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Sustaining Activism

A Brazilian Women’s Movement and a Father-Daughter Collaboration

by Jeffrey W. Rubin and Emma Sokoloff-Rubin

Publication Year: 2013

In 1986, a group of young Brazilian women started a movement to secure economic rights for rural women and transform women's roles in their homes and communities. Together with activists across the country, they built a new democracy in the wake of a military dictatorship. In Sustaining Activism, Jeffrey W. Rubin and Emma Sokoloff-Rubin tell the behind-the-scenes story of this remarkable movement. As a father-daughter team, they describe the challenges of ethnographic research and the way their collaboration gave them a unique window into a fiery struggle for equality.

Starting in 2002, Rubin and Sokoloff-Rubin traveled together to southern Brazil, where they interviewed activists over the course of ten years. Their vivid descriptions of women’s lives reveal the hard work of sustaining a social movement in the years after initial victories, when the political way forward was no longer clear and the goal of remaking gender roles proved more difficult than activists had ever imagined. Highlighting the tensions within the movement about how best to effect change, Sustaining Activism ultimately shows that democracies need social movements in order to improve people’s lives and create a more just society.

Published by: Duke University Press


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p. C-C

Title Page, Copyright, Dedication

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pp. i-vi


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pp. vii-viii

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Emma’s Preface

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pp. ix-x

Gessi Bonês defied her father and started a women’s movement when she was seventeen years old. It was 1986, and rural women in southern Brazil didn’t have the right to maternity leave, pensions, or autonomy in their own homes. By 2004, Gessi’s movement had transformed the lives of women across the region, successfully challenging laws that had once seemed unchangeable, and...

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Jeff ’s Preface

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pp. xi-xii

When I brought my daughter to southern Brazil to study a women’s movement, I knew we were stepping into the middle of a grand arc of social change. Across the vast country, ordinary Brazilians waged a grassroots battle against hunger, poverty, and violence. In the 1980s, they pressed a military dictatorship to accept democracy. In 2002, a nation that had become a laboratory for...

Part I: Origins

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1. Leaving Home, Emma

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pp. 3-15

Gessi Bonês and Vera Fracasso were teenagers when they founded a women’s movement that would transform the lives of women in southern Brazil. Two decades later, the movement—and the stories of the women who dared to start something their friends and family believed would fail—had a powerful impact on me. When Gessi and Vera talk about the early days of the...

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2. Transforming Southern Brazil, Jeff

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pp. 16-27

Fighting for reform in Brazil means challenging harsh realities. Brazil has been a democracy since 1985 and boasts the sixth-largest economy in the world, but these achievements have not translated into inclusion or decent standards of living for vast numbers of Brazilians. Brazil’s inequality has a long history. In the nineteenth century, Brazil was the largest slaveholding society in the...

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3. Family Ties, Jeff

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pp. 28-37

The mixture of daring public mobilization and behind-the-scenes uncertainty that I saw in Brazil is what drew me in. I wanted to know about the choices— and the tensions and setbacks—behind the public creation of citizenship that was making Brazil an enduring democracy. By the late 1990s, great poverty and inequality coexisted with innovative local and national governments and...

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4. Gambling on Change, Emma

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pp. 38-49

For most of her life, when Gessi wanted a law to change, she took over a highway or camped outside the governor’s office door. In 2001, her approach changed: she left the statewide women’s movement to lead a local health department, and she started contacting government officials from her office in city hall....

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5. Fighting for Rights in Latin America, Jeff

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pp. 50-56

In Latin America in the twentieth century, people came on the political scene in a new way. Not only did real people, working and poor and hungry people of all colors, make claims to the economic and political rights of citizenship, but some national leaders began to recognize those claims and redefine national identity to reflect this. At times from the colonial period through the...

Part II: The Enchantment of Activism

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6. Holding Paradox, Emma

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pp. 59-68

Mônica Marchesini makes everything her family eats except sugar, salt, and coffee. The farm where she lives with her husband, Joacir Marchesini, and their four children is five kilometers from the center of Ibiraiaras, and they don’t own a car. Mônica relies on erratic buses and rides from neighbors to get into town, where she buys the three items she doesn’t produce, attends...

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7. Six Meetings, Jeff

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pp. 69-95

The meetings of the women’s movement often surprised me. They were always different, filled with unpredictable mixes of economic analysis, discussion about gender, and personal encounters. I attended a lot of them and saw that some things remained constant. Women entered the meeting halls with...

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8. Intimate Protest, Jeff

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pp. 96-112

Izanete Colla explained her role in the women’s movement on a winter’s day with her husband, Fernando Colla, and friend Ivone beside her near the fogão (cast-iron stove), which provided the three-room farmhouse’s only source of heat. Impervious to the season, Izanete wore flip-flops, and her two kids were tumbling about on the floor and cuddling with her and Fernando while she...

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9. Demanding Speech and Enduring Silence, Emma

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pp. 113-86

Ivone and Vania met leading women’s movement protests, taking over govern-ment buildings to secure legal rights and insisting on women’s autonomy onpublic streets and in private homes. In 1994 they moved in together, makingan alternative vision a reality in their own lives. Seven years later, they movedto a red-and-white house in Ibiraiaras, and Gessi and Didi built their own...

Gallery of Photos

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pp. 87-120

Part III: Moving Forward

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10. ‘‘When You Speak of Changes’’, Emma

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pp. 123-135

Three days after my high school graduation, in 2007, Dad and I boarded a plane for Brazil. The trip felt familiar: Hartford to Atlanta, Atlanta to São Paulo, São Paulo to Porto Alegre. It was the same trip we had taken with my mom and sisters in 2001, when my family lived in Porto Alegre for a year, and in 2004, when Dad and I first did research on our own. As we drove the...

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11. Movements in Democracy, Jeff

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pp. 136-160

In one of the lessons in our curriculum, we use video interviews with the women of the mmtr to get students talking about what it means to form a movement. At the end of a class we taught to sixth graders in Massachusetts, a student who had barely spoken all year, according to her teacher, summed up the lively discussion. The student spoke softly and intently, much as the...

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pp. 161-166

Emma and I have many people to thank, not only for key moments of support, encouragement, and guidance but also for the ongoing conversations that deepened our commitment and brought us to new insights. We are first and foremost indebted to the individuals and families in Ibiraiaras and Sananduva who welcomed us into their homes and meeting halls, responded to our many...


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pp. 167-178


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pp. 179-184

About the Author

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p. 185-185

E-ISBN-13: 9780822399315
E-ISBN-10: 0822399318
Print-ISBN-13: 9780822354215
Print-ISBN-10: 0822354217

Page Count: 197
Illustrations: 26 photographs, 1 map
Publication Year: 2013

Edition: 1