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Argentina’s Popular Feminism

Diana Broggi
Nicolas Allen

Argentina’s mass movement for abortion rights has produced an insurgent, class-based feminism that intends to grow alongside the emancipation of the whole working class.

Legal abortion activists gather in front of the National Congress Building while senators vote for the new abortion law on August 8, 2018 in Buenos Aires, Argentina. Mariano Martino / Getty Images

Entering the final year of his four-year term, Argentina’s president Mauricio Macri leaves behind him a legacy of austerity and repressive policies that have thrown the South American country into a social, economic, and political tailspin. Argentina is a country of considerable wealth, and yet an ever-greater numbers of its citizens — 33 percent by recent estimates — live below the poverty line. The attack on basic public services like health care and education, made worse by IMF-imposed adjustment plans, has directly impacted the quality of life for the country’s general population.

If the current pattern holds then Argentina will continue to backslide. Fortunately, Argentina’s feminists are leading the line in the resistance. Perhaps it’s not surprising that women and LGBTQ people — sometimes referred to in Argentina’s feminist movement as “sexual dissidents”— are also on the front lines against the ongoing socioeconomic decline.

As the face of an increasingly “feminized” poverty, they are the first to feel the effects of cuts to sexual and reproductive health, escalating violence, femicides, and the murder of transgender peoples — 2019 is already a record year for such crimes. Hence the slogan of today’s Argentinian feminists rings out: “We’re the ones with our bodies one the line.”

Patriarchy and Capitalism

In an otherwise gloomy scenario, the country’s feminist and women’s movement marches forward. The sheer scale of the movement — expressed impressively in recent years through massive street demonstrations — is especially evident by the way in which its demands and slogans have seeped into the very fabric of Argentinean society. Feminism has become a regular talking point in the media, but also in every imaginable layer of society: educational institutions, trade unions, cultural spaces, and the family are all permeated by the feminist agenda.

It’s in this precise sense that we can speak of “advances,” by gauging the movement’s growing capacity to address society as a whole and unsettle a deep-seated patriarchal common sense. These same advances are set within a national historical framework, complementing the longstanding capacity of the Argentine people to mobilize, remain vigilant against injustices, and demonstrate the necessary organizational strength to link together political struggles.

Part of the organizational capacity of the feminist movement has been the handiwork of the National Women’s Gathering, an event now in its thirty-fourth year that acts to centralize and put different feminist practices in dialogue. Just as well, one could mention the feminist movement and its intersection with the nation’s powerful human rights organizations, or the student movement and its historical connection to the workers’ movement. This past year saw massive mobilizations by trade unions and workers, and recent years have witnessed the emergence of the formidable Confederation of Popular Economy Workers, a trade-union movement composed of workers of the informal economy (recyclers, textile workers, rural laborers, among others). That is to say, the Argentinean feminist movement has been cultivated in a specific national context, in a country with the highest levels of trade-union membership of any Latin American nation.

All throughout 2018, the struggle for free, safe abortion rights became an apt expression of the movement’s capacity to interlink diverse struggles. While placing a woman’s right to choose over her body at the center of public debate, discussions expanded into adjacent questions of health rights and sexual education, and further still into structural matters, like the system of political representation.

“Popular feminism” is the name for the struggle we are describing — a situated, class-based feminism that seeks to grow in relation to emancipatory political projects. This is a feminism that cannot be contained within sectorial or particular battles, but instead assumes its full meaning as a political project that questions the prevailing national political model and proposes an alternative to the current “civilizational” crisis: in short, an alternative to the increasing precarity of life itself.

To speak of this crisis means not only the exhaustion of the current model of capitalist domination in the strictly economic sense, but rather a crisis that touches on the social, cultural, and environmental spheres, up to and including human relations. Popular feminism proposes a societal model where the equality of genders is connected to respect for the environment, diverse sexual identities, and a definitive break with capitalism. For that same reason, we speak of patriarchy and capitalism as two sides of same coin: just as there is no such thing as a “good patriarchy,” there is no “good, healthy capitalism.” Our popular feminism is socialist and Latin Americanist, conceived along the lines of Mariátegui’s Latin American Marxism and the concept of “buen vivir.”

