Seeking Rights from the Left

By Elisabeth Jay Friedman and Constanza Tabbush*

Image of colorful mural with diverse images of women. Text in the mural says: "It is time to act, no more sexual violence. No more impunity"

#TimeToAct Mural in La Paz, Bolivia, by artist Knorke Leaf/ ph: Shawnna Mullenax

The “Pink Tide” of left-leaning governments that came to power in Latin America at the beginning of the 21st century made a significant difference in the lives of women and LGBT people in the region, but its reliance on traditional gendered relations of power and strategic trade-offs among gender and sexual rights reduced its impact.  In a collaborative study we conducted with 12 other scholars from South and North America, we examined the issues of social welfare, political representation, violence against women, women’s bodily autonomy, and LGBT relationship and identity recognition across eight case studies – Argentina, Bolivia, Brazil, Chile, Ecuador, Nicaragua, Uruguay, and Venezuela.

  • We found significant progress under the Pink Tide. Most governments improved the basic economic conditions of poor women and their families, often through providing cash transfers.  In many cases, women’s representation in national legislatures advanced to some of the highest global ranks.  Some countries legalized same-sex relationships and enabled their citizens to claim their own gender identity.  They also opened up opportunities for feminist and queer movements to engage state actors and press forward their demands.

At the same time, many of these governments relied on heteropatriarchal relations of power – ones that privilege heterosexual men – thus ignoring, rejecting, or sidelining the more transformative elements of feminist, women’s, and LGBT advocates’ demands.  They also made strategic trade-offs among gender and sexual rights, such as promoting the rights of LGBT people or women’s political representation while denying reproductive health rights for women.  Moreover, the left’s more general political and economic projects have been profoundly, if at times unintentionally, informed by traditional understandings of gender and sexuality.  As a central example across most cases, not only did poor women’s unpaid care work fuel the much-celebrated social programs that reduced extreme poverty, but their unpaid community work undergirded the left political project as a whole.

  • The possibilities for gender and sexual justice seem to depend on institutional contexts as well as the organization and actions of collective actors seeking rights from the left. The degree of state institutionalization, particularly the effectiveness of checks on executive power, is critical in determining the ultimate impact of the left in power.  Moreover, the largely under-analyzed alliances that progressive political forces struck up with conservative religious ones in order to gain or hold onto power play a central role in determining the fate of policy issues – such as abortion – that touch traditional or cultural norms in Latin America.

As the pendulum swings back towards the right, the relationships among political and religious authorities which undergirded some of the challenges to gender and sexual justice under left governance appear likely to continue strengthening.  Indeed, insofar as right-wing nationalists and populists seek to redefine a national project as a counter to the ideals of the Pink Tide, they are deliberately targeting the ideas and people who seek to transform fundamental inequalities, such as those based on gender, sexuality, class, race, and ethnicity.  However, experiences under both the Pink Tide and the rise of the Right have led to alliances among those who continue to seek more just and equitable societies.  For example, consider the broad-based coalitions that undergirded massive mobilizations for legal abortion in Argentina and against Bolsonaro’s election in Brazil. 

February 4, 2019

*  Elisabeth Jay Friedman is professor of politics and Latin American studies at the University of San Francisco (on leave) and visiting scholar at the Interdisciplinary Center for the Study of Global Change, University of Minnesota.  Constanza Tabbush is research associate at Consejo Nacional de Investigaciones Científicas y Técnicas and the Interdisciplinary Institute of Gender Studies, University of Buenos Aires (on leave) and research specialist at UN Women.  Dr. Friedman edited and co-wrote the introduction of Seeking Rights from the Left: Gender, Sexuality, and the Latin American Pink Tide, published by Duke University Press and available here.  Dr. Tabbush co-wrote the introduction and the chapter on Argentina.

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