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From the factory floor to the floor of Congress

Researchers review the history of the struggle by Brazil’s feminist movements

Paim de Souza/Folhapress Protest march for Direct Elections Now! in downtown São Paulo in 1984…Paim de Souza/Folhapress

For the last 100 years, the feminist struggle for quality and women’s rights has impacted the Brazilian political scenario. From strikes in 1917 to today’s political pressure groups, women have had to fight hard to have some of their demands met. Recent surveys have deepened our understanding of the different times in that history. Some of those writings are found in the book 50 anos de feminism: Argentina, Brasil, and Chile [50 Years of feminism: Argentina, Brazil, and Chile] (Edusp, 2017) that resulted from a project coordinated by sociologists Eva Blay, from the School of Philosophy, Literature and Human Sciences of the University of São Paulo (FFLCH-USP) and Lúcia Avelar, from the Center for Studies on Public Opinion of the University of Campinas (CESOP-Unicamp). The book helps readers understand the central role that feminist organizations play in achieving legal and social protection of women. Looking only at the private realm, one sees essential victories, such as elimination of a father’s rights and the criminalization of domestic violence and sexual harassment.

Despite this progress, Brazilian women are still underrepresented politically. According to the Inter-Parliamentary Union, Brazil stands 154th in the ranking of 190 countries with regard to female presence in legislatures. Only one of every 10 seats in the 513-member Chamber of Representatives is held by women. In the Senate, that presence is 14% of the 81 elected members. On this subject Brazil ranks below even Saudi Arabia, with its long history of restricting women’s rights and freedoms. According to Lúcia Avelar, Brazil’s feminist organizations serve as a sort of forum for extra-parliamentary representation of women; their activities are coordinated with the small but active female delegations.

Co-author of one of the articles in the book, political scientist Patrícia Rangel, now doing postdoctoral research at the Free University of Berlin, Germany, argues that this organized political maneuvering led to legal changes that ensure equal treatment under the law for both women and men, struck discriminatory terms from Brazil’s legislation, and enabled women to appear legally as heads of family. Rangel says the fruits of that spade work include expansion of paid maternity leave (1988), passage of the electoral quota law (in 1995, requiring that 30% of candidates be women), sterilization in public hospitals (1996), regulations on the care available for legal abortions in the Unified Health System – SUS (1998), and the Maria da Penha Act (2006) against domestic and intrafamily violence.

Nelson Antoine/Fotoarena/Folhapress …and demonstrators during the World March of Women on the Anhanguera Highway (SP) in 2010Nelson Antoine/Fotoarena/Folhapress

Avelar says that even with its low rate of representation in the legislature, Brazil stands out as one of the countries in which the feminist movement is the best organized. “This mobilization has achieved a high degree of coordination among networks that form a bridge between society and the State. Networks such as the Congress of Brazilian Women and the World March of Women are internationally known,” she points out. The sociologist identified the turning point in the degree of such organization: “gradual entry of women into higher education and the formation of feminist NGOs (non-government organizations).”

Feminist victories in Brazil, especially with respect to activities in the public sphere, arrived with the 21st century. “One big gain obtained from government as of 2014 was the introduction of the Women’s Budget, unique among Latin American countries,” says Avelar. This is an excerpt from the federal government budget that refers to actions that impact the quality of life of Brazilian women, and includes such things as health care, dealing with violence, and equality in the labor market. The effort to achieve special mention in the budget was coordinated by the Center for Women’s Studies and Advisory Services (CFEMEA) to make it possible to monitor budgetary execution and ensure that the appropriated funds are actually released for use in implementing government policies as defined in the Women’s Budget.

Resisting and exiled 
Some components of the feminist organization in Brazil emerged from women’s opposition to the military dictatorship (1964-1985). The intensification of authoritarianism, which primarily began in 1968, produced waves of exiles among opponents of the regime. Many women made contact with feminists in other countries, especially in France. From there Brazilians and other Latin Americans, who had also become expatriates because of military coups in Chile (1973) and Argentina (1976), produced publications that were intended to serve as a forum for feminist debates in exile.

Hemeroteca Digital BN/Wikimedia Commons Bertha Lutz in 1925: one of the founders of the Brazilian Federation for the Advancement of Women in 1922Hemeroteca Digital BN/Wikimedia Commons

Those groups have recently been studied by sociologist Maira Abreu, holder of a PhD in social sciences from Unicamp, who published the book Feminism em exílio [Feminism in exile] (Alameda, 2016). The author shows how those groups constituted an important presence in the Brazilian community in France and formed an arena for dissemination of feminist thought. When they returned to their countries of origin, many exiles brought that experience with them and, to some extent, were able to influence the debates going on in Latin American feminist circles. “But we should not think of it as merely an importation of ideas,” Abreu warns, “but rather as an encounter among trends in feminist thinking that had been born in different realities.”

