Woman Power


Since its inception, the MMTR (Rural Women Workers’ Movement) has
undergone a major transformation in terms of its agenda and political perspective. While
still firmly rooted in an analysis that stresses the place of the working class in global
capitalism, the movement has come to work more specifically with the social and cultural
aspects of gender inequality in Brazil.
By Lynn Stephen

Political and cultural context can be extremely important in shaping the content of
women’s movements and ultimately encouraging their autonomy. One of the most impressive
regional movements of rural women is found in southern Brazil in the state of Rio Grande
do Sul. The Movimento de Mulheres Trabalhadoras Rurais (MMTR, Rural Women Workers’
Movement), begun in 1989, grew out of women’s activism in landrecovery movements, antidam
movements, labor unions, and Churchbased organizations. By 1992 the movement had over
thirty thousand members and was functioning in more than 110 counties. It has an active
local leadership of about five hundred, making it one of the strongest regional women’s
movements in Brazil, and outstanding in the Americas. The movement’s agenda has moved from
procuring equal working conditions and benefits for rural women to reproductive health
rights, domestic violence, representation of women in the political system, and general
women’s rights. Here we will try to understand the important factors that resulted in the
MMTR having an agenda that ultimately challenged gender hierarchy and allowed issues such
as abortion and women’s sexuality to be taken up in a movement that was initially
nourished by the Catholic Church.

Four key points will be explored to clarify the evolution of this organization and its
varied meanings to its base members and leadership:

1. The MMTR of southern Brazil has its roots in a strong opposition organized
in rural labor unions and in the landless movement with ties to the Partido dos
Trabalhadores (PT, Workers’ Party). These movements share a strong ideology that
emphasizes confronting the state and organizing the rural working class.

2. Leaders of the MMTR had significant and consistent contact with activists
from similar movements throughout Brazil. They also worked consistently with staff from
NGOs who were familiar with feminism and who encouraged them to broaden their
organizational agenda to change oppressive gender roles.

3. During their involvement in other movements, leaders of the MMTR were
marginalized. Having analyzed their experience, they have deliberately built an
organizational model and structure that will not leave out the women they are trying to

4. The MMTR emerged as an autonomous women’s movement that related to but was
no longer dictated to by other regional movements, including those of the landless, the
rural labor unions, and the Church.

Before we discuss the specific history of the MMTR, its emergence will be related to
the gendered political economy of southern Brazil.

Economic Development and the Gendered Division of Labor in Southern Brazil

After the 1964 military coup in Brazil, the agricultural sector was reoriented to serve
as a market for agrochemicals and machinery produced in the prioritized industrial sector.
It was also supposed to produce export crops that would help reduce Brazil’s foreign debt
(Spindel 1987: 5253). A largescale credit program provided subsidized credits and fiscal
incentives to landed power holders while the military’s national security program managed
agrarian conflicts (Grzybowski 1990: 2021). Most assessments of Brazil’s agricultural
modernization program find that it has exacerbated socioeconomic inequalities. The
subsidized credit was unequal and was used primarily by those who already had land to
acquire still more land. Land prices rose 2,000 percent between 1971 and 1977 (Martine
1983, cited in Spindel 1987: 53). By 1985, the .09 percent of the agricultural enterprises
in Brazil that had 1,000 hectares or more controlled 44 percent of the land. The 53
percent of the agricultural enterprises that had less than 10 hectares accounted for 2.7
percent of the total land (Grzybowski 1990: 21).

In the southern part of Brazil, the economy followed these same general trends, with
the notable exception of the preservation of a small but significant group of peasant
households, which have been able to become part of the capitalized smallholder sector. The
remainder have become landless and/or migrated elsewhere, primarily to the Amazonian
region. Beginning in the late 1950s, the agricultural economy of the state of Rio Grande
do Sul changed significantly. As in much of the south, the rich, fertile landscape of the
southern part of Rio Grande do Sul was gradually consolidated into larger farms;
mechanized production of soybeans and wheat pushed out smallscale subsistence agriculture.

In Rio Grande do Sul, land fragmentation brought about by inheritance, continued
colonization, and population growth has resulted in a significant landless population. It
is estimated that in all of Brazil there are over 10 million landless or nearly landless
people (Grzybowski 1990: 21). Other estimates place this figure as high as 24 million
(McManus and Schlabach 1991: 174). By 1989, 26,466 peasants in Rio Grande do Sul were
reported to be involved in land conflicts, more than in any of Brazil’s other states (Quinzena
1990: 8; Brooke 1990). The state is home to one of the largest landless movements in
the country, the Movimento dos Trabalhadores Rurais Sem Terra (MST, Landless Rural
Workers’ Movement).

