Rethinking Power from a Feminist Vision
In looking at why revolutionary movements have failed, one must also look at men’s historical inability to listen to women and share power with them. Margaret Randall, whose book Sandino’s Daughters Revisited has just been translated into Spanish, gives us an opportunity to reflect and rectify.
In the late 1960s and early 1970s, a renewed feminist consciousness began to smolder among activists and academicians alike. Quickly it exploded—first in such industrialized cultural meccas as New York, London and Paris; then in some of the urban centers of Latin America: places like Mexico City, Caracas, Buenos Aires and Santiago de Chile.
Ernesto "Che" Guevara had become a symbol of the era. Some two and a half years before his murder in Bolivia, Guevara had written his famous "Socialism and Man in Cuba," a powerful treatise that addressed the need to change human beings, not simply the society in which they lived. In it he spoke of a New Man (sic): without greed, open, generous of spirit, filled with solidarity toward those less fortunate than himself and capable of generating and living by more humane values. It was a breakthrough document for those of us who longed for social justice but were too young to have experienced the Communist mystique of the early years of Bolshevism; who opposed the status quo but did not feel represented by the narrow Marxism of the orthodox parties on the Left.
The "New Man" ... and womenI was born in 1936. My generation’s young adulthood straddled the stifling fifties and explosive sixties. We were ready for a different model, whose mentors nurtured a more holistic vision. Finally someone was speaking a language we understood, one that linked issues of human consciousness with a more equitable economic strategy. "At the risk of sounding ridiculous, let me say that true revolutionaries are motivated by great feelings of love"—I remember this was one of Che’s statements that moved us profoundly. It has not ceased to move me. Guevara talked about painting the universities black, brown and yellow, an early reference to multicultural education. He advocated the use of moral rather than material incentives. And we appropriated this clarity. We felt represented by ideas that addressed the spiritual and aesthetic within the workers’ state—even when, as women, we were barely mentioned as protagonists.
Could we have been mentioned? Is it fair to fault the visionary men of those times, when we women had not yet begun to rise up again in search of and recognition of our full identities? Perhaps, given the historical context, it is not fair. But it is very important to be clear about the fact that our arena of political struggle—as well as society as a whole—was absolutely controlled by men. Women were active in the continent’s revolutionary upheaval, but neither in leadership roles nor in very large numbers. As in earlier times, they had to break with tradition in order to participate in the revolutionary movements of the fifties, sixties and seventies; and those who did, even when they did not specifically question male leadership, opened doors for important discussions about women’s role—in struggle and in the larger society.
Back then, if very few of us challenged the term "New Man," and wondered how or even if women were included in the concept, we received the stock reply of the times: Of course women were included. Didn’t we understand that "man" was a generic term meaning human being? And besides, couldn’t we see that such distinctions were a product of bourgeois feminism, popular in the industrially advanced countries but having little to do with Third World problems? Such concerns, we were told, served only to shove a wedge between men and women who should be fighting together against the real enemy. Were we really fighting together?
Revolutions without a feminist agendaAs was true in the United States at that time, the Moscow-oriented Communist parties of Latin America espoused a line that clearly implied that economic equality between the sexes—equal educational opportunities, equal pay for equal work, protective legislation and services such as child care that would make it possible for women to enter the labor force—would put an end to gender discrimination. First we needed to unite the working class; only then would we be able to rout the dictators. Later there would be time to attend to the "finer points" of social equality, including residual sexism, racism and, much later, heterosexism. That word "residual" was such a frequently used adjective; it trivialized our concerns as it shamed us for bringing them up.
A number of newer political configurations active in Latin America at the time were beginning to challenge the rigidity of this view. Cuba’s own 26th of July Movement, the Chilean MIR, Nicaragua’s Sandinistas and other movements of national liberation struggled with new and innovative ways of waging revolutionary war, taking power and designing a more just society.
Increasing numbers of Latin American women were involved in these movements. Many were influenced by having studied abroad or by having read material translated from books published in the United States and Europe. They struggled with their male comrades for greater participation and decision-making during the years leading up to victory, in the hope of forging attitudes and actions based on a more feminist conception of power and in order to ensure that women’s role in the society they dreamed of would in fact be different.
