These brief introductions of the country sites (Brazil, China, India, Nicaragua, Poland, Russia, USA) offer the beginning of a broader context for the interviews. China, India, Poland and the USA introductions also includes a link to a booklet with all of the site’s interviews for easy searching, as well as links to other supporting materials.
In early twentieth-century Brazil, women’s rights movements, led primarily by middle- and upper-class, educated women, achieved significant gains in the expansion of education opportunities and political rights, including women’s suffrage in the 1930s. These movements declined during the Vargas dictatorship (1937-1945) and did not regain their former organizational strength until the late 1970s, when another military dictatorship (1964-1985) began a process of gradual political opening in preparation for a return to civilian rule. Feminism emerged as a significant political philosophy within leftist political organizations and the “new social movements” that mushroomed in the late 1970s. Women from across social classes tended to be prominent in these grass-roots movements, which formed outside of traditional partisan politics to struggle against various forms of social inequality and injustice as well as political repression. Increasingly, many of these movements placed themselves under the umbrella of human rights and conceived of themselves as non-governmental organizations. In addition to the spread of feminism within these organizations, a number of autonomous, self-identified feminist groups were created during this period.
The interviews in this archive reflect the variety of strands of women’s activism and scholarship in Brazil in the late twentieth and early twenty-first centuries. Maria Amélia (“Amelinha”) Teles, a former Communist Party militant and founder of the feminist group União de Mulheres do Municipio de São Paulo in 1981, offers her personal story as a window into the emergence of feminism within leftist political parties during the transition to democracy in the 1970s and 1980s. Other interviews reflect the development of women’s movements as part of a broader network of NGOs addressing social issues that have come to include domestic violence, welfare, and the rights of working women, gay and transgender individuals.. There are also interviews with women across generations who work against gender, racial, and class oppression, but who have never considered themselves feminists per se. For more information about the interviewees, see a short summary prepared by site coordinator Sueann Caulfield.
These interviews illustrate the multi-dimensional development of feminist practices in China’s transformation from a socialist state economy to a capitalist market economy from the mid-1980s, when spontaneous women’s activism emerged. Situating such development in the context of both global capitalism and global feminisms, especially in the context of the Fourth UN Conference on Women when Chinese feminists came into direct contact with global feminisms, the interviews, conducted in the early 2000s, explore the cultural, social, and political meanings of Chinese feminist practices. They illustrate how official, non-official, domestic, and overseas Chinese women activists were expressing diverse visions of gender equality, even engaging in struggles over the very word “gender.” These interviews reflect the scope and complexity of the contemporary Chinese women’s movement. Feminist activists include women leaders from diverse groups, such as Ge Youli, who was involved as a young leader in various urban based organizational activities funded by international donors to disseminate feminist ideas; Zhang Lixi, Vice President of the Chinese Women’s College that affiliates with the All-China Women’s Federation, who has promoted women’s studies in her college; and Gao Xiaoxian, who holds an official position in the Shaanxi Women’s Federation while creating several women’s organizations outside the official system to engage in legal services for women, anti-domestic violence movements, and issues of gender and development.
The history of Indian independence from Great Britain, won in 1947 through a vigorous anti-colonialist nationalist movement, left its stamp on Indian feminism. Many of the early women’s rights activists first became involved with politics through the independence movement. This first generation of feminists worked closely with the state well into the 1970s, while non-state and non-party feminism grew into prominence during the 1980s. India thus provides an interesting example of a postcolonial democratic third world country that has a strong “autonomous” women’s movement. Interviews from this site provide an overview of the issues that Indian feminists have engaged with since independence, and include women who have worked closely with government agencies, universities, and independent NGOs. Two of the interviewees were important pioneers in the Indian women’s movement and have since died: Neera Desai (1925-2009) and Vina Mazumdar (1927-2013).
Consistent with our focus on the ways feminist ideas travel, we include here two interviews with Indian feminists who were visiting at the University of Michigan. Ruth Vanita is a Professor of Liberal Studies and Women’s Studies at the University of Montana and resides in the USA. She has written extensively on issues of women’s inheritance, marriage, dowry practices, wife battering and wife murder, and against communal violence. Urvashi Butalia lives and works in Delhi and is a co-founder of Kali for Women, India’s first feminist publishing house. These interviews provide different perspectives on issues of sexuality and gender in the India context.