In those parts of Rio Grande do Sul that were not suitable for large-scale, mechanized
agriculture, smallholders were able to hang onto their land and some were even able to
mechanize, purchasing small tractors and other machinery that allowed them to make the
transition to capitalized agriculture. It was not in capital’s interest to completely
destroy the smallholder sector, which still provides 70 percent of basic foodstuff
production in addition to raw materials for agroindustry. Smallholders have been
integrated into the process of agroindustry, and although this allows smallholders to
survive, it is highly exploitative of family labor and makes small producers dependent on
agroindustry (Spindel 1987: 54). The hilly, northern part of the state has retained a
significant population of smallholders. It also contains a young generation of landless
people, some of whom have joined the MST in occupying former ranches and creating new
communities in such locations as Anonni, Nova Ronda Alta, and Cruz Alta. These different
landholding patterns and levels of political activism are associated with varying patterns
of gender relations at home.

While little has been written on household decisionmaking among smallholders in rural
Brazil, activists and feminists have a different assessment than that of some rural
sociologists. In a discussion of family decisionmaking, the sociologist Mauro William
Barbosa de Almeida states that the Brazilian peasant family is relatively democratic
(1986: 71, 77) and that his findings support Santos’ suggestion (1978: 32) that "`the
fact that the peasant family is a collective enterprise implies many times that decisions
about labor allocation are communal,’ indicating that peasant women also participate in
work decisions." Almeida states that it is illusory to look for social inequality
within the peasant household; in his own experience, he says, the authoritarian
declarations of male heads of household do not correspond to the practical reality (1986:
71). My research and the experience of MMTR activists suggests otherwise. Household
decisionmaking is not necessarily democratic, and as women become politicized domestic
conflict increases between men and women.

Smallholder women at various levels of the MMTR stated that household decisionmaking is
generally dominated by men. Men usually hold the title to land as well. Literature from
the MMTR as well as that from other rural women’s unions in Brazil demand equal
decisionmaking power in the household and the right to hold land titles. Discussions and
roleplaying skits I observed in local meetings of the MMTR, however, revealed that gender
roles in household decisionmaking and the titling of land, machinery, and houses to women
varied by ethnic group. Women of Italian, Polish, and German descent stated that men
dominated household decisionmaking and that only sons inherited land and agricultural
machinery. Women of PortugueseBrazilian descent stated that they had received land from
their parents and felt they had a more equal say in household decisionmaking.

The gendered division of labor within land occupations and settlements is different
from that of smallholder households. In the case of land occupations which have turned
into new settlements, the prolonged process of political struggle, the active physical
presence of women in land occupations and confrontations with the police and army, and an
emphasis on collective production have changed some aspects of the gendered division of
labor. In many settlements, there is an emphasis on collective production, reciprocal work
relations, and property sharing. Women work directly in agricultural production, and
specific economic projects (e.g., milking coops, craft production, vegetable farming) have
been created for women. Decisionmaking with respect to production is done by consensus
among those who work together in the group. Production groups often include men and women.
In some MST settlements, entire families (including children) attend community meetings
where productive activities are discussed. In general, maledirected households no longer
appear to be the norm. In some settlements, though, women are still struggling to be named
with men as having use rights in collective land and to be included in community meetings.

The Gendered Politics
of Grassroots Movements
in Southern Brazil

The decade of the 1980s was an important one in the political history of Brazil. A
resurgence of grassroots social movements resulted in significant challenges to the status
quo of government. The depth and breadth of the change in Brazil via the creation of a
network of social movement organizations, many aligned with the opposition Workers’ Party,
provided a base for the fomentation of new rural women’s organizations.

In the state of Rio Grande do Sul, the late 1970s and 1980s saw the rise of a variety
of grassroots social movements that openly confronted the state with demands for land,
resources, and political recognition. The MST, founded in the early 1980s, occupied
abandoned ranches and then pressured the government to legalize their claim to the land
and legitimize their resettled communities. Rural workers who had belonged to official
state unions began to join the rural branch of the CUT labor federation (Central Única
dos Trabalhadores), formed in the mid1980s as part of Brazil’s new unionism. An antidam
movement mobilized those who were displaced by largescale flooding to lobby the government
electricity commission (ELETROSUL), take over their buildings, and demand the right to
participate in future regional planning (see Marcondes de Moraes 1994; Z. Navarro 1994).
Finally, the liberation theology branch of the Catholic Church continued the work begun in
the 1960s and 1970s, organizing people in rural communities into neighborhood committees
that demanded economic justice and engaged in selfhelp projects. The previous work of the
Church had provided foundations and support for many of the movements that took off in the
1980s. The emergence of these movements coincided with the rise of the Workers’ Party in
1979, and the broadening discourse of that party appealed "to workers not only on the
basis of their workplace and union experience, but also on the basis of their involvement
in a broad spectrum of social organizations in poor neighborhoods" (Keck 1992: 25).

