The viralization of #MeToo adds to this growing global organization of women. The spread of the hashtag and the narratives accompanying it were powerful not only for making visible harassment in every industry and in every space, but also as an action through which women could find a collective voice. However, many felt ignored or left out by the focus on certain industries and deserving subjects. The #MeToo movement is thus at its weakest when it is limited to individual denunciations made by famous women, or focusing exclusively on institutional action and change. What can the #MeToo movement learn from Latin American feminists? How can a global perspective help develop new insights into forms of violence and create a politics that challenges the fundamental basis of gender inequality?
Popular Feminisms in Latin America
Women in Latin America have been organizing collectively to fight against gendered violence for many years. The bordertown of Ciudad Juárez became a flashpoint for the struggle against femicide, as activists faced the neoliberal laboratory of the maquiladoras: On the one hand, American companies seeking cheaper labor across the border, on the other hand a new class of young women, migrants, seeking freedom in paid labor away from the confines of family and community. Since the implementation of NAFTA, hundreds of these women have been disappeared, tortured, and/or murdered, while the perpetrators of those crimes generally go unpunished. Most investigations point to a network of complicity between patriarchal state institutions, local law enforcement, drug traffickers, and factory bosses seeking docile workers. It was the quests for justice led by family members and friends of the murdered girls and women, that initially brought attention to the issue of femicide in Latin America. That these women and girls were mostly poor factory workers, students, and proletarians in the informal sector, and that their disappearance was initially ignored by the government, the press, and most academics, is not a fact that should be forgotten. The movements that formed in response therefore emphasized the relationship between the brutal violence against women and girls and Ciudad Juárez’s position in a globalized production system, directly linking the murders to gendered economic exploitation. Further south in 2014, Ni Una Menos (NUM) formed as a response to the increasing rate of femicides in Argentina and the lack of institutional response. Both an organizing collective comprised of journalists, writers, artists, and academics, and a larger movement made up of women from diverse class backgrounds, NUM has been organizing a number of large mobilizations over the last two years, along with two women’s strikes. The first national action included a public reading, including art and poetry. The following year, larger open assemblies and a large march in June preceded the first women’s strike in October. This momentum carried over into 2017, with the women’s strike on March 8 and plans for another strike in 2018. The power of Ni Una Menos has reframed the debate about gendered violence and women’s work and contested gender relations at multiple scales. Ni Una Menos builds on a long history of women’s organizing in Argentina, especially the annual National Women’s Meeting and the movement to legalize abortion. The National Women’s Meeting, which has been held in different cities across the country since 1986, drew approximately 70,000 women to Rosario in October 2016. These meetings are self-organized, horizontal, open gatherings to discuss a variety of issues, from reproductive health to domestic violence to discrimination in the workplace. They bring together women from different regions of the country, and from different political and ideological as well as class and ethnic backgrounds. While women from political parties and some unions were already participating in the meetings, it was when women from organizations of unemployed workers began to attend that the class character of these meetings shifted considerably. Debates about abortion from a human rights perspective were suddenly transformed when women living in slums began talking about friends who had died from unsafe and clandestine abortions. These experiences reflect a certain type of popular feminism, which has only recently taken hold in working-class neighborhoods. On the one hand, it emerges from the frustration that women experienced who were participating, for example, in the movements of the unemployed, the workers’ cooperative movements, or other populist and leftist struggles, where they have been doing the important everyday organizing work but were rarely in leadership positions and continued to experience violence from their »comrades.« Many of these women had collectively organized to ensure the survival of their families and communities during the worst of Argentina’s economic crisis and therefore were not likely to passively accept these mistreatments. They began to call out and publicly denounce male aggressors, in ways similar to #MeToo, but also to turn those political spaces into sites of building women’s collective power. Some of the most marginalized and precarious workers in Argentina play a leading role in this feminism from below: street vendors and informal stallholders, textile workers in clandestine workshops or at home, workers in cooperatives, recipients of government benefits, and other workers in the informal sector. Together these sectors are understood as the popular economy and the workers are collectively organized in the Confederation of Popular Economy Workers (CTEP). While most of the major unions in the country were resistant to the idea of the women’s strike, CTEP was one of the organizations most supportive of both women’s strikes. Because of their precarious position –missing just one day of work could mean not being able to feed their family that day – these workers run unique risks in participating in a strike action. Yet, they were one of the first groups to endorse the strike and participated heavily in the event, recognizing that the popular economy is largely made up of women and that these women are more likely to experience the full continuum of gender-based violence. This multiplication of feminism in different spaces has broadened the focus of feminist activism. From ever urgent demands for reproductive rights and equality in the formal workplace and formal political sphere, new demands arise connected to everyday forms of violence and precarity. This addresses questions of the reproduction of life itself – recognizing the multiple ways that contemporary capitalism attempts to directly extract value from life and, in doing so, puts that life at risk.
A Collective Subject is Born
Drawing on the these Latin American feminist movements, we should ask how the abuses of power identified by #MeToo are part of a larger constellation of violence and coercion. Is it possible to find a common cause between low wage, mostly Black and migrant university housekeepers facing an abusive manager, and female students on the same campus facing high rates of sexual assault? Common ground cannot be assumed a priori but that does not mean that it cannot be created. One of the most insidious elements of patriarchal oppression is having been taught to blame ourselves for our experiences of abuse and to not speak about what happens to us. #MeToo has opened a space for challenging that atomizing silence, demonstrating not only how widespread violence is, but also its structural nature. To challenge the very foundation of gendered violence, we must learn to make these connections. In a statement released on January 8, 2018, Ni Una Menos attempts this in their call for an international women’s strike, »Because this tool allows us to make visible, denounce, and confront the violence against us, which is not reducible to a private or domestic issue, but is manifested as economic, social, and political violence, as forms of exploitation and dispossession that are growing daily (from layoffs to the militarization of territories, from neo-extractivist conflicts to the increase in food prices, from the criminalization of protest to the criminalization of immigration, etc.)« 3