While there is no question that these experiments in popular democracy were defeated or are being undermined primarily by international capital, it has been important for feminists and others to look at how these revolutions’ failures to address certain so-called secondary issues may also have helped to weaken political structures. In retrospect we can see how the inability of almost all twentieth-century revolutionary movements to develop a feminist agenda contributed to their failure to evolve new and equitable forms of power sharing that might have helped keep them alive.
We didn’t yet dareIn contrast to what took place in the United States, few of us in Latin America in the sixties or seventies dared to speak about politics as they were reflected in interpersonal relations. We did not press for a feminization of power, nor did we make the connections we make today between a feminist vision and such issues as ecology, abuse, holistic health and spirituality. Some women who worked for peace did so within the context of a burgeoning feminist understanding, but we could not yet see that gender inequality had skewed our entire sense of history—and of ourselves. In Latin America (my home at the time), our demands were generally focused on equality in defense of access to education and jobs, more sexual and intellectual freedom, a more equitable division of labor in the home and control over our reproductive choices. Insofar as the last-mentioned struggle was concerned, because we knew what U.S. reproductive policy was doing in Latin America, we were more likely to be fighting against enforced sterilization than for the right to choose abortion.
Without the leisure in which to stop and consider the theoretical implications of their situation, revolutionary women taking on whole dynasties of oppression had to deal with the most obvious problems of their daily lives. It was clear that men drew up the programs, made the decisions, meted out the tasks. For women, these tasks were almost exclusively those which were also traditional to their gender: they kept the safehouses, washed and cooked for the combatants, ran messages, nursed the wounded, made use of their "feminine wiles" in the transport of comrades and weaponry, and in all the customary ways nurtured their brothers-in-arms. A few of the revolutionary organizations in Chile, Uruguay and Brazil were developing a discourse that addressed this gendered division of labor. Still, with few exceptions, even their female members continued to do "what women do best."
Also in the FSLNThis was certainly the case with the Sandinista National Liberation Front in Nicaragua. The first women joined the FSLN in 1963. At first these young women—often sisters or girlfriends of the men—didn’t question male authority. No wonder there was little inclination on their part, or patience on the part of the men, to challenge women’s role in the struggle. Women faced a severe break with family, social and religious norms simply by engaging in revolutionary activism. But sexism, deeply embedded in the social fabric, was also responsible for the status quo, and as women’s determination and courage led to a more central involvement, stereotypes were being questioned.
Sandinista women speak of being influenced by books and photocopies of books smuggled into the country and passed from hand to hand, but it would be a mistake to say that such materials planted the seeds of women’s consciousness in Nicaragua or imply that Nicaraguan women learned their feminism from abroad. These ideas took root in fertile soil. They built upon and nurtured experiences that had been alive for centuries in collective memory, since the time of the indigenous women, described as the most beautiful among the New World native peoples—which Franco-Mexican anthropologist Laurette Sèjournè believes was because "their fierce sense of independence...made them seem more beautiful."
Indigenous women in Nicaragua resisted with tenacity and creativity the Spanish invasion of their lands, their bodies and their minds. At one point in the terrible history of conquest, as in the story of Lysistrata, Nicaraguan women refused to have sex with their husbands. They did not want to continue giving birth to children they knew would be enslaved.
Sandinista leader Humberto Ortega touched on this in a speech at the Federation of Cuban Women’s Third Congress, Havana, on March 8, 1980, when he praised contemporary Nicaraguan women who, "as our victory approached, wanted to produce more children so there would be more combatants for the cause." Unfortunately, this skewed interpretation is all too common among revolutionaries. Rather than focusing on an early example of women organizing against slavery, Ortega applauded their putting their reproductive powers at the service of a cause that largely ignores their reality. He failed to grasp how social change must address women’s condition if it is to mean real justice for all people.
