Women and Latin American Modernity During the Export Boom
In her book, “Women’s Roles in Latin America and the Caribbean”, Kathryn A. Sloan speaks to the emergence of feminism in Latin America. The women’s rights movement focused on women’s rights as human rights, and also on the importance of economic justice. Race, class, and status contributed to a varying condition for women, and the movement towards modernization played out differently across Latin America.
Sloan focuses on “civil codes” enacted by liberal leaders throughout the 19th century and early 20th century in Latin America, and their effects on women. One can look at civil codes as a push towards modernity in Latin American countries. They were modeled after Western European enlightenment principles, and emphasized freedom of contract, the importance of private property, and the family as the primary unit. But to the disadvantage of particularly illiterate women, these civil codes put aside the needs of the minority (Rosen). The nuclear family was encouraged and the man was put at the front of it. In contrast, civil codes in central America and Mexico gave women increased property rights, civil marriage and divorce.
The status of women was important in determining how modernity in 19th century Latin America played out. To elite educated women, liberalizing Latin America provided them some opportunities to gain a position in the workforce, even sometimes in the medical field. Poor women had fewer liberating opportunities. Some worked in fields or provided cooking, cleaning, and child care services for low wages to hacendado’s family. Others moved to the industrializing city, sometimes to work in gender segregated and dangerous working environments in the factories. Other times they worked as prostitutes, servants, or market vendors to serve the rising population of men working in industrial cities.
This source is important in assessing the impact of modernization on women in Latin America. Sloan’s book adds to the analysis by distinguishing the experiences of elite women to the experiences of ordinary women who had to work in the factories. These women had to face the realities of modernization not only as oppressed women, but also as oppressed workers. It is important to address these difference because it supports the common theme of Latin American history that one person’s gain is another’s loss. Some women gained from the implementation of liberal civil codes, but other women were better off without these modern concepts. This idea contributes to the theme of “modernity without liberalism”. Modernity and liberalism in Latin America surely produced an environment of winners and losers.
Excerpts from the book “Latin American Women and the Search for Social Justice”, by Francesca Miller were useful in the analysis of the intersectional impact of modernization and industrialization on women and the working class. It points to a sect of feminism called “socialist feminism” that advocates the emancipation of women: socially, politically, and economically. Although one of the key aspects of modernization in Latin America defined by Dawson was emancipation, this seemed to exclude the emancipation of women from the patriarchal systems that were established during an era of liberalism. Socialist feminism links the oppression of workers with the oppression of women. This is important in analyzing this period of modernity. Dawson defines modernity by the export boom that occurred. This export boom subsequently led to the oppression of workers: a situation that was amplified in the case of women.
In her book, “Rewriting Womanhood”, Nancy LaGreca lays out important points in her analysis of Latin American feminism, particularly in Mexico. She speaks to the divide between the women in the private realm and the men in the public realm under the Díaz regime in Mexico.
The Latin American feminist movement did not emerge until women entered the industrial workforce in the late 19th century. This is the beginning of the link between the women’s movement and the worker’s movement. LaGreca explains that in order to “modernize” Díaz’s Mexico, women were needed to fill low wage blue collar factory jobs. Educated, elite women took on low white collar jobs such as office workers and teachers. Most educated women used their knowledge for the sole purpose of carrying out “polite conversations”. Women’s education in the Díaz regime was primarily used to make families look more prestigious. The entrance of women in the workforce allowed women to see the inequality more visibly, thus spurring the beginning of the feminist movement in Mexico.
Elite women during Díaz’s regime personally felt the push for a “look and feel” of modernity. LaGreca describes their education as “superficial”. The superficial nature of women’s education reflects the superficial nature of modernity as a whole in Latin America; Latin America had modernity without liberalism. The increasing amount of women who were educated makes it appear that women were gaining equality, but LaGreca makes clear that this was not genuine. This period of modernity lacked true emancipation: one of the key concepts of modernity.
Aside from their role in the workplace, LaGreca also speaks of women’s role in society and the family. Early Mexican feminists took a more conservative standpoint on their role in the home. They did not want to leave their traditional roles, but they did want more legal control over property and the ability to earn their own living. The 1887 Civil Code allowed them to do this to an extent. One could look at this more conservative stance as a product of the Latin American history. Maybe conditions of Latin American history prevent the region from reaching fully modern, liberal standards. But that makes one wonder if anywhere is capable of achieving true liberalism.
LaGreca, Nancy. “Rewriting Womanhood.” Google Books. N.p., 2009. Web. 17 Nov. 2015.
Miller, Francesca. “Latin American Women and the Search for Social Justice.” Google Books
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Karst, Kenneth L., and Keith S. Rosen. “Law and Development in Latin America.” Google
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Sloan, Kathryn. “Women’s Roles in Latin America and the Caribbean.” Google Books. N.p., 31
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