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Popular feminism (feminismo popular)

Popular feminism is a strand of feminism that emerged in Latin America in the 1970s and lasted until the 1990s and was mainly concentrated in Peru, Brazil, Ecuador, Mexico, and Chile. The term was developed by women in a situation of poverty who articulated their class struggle through their appropriation and reinterpretation of feminism while they were involved in social movements (Zapata 2007: 12). As Espinosa points out in the specific case of Mexico, women within the urban popular movement developed their own concept of feminism, which combined the class struggle with the struggle to change the oppressive gender roles. In this sense, the term "popular" was not related to their condition as women in a situation of poverty, but to the idea that the intended change would be made in collaboration with the people (2011: 277-308).

The popular strand of feminism mainly consisted of women who organized around the struggle for economic subsistence and they usually used their traditional gender roles as mothers, wives, and daughters to legitimate their political involvement in social movements (Vargas 2008: 71). This process of appropriation of their gender roles can be understood, as many scholars propose as an ontological and epistemic rupture of different social and political positions of the liberal subject that certain strands of feminism proposed (Gargallo 2006; Espinosa, Gómez and Ochoa 2014; Bidaseca and Laba 2010).

In this regard, the discussion about the status of the popular strand within feminism revolved mainly, but not exclusively, around two positions. On the one hand, some scholars argued that the appropriations of traditional gender roles implied a reinforcement of women's exploitation and subordination in the context of neoliberal economic policies. On the other hand, the same reinforcement of the traditional gender roles was framed by other scholars as the result of women's political participation, which played a significant role in the construction of a space of social and political contestation against the authoritarian regimes in which poor women constructed and developed their political agendas (Arango and Puyana 2007). However, it should be clarified that those were the main positions within a debate with multiple points of view; the interrelation between diverse feminist strands was highly complex and produced diverse positions because it was the case of double militancy (doble militancia), meaning that the same person could be part of more than one feminist strand.

Some examples of popular feminist groups or grassroots movements are the Movement of Shantytown Women from Chile (Movimiento de Mujeres Pobladoras, MOMUPO); La Regional de Mujeres of the Urban Movement's National Coordinating Committee in Mexico (Coordinadora Nacional del Movimiento Urbano Popular, CONAMUP); Guatemalan women in the Maquila; the Association of Women of the Zona Leste in Brazil (Associaçâo de Mulheres da Zona Leste, AMZOL). Women's Popular Federation of Villa El Salvador in Peru (Federación Popular de Mujeres de Villa EI Salvador, FEPOMUVES).

Feminism and Popular Feminism

In the first half of the 20th century, feminism in Latin American grew out of the modernist emancipation discourse, which inspired the demand for universal equality as the basis for women's full citizenship (Vargas 1992). In one way, this opened up possibilities for women to participate in the public sphere and the politicization of private life under the context of authoritarian regimes in the region. In a different way, that equality discourse was developed based on the homogenous concept of the (liberal political) subject, which reduced the possibility to recognize the interconnections among interlocking systems of oppression based on gender, class, race, ethnicity, age, etc. From the 1970s onwards, that first stream of feminism was broadened by the emergence of other women's demands made from different cultural and political backgrounds. Such is the case of indigenous women, who spoke up about themes of racism, ethnicity, and culture. Furthermore, other women incorporated themselves into the feminist project (black women, lesbians, heterosexuals, and middle-class women, to name only a few cases). Women living in impoverished conditions in urban areas were particularly important in the perspective of this work (Vargas 1992: 196-202).

Although Latin-American feminism had the objective of fighting against women's subordination, the high levels of social inequality and differences in access to material and symbolic goods brought to the forefront the contradictions and challenges for reaching consensus on a common field for action (Alvarez 1998). The feminist movement went from a singular identity in 1970s and 1980s to a more pluralistic perspective in the mid-1990s. This was mainly through the agency of women who reinterpreted the terms of feminism and re-elaborated them from their own social perspective (Alvarez 1998: 306). In a similar vein, even when a popular strand of feminism did not emerge in the United States and Canada at the level of organization reached in Latin America and the Caribbean, a process of recognition of new identities developed which intersected class, race, and gender (Davis 1981).

