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Journal of Women's History 15.3 (2003) 129-134

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"Feminism is Socialism, Liberty and Much More"1
Second-Wave Chilean Feminism and its Contentious Relationship with Socialism

Marcela Ríos Tobar

Latin American women have used a variety of political strategies to en-gage and contest conventional social hierarchies and struggle against gender oppression. These different forms of resistance have gained visibility and become widespread political mobilizations in the face of severe economic crisis and generalized social and political transformations. Two such periods stand out as the most important phases of activism for the history of women's rights in the region: the suffragist mobilization between the 1930s and 1950s, and the struggles for democratization of the 1970s and 1980s (or first and second wave feminism, as many scholars referred to them). 2

In the past decade, feminist scholars have attempted to recover and make public the history of women's political resistance in the region. This has led to an increasing awareness of the unique character of feminist politics in the south of the Americas. As Sonia E. Alvarez has proposed, "Latin-American and Caribbean feminism is today recognized to exist as such by both participants and external observers." 3 Most scholars agree that this particular brand of feminism emerged in close connection to a socialist tradition. 4 The object of this paper is to contribute towards our knowledge of feminist politics through an analysis of one Latin American society in particular: Chile. Here, I analyze the assumption of intellectual proximity between socialism and feminism in one of the periods with the greatest feminist activism in the twentieth century and what has come to be known as the foundational phase of contemporary feminism: the struggle for the recuperation of democracy (1970s and 1980s). On 11 September 1973, the "Chilean Road to Socialism" came to an end when the Popular Unity government, which had come to power after a highly contested election in 1970, was brutally ousted by a military coup. 5 Salvador Allende, the socialist president who died in the government palace on the day of the coup, was the first Marxist in the world to be elected "democratically" to lead a central government. After the coup, martial law was imposed, Congress closed, all political parties werebanned, and hundreds of political and social leaders killed, imprisoned or exiled. The dictatorship imposed lasted seventeen years and sought, with great success, to [End Page 129] change politics in both institutional and symbolic terms. The actors, discourses, strategies, and ideals that had permeated most aspects of Chilean life entered a process of irreversible transformation.

Paradoxically, the very destruction of democratic institutions and the repression of traditional political actors created the conditions for the emergence of more autonomous civil society organizations than had been possible under the old political system ruled by elites. The military regime forcibly attempted to destroy politics based on class lines at the same time that it advocated a return to conventional moral values. Thus, as argued by a prominent feminist sociologist Maria Elena Valenzuela, the military state can be interpreted as the quintessential expression of patriarchy: "The Junta, with a very clear sense of its interests, has understood that it must reinforce the traditional family, and the dependent role of women, which is reduced to that of mother. The dictatorship, which institutionalizes social inequality, is founded on inequality in the family." 6

This inequality, and the ideological exaltation of a subservient role for women in society, had the contradictory effect of legitimizing women's intervention in the public sphere. The regime exalted women's difference from men, their femininity, at the same time that it demonized "the political" and traditional political actors such as parties. In so doing, the regime excluded and repressed the ways in which men had participated in politics and opened the door for women's political intervention. 7

It was in this somber atmosphere that small groups of women began to come together and question their life conditions, their historical invisibility as...


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