Feminist legacies are coming under increasing scrutiny in many parts of the world today.footnote1 In Britain, a recent report asks whether gender justice has so far been just a ‘middle-class story of progress’, with gains at the top matched by indifference to the plight of the majority of women.footnote2 In Latin America, Africa and much of South and Southeast Asia, ambiguous advances for women’s agendas seem inadequate in view of the devastation wrought by structural adjustment programmes. More pointedly, there is a growing concern about the convergence between certain forms of feminism and the agendas of neoliberal capitalism. Hester Eisenstein was among the first to analyse what she described as the ‘dangerous liaison’ between contemporary capitalism and a now-dominant liberal feminism. Nancy Fraser has suggested that second-wave feminism has ‘unwittingly’ supplied a key ingredient for the new spirit of neoliberal capitalism, by setting aside questions of material equality and political-economic redistribution in favour of struggles for the recognition of identity and difference. In a response to Fraser, Meg Luxton and Joan Sangster also single out liberal feminism, rather than second-wave feminism in general, arguing that its compatibility with neoliberalism is explicit and structural, not based on a ‘subterranean affinity’ between the two, as Fraser had suggested.footnote3
This contribution aims to examine the problematic of feminism and neoliberalism in the context of actually existing—historicized and culturally distinct—forms of capitalism, taking the specific experiences of Latin American feminism as its object of investigation. The unfolding of capitalist development and the diffusion of feminist ideas are not self-evident processes whose outcomes can be taken for granted, as implicitly assumed in the debate so far. While certain general tendencies can be grounded in the logic of contemporary capitalism, this does not justify a ‘one-size-fits-all’ account. The distinctive dynamics of neoliberal capitalism play out within historically determined social contexts, generating a multiplicity of localized forms which have in turn undergone their own contradictory evolution, moving from experimental to consolidated or mature articulations—and facing different processes of contestation along the way. Similarly, to adopt a simple, diffusionist explanation of feminist advance occludes the plurality of women’s experiences and serves to dull the potential of a critical feminist theory for our times. What follows, then, will explore the adequacy of Fraser’s explanation, in particular, within this framework, taking my research in Chile as its empirical point d’appui.
A universal model?
Fraser’s argument in ‘Feminism, Capitalism and the Cunning of History’ is based on a three-fold periodization: a post-war era of ‘state-organized capitalist society’, a neoliberal epoch from the 1980s to 2008 and, hopefully, a new post-crisis era of renewed radicalization. This schema, she underlines, applies not only to the Fordist welfare states of the oecd countries but also to the ex-colonial developmentalist states of what was then called the Third World, which aimed ‘to jump-start national economic growth by means of import-substitution policies, infrastructural investment, nationalization of key industries and public spending on education’.footnote4 Second-wave feminism, Fraser argues, emerged out of the anti-imperialist New Left and the global anti-Vietnam War ferment of the late sixties, as a challenge to the male-dominated nature of this ‘state-organized’ capitalism. During this first period, the feminist movement targeted four interlinked dimensions of the ruling social order: its ‘economism’, or blindness to non-distributive forms of injustice (family, sexual, racialized); its androcentrism, structured by the gendered division of labour, the family wage and devalorization of care work; its bureaucratic étatism, challenged in the name of democratization and popular control; and finally its ‘Westphalianism’, in the sense of the existing inter-state order. Across all these dimensions, Fraser argues, second-wave feminism fought for a systemic transformation that would be at once economic, cultural and political; it didn’t seek simply to replace the family wage with a two-earner family, but to revalue care-giving on an egalitarian basis; it didn’t want to free markets from state control but to democratize state and economic power.
The main reason why second-wave feminism nevertheless went on to thrive in the era of neoliberal capitalism from the 1980s onwards, Fraser suggests, was that these goals were ‘resignified’. Feminism’s critique of economism devolved into a one-sided emphasis on culture and identity, unmoored from anti-capitalism; its assault on the androcentric concept of the male breadwinner was recuperated by the ‘new economy’, which welcomed female employment as furthering the trend towards a flexibilized, low-wage workforce and normalized the two-earner family. Feminism’s critique of bureaucracy could align itself with the neoliberal attack on the state and the promotion of ngos; its internationalism fitted well with the machinery of ‘global governance’, committed though this was to neoliberal restructuring. Fraser did not target specific feminist currents or practices but rather the ‘subtle shift’ in the valence of feminist ideas: once frankly emancipatory, under neoliberalism these had become ‘fraught with ambiguity’ and susceptible to serving the legitimation needs of capitalism.