The feminist priority in 1977The Sandinista National Liberation Front, founded in 1961, suffered early and debilitating military defeats in 1963. All but annihilated in the mountains, it turned its attention to political education among the various social sectors, and it was during this period that the first attempts to organize women were made. [Feminist poet] Michele Najlis describes the first "national meeting" of the Patriotic Alliance of Nicaraguan Women (APMN):
"Our gatherings in those days were clandestine and didn’t happen all that often because women had to arrange to leave their children with family members, brave their terror of the dictator’s repressive methods, and brave their husbands’ threats as well. The first great national meeting took place in Juigalpa, in 1969. Present were Gladys Báez and two women who had come from Managua. Three of us, that’s all; no one else showed up! Gladys insisted on going ahead with the proceedings, because she said that if we didn’t we’d get demoralized. I remember that we entered this large hall, and Gladys walked to the podium and proceeded to give one of the most beautiful political speeches I’ve ever heard: filled with an unshakable faith in the future. She took her time. And slowly, very clearly, she told us that this was a memorable day in the history of the women’s movement, because it was the first time we women had assembled to talk about our problems, our limitations, the discrimination we suffered, and our future liberation."
When Najlis speaks of the women assembling for the first time, that is a relative truth. Of course these women did meet, strategize and make on-the-spot decisions, and their coming together under such adverse conditions was noteworthy. But the Alliance, like AMPRONAC and AMNLAE in years to come, was still part of an overall plan of struggle and ultimately responded to the FSLN’s top-level, all-male leadership.
By 1977, the revolutionary struggle had become irreversible. The Somoza dictatorship, in its desperate attempt to control a population that was everywhere becoming involved, declared a state of siege. It was then that the FSLN, in the Association of Women Facing the Nation’s Problems (AMPRONAC), finally succeeded in organizing women across lines of class, age and activity. Again, APRONAC was an organization conceived of by a mostly male leadership, and responsible to it. One of the things that women involved in AMPRONAC often said was that in Nicaragua getting rid of the dictatorship had become a feminist issue—at the time, the most urgent of them all.
AMNLAE and its prioritiesWomen had occupied various positions in Sandino’s own campaign—messenger, communications, and even one internationalist from El Salvador who led one of the guerrilla columns. General Sandino himself devoted much of a 1933 interview to the involvement and heroism of those women who, he noted, came from every social class. There is no evidence that any of those women held a formal rank in Sandino’s "crazy little army," but their participation was nevertheless outstanding for the era. The last years of the war [against Somoza], however, saw a number of extraordinary women taking leadership roles and successfully carrying out tasks unheard of to that point in the history of women’s revolutionary participation. There isn’t a book big enough for the full history and heroism of Nicaraguan women.
Once the dictatorship had been toppled, male leaders of the FSLN, the most enlightened of whom had only vaguely questioned gender roles, set about to reorganize society. One of the National Reconstruction Government’s first decrees, one month after victory, prohibited the objectivization of women in commercial advertising. Women were ecstatic (the decree would remain in effect throughout the decade and beyond, although it would become less and less enforced). Other decrees addressed issues of equality or protection. But when workers, neighbors, farm workers, youth, children, artists, professional people, women and others created the unions and associations through which they would channel their contribution to revolutionary change and better their own lives, it was essentially a male-dominated vision that turned AMPRONAC into AMNLAE, the new women’s association.
Despite affirmations by women and others that the level of female incorporation within the Sandinista process was irreversible, and despite early protests that women would never return to subservient positions in the home, traditional gender relations did remain and resurface during those ten extraordinary years. They had never really been challenged, at least not radically enough to have permitted qualitative change.
One important reason for this failure was the inability of Nicaraguan women as well as of their vanguard party to develop a truly autonomous feminist movement. The history of the Luisa Amanda Espinosa Nicaraguan Women’s Association (AMNLAE), which took its name from the first woman believed to have died in the revolutionary struggle, offers important lessons in this respect. AMNLAE grew rapidly. Its line was clear: Building the New Nation We Give Birth to a New Woman. The theory of women’s social insertion popular in Latin America at the time was alive and well in the concept AMNLAE had of its priority task: integrating women into the overall revolutionary process as a way of bringing about the desired changes in their social condition. During its first two years, AMNLAE put all of its energies into mobilizing women for the most urgent tasks of reconstruction—and then, increasingly, for defense. Women were encouraged to take part in the literacy crusade and to join the voluntary militia. They gravitated toward such areas as education, preventive medicine and the equitable distribution of basic necessities. A number of women’s agricultural projects sprang up. As a response to the obvious phasing out of women in the armed forces, disappointed and rebellious soldiers in some parts of the country organized all-female battalions. Market women began struggling for their rights. In a very few pilot projects, prostitutes were learning other trades. And the mostly female domestic service sector organized around such demands as the ten-hour day. AMNLAE supported all these efforts, and often demanded of the women what we are supposed to do so well: voluntary work. Our time is "more flexible" because we can juggle our own eighteen- to twenty-hour workdays. Most of our labor is unpaid, so we are less likely to be subject to the rigors of a formal schedule. When we are excited about participating in a project we believe will better our lives and the lives of our children, we will ask relatives or friends to pick up a child from school or stay with young ones in the evenings. AMNLAE capitalized on this penchant for volunteer work so many women share and its massive mobilizations counted on the traditional female response—in the name of a revolution that had promised to change women’s lives as it made life better for everyone.
