At the Vanguard of Global Feminism

Katherine Marino

In 1934, feminist and Partido Comunista Mexicano co-founder Consuelo Uranga gave a powerful speech before more than 1 000 activists at the World Congress of Women against War and Fascism in Paris. As fascism loomed over Europe, she drew attention to U.S. imperialism in Mexico, Cuba, and Central America where, she announced, “the revolutionary spirit grows.” Women were uniting “for their liberation and that of all their people.” The congress convened women around a new agenda for feminism: one that opposed fascism, racism, colonialism, and imperialism, and that promoted women’s political, civil, economic, and social rights, including state-sponsored maternity leave and child care.

Uranga brought these goals back to Cuba and Mexico where they helped inspire new mass women’s groups, including the Frente Único Pro Derechos de la Mujer that would soon count over 60 000 members in Mexico. By the end of the decade, anti-fascist feminist organizations had multiplied, and Spanish Civil War leader Dolores Ibárruri applauded the dramatic rise in the “women’s movement,” in Latin America.

My book Feminism for the Americas: The Making of an International Human Rights Movement (Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 2019) tells the history of feminismo americano, a little-known but extremely significant movement of Latin American leaders and groups united around women’s rights and global justice. Histories often tell us that U.S. and Western European women invented feminism, but my book argues that Latin American women were in fact at the vanguard of global feminisms and international human rights.

Latin American feminists had long organized internationally from different political perspectives—including anarchist worker feminists whose slogan was “No God, No Boss, No Husband,” in nineteenth-century Buenos Aires and liberal feminists who gathered at the 1910 First International Feminist Congress of Argentina. The Mexican revolution and 1917 constitution became lightning rods for hemispheric demands for women’s political and civil rights, social welfare for working women, and anti-imperialism.

After the Great Depression and rise of right-wing authoritarianism in Europe and in a number of countries in Latin America, feminismo americano gained even greater urgency. Recognizing that global threats to women, labor, and the left were inseparable, many feministas from South and Central America, Mexico, and the Caribbean, championed a new inter-American workers’ movement, the republican cause in the Spanish Civil War, Puerto Rican independence, the nationalization of Mexican oil, and freedom of political prisoners, and international women’s rights.

They used Pan-Americanism to internationalize women’s rights. In 1928, U.S. and Latin American feminists created the Comisión Interamericana de Mujeres (CIM, the first inter-governmental organization in the world to promote women’s rights) that pushed an Equal Rights Treaty for women into Pan American and League of Nations conferences. In the 1930s and 1940s feminists’ mobilizations around this treaty stopped proposed bills they deemed “fascist,” including one that would have reduced women’s minimum wages in Chile and one that would have reduced married women’s status to that of minors in Argentina. Many of these groups also demanded access to birth control and legal abortion.

Organizing with U.S. leaders was often fraught. My book explores the tensions that Latin American feminists had with U.S. counterparts who often deemed themselves and their brands of feminism as superior. However, these conflicts almost always served to bolster Latin American feminists’ connections with each other, to expand their goals, and to sharpen their analyses of anti-imperialism and anti-racism.

During the Second World War, anti-fascist feministas helped define “human rights” as an interrelated series of rights for all regardless of race, sex class, religion, nationality, ethnicity, or language. In 1945 at the San Francisco conference that created the United Nations, a group of Latin American feminists drew on two decades of experience to push women’s rights into the UN Charter and its framework of international human rights. They also proposed what became the UN’s Commission on the Status of Women. It is important to note that these Latin American feminists achieved these goals over the objections of their U.S. and British counterparts, who believed women’s rights too divisive or not important enough to include in the UN Charter.

Their mobilizations led to the passage of women’s suffrage and other civil rights throughout Latin America in the 1940s and 1950s. But around the same time, the Cold War narrowed meanings of “feminism” and “human rights” around individual civil and political rights only, and led to U.S.-sponsored militarization and violence in Latin America, with countless violations of human rights.

Latin American women, however, remained at the forefront of anti-fascist and anti-imperialist struggles, continuing to expose the relationship between global capitalism and gender oppression that Conseulo Uranga highlighted in 1934. Their activism informs global movements today that fight to end racism, militarism, and sexual violence; that promote legal abortion and birth control; that call for social justice for migrants, indigenous and LGBTQ communities; that call for environmental justice; and that realize all of these goals are interconnected. Remembering the revolutionary vision at the heart of feminismo americano can strengthen our demands for human rights and social justice today.

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