Thinking gender from the global South

I have gradually become convinced that there is a profound problem in the way gender theory is usually done. Mainstream gender theory that circulates in the English-speaking world, from de Beauvoir to Butler, is mainly written out of the social experience of the global North, and pays very little attention to the intellectual production of the global South.  Yet the South is where most of the people live. This post gives two examples of theoretical work that ought to get a lot more attention.  There are many more.

Teresita de Barbieri
The first example is a paper published twenty years ago in the Revista Interamericana de Sociologia by the Mexican sociologist Teresita de Barbieri, ‘On the category “gender”: a theoretical-methodological introduction’. 

This paper starts with feminist movements and their ‘hypothesis’ that the subordination of women is a question of power, not nature. After reviewing a number of feminist thinkers from the metropole, de Barbieri sets out a line of analysis centering on social control over women’s reproductive power, and men’s assertion of their rights over offspring.

This commits her to a relational view of gender, though one in which biological capacities are at stake – it is not a disembodied or purely discursive view.  De Barbieri sees the relationship between the cultural figures of the mother and the male head of household as the nucleus of gender relations in Latin American societies. 

But she does not have a binary view of gender.  Indeed she emphasises the significance of the family life cycle that gives a different social position to post-menopausal women.  Drawing on Brazilian black feminist thought, she explores the interaction of gender with race and class in a stratified society.  She further complicates the gender order by laying stress on relations between men – an issue that was only then beginning to enter Anglophone gender theory.  De Barbieri also lays emphasis on relations between women who find themselves in different class positions, such as the relations around domestic service.

While recognizing the dichotomy of mother vs head of household, de Barbieri goes beyond it to explore the turbulence of social interests arising in the gender order. She instances the cases of men who support feminism, and women who support patriarchy.

In explicit critique of the simplifications of metropolitan gender analysis, she locates gender relations in the context of the Latin American debt crisis, and the impact of global restructuring on the popular classes.

The result is a sophisticated, structurally complex picture of the gender order; at least as diversified - arguably more – than the ‘intersectional’ model that was emerging in the metropole at the time this paper was published.

Sonia Montecino
My second example is a paper by the Chilean cultural analyst Sonia Montecino, called ‘Identities and diversities in Chile’, published about ten years ago.  Montecino is the author of a well-known book Madres y Huachos (fourth edition 2007), that explores the colonial re-making of culture across Latin America and the ideology of ‘marianismo’ that came out of it.

This cultural formation constructs women’s identity on the model of the sacrifical mother, especially the mother of sons.  In the essay ‘Identities and diversities’, contributed to a collection on culture and development, Montecino argues that in a society influenced by a powerful ideology of homogeneity it is difficult to draw out differences.

But differences do emerge, in acts of resistance and reappropriation, and there are in fact multiple feminine identities.  The subject is in process, not fixed.  Montecino traces the dynamics through economic statistics, attitude surveys and cultural materials.

The incorporation of paid work in women’s lives – which happened earlier in the working class than in the middle class - ruptures the ideology of marianismo.  Women’s emergence into the public realm sharpens issues about subordination, so the form of gender politics shifts.  Among the privileged, where much reproductive labour – housework and child care – is handed off to working-class women, an older pattern of feminine labour allows the modernization of gender relations among the elite.  Social fissures open up in gender ideology.  Yet a generic image of women as mothers persists.

In a broader perspective, Montecino argues, gender identities in Latin America are formed in the same way as class identities, i.e. within projects of social change.  It is important then to see the collective identities being formed in different women’s movements. 

This too is a complex story.  Feminist movements, from the time of suffrage struggles on, have emphasised equality and sex differences.  Survival movements among indigenous women assume the existing gender division of labour that feminist movements contest.  Mothers’ movements (which became famous under the dictatorships) struggle for sons’ lives and for human rights.  While feminist movements struggle for change in identities and for women to move into men’s spheres of action, mothers’ movements use the cultural legitimacy given by old identities.

Women’s activism against the dictatorships led to the adoption of some feminist demands by mainstream political institutions.  But the political Right was given ground for opposing changes in women’s lives because they led to immorality and social breakdown.

The net effect, in Montecino’s view, is that real changes in women’s position have occurred, notably better education, smaller families, and more paid employment.  But public politics is still dominated by men on the assumption that women are domestic.  A ‘conservative modernity’ she suggests, is well expressed in the realm of gender identity.

(A few years after this paper was published, Chilean voters elected their first woman president.  At the end of Michelle Bachelet’s term, they elected another man, the most conservative leader since the dictatorship.)

These are two highly sophisticated texts.  They make substantial but critical use of theory from the global metropole, and they use ideas, as well as data, from the global periphery.  They are broadly materialist but not dogmatically so.  They have a strong sense of the interplay of gender relations with class, and a strong sense of the specificities of Latin America.  They treat the subjectivity of actors in a context of social structure and dynamics, not just discursively constructed identities.

Something for Anglophone gender researchers to ponder!

Barbieri, Teresita de. 1992. Sobre la categoria genero. Una introduccion teorico-metodologica. Revista Interamericana de Sociologia 6: 147-178.

Montecino, Sonia. 2001. 'Identidades y diversidades en Chile', pp. 65-98 in Cultura y desarollo en Chile, edited by Manuel Antonio Garretón. Santiago: Andres Bello.

Back to Top