Marginalized as feministsAMNLAE’s development defined its constituency. The kinds of issues it began to address and the types of activities it sponsored largely attracted homemakers, market women and, to a lesser degree, teachers and nurses. The mothers and wives of Sandinista soldiers gravitated toward the organization because of the support it offered them with their sons and husbands away at the front. Peasant women became members in significant numbers, but many women workers were more likely to try to get their demands met through union participation.
Professional women, more open to feminist ideas and generally more sophisticated, wanted to begin to deal with the sexism that is so much a part of the Latin American social fabric. AMNLAE wasn’t feminist enough for these women. Some, in fact, did try to bring a more woman-centered vision to the association but were marginalized as early as May 1980, accused of being what they were: feminists.
It lacked a feminist perspectiveA major problem for the association was the fact that women’s issues, at least in the beginning, were somehow considered secondary, outranked by the struggles surrounding the economy and defense. A feminist analysis might have explained how women and women’s rights fit into an overall strategy for change. As it was, such analysis was not accepted—in fact it was vilified—during the Sandinista administration.
Women’s issues and the needs of the revolution were too often placed in opposition to one another. Education, public health projects, job training, voluntary work, protective legislation and attention to families of combatants took precedence, while gender-specific issues—such as battery, rape and abortion rights—were overlooked or disdained. Anything that resembled the demands being made by women in the developed countries was automatically dismissed as "feminist."
Feminism remained "something foreign," an "imported fad" that would divide women from men, instead of being seen as an analysis necessary to the revolution’s overall health and, in fact, its survival. And since the 1980s would be marked by an intensification of the United States’ many-pronged attempt to undermine and destroy the Sandinista revolution, peace and economic stability were priorities. For many, juggling political interests in this context included refraining from angering the Catholic hierarchy, even when that meant relinquishing the struggle for freedom of choice, or the struggle against domestic violence, or abandoning other so-called women’s issues.
Throughout the Sandinista administration, AMNLAE led a number of vigorous campaigns for legislation beneficial to women and children. Responsible paternity was established, at least by law, and an Office of Family Protection was set up where abandoned mothers could go to get financial help from the fathers of their offspring. If the father held a job, and had a salary that could be attached, this was often productive. Free union was recognized for a series of women’s rights. The Adoption Laws eliminated the easy buying and selling of children that had existed in the past. A new Family Code eliminated the concept of illegitimacy; and it recognized women’s unpaid labor by requiring that men give financial support to their wives and children in cases of separation.
Some of these laws were more successful than others, in that they proved practicable besides looking good on paper. But these and others like them generated tremendous, at times virulent discussion. Where male dominance was most threatened, charges such as "destroying the family" or "endangering the unity of the people" were most loudly heard. The very real rigors of war, as well as increased economic crisis, made the arguments ever more complex.
From association to movementAMNLAE’s early inquiries showed that many women didn’t really understand why a separate association was necessary. Why join an all-women’s organization, they asked, when we already belong to our neighborhood defense committee, a union or the party itself? The ideological framework for such an understanding just wasn’t there; not on the part of the general female population, and not among Sandinista leaders—at least not remotely with unanimity.
Its leaders had originally conceived of the association as a women’s mass organization, a vehicle for channeling women’s efforts in support of the revolutionary project as well as for meeting their most pressing sectoral needs. But since the women’s organization proved incapable of doing the one thing uniquely within its province—that is, going to battle for women around gender-specific issues—AMNLAE became less and less important in women’s lives. It began to lose meaning for many revolutionary women who felt their sectoral needs reflected in more immediate and practical ways in their labor or professional organizations or in the party itself.
