Their numbers and ideas multiplied with the return of exiles from Europe and North America when some political ‘opening’ began.
They began to provide legal aid, counseling, and education to torture victims, women’s groups and also the broader opposition. Finally, there were associations of poor urban women who were forced to respond to the removal of state benefits and subsidies and to the lack of basic services. They were the worst sufferers of austerity measures of the governments. They set up communal kitchens, infant feeding centres, and neighbourhood workshops and attracted support from international agencies and the church. It was the question of economic survival that shaped the social agenda of women’s movement and crucially gave it a mass base. In Chile, the military government had thought of women as dedicated to abnegation and service and therefore its ‘natural’ allies.
Its grand women’s organisations had set out to build discipline and civil allegiance. But increasing destitution and repression encouraged a different kind of participation. The church fostered community struggles, the left organised neighbourhood associations, and the existing network of mothers’ centres were turned to the opposition’s own purposes. The result was an explosion of female organisation with more than thousand Popular Economic Organisations in Greater Santiago by 1985. The women’s groups were distinguished by their capacity to act in unity and to mobilise independently of the political parties.
It was witnessed in the massive demonstration of Women for Life in December 1983. Such a mobilisation gave women a high profile during the democratic transition. At the moment of the plebiscite, a Women’s Command coordinated the attempts of party activists to reach Women voters; and for the first time, the campaign projected women’s issues into the struggles of society. Despite the traditionally conservative pattern of female voting in Chile, 52 per cent of women voted against the prolongation of the Pinochet regime.
In Brazil too, the church had urged women to join community struggles, left wing parties had placed female militants on the urban periphery to mobilise, and the military itself allowed women the leeway to organise because it did not view them as ‘political’ and therefore ‘subversive’. As the regime liberalised, the women’s mobilisation grew. In Argentina, on the other hand, the church had given tacit support to the military, the left was decimated in the ‘dirty wars’ and women’s militancy was reduced to and concentrated in the human rights organisations which explain both their high profile and their isolation. But even in Argentina, housewive’s movements spread across the urban periphery during the latter months of 1982 and at the time of transition, each of the political parties rushed to constitute its own women’s front in order to win women’s vote. Raul Alfonsin’s Radical Civil Union took the Madres’ slogan ‘We are Life’, as the leitmotif of its own campaign, and its success was partly owing to the women’s overwhelming support.
Women’s mobilisation may serve as a litmus test for the fate of social movements following democratic transitions. In Argentina, the human rights groups were disappointed by the failure to pursue the perpetrators of ‘dirty wars’; and the creation of a National Women’s Agency in the Ministry of Social Security was widely seen as a palliative measure. More positively, the Argentina version of protested marital was modified, divorce was legalized, child-care facilities were extended, contraception was made available, and domestic violence against women became a widely debated public issue. But political party leaders in power or in opposition did not fulfill the campaign promises, and women’s political careers were largely confined to government programs like the National Food Programme and the National Literacy Campaign.
Overall, women failed to achieve a higher profile in political society in the transition or include the wider gender agenda in the post-transition democratic regimes. In Brazil, a National Council on Women’s Rights was established following the transition of 1985, but very few women were elected to parliaments at federal or state levels; women’s demands found only a faint reflection in the 1988 Constitution, and overall women’s mobilisation decline. In a typical trajectory for social movements when faced with electoral political and political party completion for power women were removed from decision-making arenas during the presidency of Jose Sarney where male-dominate party and interest group politics took over; and as women’s groups also changed tactics to pressure group politics, they increasingly courted cooptation and division. The popular mass-based women’s movement in Chile also ran increased risks of cooptation in the run-up to the 1989 elections. But, here the risk of cooptation came from the well-entrenched political parties rather than the state apparatus. The male-dominated parties set up women’s sections that were mere appendices of the power structure, and so the principles adhesion to sexual equality was never put into practice. Very few women were elected in the first elections of the transition and thus had no significant place in either legislature or executive.
It is therefore not surprising that in Uruguay, where the movement had nothing like the impetus achieved in Chile and Brazil, not one woman was elected to the national legislature in 1985. In sum, it must be concluded that, despite some important policy changes, the political representation of women has not improved substantially with the advent of democracy. Nowhere did women’s mobilisation has secured greater power or institutionalized participation of an enduring kind in the consolidated democracies as in Latin America. But such are precisely the gains and limitations of social movements and the civil society.