"New unionism" gained strength and unions such as the Central Workers’
Organization (CUT) began recruiting programs to challenge statecontrolled labor unions. In
Rio Grande do Sul, CUT was rather successful in broadening its membership in the agrarian
sector during the mid1980s. Traditionally, in statecontrolled and opposition unions, women
were not included as members on the principle that they were dependents of male heads of
household. Because female agricultural wageworkers are uncommon among the smallholder and
landless sectors organized by unions (both statecontrolled and opposition), women were
simply not viewed as workers. This was reinforced by existing social welfare policy as

Wageworkers officially registered with FUNRURAL (Brazilian Rural Social Welfare System)
receive a pension equal to 75 percent of the prevailing wage upon retirement for reasons
of age or disability. Because only one household member is entitled to retire for old age,
the only way that rural women can benefit from this provision is if they are official
heads of household or registered as wage workers (Spindel 1987:57). Because female wage
laborers are rare in the smallholder and landless sectors, women are effectively denied
the right to a pension. Maternity leave is extended only to those who are registered as
wageworkers, as are maternity benefits. National laws that were supposed to help rural
female wageworkers who were active in the commercialized sector ended up discriminating
against smallholder and landless women. Their productive work, critical to household
income, was not counted as work. Changing these discriminatory laws was the basis for
beginning to incorporate women into opposition rural unions. It also required making
women’s productive work visible.

At the base of these social movements in Rio Grande do Sul was an identification of the
struggles for land, economic justice, and political recognition as workingclass struggles.
These movements also presented themselves as clearly opposing the state and as forming
part of a new political process that would open up the political system to the
disenfranchised (see Z. Navarro 1992).

Political theorists have often noted the complexity of social movements with respect to
how they may be differently perceived by movement leaders and the base membership (Fox and
Hernández 1989). For example, as Zander Navarro (1992: 21) notes, differences in
production in rural areas of Rio Grande do Sul created a wide array of interests and
demands that opposition rural unions were not prepared for. There is no homogeneous class
identity among the group of individuals that both the CUT and the MMTR call "rural
workers." The membership of the MMTR includes smallholders, landless women, and a few
women from households with larger holdings. Leaders of the MMTR include women from
smallholder as well as landless families. This complexity supports the notion that global
capitalism creates a broad spectrum of possible social identities (Hall 1995).

As part of their organizing strategies, movements such as the MST and the rural CUT
deliberately recruited women and set up special committees and organizational structures
for them within each movement. The rural department of CUT followed the example of FETAG
(Federation of Agricultural Workers), a state branch of the official CONTAG (Confederation
of Agricultural Workers). FETAG was the first group to mobilize women around a recognition
of the economic contributions of rural women, procuring rights and services already
available to urban women workers and demanding access to healthcare.

Women were also critical in the land occupations and organization of new settlements by
the MST during the 1980s and in the antidam movement. Activists who recall early
occupations such as at Encruzilhada Natalino in 1981 and 1982 constantly reiterate the
important role of women. MST literature of the mid1980s also emphasized the role of women
in the struggle for land. An MST document from 1986 reads: "We will fight for a just
and equal society… reinforcing the fight for land, including the participation of all
rural workers, and stimulating the participation of women at all levels" (cited and
trans. in Z. Navarro 1992: 29).

This is not unlike the strategy of creating women’s organizations within revolutionary
parties, as in Cuba, Nicaragua, El Salvador, and elsewhere. Some of the political leaders
of the MST worked in Cuba and received a political education that clearly emphasized
including women in the political process. This is no guarantee, however, that women’s
demands will be taken seriously. The reason why formal attention to women’s rights in
Brazil resulted in some concrete changes is clearly linked to the presence of a strong
women’s movement. In Brazil, a wide variety of grassroots women’s organizations emerged in
the 1970s and 1980s as part of the largest, most diverse, and perhaps most successful
women’s movement in Latin America (see Alvarez 1990). The creation of many state entities
devoted to women’s issues (e.g., State Councils on the Status of Women) as well as a
National Council on Women’s Rights also raised the profile of women’s oppression in
Brazil, at least in the 1980s. Some of the stateorganized initiatives to address women’s
issues later stagnated and became lower priorities for subsequent governments. The
existence of a strong and diverse women’s movement and of state entities devoted to
women’s rights provided an important legitimating context for the MMTR and other rural
women’s organizations that sought to specifically address women’s concerns in the late

