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. footnote Its heterogeneous composition stems directly from specific features of Brazilian society, its strong internal pluralism and the broader political context in which it developed. footnote1 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.

Different material conditions, particularly with regard to paid work and household life, provide foundations for very different political perspectives. For women from the popular classes the roles of mother and housewife have a much greater weight than paid work in their definition of themselves and the constitution of their social identity. Their daily life is demarcated by domestic activities, strongly linked to neighbourhood relationships. For women of the middle sectors—who, though discriminated against, have a higher level of education and some degree of professional training—the choice of occupational activity is more likely to be a source of gratification. Moreover, the presence of domestic servants in most middle and upper class homes decisively influences the options of this part of the female population, as well as reducing the conflicts between men and women which might arise from an overload of domestic labour. footnote2 Wage labour, then, clearly has diverse meanings for someone who has ‘chosen’ her profession and lives it as the realization of an individual project, and for someone who simply works out her fate, under pressure from the limited options of a disadvantaged social condition. The different representations reflect structural class differences.

The ‘modernization’ of the Brazilian woman from the 1960s onwards—her attachment to modern individualistic values, including the use of contraception and recourse to psychoanalysis, access to higher education, and incorporation into the labour market footnote3 —took place in a strongly hierarchical society in terms of class, race and gender, and reproduced these sources of differentiation. Female independence bears the mark of class and of race. The resources and opportunities offered to women brought benefits primarily to the most developed regions of the country, the south-east, ‘whiter’ and more urban. The existence of the domestic servant is an integral part of this hierarchical context. It is worth stressing that domestic servants tend to be black. It is a legacy of slavery that there is a direct association between being black, and working in low-status areas of employment.

The maids who have eased the process of ‘liberation’ lived by other women, their employers, have not remained immune to the process. Domestic service is still the leading form of employment for Brazilian women. footnote4 But times have changed. Neither maids nor employers are the same, at least in the major urban centres (this qualification is always necessary in so heterogeneous a country). The woman who employs the maid works outside the home and does not run the household with the same efficiency as her grandmother, but in accordance with new patterns of domestic organization. Nor does the maid behave as she once did; she acts more as a professional. She defines herself more as a worker than as an additional member of the traditional Brazilian family. footnote5 She demands her rights as a worker, which under Brazilian law are not the same as those of other workers. Inequality, today, is reproduced in new ways.

Beginning among the middle sectors, feminism spread through a particular form of reciprocal articulation with popular sectors. The feminists who organized themselves in the country, linked for the most part to organizations and parties of the Left, acted politically across the whole range of mobilizations in which women were involved, giving their own activity a distinctive note of its own. They influenced and were influenced by the demands of the popular classes, which were also related to changes in the sexual behaviour and patterns of fertility and reproduction.

The link between feminism and the popular sectors gave rise to a delicate relationship with the Catholic Church, footnote6 an important source of opposition in the political vacuum created by the military regime. The Catholic Church remains dominant throughout the country, despite the steadily increasing expansion of the non-Catholic sects, particularly Pentecostal, but also those of African origin such as candomble, and the tendency to syncretism in the sects. Yet the Church is far from being monolithic. Its conservative wing co-exists with a progressive wing, influenced by Liberation Theology. Under the inspiration of this theology a substantial amount of community work was carried out among the poor from the 1970s on, through the Base Ecclesiastical Communities (cebs), which became a focal point of resistance to the authoritarian regime ruling the country.

The women’s organizations in the poor neighbourhoods emerged and grew in strength as part of this tradition of pastoral work. This locked feminism and the Church in constant struggle for hegemony over popular groups. The predominant tone, however, was one of a politics of alliance between feminism, the Left and the Church, all three swimming against the current of the authoritarian regime. Conflictual issues such as abortion, sexuality or family planning continued to be discussed privately in small groups, but were not brought into public debate. The activity of the Church, from a feminist perspective, always had clear limits. The links common to its various factions—in particular obedience to the ecclesiastical hierarchy, with the Pope as its highest authority—led to a politics of advance and retreat, in which a rigidity of principles, not always visible in daily practice, ultimately prevailed in the ‘burrowing away’ of its most progressive representatives. This explains the unanimity on issues relating to sexual morality, with the outright condemnation of abortion, divorce and family planning.