How applicable is this model to Latin America? Here, the capitalist state of the seventies was not the depoliticized bureaucracy that Fraser describes but more often a brutal military dictatorship, heavily gendered, aiming at the physical eradication of left opposition and defending starkly unequal property relations. The feminist movements of the seventies emerged in the course of revolutionary struggles against harshly repressive regimes: military juntas seized power in Brazil from 1964, in Bolivia from 1971, in Uruguay and Chile from 1973 and in Argentina from 1976, instituting technocratic dictatorships that used torture, disappearances and murder to eliminate the left, destroy the trade unions and demobilize civil society. Nor was Latin America’s import-substitution developmentalism ever fully Fordist; the family wage—male breadwinner, female homemaker—remained the privilege of a tiny minority of skilled workers, even in Argentina, Mexico and Venezuela. In contrast to the post-war oecd ‘housewife’, a majority of Latin American women worked—on the land or as domestic servants—while the women of the elite were liberated from housework by their maids. It was the failure of developmentalism—not least in the absence of redistributive land reform—to mitigate poverty and inequality in the region that underlay the militancy of the sixties, which the military dictatorships aimed to crush.
An obvious criticism to be made of Fraser’s account is that the homogeneous ‘second-wave feminism’ of her telling never existed; the women’s movements of the seventies were always multi-stranded, indeed often sharply divided.footnote5 Latin America’s experience helps to complicate the picture further. The feminist movements that emerged in the region were not merely imitative of us experiences; often they involved reconfigurations of pre-existing currents—socialist, anarchist, Catholic, liberal—with traditions of activism, research and cultural interventions stretching back to the nineteenth century.footnote6 Latin America is of course itself an abstraction, a short-hand for a wide variety of experiences and sub-regional trends. Yet while the new movements were shaped by the heterogeneous social and cultural make-up of the different countries, they also developed shared characteristics and dynamics. An important layer of feminists came from the revolutionary movements that had sprung up in the sixties, in response both to economic inequality and to us imperialist interventions, with the Cuban revolution undoubtedly a central inspiration. These groups recruited a new generation of highly educated women, who were not content with being helpmates of male revolutionaries. While women remained a minority as formal members of Communist parties and other militant organizations, they were centrally involved in a wide range of activities. These young militants of the revolutionary left became ‘the fiery feminists of the 1970s’,footnote7 often engaged in a ‘double militancy’, active both in left parties and in women’s groups.
Yet perhaps equally important in the long run was the upsurge of Catholic activism. Latin Americanist feminist narratives largely insist on a secular reading of women’s activism, yet the continent’s history of social mobilization makes clear that Catholic thought and practice were significant from the late fifties on. This took its most radical form in liberation theology, which influenced a new generation of lay Catholics, as well as young nuns and priests. Calls for action on behalf of the poor from the 1968 Episcopal Conference in Medellín spoke of popular education as a tool for change and ‘consciousness raising’ as a means of liberation, calling for ‘the awakening and organization of the popular sectors of society’ to press for social projects.footnote8 For all its contradictions, this would prove an important dimension for inter-class solidarity—not least in the social mobilizations of the indigenous movements. Far more than in Europe and North America, feminist agitation in Latin America during this period was characterized by the integration of intellectuals and middle-class activists in struggles for basic rights and equality, under repressive regimes. Socialist and radical feminists were joined by ‘popular feminists’, working-class women in Church or neighbourhood associations, organizing against the dictatorships.
Literacy teaching and the self-emancipatory pedagogy popularized by Brazilian educator Paulo Freire played a central role in Latin American feminists’ solidarity work in this period, as it did for the militant left more generally—and, indeed, for liberation theology. The methodologies of critical popular education were adapted by movement activists and combined with a basic feminist curriculum—issues might include women’s sexuality, law, parent–child relations, personal development—for use in educational work with women in rural and poor urban areas. Indeed Freirian pedagogic techniques would become the lingua franca for the gender development projects undertaken by feminist ngos in the eighties; they continue to be used throughout the region to reach women in rural areas, including those in indigenous communities. In 1981 Latin American feminists established a continent-wide network for women’s popular education, repem (Red de Educación Popular Entre Mujeres de América Latina y el Caribe), committed to the social, political and economic advancement of women through critical pedagogy.
