How a Great Power Falls Apart
Decline Is Invisible From the Inside
Last October, the U.S. academic Camille Paglia’s provocative diatribe about feminism in Time went viral. In her piece, she dismissed sexual assault on campuses as “wildly overblown claims.” Paglia, a self-described “notorious Amazon feminist,” believes that both the second wave of feminism during the 1960s and third wave of today actually stymie the march toward gender equality because they operate through a disempowering lens of victimization and downplay the myriad agential ways women push back against patriarchy. It was not surprising, then, to see an article on an interview with Paglia last month headlined with the sensational quote “Women should be maternal and stop blaming men.” It was surprising, however, that the headline was in Portuguese and published in the leading Brazilian daily Folha de S. Paulo.
During Paglia’s visit to São Paulo last month for the TED-like project Fronteiras do Pensamento, she took advantage of an interview with Folha de S. Paulo to enumerate the failures of liberal feminism, which she credits in large part to Gloria Steinem “and her psychological problems.” Women, Paglia told the female reporter, must choose between having a career and being mothers, and should not expect businesses to try to accommodate motherhood, because “companies don’t exist to be agents of social change.” She also argued that “only an idiot thinks of going out in the streets dressed provocatively without risking being attacked.”
Unlike the indefatigably sharp-tongued Paglia, however, many Western feminists working in developing countries agonize over how to respond sensitively to accusations of proselytizing a one-size-fits-all feminist doctrine. Any liberal, universalist conception of feminism, critics observe, fails both to address the unique cultural contexts faced by women worldwide and to duly recognize the many ways women challenge and subvert the gender hierarchies in which they operate globally. Some activists in developing countries argue that “feminism itself has been used as a weapon against women of the global South” or deployed as an “imperialist ... justification for political aggression.” “It’s hard to position yourself so that you’re not carrying a colonial message” when engaging with feminists across international lines, Fifty Shades of Feminism editor Susie Orbach told Guernica magazine in 2013.
These considerations seriously complicate the task of feminists aiming to broaden feminism’s geographic and demographic reach and internationalize the movement. The Brazilian American blogger Juliana Britto Schwartz, of Latina Feminista, admits to questioning even using the term:
Many … argue that the term “feminist” in itself only represents privileged white women, but I’ve decided to stick with it … The point of this blog is to bridge movements, and by qualifying our feminism, I think we can still collaborate with allies in a way that would be harder if we were to completely separate ourselves.
In dealing with these questions in Colombia, my own tack has been to prioritize solidarity with local women’s movements over ideological nitpicking. For instance, I was asked last month to give my “expert” feminist opinion to a local expat blog about Medellín’s “No to Sex Tourism” campaign. Despite my own belief, as a pro–sex work feminist, that stigmatizing either sex workers or their clients is a misguided strategy, I thought it more important to show support for local resistance movements, whatever their nature, and refrained from criticizing the premise of the campaign in the interview.
Avoiding the topic altogether has become more difficult, though, after last year’s declaration by Sweden’s foreign minister Margot Wallström that her country intends to pursue a “feminist foreign policy.” She said, “Striving toward gender equality is not only a goal in itself but also a precondition for achieving our wider foreign, development, and security policy objectives.” Quartz magazine applauded the concept, saying, “All foreign policy should be feminist foreign policy.”
Those words echo the 1999 manifesto of liberal philosopher Martha Nussbaum, who wrote in her book Sex and Social Justice:
It is better to risk being consigned by critics to the “hell” reserved for alleged Westernizers and imperialists … than to stand around in the vestibule waiting for a time when everyone will like what were are going to say. And what we are going to say is: that there are universal obligations to protect human functioning and its dignity, and that the dignity of women is equal to that of men. If that involves assault on many local traditions, both Western and non-Western, so much the better, because any tradition that denies these things is unjust.
Indeed, North American and European thinkers have long served as a strong and welcome intellectual influence on Latin American feminisms. As far back as the early nineteenth century, the French socialist Flora Tristan, daughter of a Peruvian aristocrat, merged her concerns with class oppression and women’s subjugation. She would eventually become a figurehead for feminist activists in Peru and throughout Latin America. A hundred years later, another leftist French feminist, Simone de Beauvoir, left a profound imprint on Latin American women with the translations of The Second Sex and her declaration that “One is not born, but rather becomes, a woman.” Betty Friedan’s The Feminine Mystique made a similar impact in translation across the region during the second wave. More recently, the writings of the Americans Angela Davis, Bell Hooks, and Kimberlé Crenshaw—which all emphasize the intersections between racial, gender, and economic oppressions—have played a role in energizing a strong Afro-feminist consciousness, particularly in Brazil, Colombia, and the Caribbean.