After a couple of years in which increasing consciousness of these failings developed, AMNLAE engaged in some serious questioning of its direction and methodology. In December 1981, after almost a year of reevaluation, the association decided to cease operating as a mass organization and articulate itself as a movement. But many of the strongest women—those who were models of feminist leadership, whether or not they choose to speak in such terms—had already begun to put their energies elsewhere.
War and women suddenly don’t mixIn Nicaragua, as in other places, world capital began to launch its offensive against the Sandinista revolution even before its rise to power. The onslaught was ferocious and many-pronged. As the eighties advanced, the very real problems of the Contra war demanded creative strategies, innovative tactics. David continued to fight a powerful Goliath. In this context, it also became easier and easier for an essentially misogynist FSLN leadership to disregard pleas for feminist analysis.
As the Contra war heated up, more and more troops were needed for defense. Women, who during the war had made up one-third of the Sandinista army, were gradually relieved of duty—or relegated to non-combat positions. By 1982 there were only two mixed battalions, but women never accounted for more than 10 percent of their members. Nevertheless, women flocked to the voluntary militia in great numbers.
In March 1983, the FSLN proposed an obligatory draft law to the Council of State. AMNLAE was governed by the FSLN, but on this occasion the association’s members voted differently, perhaps for the only time. Some members of AMNLAE felt that discriminating against women’s incorporation into the military could lead to other sorts of discrimination, that it would set a negative precedent for the liberation they sought. The party argued that, objectively speaking, women were still responsible for home and children: the government hadn’t been able to create the day-care centers and other services needed to alleviate this burden. The FSLN, of course, had its way, and only men were subject to the obligatory draft.
Into the vacuum created by AMNLAE’s failure (and thus the FSLN’s) to develop a feminist agenda stepped the organized Right with its propaganda—always rooted in traditions that are more familiar and so, when unquestioned, seem more comfortable for the great majority of women. It is often easier to retreat into a known space than to risk the social pressures and marginalization of uncharted terrain. Statistics on women’s voting patterns in both the 1984 and the 1990 election show that the Sandinistas were ultimately incapable of successfully organizing women to a position that did, in fact, offer them freer lives.
Freud’s horror and the traumas of warIn Trauma and Recovery: The Aftermath of Violence—from Domestic Abuse to Political Terror (NY: Harper Collins, 1992), Judith Lewis Herman makes essential connections between the private (women’s) and the public (political) spheres. It is a groundbreaking contribution to our understanding of how patriarchy harms women and men in similar ways, and how society’s interest in why and how this happens follows cyclical patterns of inquiry and retreat from inquiry. She shows how society has periodically pulled back from examining and attempting to deal with the reality of violence against women precisely because doing this would mean challenging its own patriarchal model. Similarly, so-called experts have resisted examining what we once termed "shell shock," because that meant questioning male virtues of virility, manliness and honor.
Like scholars before her, Herman examines Freud’s discovery of incest and other childhood abuse or domestic violence against women. She reviews his great contribution and subsequent renunciation of his findings, pointing out that "the late nineteenth-century studies of hysteria foundered on the question of sexual trauma. At the time of these investigations, there was no awareness that violence is a routine part of women’s sexual and domestic lives. Freud glimpsed this truth and retreated in horror."
Then she makes the connection that proves so important when looking at Nicaragua: "For most of the twentieth century," she notes, "it was the study of combat veterans that led to the development of a body of knowledge about traumatic disorders. Not until the women’s liberation movement of the 1970s was it recognized that the most common post-traumatic disorders are those not of men in war but of women in civilian life."
Speaking of the United States in the seventies, Herman shows how "[only] the moral legitimacy of the antiwar movement and the national experience of defeat in a discredited war [that of Vietnam]...made it possible to recognize psychological trauma as a lasting and inevitable legacy of war. In 1980, for the first time, the characteristic syndrome of psychological trauma became a ‘real’ diagnosis. In that year the American Psychiatric Association included in its official manual of mental disorders a new category, called ‘post-traumatic stress disorder.’ The clinical features of this disorder were congruent with [those that Freud and others] had outlined...."
