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New Left Review I/173, January-February 1989

Cynthia Sarti

The Panorama of Feminism in Brazil

The women’s movement in Brazil—of which feminism is one aspect—has reflected the condition of women themselves, whose unity as a gender is cut across by other fundamental references (ethnicity, social class, etc.) and has above all been cross-class in character. [*] The first version of this text was written for unifem (the United Nations Women’s Fund), as part of a consultancy on women in Brazil. Its heterogeneous composition stems directly from specific features of Brazilian society, its strong internal pluralism and the broader political context in which it developed. [1] This analysis of the women’s movement considers only its contemporary manifestations, from the 1970s onwards. This does not mean that it is the only period in which women have mobilized in Brazil. Feminist demonstrations have been recorded in connection with the campaign for the abolition of slavery in the last century. Early in the twentieth century the campaign for the vote brought women into the public arena, although the suffrage movement never achieved the mass character observable in Britain and the United States. (See B.M. Alves, J. Pitanguy, O que é feminismo, São Paulo 1985.) After it had been won in a number of states, female suffrage was confirmed in the Electoral Code introduced by Getulio Vargas in 1932. As in other countries where suffrage movements developed, there was then a lull in the women’s movement. Nor was the political conjuncture conducive to its further development, as the dictatorial New State banned all popular demonstrations in 1937. On the one hand, the marked inequality in the distribution of wealth and resources has created a modern, economically privileged sector open to innovation whose demand for material and cultural consumption is similar to that in any large city in the industrialized countries. On the other hand, the majority of the population, living in the urban periphery and rural areas, is excluded from the benefits of highly concentrated economic growth. To these very different realities correspond very different demands. In the urban periphery these concern the provision of basic needs: water, electricity, sewage, paved roads, health and education. The needy inhabitants of the major cities, although excluded from its comforts, are exposed to its modernity. They can make use of the networks of public services it offers. They are able, as residents, to demand access to its benefits. Changes in patterns of behaviour propelled by the most modern and privileged sectors thus have their impact upon the different urban groups, rich and poor, peripheral and central, and are adapted to the specific situations of each. Feminism began to find fertile ground among the urban middle sectors as a radical proposal to politicize the private, to rethink or reinvent the most fundamental relationships in the family, in daily life, in habits which had become ‘natural’. But it developed in accordance with local circumstances, becoming a movement with its own characteristics and seeking to take account of the varied situation of women in Brazil.

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