Fraser argues that the gendered division of labour, at work and at home, was the central target for seventies feminists, North and South. Perhaps the most important idea for Latin American feminism, however, was that of personal autonomy, both material and psychological. Writer Carlos Monsiváis alluded to this key concept of the Latin American feminist lexicon when he stated that ‘the thesis of feminism is present in the conduct of women’ in Mexico.footnote9
Autonomy was a crucial notion, both in the workshops aimed at fostering feminist consciousness and self-development among poor and working-class women that sprang up across the continent in the seventies and eighties, and in debates at the national and regional gatherings, the Encuentros Feministas Latinoamericanos y del Caribe, which met regularly from 1981.footnote10 The discourse elaborated there centred on the call for women to become autonomous actors in their own right, ‘beings for themselves’, liberated from forms of femininity centred on motherhood that reduced them to ‘beings for others’ and locked them into a subordinate role. These positions were associated with a new kind of committed feminist militancy, a militancia comprometida, which emerged from the feminist activism of women on the left. Yet the critique of motherhood as a major impediment to women’s autonomy—the emphasis on creating one’s own space, not just physically but also emotionally and psychologically, by breaking with traditional femininity—typically advanced by young, university-educated feminists, ran counter to the maternalist positions of Church-led groups, which often mobilized women as mothers. For many black and indigenous women, too, motherhood would continue to constitute an important space for making claims. ‘We, the women of Chiapas, are no longer willing to give birth in order to feed your armies, nor to justify violence and wars. Nor will we go on furnishing cheap labour for neoliberal firms’, declared a meeting of 500 women in San Cristóbal de las Casas.footnote11
Latin American feminist practices thus remained entangled with hierarchical social relations, solidarity often taking the form of a pedagogic relation in which educated activists aimed to help ‘other’ women to gain their own autonomy. Inevitably, this risked reproducing structural inequalities of class and race, and conflicts between various strands of feminism were integral from the start, as were attempts to render visible the racist and class-based exclusions of the movement. At the 1983 Encuentro Feminista in Lima, black and indigenous women ran a workshop on racism that called for the issue to be included in all subsequent encuentros. When the question of race was sidelined at the 1993 Encuentro in El Salvador, indigenous and Afro-Latin American women fought for it to be put back onto the agenda at the 1996 Encuentro in Cartagena, Chile, where the workshop on El lado oscuro y discriminado del feminismo en el Ser y Hacer feminista—‘the dark and discriminated-against side of feminist being and practice’—brought their voices forcefully into the debate.footnote12 In other words, Latin American feminisms were always marked by the broader social, political and economic dynamics of the region. These were the contexts in which the often contradictory encounters with feminist ideas from the North took shape.
What of the second stage in Fraser’s argument—the metamorphoses of feminism under neoliberalism? Fraser distinguishes between First and Third World implementations of neoliberalism, the latter being ‘imposed at the gunpoint of debt’, as international financial institutions enforced structural adjustment programmes, compelling states to divest assets and slash state spending. Chile, of course, followed a different path, being the laboratory for the earliest neoliberal experiments under the military dictatorship of Pinochet; thereafter the model spread from the far right to nationalist governments—in Bolivia, the imf’s programme was implemented in the eighties by the Movimiento Nacionalista Revolucionario, which had led the popular revolution of 1952 that nationalized the mines—and centre-left ones.footnote13 Crucially, in countries such as Brazil and Argentina, neoliberal policies were implemented by post-dictatorship regimes. This simultaneous transition to neoliberalism and to liberal democracy in most of Latin America had a clear political meaning: the victory of democratization, for which the left had fought, also signalled the defeat of left alternatives to capitalist social relations. At stake here were both the geopolitics of the region—in particular the direct and indirect interventions of the United States—and the global triumph of the West in the Cold War, the collapse of actually existing socialism leading to a wider loss of legitimacy or practicality for the post-capitalist imaginary. It was in this context that female emancipation came to be reframed in terms of market participation.