Empowered survivorsNicaraguan women have, in fact, been severely victimized by the phenomena of both women abuse and wartime traumas. On the one hand, like women everywhere, they have long been weighted down by a legacy of domestic violence. In this respect, Nicaraguan women may not be so different from their sisters elsewhere. But in Nicaragua, women’s domestic situation is compounded by years of political repression. Nicaraguan women, as we have seen, also suffered from the equally stress-producing symptoms usually reserved for men who have been forced to endure prolonged combat situations. During the Somoza dictatorship, repression achieved an intensity that saturated the population—with a special brutality aimed at women. During the war of liberation, untold horror was the order of the day. The initial years of the Sandinista administration freed people’s psyches, but certainly not for long, nor radically enough to reduce significantly the level of collective stress. Almost immediately, economic pressure from the United States and the Contra war combined to renew tensions. The 1990 electoral loss brought with it—for the Sandinistas especially—an identity crisis still very much to be contended with.
But Nicaraguan women, despite these pressures and perhaps in some strange way because of their unrelenting intensity, have reacted in ways not seen before. And because the vast majority of Nicaraguan feminists have come to their feminism through years of political struggle, the other side of this reality may be that when they tell their stories and listen to each other, they are together able to move through an amazing spectrum of consciousness, healing and vision—with impressive speed and extraordinary potential for clarity.
Paradoxically, since the electoral loss, revolutionary women have been able to break the binds of allegiance to male-oriented party politics. In an economy in shambles, with a conservative government in office, and amid a generalized depression that has seriously threatened everyone’s sense of self, Nicaraguan women are getting together, questioning absolutely everything, developing new ways of looking at their reality, and organizing to change what is wrong.
Herman insists that "the first principle of recovery is the empowerment of the survivor." A community in which collective empowerment is the goal not only nurtures recovery but encourages a philosophical breakthrough as well. Many of us, from our own lives, know this to be true. What greater empowerment than that experienced by these Nicaraguan sisters of ours—who have so far survived dictatorship, war, victory, defeat and the continued capacity to re-vision their reality?
We are only now beginning to understandIn patriarchal society, where every familial, educational, cultural and social factor conspires to keep women subservient, what elements make it possible for a woman who wants to fulfill her potential to carve a whole life? What role models, mentors, cultural or ideological factors or accidents of fate help lift and point her in the right direction? What key moments may make the difference between a woman giving up and rising up?
In periods of social calm, change comes slowly. In the whirlwind of struggle, human interaction is like a film in fast-forward mode; we move more urgently, love harder, risk and overcome more passionately. We believe or hope that the best we achieve will survive.
This is about the ways in which power positions itself with regard to gender, the ways in which successive generations of women have claimed our space or been forced to retreat and regroup. Since 1989-90, when so many experiments in social change began to crumble around the world, this reclamation and regrouping has been much on my mind.
I have come to believe that the failure of revolutionary movements to listen to all social groups, analyze their potential and assure their full agency has been in great part responsible for the inability of these movements to remain in power. The enemy from without was certainly overwhelming. But the enemy from within contributed to revolutionary demise in ways we are only now beginning to understand.
How might the Sandinista revolution have developed if it had critically examined its power structure as well as its economics? If the FSLN had been able to question patriarchy, incorporate women and representatives of other social groups into decision-making positions (instead of simply "acting on their behalf") and constructed a truly democratic relationship between leadership and rank-and-file, Nicaragua might have a people’s government in power today. Because everywhere women are approximately half the population, but surely for other reasons as well, gender equity should concern us all.
Community of women: Today, when I ask myself what elements are needed for women to begin to throw off centuries of patriarchal constructs, community is the first that comes to mind. History is enhanced with the names of unique women who have been able to act beyond the restrictions of their time and place. But for groups of women to break through male control, we need one another. And only groups of women effect lasting social change.
We need each other
At the beginning, the FSLN was a community that facilitated women’s skill and courage, but it was also a community that demanded silence. Party discipline required an allegiance that precluded frank discussion of restraints on women’s independence.
Other communities also cradled and facilitated women’s potential for change: the Christian base communities, the communities created by women working together in education and health, women’s sections in the unions and among the farm workers, and the overall community propitiated by the inhabitants of a small country coming together in exuberance and hope.