Perhaps the most important legacy of the women’s movements of Brazil in the 1970s and
1980s was the creation of a national array of such nongovernmental organizations as Rede
Mulher (Women’s Network), which persisted through time and provided ongoing support and
training to women in a variety of organizations and movements. Sônia Alvarez, Evelina
Dagnino, and Arturo Escobar discuss the importance of networks and webs as a means of
conveying the intricacy of the manifold connections "established among movement
organizations, individual participants and other actors in civil and political society and
the State" ( 1996: 25 ). In Brazil, women’s movements as well as other movements are
clearly linked through steadily growing networks which may not be visible to conventional
students of social movements who rely on a large public presence to document the ongoing
existence of movements and organizations.

The liberation theology branch of the Brazilian Catholic Church has emphasized some
women’s issues as well. The Pastoral Land Commission (CPT) of the Catholic Church, closely
linked to the MST, organized women and young people into groups and encouraged their
participation in resolving issues of landlessness, production, and family. While the
Church’s discourse on the participation of women in political and community activities was
quite strong, it emphasized traditional roles for women. The following passage is from a
book by the Pastoral Commission of Poor Women which was used in mothers’ clubs in several
communities of Rio Grande do Sul:

The pages of this book offer a small example of what poor women can do when they are
united and organized in their communities…. Women who fight for land for crops and for
housing. Women who build community ovens to guarantee bread for the unemployed. Women who
build nurseries to confront the problem of abandoned children. Women who organize teams to
sew quilts to keep the sick warm. These activities and others are coming from communities
and are signs of the reign of god in action. A new woman is being born… She is a
community woman. (Pastoral da Mulher Pobre 1988: 8)

Although the book also provides instructions for how to confront the police and set
free those who have been jailed for illegal land occupations, a majority of the proposed
activities for women work well within prescribed gender roles and do not question
traditional family structures in which males are the primary decisionmakers. This
ideology, coupled with the reluctance of the Church to deal with women’s health
(specifically, family planning and abortion), ultimately resulted in a major distancing of
women activists from the Church.

The Rise of the MMTR

Rural women in Rio Grande do Sul were organized in a variety of movements during the
mid1980s but continued to lack their own leadership within these movements. Many had
participated in large mobilizations within their specific organizations, such as the
largescale land occupations of the MST or the shortterm mobilizations of women coordinated
by temporary coalitions. In 1985, ten thousand women gathered in Porto Alegre for the
First State Meeting of Rural Women Workers, organized by FETAG and the CPT. In 1987, rural
women from Rio Grande do Sul participated in a caravan to Brasília of twelve thousand
strong in order to secure the constitutional rights of rural women workers. They joined a
large number of grassroots organizations which were determined to have a say in revising
the Constitution after the movement to hold direct presidential elections was defeated.
Participating in the rewriting of the Constitution was seen as critical to the effort to
democratize Brazil. The caravan was preceded by many local and regional preparatory
meetings that drew as many as a thousand women, as did the preparatory meeting in Ronda
Alta. It was thus evident that rural women could be mobilized by rural unions and the
Church, but these mobilizations did not result in locally based organizing projects that
specifically addressed the needs of rural women.

Some women who rose to leadership positions within the MST, the antidam movement, and
the rural unions felt frustrated by their inability to have their genderspecific demands
considered important. In interviews, they recalled being told that if they joined in the
struggle for rural workers, then the problems of women would be solved as well. Some
remembered realizing in the mid1980s that they were developing a different set of concerns
from those within CUT, the Church, the MST, and the antidam movement. The MMTR leader
Gessi Bonês reflects on this issue:

We started to talk about other issues like women’s health, sexuality, and our bodies
that were not taken up by these movements. There wasn’t any room to discuss these
issues…. [T]hey were always considered secondary: the price of agricultural products,
occupying land, [and] the dams were more concrete things. They were economic demands that
got people involved. These were seen as the important issues.

Others simply recalled feeling that it was hard to participate in meetings of any kind
because of the limitations at home. Isabel, a thirtyfiveyear-old smallholder member of a
local MMTR committee, remembers:

It was hard to go to meetings because I didn’t have anyone to take care of my
children. If my husband went to a meeting and I wanted to go too, then there was no one to
be at home with the children.