For, as Fraser notes, feminism has thrived in the era of neoliberalism; it has gone from being ‘a radical countercultural movement’ towards becoming ‘a mass social phenomenon’, transforming social understandings and reshaping commonsense views of family, work and dignity.footnote14 In fact, neoliberalism has been a thoroughly gendered phenomenon. Women’s participation in the wage economy in historically unprecedented numbers has been a cornerstone of labour flexibilization strategies. They have also been the focus of renewed gender-normative regulative efforts by the state, to ‘ready’ those who are not already in the labour market for employability, constituting them as a pool of potential workers. Feminist legacies have featured prominently in these policies. Both ends of the spectrum, as Fraser puts it, are enrolled in the ‘feminist romance’:
At one end, the female cadres of the professional middle classes, determined to crack the glass ceiling; at the other end, the female temps, part-timers, low-wage service employees, domestics, sex workers, migrants, epz workers and microcredit borrowers, seeking not only income and material security, but also dignity, self-betterment and liberation from traditional authority. At both ends, the dream of women’s emancipation is harnessed to the engine of capitalist accumulation.footnote15
How and why did feminists become embroiled in the project of neoliberalism? In Fraser’s account, the rise of neoliberalism dramatically changed the terrain on which feminism operated; the effect was ‘to resignify’ feminist ideals—a term borrowed from Judith Butler.footnote16 Aspirations that had had a clear emancipatory charge assumed a more ambiguous meaning in the neoliberal era; they took on a new valence. This resonates strongly with the Latin American experience. In particular, the key feminist concept of women’s material and psychological autonomy, realized through pedagogic practices of empowerment, now plays a crucial role in Latin America for the cultural project of neoliberalism. It has been embedded in the social programmes targeting the poor, run by the state bureaucracies and their subcontracted ngos.footnote17 Indeed, desarrollo personal—personal development—is an explicit training requirement of Chilean and Colombian anti-poverty programmes which aim to promote a new feminine identity, challenging an ostensibly passive subjectivity, equated with a permanent orientation towards others, for example as mothers or homemakers. This institutionalization of the feminist pursuit of autonomy, or ‘empowerment’, has undoubtedly created new space for women—while also ensnaring them anew in oppressive and often exploitative relations. The type of autonomy provided by the neoliberal model of the two-wage family and ‘flexible’ working comes at a cost: emancipation serves to fuel the engine of capitalist accumulation, as Fraser notes, while the work of care-giving still largely falls on women’s shoulders.footnote18
This expectation is built into the region’s ‘conditional cash transfer’ programmes, anti-poverty mechanisms which supposedly target ‘families’ but really focus on women. Under the auspices of Brazil’s Bolsa Família, Mexico’s Oportunidades or Chile’s Programa Puente and Chile Solidario, women receive cash bonuses on condition that they ensure their families fulfil programme requirements in areas like schooling, health care and employability.footnote19 Like the micro-finance schemes that accompany them, these conditional cash transfer programmes appeal to women’s sense of ‘responsibility’—both their fiscal sobriety and, underpinning it, their overall concern for their families’ and households’ emotional and material well-being—even as the burden of women’s work has been intensified.footnote20 As techniques for the ‘conduct of conduct’, they harness women’s desires for autonomy and self-transformation to what Jacques Donzelot has referred to as the ‘responsibilization’ of society, under the new imperative of female empowerment. What is novel is that social risk is devolved directly on to women living in precarious conditions, hinging on an appeal to female emancipation.
The language of contention has thus been transformed into a tool of regulation: ‘autonomy’ and ‘equality’ are now redefined through a liberal discourse of individual rights that is focused on empowerment through the market, with women nudged towards greater entanglement as producers, borrowers and consumers. This call for responsibility is, at the same time, contradictory: the appeal to women as autonomous individuals in liberal citizenship is intertwined with traditional assumptions about their role as mothers—the expectation that they will not only continue to bear responsibility for the well-being of their families but will assume the further burden of overseeing the successful social integration of the economically marginal, bringing the family along in a journey of self-improvement. Given the real conditions of intensifying economic and social precarity, these gender-sensitive anti-poverty programmes justified in terms of self-empowerment and inclusion in practice also operate as mechanisms for exclusion. In particular, the ‘responsibilization’ of women in Latin America has gone hand-in-hand with a dramatic rise in the criminalization of poverty—and of male poverty in particular—through the police and courts, and increasingly privatized prison systems. Men made redundant by the restructuring of capitalism are disproportionately the targets of coercive strategies of containment.footnote21 Once again, Chile is exemplary, for it has one of the highest levels of incarceration in the region relative to the overall population, with a new system of private prisons built under the Concertación governments of socialists Ricardo Lagos and Michelle Bachelet.