Would I say that the FSLN was a community that nurtured the coming to consciousness of Nicaraguan women? Absolutely. The women in my book unanimously affirm this. Throughout the history of the organization and the national liberation struggle it so courageously waged, women, with their Spanish Catholic heritage of chastity and submission, came out to their own potential in an arena of public struggle, acted with dignity and courage, claimed a place for themselves in history. Nothing can erase these gains. But the organization missed a historic opportunity, and women outgrew the organization. The FSLN proved itself incapable of considering women as whole human beings. At key moments its leadership simply refused to subject its male privilege to the scrutiny that might have helped keep it in power. The women of AMNLAE also proved incapable of cutting the cord that prevented autonomy. Still, it would be incorrect to underestimate the liberating effect that Sandinismo had on generations of women.
Ignored, used and abusedIn the nineteenth century, the great exponents of revolution recognized that women’s condition in a given society reflected that society’s level of overall progress. Yet no movement for social change, then or since, has taken it upon itself to fully explore the issue of power: who holds it, how it is used and abused and what consequences result not only for those groups over which it is being wielded but for the health of society as a whole. We know that he who restricts the humanity of another, diminishes his own. But we don’t seem able to extrapolate from that simple truth an analysis that would advocate for deep and lasting change.
In the early nineties, I published Gathering Rage: The Failure of Twentieth Century Revolutions to Develop a Feminist Agenda. The book was a critique of male-dominated "politics as usual" even, or especially, on the Left. I was disappointed that in both the Cuban and Nicaraguan experiences, two revolutions I knew intimately and deeply respected, fear of responsible gender analysis continued to limit social progress.
The root issue of power with regard to gender, race, ethnicity, or even class/class privilege was never explored by the FSLN in any meaningful way. What this means is that the male-controlled revolutionary movement, like others before it, was willing to work to make women’s lives better, but not to share power with women, and even less to embark on a gender analysis of society or seriously consider power as a political category to be studied.
From the highest male leadership on down, the women were ignored, used, often abused. Women complained, but because of their long conditioning generally ended up complying. The men continued to exert the control and domination that has been the basis of gender relations for so long. To do so, they didn’t have to sit around a table designing a conspiracy against the women; their actions were simply the logical result of an androcentric vision of what social change should look like. Official discourse belied this. Many women themselves saw the sexism they lived with as anomalous, or something that couldn’t be changed, rather than as the underlying epidemic it is.
The new feminist movementIn Nicaragua, the outcome of the 1990 elections changed everything. In times of political retreat, of course, social pressure always pushes many women back into traditional roles. Politics has nothing to do with my life, they will say when indeed it has shown itself not to. Many women, whose identities once depended heavily on membership in the FSLN, have abandoned party politics; others have left to become part of new party configurations; still others continue to try to change their organization from within.
Paradoxically, since the electoral loss, revolutionary women have been able to break the binds of allegiance to male-oriented party politics. Many of the strongest and most feminist Sandinista women had for years faced problems when they challenged the male power structure. Although it would be unfair not to recognize that a number of women tried to make their voices heard before the electoral defeat, they, as members of a revolutionary party, were bound by a discipline that permitted little if any revelation of grievances. Once their party was voted out of power, however, there was less reason for such unexamined loyalty. In the subsequent collective attempt to understand what went wrong, in the private and public discussions that raged, women were able to speak more freely about the abuses they had suffered in silence.
Ironically, although Violeta Chamorro’s 1990 electoral victory effectively put an end to the formality of the revolution, the women’s movement blossomed in its wake. In an economy in shambles, with a conservative government in office, and amid a generalized depression that has seriously threatened everyone’s sense of self, Sandinista women recapacitated from the electoral loss more effectively than their brothers. Nicaraguan women are getting together, questioning absolutely everything, developing new ways of looking at their reality and organizing to change what is wrong.