Patriarchy by Numbers

In the midst of another Women’s Strike, it is useful to recall the forms of structural oppression that affect women. As part of the activities carried out by the Feminist Policies research group at Argentina’s National University of La Plata, we have collated and systematized findings to try to break down patriarchy into hard numbers. Our conclusions cast a harsh light on the economic reality faced by Argentine women.

For example, we found that non-remunerated domestic labor accounts for roughly 20 percent of GDP, and that 98.8 percent of domestic workers in Argentina are women. The average woman with full-time employment dedicates five and a half more hours to domestic tasks than does an unemployed man. Among workers with a primary-level education, there is a 41.2 percent salary disparity between men and women, while that disparity stands at 26.2 percent for the average worker. Women of all backgrounds in Argentina must work seventy-seven days more than men to obtain the same income. Seven out of every ten workers from the lowest income bracket are women. Current unemployment for women between the ages of fourteen to twenty-nine years old stands at 21.5 percent, which is 4.2 percent higher than men for the same age range.

Other standout figures speak to the regular violence practiced against women. There were 292 registered femicides in 2017, while 93 percent of the victims were familiar with their assailant. There were 79,753 calls placed to domestic abuse hotlines in 2018. Other findings speak to the extreme underrepresentation of women in political and institutional positions, rarely breaking the 15 percent mark.

Debates

Inevitably, the heterogeneous composition of the feminist movement means there will be debates and conflicts that affect its future development, while also enriching it. One of those debates refers to sex work and prostitution, a conversation that is also taking place in countries around the world. In Argentina, the issue has risen on the agenda due to the participation of key figures heavily invested in the issue: sex workers on the one hand, and on the other, several prominent leaders of the LGBQTI movement that adopt positions advocating the abolition of sex work.

This year also saw the emergence of the so-called “radical feminists,” whose biological fixations and defense of the category “woman” have produced frictions within a movement that had largely considered such issues as settled. The upsurge of radical feminists in Argentina has been all the more striking considering the historically dissident Argentinean feminist movement has dedicated years to increasing visibility and obtaining rights for sexual dissidents, reflected in the country’s comprehensive Gender Identity Law of 2013.

Insofar as the feminist movement has become a fixture of everyday life and political debate, it can’t help but feel the reality of the current election calendar. The participation of feminists in electoral lists is already causing waves in several quarters. It is fundamental on this point that discussions of power and feminism’s “transversality” — its capacity to traverse distinct social fields — continue to move forward, as indeed it has, so that the diverse political struggles can be integrated. That these discussions are taking place is a healthy sign of the movement’s maturity, in terms of its preparedness to confront the dominant neoliberal project and its readiness to offer alternatives where feminists will take the lead.

Keys and Strengths

For those of us who are going on strike this March 8, our demands express a movement that is both on the defensive and the offensive. That is, on the one hand we will be denouncing, making visible and holding the state responsible for the absence or lack of sufficient funding for public services; at the same time, we will be pushing for demands like a salary for reproductive work, and a Law for Economic and Housing Independence for women suffering from domestic violence, an initiative promoted by the Confederation of Popular Economy Workers.

Women will fill the streets of Argentina on March 8, and again it will be the masses that mark the political occasion, in mobilizations taking place against the backdrop of an international feminist movement. The power expressed on March 8 will carry over into everyday work and fill the upcoming political agenda, with important events like the thirty-fourth Women’s Gathering on the horizon.

A singular political event bringing together tens of thousands of women from across Argentina and Latin America, the National Gathering will inaugurate its thirty-fourth year with a name change: The Plurinational Gathering of Women, Lesbians, and Trans People. “Plurinational,” in recognition of the territory’s indigenous women, and “Women, Lesbians and Trans People,” acknowledging that sexual dissidents must be considered as constitutive of the event. Set to take place in the provincial capital of Buenos Aires, where Macri’s political protégé María Eugenia Vidal governs and where femicide rates are at a national high, the 2019 Gathering is expected to be the largest in national history.

The strength of Argentina’s feminist movement lies in its organizational forms, its pluralistic and democratic nature, the breadth of its struggles, and the historical continuity connecting multiple generations, where the youngest generation — teenagers in many cases — plays a fundamental role in a transformational political project that holds the key to the future.