Development of the concept

Popular feminism emerged during the 1970s in the context of "the rise of grassroots organizations, overwhelmingly enacted and led by women, in the metropolitan areas of the developing world" (Castells 2010: 246). Two factors were relevant to the rise of these social movements: The first was the economic crisis and the structural adjustment policies that resulted in cutbacks in social programs mainly affecting the poorest sectors of Latin American countries (Jaquette 1989: 185). The second factor was the political scenario in which social movements voiced the discomfort regarding the authoritarian regimes of the region (Holston 2008: 238).

Some feminists interpreted this participation as a set of practices that reinforced the sexual division of labor and gender roles that reduced women's social participation to the domestic sphere. Nonetheless, other feminists interpreted these experiences of political involvement based on a difficult economic situation as a possibility to overcome the isolation of the domestic sphere, and at the same time, create a space where they could construct their own agenda and open the possibility to develop a process of reflection about gender roles and their rights (Vargas 2008: 71).

Many of these groups and organizations did not accept and even refused to call or identify themselves as feminist. When they finally adopted the label, it was through a complex negotiation process with other actors and women's groups that allowed them to interpret and adapt the ideas of feminism for their agendas. Indeed, the construction of popular feminism as a political category was created amidst tension, interactions, and negotiations with other women's groups, women in political parties and feminist groups, and even the church (Drogus and Stweart-Gambino 2005).

This interaction allows one to understand the construction of popular feminism as a socio-political process, often fraught with divisive discrepancies: not all feminists in academia recognize poor women's struggles as feminists, and conversely, not all women's popular organizations recognize themselves as feminists, nor do they consider feminism an important issue in their social struggles. As León points out, the main critique that impoverished women within social movements directed towards feminist groups was that they were elitist and detached from the problems of the groups involved in the movement and "they took more from the movement than they gave" (2007: 37-38).

The presence of popular feminism in the regional and international spheres

During the period from 1970 to 1980, the plurality of backgrounds, perspectives, and representations within feminism exposed the multiplicity of identities and diverse array of rationalities which questioned the idea that gender was the only category marking women's subordination. This was visible during the first Latin American and Caribbean Feminist Encounter in 1981 in Bogota, Colombia. In this encounter, issues of classism, racism, and sexism were topics of discussion and created a space for reflection on the distinct oppression women from less privileged classes experienced (Vargas 1992: 203-204). During the third feminist encounter in Bertioga, Brazil in 1985, women of popular sectors asserted it would be better to recognize that there were feminisms, in plural, instead of only one feminism (Restrepo and Bustamente 2009: 21).

This was a precedent for the fourth encounter in Mexico in 1987, where a broader discussion about the general plurality of feminism and the particular status of popular feminism. La Regional de Mujeres from Mexico and other organizations recognized themselves as a popular movement just as much as feminist which opposed the perspectives suggesting they undermined the radicality and identity of the feminist movement (Espinosa 2011: 297-298). This situation opened up debates about the issue of who could define oneself as feminist and who could decide if the others were feminists. Although these tensions existed, the common consensus prevailed and all attendees claimed they were feminists (Restrepo and Bustamente 2009: 23-24).

Popular feminism was also a topic present in the preparatory works for attending the Fourth World Conference on Women in Beijing in 1995 (also known as the Beijing process). This set of summits made clear the need to recognize the struggle of women who labeled themselves as feminists from different socio-political contexts, and whose discourses emphasized ways in which race/ethnicity, class, sexuality, age, and more were constitutive of gender identities and produced specific hierarchical orders and inequalities. Thus, the regional preparatory meetings held in Mar del Plata in September 1994 served as a space to differences. The majority of the documents produced emphasized the plural, multicultural, and pluri-ethnic character of Latin-American and Caribbean societies and women's movements. (Alvarez 1998: 298-302). In this respect, as the president of the Coordinadora Metropolitana del Programa de Vaso de Leche in Lima established: "Talking about feminism was taboo among women of the popular sectors... Yes, we are feminists today, but we are feminists of a new world ... and we will not subject ourselves to other women" (Alvarez 1998: 298-302).