Historically, however, Latin American women have diverged in two ways from their North American and European counterparts in their approach to equal rights: their reticence to foreground gender identity and their emphasis on the collective over the individual. Feminists in the United States and Europe, for example, are keenly interested in probing the universality of the subjective experience of “being woman.” In that regard, they have found the rhetoric of liberal individualism useful. Many Latin American women’s activists, on the other hand, have eschewed individualism and preferred to reserve their resistance for the larger fight of collective social justice, as seen in an anecdote recounted in a 1973 issue of the Journal of Marriage and Family:
When … Gloria Steinem visited Puerto Rico in 1971, she addressed the Women’s Press Club, which owes its origins to the fact that the previously existing Press Club had refused to admit women members. After Ms. Steinem finished her talk, the president of the club … [stated] that there was no need for a women’s liberation movement in Puerto Rico, because the female citizens of the island commonwealth were already liberated.
Yet Latin American women can point to a level of political equality, strictly speaking, that still eludes their counterparts in the United States. Starting with Isabel Perón in 1974, eight of the 29 female heads of state elected worldwide since 1970 have been Latin American; women currently run Argentina, Brazil, and Chile. Argentina was also the first country to pass a quota reserving party list spaces for female electoral candidates, and thirteen other Latin American countries later followed suit with similar quota measures.
However, this feminization of Latin American politics appears to have made little improvement in the social and physical security of women. According to the UN Economic Commission for Latin America and the Caribbean, Latin American women suffer disproportionately from poverty, with Chile, Costa Rica, the Dominican Republic, Panama, and Uruguay showing the most significant divergences between male and female poverty rates. Latin American women also experience some of the highest levels of violence. The Economist reports that more than half of the 25 countries that the UN ranks as “high” or “very high” in number of femicides are in Latin America. Earlier in the year in Colombia, a much-discussed state report on public tolerance for violence against women found that nearly a fifth of the population believes that “real men can control their women.” Over a quarter believe that “it’s normal for men not to let their partners go out alone,” and some 64 percent agree that the best way to resolve a case of domestic violence is “to try to get the parties to reconcile.” The absurdity of this disconnect between political empowerment and women’s social subordination is such that a Brazilian congressional deputy, perhaps herself the beneficiary of a gender quota for her seat, recently reported being told by a male congressman on the floor of the National Congress that he wouldn’t rape her because she was “not worthy of it.”
As the goals of women’s political and economic empowerment were subsumed under Latin America’s famously firebrand version of leftism, it produced a version of feminism that highlighted and protested women’s continued victimization. For example, a quick look at the website of Colombia’s Red Nacional de Mujeres (National Women’s Network), an alliance of different women’s organizations from around the country, reveals a sharp focus on gender-based violence and women’s right to bodily integrity.
This is a necessary but uncomfortable space for feminists to inhabit. Martha Nussbaum insists that the supposed contradiction between being a victim while still having agency is a false dichotomy, noting that “it would be very odd to conclude that the only way to respect people’s dignity as agents is to create an uphill unequal struggle for them at every turn in the road.” Nevertheless, it’s easy to see how a near-exclusive focus on all the ways women physically suffer at the hands of men could deflate women’s sense of their own capability. Such a focus also complicates interactions with men, who may feel morally pigeonholed as aggressors by narratives of gendered violence and often conflate them, however unfairly, with hostility toward a “collective him”—or, to put it more colloquially, equate it with “man-hating.”
The social stigma that comes with being presumed a man-hater in a context where men hold more power has kept Latin American feminism quite far out of the mainstream. Local women who do speak out against misogyny risk social, political, or economic marginalization if they are perceived as “too feminist.” Accordingly, in Colombia, for instance, much of the media coverage on gendered violence comes from progressive men.
This brings us back to Camille Paglia and her renegade position on the victims-versus-agents debate in the United States. Even for those of us in the developed world who believe that engaging in feminist activism in developing countries is not inherently Westernizing or colonialist, we must still strive for deep context awareness at all times. Paglia’s controversial interview with Folha is a perfect example of how damaging it can be to allow ideological infighting override international solidarity over women’s rights. For Paglia to publicly dismiss victims of sexual assault as “idiots” in a country like Brazil—where a woman is assaulted every 15 seconds and murdered every two hours; where some 92,000 women were killed over the past 30 years—surpasses ideological provocation. It verges on outright irresponsibility.
Brazil’s own feminist community has reacted to Paglia with bewilderment and anger. One frustrated blogger wrote, “Why reinforce old stereotypes about feminists? Why bolster the machista discourse in which all feminists are hysterical, frustrated, or man-hating?” Another complained: “I don’t know the reality of the world you live in, Camille Paglia. But in my world, your interview is a masculinist disservice in support of the patriarchy.” And as in the United States, Brazil’s own version of Women Against Feminism, Mulheres Contra O Feminismo, a group of women who provide online counternarratives to feminism, were quick to seize on the fodder provided by Paglia’s Folha interview and buttress their belief that feminists “hide behind victimization to maintain their own power” and “should be put in jail.”
The entire debacle has served as a useful reminder that all feminists do have a responsibility to push back against misogyny wherever we encounter it, but that we must stay aware of our context at all times. As seen by the Brazilian feminist response to the Paglia interview, a universal conception of feminism does exist—it’s just not in the possession of one particular geographical wing of the movement. Rather, it’s a truth that we international women’s activists must forge together.
All quotations from Brazilian and Colombian publications originally appear in Portuguese and Spanish and have been translated by the author.