Missing from Fraser’s account of the resignification of feminist ideals under neoliberalism, however, is any concept of political agency. Her discussion relies heavily on the passive mode: feminism (singular) has ‘been recuperated’ by neoliberalism, or ‘drawn into’ a liaison with it, or ‘is used’ to legitimate marketization and state retrenchment.footnote22 Yet the rise of an institutionalized feminism involved not merely the transformation of ideas but the active movement of bodies, practices and discourses, from the spaces of the political opposition to the agencies of government, including policy-oriented think-tanks and research centres. These processes were by no means restricted to Latin America, although the phenomenon was very visible there. The nineties saw the consolidation of a ‘feminism of the possible’ in the region, hitching a pragmatic liberal women’s politics to the broader agenda of cautious democratization, operating within the limits set by local and international capitalist relations. This shift, boosted by lavishly funded programmes of neoliberal institutional modernization, enabled some women to become the dominant voices of feminism and the legitimate interlocutors of government and transnational agencies, while others were rendered marginal, or silent. It determined who would become the intermediaries for un-based efforts to promote a transnational agenda of women’s equality, premised on the deployment of ‘gender’ as a technical concept and framed in the language of liberal human rights. It helped to define who would be the ‘winners’ and who the ‘losers’ in the transformation that Sonia Alvarez has described as the ngoization of Latin American feminismsfootnote23—a process in which activists-turned-bureaucrats leveraged their feminist knowledge into policy expertise, while erstwhile poorer sisters were recruited as clients for social programmes which cast them as empowered subjects of rights to be accessed in the marketplace.
Thus in Chile, for example, a proposal for women’s workshops run by neighbourhood groups from La Granja, a working-class suburb on the southern periphery of Santiago, was refused a grant by the Municipal Women’s Bureau because the women involved lacked professional qualifications. Since the nineties there has been a revolving door between sernam’s offices, well-established ngos and university gender studies departments, often competing for the heavily conditional foreign-aid grants that the government directs into gender-related social projects, designed to alleviate the misery caused by its own neoliberal policies.footnote24 The emphasis of these projects in the ‘new’ democracy has been on measurable ‘outcomes’, rather than general consciousness-raising. The winners have been those who could demonstrate their specialist knowledge, for the benefit of foreign donors (Scandinavian aid agencies, American foundations, German party institutes, uk-based international ngos and the like). The losers have been working-class activists lacking project-writing skills or credentials; women in the poorer neighbourhoods, the poblaciones, may not even have known they existed.
In line with the donors’ demands, sernam projects were tightly targeted on specific groups of women: privileging female-headed households or the self-employed, for example, and therefore causing tensions and anger among those who were excluded. Rather than creating collective spaces where women could articulate their own demands, as the autonomous feminist movement tried to do under the dictatorship, these institutionalized gender-development projects tended to treat women as isolated individuals, with problems that can be solved through forms of differential clientelization. In the last twenty-five years of gender-sensitive social policy, this pattern of exclusion and clientelization has become entrenched. This is not simply a case of feminist ideals being ‘resignified’, but of feminist practitioners actively seeking out the patronage of neoliberal powers.