In this view, popular feminism's presence in the Beijing process provided a possibility for women living in poverty conditions to bring their demands to an international level, in a scenario where international agencies and NGOs played an important role in drafting documents during the Beijing summit. In that regard, although the NGO approach favored working with the state to reduce gender gaps, critics within contemporary Latin-American women's movements noted that women were sometimes framed as clients rather than political agents. This proposed a different ontological approach about women's agency which, from the perspective of certain popular feminist groups, favored de-politization and reduced mobilizational activities (Alvarez 1998: 305-317).

This new distinction appeared to signal this division, which intensified when Feminist NGOs gained an important position during the Latin-American Beijing process; new contrasting terms began to emerge, such as "bureaucratic-institutional movement" versus "independent feminists" or the women's movement (el movimiento de mujeres) versus the movement of women's projects (el movimiento de proyectos de mujeres). In addition, the participation of NGOs financed by the United States (USAID) was regarded suspiciously among certain groups, which feared the possibility of manipulation by external interests (Alvarez 1998: 312-317).


Some scholars have stated that impoverished women's political participation constituted an irruption in the spaces of mid-class and white feminism and proposed from their personal experiences and practices an analysis of the economic exploitation which is based in women's unpaid labor (Vargas 2004). In this sense, it could be argued that the research produced on the oppression of poor women did not take into consideration their contributions to feminism and the perspective they constructed from their social position (Arango and Puyana 2007: 14). Based on their social position, the presence of poor women in the debate demonstrated that certain strands of feminism in the region did not take into account the various voices and points of view of women involved in a distinct interlocking system of oppression as class, gender, and race. Finally, as Schild (2014) proposes, Latin American feminism is a multi-vocal movement and women in situations of poverty played an important role during its transition from the singular to the plural perspective mentioned above. However, the consolidation of democracies in the region during the 1990s and the implemented neoliberal polices changed the context in which popular feminism emerged, which contributed to reducing its presence and impacts.

Cruz González

Please cite as:
González, Cruz. 2018. "Popular feminism." InterAmerican Wiki: Terms - Concepts - Critical Perspectives.

Works Cited

Alvarez, Sonia E. 1998. "Latin American Feminisms "Go Global": Trends of the 1990s and Challenges for the New Millennium." In Cultures of politics/politics of cultures: re-visioning Latin American social movements, ed. Sonia E. Alvarez, Evelina Dagnino, and Arturo Escobar, 293-324. Boulder: Westview Press.

Arango, Luz Gabriela and Yolanda Puyana. 2007. Género, mujeres y saberes en América Latina: entre el movimiento social, la academia y el Estado. Bogota: Universidad Nacional de Colombia.

Bidaseca, Karina and Vanesa Laba, ed. 2011. Feminismos y poscolonialidad: descolonizando el feminismo desde y en América Latina. Buenos Aires: Ediciones Godot.

Castells, Manuel. 2010. The power of identity. Malden: Wiley-Blackwell.

Davis, Angela. 1981. Women, race and class. New York: Random House.

Drogus, Carol Ann and Hanna Stewart-Gambino. 2005. Activist faith: Grassroots women in democratic Brazil and Chile. Pennsylvania: Pennsylvania State University Press.

Espinosa, Gabriela and Ana Lau, ed. 2011. Un fantasma recorre el siglo: luchas feministas en México 1910-2010. Mexico City: Universidad Autónoma Metropolitana.

Espinosa, Yuderkys, Diana Gómez, and Karina Ochoa, ed. 2014. Tejiendo de otro modo: feminismo, epistemología y apuestas descoloniales en Abya Yala. Popayán: Editorial Universidad del Cauca.

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Zapata, Martha. 2007. “Feminist Movements in Mexico: From Consciousness-Raising Groups to Transnational Networks.” In Feminist philosophy in Latin America and Spain, ed. María Luisa Femenías and Amy A. Oliver, 1-20. Amsterdam: Rodopi.

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