A powerful independent feminist movement exploded on the scene, the result of a tremendous unleashing of women’s energy, previously dedicated to the cause of the revolution and winning the war. Now they would dedicate this energy to addressing their own needs and interests. Nicaraguan feminists, tired of trying to get AMNLAE to understand and respect their positions, created an independent, broad-based, cross-class and internationally connected movement that currently boasts a number of research and education foundations, several excellent publications and a guerrilla-like networking system. Most of the women involved consider themselves Sandinistas, but they feel it is time to discard the male leadership that has so overwhelmingly refused to address their concerns. Touching upon, influencing and being influenced in turn by other important struggles—such as the movements for ethnic autonomy, against racial discrimination and for gay rights—feminism in Nicaragua offers a particularly exciting panorama.
The lesbian movement in Nicaragua is both feminist and revolutionary, a combination that sets it apart from similar movements in the industrialized countries. It also functions in close coordination with the gay male movement and with sisters and brothers who identify themselves as bisexuals.
Less organization, more networkingOrganizationally, the new feminists remain intentionally amorphous. Some hoped that a new organization might get off the ground, but others, still wary of traditional organizational forms, have resisted such a move.
In January 1992, after more than a year of preparation, Nicaragua’s independent feminists hosted a gathering of women in Managua. The organizers expected an attendance of three hundred but more than eight hundred showed up. The theme was "United in Diversity." The women attending the event were indeed diverse: working women, professionals, feminists and those who had never heard the term, Miskito and other indigenous women from the Atlantic Coast, peasants, students, religious sisters, teenagers, grandmothers, Sandinistas and representatives from the nation’s extreme Right. Open discussion and effective democracy characterized the event. Organizers urged consensus rather than resorting to coercion disguised as expediency. The meeting produced a great number of initiatives, chief among them a series of networks in which women could work together around issues of education, sexuality, violence against women and the economy.
Ties are strong with feminist groups in Latin America and other parts of the world, and there is ample evidence that Nicaraguan feminists are engaged in their own profound analysis of their history, their recent past, and the ways in which patriarchy continues to distort their perceptions of the world.
NGOs with feminist principlesToday women are talking to one another and taking action throughout Nicaragua, Central America, Latin America and globally. Women working together are also creating solutions to overall social problems. In Nicaragua, beginning during the Chamorro government and continuing under the even more reactionary Alemán regime, this leadership has been organized to a large extent by the series of NGOs that have taken over where the Sandinista government projects have been closed down. These address issues of public health, AIDS education and outreach, violence against women, education for a healthy sexuality, among others. Many of these NGOs work on feminist principles.
When Hurricane Mitch devastated so much of Nicaragua in October of 1998, women immediately organized to support those most in need. They led the effort to challenge and confront the Alemán government’s paternalism and corruption. In some of the hardest hit areas, women are rebuilding damaged houses, building new ones, and putting these in their names: a move to assure their and their children’s welfare. (Men have traditionally held property titles in Nicaragua, often leaving a wife and set of children literally homeless when entering a new relationship and moving the new woman into his house, or when a woman decides to leave her battering husband.)
Feminists clearly saw how the tremendous devastation wrought by Hurricane Mitch could be turned into an opportunity to put into place reconstruction and development policies and programs that put people before profits, policies based on the strengthening of civil society and the integration of ecological and infrastructural concerns, politics, economics, social and cultural values and human resources.
The leadership of the Civilian Coordinator for Emergency Reconstruction, a coalition representing more than 300 groups and nongovernmental organizations all over the country that was formed immediately after the hurricane, includes several feminists. The CCER policy statement presented before the international donor community as an alternative to the government’s official reconstruction proposal puts people at the center of social and economic development. Feminists played an important role in assuring that the document integrated not only a gender perspective, but an overall perspective of diversity with equity, so that the particular needs and priorities of women, children, young people, ethnic and geographical minorities and people with disabilities would be integral to the prioritization of reconstruction of the rural communities most affected by the disaster.
What is striking about the CCER document is that it reflects, possibly for the first time, a broad consensus that development should be people-centered, and that different groups of people have different needs and priorities that must be taken into account to achieve real development and true equality. It is a positive sign that this policy statement has received widespread support from international aid agencies and foreign governments alike, and is now considered by many to be a kind of blueprint for rebuilding and transforming the country.
Like the 1992 gathering, this policy statement showed the FSLN, the general public and women especially that Nicaraguan feminism is to be reckoned with; that it is not an import or a fad, but an indigenous movement reflecting the urgent needs of diverse women.