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Hispanic American Historical Review 81.3-4 (2001) 493-518

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Writing the History of Women and Gender in Twentieth-Century Chile

Thomas Miller Klubock

Three historical moments have, I believe, shaped the recent boom in historical literature on women and gender in modern Chile. First, the experience of the socialist Unidad Popular (UP) government of Salvador Allende has been critical in several ways. During the late 1960s and early 1970s, Chile attracted scholars with a commitment to social reform, socialism, and the revolutionary projects of the 1960s. Histories of peasants and workers sought to shed light on the processes that produced the Western Hemisphere's only explicitly marxist labor movement and democratic transition to a socialist economy and state. These studies built on the foundations laid by Chilean marxist historians and social scientists who wrote groundbreaking studies of mine workers, the early labor movement, and leading figures in the Left, such as Emilio Recabarren and Elías Lafertte, founders of the Chilean Communist party. 1 Both Chilean and North American historians located their social-historical focus on (male) workers and peasants, ignoring working-class women, questions of gender inequality, and women's political activism. This emphasis reflected both [End Page 493] the politics and the historiography of the time, the subordination of women's interests and feminist politics to the leftist revolutionary project of the UP, and the marginality of women's history in the United States as well as in Chile. In addition, historians imbibed many of the prevalent assumptions, persistent to this day, about women's political conservatism and passivity, and failed to see this image of the "traditional" Chilean woman as a contested ideological construct whose material conditions of historical production required analysis and unpacking.

Nonetheless, the interest in social history, labor history, and the history of the Left inspired by the UP has shaped much of the gender history being written today. In Chile, many historians and social scientists began to write women's history after participating in women's movements and political movements tied to the Left, and turned to feminist history and activism as a response to their disenchantment with the often sexist politics and sometimes misogynist cultures of the labor movement and the leftist parties. A number of women's historians sought to insert women into the history of the early labor movement in order to recover moments of feminist activism. 2 While earlier social and labor historians examined male industrial workers, miners, and agricultural laborers to explain Chile's unique history of a marxist labor movement and powerful socialist and communist parties, historians, such as Julietta Kirkwood, Cecilia Salinas, and Edda Gaviola, employed feminist theory to reexamine the historical relationship of women's movements and activism with the Left and organized labor.

Second, the 1973 military coup had a radical impact on the politics of writing Chilean history. The devastating defeat of the UP by the Chilean Right, the military, and the United States government provoked a profound rethinking of the history of labor and the Left. The disillusion of many leftist historians and social scientists (who were writing in exile or working for NGOs in Chile) led to new critiques of the Unidad Popular and a focus on social movements and social actors, the urban poor and women most prominently, that had been ignored by the labor/Left historiography's definition of class in terms of industrial workers and miners. Consonant with, but not as a direct consequence of, second-wave feminism in the United States and Europe [End Page 494] and the emergence of women's history as legitimate disciplinary practice, historians and social scientists with ties to the women's movement also began to produce a critique of the role of women and feminism in Chilean politics and the Left. In addition, as Peter Winn has pointed out, one of the results of the 1973 coup was the academic diaspora of Chilean intellectuals and historians who were exposed to new trends in Europe and the United States, including post-marxist cultural studies and women...


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pp. 493-518
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Archived 2004
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