Latin America has a long and powerful history of individuals organizing and acting together to demand justice. The women’s movement in Nicaragua, in particular, has gained noteworthy attention for maintaining a discourse on women’s rights at the national level while also promoting organizations that support women locally. Efforts to strategically organize have been particularly important in Nicaragua because, even in moments of political stability, women’s rights have historically and persistently been denied. Although the women’s movement in Nicaragua is often linked to the political struggle of the Sandinista Revolution, by the 1990’s the movement, Movimiento Autonomó de Mujeres (MAM), began a process of independence from political parties and the state, defining themselves as a social movement based on a multitude of intersecting rights, such as gender-based violence, sexual rights, and women’s right to own property.
The interviews included in this archive reflect a myriad of backgrounds and experiences that help to understand how the women’s movement, rooted in sociopolitical categories surrounding the intersections of gender, ethnicity, and class in a global context, profoundly challenges systematized gender inequities that have emerged or become exaggerated by globalization. For example, Matilde Lindo grew up in the poorest and predominantly Black Caribbean Coast and focuses her activism on ending violence against women and racial discrimination within Nicaragua. Juanita Jiménez, a lawyer focusing on women’s health and reproductive rights, entered into activism at an early age and is a longstanding leader in the movement. Together the interviews demonstrate the various perspectives and experiences of women whose lives have been committed to enhancing social justice.
The complex histories of feminism in Poland during the post-war communist rule and since its breakdown in 1989 intersect with a diversity of institutions, including governmental, religious, and NGO. Accordingly, the Polish interviews GFP reflect these complexities as the women describe their interactions with the society and politics around them. All of the interviewees are located in the contemporary post-socialist milieu and their stories emerge out of the history of state-sanctioned doctrine and post-1989 democratic freedom. Their feminist histories of national and community activism fill in the gaps created by the persistently male dominated public sphere. For instance, Barbara Labuda, who was Secretary of State in President Aleksander Kwasniewski’s Cabinet, tells stories of the male-dominated Solidarity movement and narrates her own attempts at breaking the glass ceiling of the otherwise progressive labor union. Another interviewee, Agnieszka Graff, author of opinion pieces published in major Polish magazines and newspapers, speaks to the difficulties confronting those whose feminist politics bring them into the public eye. In a country where feminism still invites a range of hostile responses, women like Labuda and Graff are pioneers in supporting women’s independence, developing women’s rights, and fighting discrimination.
After the Revolution of 1905, which brought many civil society groups out of hiding, feminist circles and their extensive feminist writings scattered the Russian political landscape. This activism, albeit “late” in the European sense, had a short life. During the Communist period of Russian/Soviet history, feminism was taboo. As the Bolsheviks rose to power in 1917, feminism, along with all of the other “isms” of civil society, fell by the wayside, even though they were in their most nascent stages. In 1991, when the Cold War “ended” and Boris Yeltsin appeared on the scene, political winds began to shift. Many movements that were long percolating below the surface began to emerge, some in full force. The 1990s brought to the surface Women’s Studies departments at universities and institutes; Centers for the Study of Gender in the broader communities in big cities like Moscow and St. Petersburg, and some eventually well beyond the urban borders. The interviews in this case study of Russia represent a multitude of voices from precisely these women scholars and activists, each of whom reconciled with her past and made the decision to engage in the new political environment through a very individually understood and defined feminist politics. Most of the women’s voices heard in these interviews are academics embedded in Russian institutes of higher learning. They represent a variety of humanities and social science fields, and each has struggled in the current political environment to continue her work while balancing the ever-challenging demands of family and work life as the repression of free expression, political and otherwise, grows a bit stronger each day.
The USA interviews reflect a focus on women’s movement activists who define the scope of their commitments in terms of the intersection of gender with other important social identities and locations, such as race, ethnicity, disability, class, and sexual orientation. Most of these women began their activism in the 1980s and later. For example, Grace Lee Boggs worked on labor issues and was active in the civil rights and Black Power movements; Cathy Cohen and Loretta Ross discuss ways that reproductive rights are redefined when they are approached from the perspective of poor women and women of color; and Andrea Smith’s work on violence against women of color offers a model for coalition building among groups.