralded by the Peruvian, Bolivian, and Chilean war (Valdés et al., 2005). In 1890, President Balmaceda saw the opening of the first girls’ high school (Liceo) in Chile. Indeed, by the end of 1920, Chile had already established 49 girls’ high schools (Franceschet, 2003). These schools had women directors. In addition, Chile had also established professional schools.

Feminist organizations in Chile supported women’s university education. Where necessary, they gave their support by pushing for the elimination of conservative mindset. For example, Consejo Nacional de Mujeres offered support, where it was due, for women students living in Santiago by helping them to attend university (Franceschet, 2003).

In fact, some 1,000 women attended university in the nations in the beginning of the 20th century (Valdés et al., 2005). In Santiago, the progressive feminists formed a reading club. The club mainly focused on the intellectual aspects of women as opposed to participating in community activities. Women members of the club wrote various volumes of literary work on various activities, especially those regarding their pursuit of primary, secondary, and even higher education.

Feminist political activism was present in Chile. For example, in the 1920s, progressive feminist party was constituted. The party declared that its primary focus was to reclaim various rights of women in Chile. The party’s first agenda was gaining the rights for participation in municipal coupled with parliamentary elections, including the permission of women to seek eligibility to such offices (Shayne, 2007).

This move was a clear indication that women wanted to lead from the front. The second agenda was the publication of a list detailing women candidates who had been selected from the party to work in public offices. The party also pushed for the establishment of a ministry dealing with education and welfare concerns for children and women. A woman would lead the institution as its executive. This concern was based on the need to ensure improved living conditions for both children and women. Arguably, through feminist movements, Chile permitted women to participate in its progress.

Feminism in Relation to the Progress of Chile

The contribution of feminism to the progress of Chile is similar to that of women rights movements elsewhere in Latin America and even in the US and Europe. For example, it was until the 1930s when women acquired voting rights in many states of the US. Although Chilean women acquired suffrage rights much later in 1948 when woman acquired full political rights) compared to the US, such rights implied that women would contribute to the shaping of political processes through the elimination of bad leadership.

In Chile, such leadership was dictatorial (Shayne, 2004). It hindered the collective social and economic progress of all Chilean people. For example, men were kidnapped and incarcerated. Therefore, Chilean families lost and/or had their men incapacitated. Therefore, they could not contribute to bettering the future of their families, including education and the provision of basic livelihood needs to their families. Feminist movements altered these experiences by rising against dictatorship (Shayne, 2007).

Before feminist movements in Chile were born, women participated less in paid labor. Their participation in the political sphere was nonexistent. Indeed, women roles were mainly confined to bringing up children, nursing the sick, domestic chores, and even manual jobs. Feminist movements demonstrated that women could take equally challenging tasks, including participating in lucrative labor and political representation (Shayne, 2004). Hence, feminist movement in Chile ensured that women’s role in the nation’s progress shifted from supplementing family budgets to full provision of living for their families. Higher domestic income implies that more resources were available for meeting women’s needs, including education for children and the improvement of familial living standards.

Chilean feminist movements emphasized equal accessibility of men and women in education. Hence, feminist movements were significant for women’s social empowerment through the alteration of gender-based social stratification. Educational opportunities for women, especially higher education, implied that women would secure jobs that involved national critical decision-making (Hawkesworth, 2006). Therefore, women became part and contributors of Chile’s progress. The 1922 address to Club de Senoras in Santiago by Ricardo Edwards clearly stated the gains of feminism that would guarantee women participation in Chile’s progress.

Ricardo Edwards, a Chilean publisher, stated that through the women feminism, women in the country increased their chances of contributing to the national agenda and hence the country’s political, economic, and social progress. Specifically, Ricardo posited, “there have been manifested during the last 25 years phenomena of importance that have enhanced woman’s general culture and the development of her independence” (Valdés et al., 2005, p.53). Part of those gains included educational opportunities for women that ensured they took part in productive labor such as teaching. Various factories, which provided lucrative women’s jobs, were established. Feminism also yielded the fruit of women’s participation in literary and artistic clubs. Hence, they got platforms for articulating key issues that had hindered their full participation in the progress of their nation, Chile.


Latin America has its unique history of the development of feminist movements. The movements regions such as the US and Europe emerged due to the perception of the incapacity, conservatism, and discrimination of the segregated groups of people to execute certain societal roles. Women were secluded from paid labor. They were discriminated in terms of property rights. They also suffered bad fate, which the dominant gender (men) could only explain its occurrence as due to women’s weaknesses that were attributable to their gender.

Although women in Latin America had similar concerns, the main reason for the emergence of feminist movements was not driven by the need to challenge the male gender and social stratification of women roles. Rather, women were concerned with the incapacity to play their roles, including caring for their men and children due to the prevailing dictatorial leadership in the region. Amid this concern, as evidenced by the case of feminist movements in Chile, feminism in Latin America increased opportunities for women in political, economic, and social affairs. This move was necessary for Chile’s progress.

Reference List

Blofield, M., & Haas, L. (2005). Defining a Democracy: Reforming the Laws on Women’s Rights in Chile, 1990–2002. Latin American Politics & Society, 47(3), 35-68.

Franceschet, S. (2003). State Feminism and Women’s Movements: The Impact of Chile’s Servicio Nacional de la Mujer on Women’s Activism. Latin American Research Review, 38(1), 9-40.

Hawkesworth, M. (2006). Globalization and Feminist Activism. New York, NY: Rowman & Littlefield.

Paula, R. (2009). Race, Class, and Gender in the United States: an Integrated Study. New York, NY: Worth.

Shayne, J. (2004). The Revolution Question: Feminisms in El Salvador, Chile, and Cuba. New Brunswick, NJ: Rutgers University Press.

Shayne, J. (2007). Feminist Activism in Latin America, in the Encyclopedia of Sociology. New Jersey, NJ: Blackwell Publishing.

Valdés, T., María, A., Muñoz, B., & Donoso, A. (2005).1995-2003: Have Women Progressed? Latin American Index of Fulfilled Commitment. Santiago, Chile: FLACSO.

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