Despite the growth in the extent of their organization, women continue to have little involvement in political party structures. Lúcia Avelar points to the oligarchic nature of Brazilian parties and the centralization of power within them as the main causes of this exclusion. She believes that the parties on the Left currently offer somewhat better political opportunities for women. “In parties that have roots in social movements, internal disputes among different camps improves the status of women because those parties are usually open to the emergence of new factions,” she says. Patrícia Rangel observes that political parties don’t seem to understand that the presence of women is synonymous with democracy. “This has negative effects for women in general, since it’s the party officials at different levels who determine who obtains access to institutionalized politics; they play an important role in changing the political system,” says Rangel.

Politicians’ failure to understand the role of women left them for many years relegated to the status of supporting players and subordinates in political parties and labor unions, arenas in which they could have expected, for the sake of ideological consistency, a defense of egalitarianism. “The idea of confronting the patriarchy usually took a back seat to the political priority, which was criticism of capitalism,” Rangel says. Eva Blay points out that there had been a widespread belief that modernization of society would produce equality between men and women. “That mechanistic view was questioned as people later realized that modernization itself had retained the patriarchal patterns, clothing them in new garments and reassembling patterns of domination, violence against women, and inequalities in the workplace, including in terms of pay,” Blay argues. Those questionings came from the feminists of the 1970s, but the first transformations promoted by Brazilian feminism have much older roots.

National Library The Rio de Janeiro newspaper A Manhã campaigned in favor of women’s right to vote in 1926National Library

Laborers and intellectuals
In the Brazil of the 1920s, women had no political rights and could not vote or seek elective office. In order to pursue an occupation outside the home, they needed their husbands’ authorization and then they earned less than half what men were paid for performing the same functions. This situation did not begin to change until after workers began to protest and organizations emerged like the Brazilian Federation for the Advancement of Women (FBPF), led by biologist Bertha Lutz (1894-1976).

The daughter of bacteriologist Adolfo Lutz (1855-1940), Bertha was born in São Paulo and studied in France, where she was influenced by the international explosion of feminism, centered on the campaign for universal suffrage. Founded in 1922, the FBPF is generally seen as evidence that feminism’s first steps in Brazil were taken only by women from the economic and intellectual elites who were disconnected from the reality of most female workers.

That was not exactly what happened. A study by historian Glaucia Fraccaro points to the importance of political actions by women from the working class and their indirect influence on feminist leaders and organizations in the 1930s. Fraccaro recently defended her thesis entitled “Os direitos das mulheres: Organização social e legislação trabalhista no entreguerras brasileiro (1917-1937)” (Women’s rights: Social organization and labor legislation in Brazil during the Interwar period (1917-1937) at the Institute of Philosophy and Human Sciences at Unicamp.

Fraccaro argues that a lack of attention to the history of working women is one of the factors that helped confirm the general impression that Brazilian feminism originated in the upper classes. At the same time, the notion took root that the working class had been missing in action when the feminist movement was emerging. However, one of the sources of organized feminist activity in the pursuit of rights is found not in movements by women from the elite but in the protagonist role played by women laborers in the strike that brought São Paulo to a standstill 100 years ago.

The general strike of 1917 was a reaction to a decline in purchasing power, a deterioration of working conditions, and an increase in exploitation of child labor in industry. As a response to World War I, the acceleration in exports weighed heavily on worker families, impoverished and exhausted by longer working hours. Women made up the largest share of the labor force in the textile industry and represented about one-third of the urban workforce—most of industry’s exploited minors were girls. “When male and female workers rose up in a series of strikes starting in 1917, the concept emerged that social rights are not neutral and should encompass the status of women,” Fraccaro says.

The struggle led to victories during the first Getúlio Vargas administration (1930-1945). During that period, the political action of Bertha Lutz was indirectly influenced by demands from working women. “Women from the Brazilian Communist Party denounced in the press the lack of concern for female workers expressed by the FBPF,” Fraccaro recalls, “while the transnational network which the federation had joined imposed an agenda that involved maternity leave, a prohibition against night work for women, and the right to vote.” The pressures exerted by these movements led Vargas to approve a decree in 1932 that responded to those demands including the equal pay law, which was never enforced.

50 years of feminism (1965-2015): new paradigms, future challenges (No. 12/23065-8); Grant Mechanism Thematic Project; Principal Investigator Eva Alterman Blay (USP); Investment R$273,280.93.

BLAY, E. A. and AVELAR, L. (org). 50 anos de feminismo: Argentina, Brasil e Chile: A construção das mulheres como atores políticos e democráticos. São Paulo: Edusp, 2017.
ABREU, M. Feminismo no exílio. São Paulo: Alameda Editorial, 2016.