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La Educación
Número: (116) III
Año: 1993

Anti-Authoritarian Practices in the Family

The basic unit of solidarity in Latin American societies is the extended family (Lomnitz 1984). This network of parents, brothers, children, and cousins provides support for services that range from childcare to loans. While this dense configuration of close relations permits women—from all social classes—to operate with much needed help, a negative side effect is that it also mounts a structure of supervision and control, ultimately in the hands of male authority.

The involvement of women in groups of social resistance and survival has produced affective and less hierarchical spaces, creating new forms of group and personal identity (Kirkwood 1986; Arteaga 1988).

Schmukler presents some preliminary evidence from a study of women in peripheral neighborhoods of Buenos Aires that women who have transformed their family relations are able to transfer their autonomy and sense of efficacy to experiences outside the home and to defend these gains openly. This transference typically led women to develop collective actions with other women (Schmukler, forthcoming). Feedback loop effects by which relations within the family had repercussions outside the family resulted in such changes as the participation of women in neighborhood committees, basic needs mobilizations, and the human rights demonstrations; these changes in turn allowed women to gain authority within the household. Schmukler reports that in their homes, “women strengthened their authority in relation to the biological fathers or separated from authoritarian and violent partners and created female- headed households”  (forthcoming, 19).   Citing anecdotal evidence from women leaders in the community dining halls and mothers who participated in the “glass of milk” (for children) program in Peru, Barrig (1992, 24) reports these women modified their relations with their spouses and showed signs of higher self-esteem.

The emerging transformed identity of women has also increasingly resulted in their gaining the collaboration of men. There is substantial evidence from Argentina, Peru, Chile, and Brazil that men oppose the community participation of wives when it does not have a clear link to survival strategies. Yet, it is also the case that the husbands of the women leaders are showing new supportive behaviors, as these women are successfully renegotiating household authority (Schmukler 1992).

Today, there are feminist actions at the regional level in Latin America seeking legislation allowing abortion, permitting the use of contraceptives, and illegalizing forced sterilization. There have been many campaigns to bring to public awareness the reality of private and public practices of violence against women. In all, the trends toward an increased politicization of the woman and the family are clear.

As a result of women’s community participation, family groups are developing more egalitarian gender practices and modernizing their conception of femininity and masculinity (Schmukler, forthcoming). Women’s self-esteem and efficacy is behind the new norms. “They became more aware of what times were beneficial to be silent or to speak at home. They started to control their speech, to find convenient moments to speak and convenient times to be silent” (Schmukler, forthcoming, 25). In addition, women are challenging the right of husbands to assign hierarchical positions among the children, to decide who is right and who is wrong, to determine the rules of children’s behavior, and to define types of reward and punishment for important aspects of children’s behaviors.

The varied changes have resulted in some degree of freedom for women from cultural assumptions of domesticity and isolation.

Democratization of the family is also calling for a more flexible sexual division of labor, changes in gender patterns of child rearing, a more egalitarian balance of authority between the father and the mother, and greater participation of women and girls in the economy and community due to changes in gender representation of the family group (Schmukler, forthcoming).

Other observers are less certain of the changes in democratization of Latin America as long as there is a dichotomous view of gender by which women are seen in a role of sacralized motherhood and men endorse machismo as the natural right to domination. Thus, Wasserspring (1992) affirms that women:
May manipulate their traditional gender identity to confront the state, but part and parcel of this traditional identity is a sanctification of authority that is, at rock bottom, the obstacle to real democracy in Latin America. The very sanctity of motherhood that they invoke means that the mothers, whatever their goals, are operating on the same principle of the adulation of authority that has plagued every aspect of both civil society and state structure in Latin America. It is probable for this reason that it is so hard to categorize the mothers’ groups from the perspective of contemporary feminist discourse. Their actions are courageous and awe-inspiring. But they do not challenge traditional concepts of gender, the prerogatives of male authority, or the existence of gender inequalities. (10)
An opposite view is presented by Elshtain, a North American feminist who links maternal politics to the creation of an “ethical polity,” where women’s “life-world of intense personalization and immediacy” leads to a “politics of compassion” (1981, 34). This view is somewhat extreme in that it claims a politics completely unique to women thereby invoking some innate characteristics.

We do need further research to explore to what extent women’s mediations between poor families and local governments have allowed the poor population, both men and women, to participate more fully in the definition of needs, management and resources, and decisionmaking within public social services. Research is needed to learn whether women’s integration in neighborhood associations has helped to expand the agendas of those organizations so as to include environmental, health and other survival needs of poor families not usually emphasized in male-oriented programs (Schmukler, forthcoming).

An increasing condition of women in popular sectors is their role as heads of household. In some instances, it indicates that women are the main income earners for their families; often, that there is no father or adult male figure permanently attached to the household. The phenomenon of women-headed households requires more qualitative modes of data collection than those produced by the census; thus, knowledge about these households is limited. ECLA statistics for 1982 indicate that between 17 and 37 percent of the families in five Latin American cities were led by women.3 How this new role of women is affecting the transformation or reproduction of authoritarian patterns in the family merits further study.