While Fraser suggests that the women’s movement shifted en bloc to neoliberal positions, the rise of this ‘feminism of the possible’ in Latin America was fiercely contested at successive regional encuentros, as Alejandra Restrepo and Ximena Bustamante make clear. There were sharp divisions at the 1993 Encuentro Feminista in El Salvador over oecd proposals for funding developing countries’ attendance at the 1995 un Conference on Women in Beijing. Many were fiercely opposed to the proposal that the usaid bureaucracy would identify and fund five sets of ngos to act as local entities from Mexico, Central America, the Andean countries, Brazil and the Southern Cone, focusing on the denominated theme of ‘violence and political participation’. The un’s regional ngo coordinator for Beijing—she would be given a Unifem prize there—argued that feminists should celebrate the opportunity to inflect government documents and be heard in an influential international forum. Others argued that Latin Americans should meet democratically to select their own themes and representatives.footnote25 The debate between ‘autonomous’ and ‘institutionalized’ feminists intensified at the 1996 Encuentro Feminista in Cartagena. At the gathering in the Dominican Republic in 1999 there were heated arguments about ngoization and the funding of the Encuentro Feminista itself (by Oxfam, Unifem, the Heinrich Böll Stiftung and the Global Foundation, among others). Autonomous feminists argued that the movement should return to its critical and subversive roots—‘With the politics of the possible we may have a share of power, but that power can be an illusion.’ In Costa Rica three years later, the Dominican feminist Magaly Pineda’s defence of maquilas, on the grounds that they offered women economic independence, was roundly attacked by Honduran worker Daisy Flores: ‘Maquilas are places of torture and don’t signify an alternative of dignified work for women.’ The Encuentro’s final declaration attacked ‘donor’ governments that simultaneously waged wars and imposed neoliberal policies reinforcing a world of violence and misery.footnote26 Clearly, some feminists’ values had not been resignified.
The Latin American critique of feminism’s ‘liaison’ with neoliberalism certainly bears comparison with that of the Anglosphere. From Brazil, Mary Garcia Castro pointed out over a decade ago that ‘gender and feminism have ceased to be adversaries of the authorities and have become their darlings, the subject of official speeches, policies, and statistics—things that smack of authoritarianism and social perversity as far as the living conditions of the poor and the working class are concerned’:
When social movements that have been known for their spontaneity, flexibility, and democracy and the opportunity they have provided for grassroots participation and direct action become institutionalized they do not thereby become a new ‘Third Estate’, an element of popular representation within the existing power structure. They may become types of power, dependent on funding from international agencies, tending toward bureaucratic rigidity, and competing with one another. Like other institutions they are vulnerable to all the vices of bureaucracies, including the use of their power for private ends.footnote27
Sonia Alvarez, herself a former Programme Officer for the Ford Foundation in Rio de Janeiro, has analysed the local and international pressures that block feminist ngos from pushing beyond ‘the narrow parameters of Latin America’s actually existing democracies’, arguing that ‘gender’ has become part of the lexicon of technical planning, a power-neutral indicator of ‘modernity’ and ‘development’ rather than a power-laden field of unequal relations between women and men. Maruja Barrig has covered similar ground in her investigation of Latin American feminism’s ‘discontents’. The move to the corridors of power, she writes of pragmatist feminism in Peru, inevitably meant eschewing critiques of capitalism and social class.footnote28
Most importantly, perhaps, the ameliorative policies of the liberal-feminist agenda in Latin America have proved incapable of challenging the widening class/race-based differences among women in the region. Recent capitalist developments, especially the increased presence of extractive industries and agribusiness, with their devastating effects on rural communities and the environment, have exacerbated the divides between different groups of women in the region and broadened the gulf between winners and losers. As the effects of dispossessive capitalism are felt in rural and urban areas alike, voices from the social margins have articulated their own visions and raised their own demands. For ‘popular’ feminists, as for many Afro-descended and indigenous women, claims for gender justice arise from their own material positions. Their struggles have never lost sight of the critique of political economy. ‘We are well aware that the poverty and violence that have so deeply affected our living conditions and our dignity as women, as well as that of our families, are tightly linked to the dismantling of the peasant economy’, write the feminists of the Movimiento Independiente de Mujeres in Chiapas:
Growing government support for foreign investment in agro-industry, bio-prospecting, “green” tourism, oil and energy generation has affected women by increasing their precarity and enforcing their fear of being hit, with their families, by evictions, expropriations, forced sales . . . footnote29
This politics cannot be grasped by Fraser’s notion of a shift from redistribution to recognition, as the focus of feminist struggles; nor, for that matter, does it correspond to Maxine Molyneux’s once influential categories of ‘practical’ versus ‘strategic’ feminist interests.footnote30 The fate of Latin American feminisms in the twenty-first century cannot be divorced from the broader dynamics structuring the social, economic and racial inequalities of the region. A renewed critical feminism, capable of contributing to a larger emancipatory project, will need to undertake a searching examination of the record of the dominant liberal feminism over the past twenty-five years. It is in this context that we need to locate the troubling convergence between projects for women’s emancipation and neoliberal capitalism.