In order to move forward with issues that were genderspecific, a group of women from a
largely CPTbased organization called the Organização das Mulheres da Roça (Organization
of Country Women) began a discussion with other women about the possibility of forming an
autonomous movement for rural women workers. In 1988 a temporary council was formed by CPT
women and others who had been active in the MST and CUT. They then engaged in a series of
discussions and meetings with people from all the regional social movements of Rio Grande
do Sul. There was significant resistance to the formation of an autonomous women’s
movement, including resistance from some of the regional leaders. Many people, men and
women alike, felt that women should be organized as part of existing movements that were
focused around labor and class issues. The faction that was arguing for an autonomous
movement finally convinced the others, and in August 1989 the MMTR was created in a
statewide meeting. The understanding of many men who agreed to the creation of the
movement was that it was to be a training ground for preparing women to participate better
in other movements.

Part of the initial organizing of the MMTR involved a distancing from the Church.
Before 1989 they had been receiving technical assistance and advice from the Church,
particularly in some regions. The MMTR leadership was also significantly influenced by
training and support they received from two women activists from CAMP (Centro de
Assessoria Multiprofissional, Center for Multiprofessional Advising), an NGO that supports
regional social movements. It is based in the city of Porto Alegre. CAMP organizers urged
the young leadership of the MMTR to deal openly with issues of women’s health, sexuality,
unequal work roles at home, and general discrimination. Fabiana, a twentyeightyearold CAMP
organizer who has worked with the MMTR for several years, commented on the change in
emphasis by the MMTR:

I remember when I first got the document that was the basis for their formation as
an autonomous movement…. I felt that this document had a much bigger emphasis on
questions of production, work, or economy than it did on discrimination against women.
This was when the movement was really deciding if it was part of the labor movement, part
of the Church, or a women’s movement…. A lot of women in the leadership were listening
to a critique of just focusing on production and felt that the movement should begin to
pay attention to questions that no other movement looked at, such as questions of
sexuality, women’s bodies, and discrimination…. We distinctly felt that the movement
should be autonomous and treat questions that were specific to women.

Ultimately, the leadership of the MMTR chose CAMP and their organizers to be their
primary advisors and trainers. This move immediately put them into contact with other
rural women’s movements such as the fivestate coalition they belong to. Through their
association with NGOs like CAMP and the fivestate coalition, the MMTR leadership quickly
became linked to the wider Brazilian women’s movement and readily exposed to the ideas of
popular feminism associated with such organizations as Rede Mulher in São Paulo.

When it began in 1989, the MMTR was active in eighty counties; it had about fifteen
thousand women participating in its activities and a leadership of about five hundred.
Many of the local leaders had been active in their communities through the Catholic
Church, CUT, the antidam movement, or the landless movement. About 80 percent of the
participants were from smallholder households, and 19 percent were landless; a small
minority of 1 percent were landless salaried workers in small businesses. The elected
leadership represents about the same class proportions. The original focus of the movement
was on women’s health paid maternity and retirement benefits equal to those of urban
workers, recognition of rural women’s labor as work, and the integration of women into
unions and cooperatives (MMTR 1992: 5).

Since its inception, the MMTR has undergone a major transformation in terms of its
agenda and political perspective. While still firmly rooted in an analysis that stresses
the place of the working class (even though it has a clear multiclass base) in global
capitalism, the movement has come to work more specifically with the social and cultural
aspects of gender inequality in Brazil. By 1992, MMTR literature envisioned:

an autonomous movement where women themselves propose, discuss, and decide their own
course of action. This autonomy allows women to make the transformation of women’s
position a priority in their work and practical decisionmaking. We see ourselves as having
a complementary relationship to other movements…. The advances we have made (since 1989)
have resulted in… the examination of new questions such as the functioning of our
bodies, sexuality, production and reproduction…. These themes led us to… a new
ideology, equal socialization for men and women: enfin, new relationships between
men and women. (MMTR 1992:5)

The 1992 platform discussed by the MMTR at their second statewide assembly directly
questions gender inequality and calls for fundamental changes in gendered culture and
social life. These more abstract themes were important, but difficult to operationalize.
They also caused tension with male leaders in other movements who criticized the MMTR for
not contributing to the economic struggles they were engaged in. At the same time, the
MMTR became increasingly active in a fivestate coalition of rural women’s movements,
including movements from the states of Paraná, São Paulo, Santa Catarina, and Mato
Grosso do Sul.

During 1993 and 1994, the MMTR concentrated heavily on women’s health benefits, in part
to have a concrete campaign to mobilize their base and in part because obtaining paid
maternity leave for rural women (it already existed for urban women workers) had become
the major project of the fivestate coalition they participated in. In August and September
of 1993, 120 women from the MMTR went to Brasília and participated in a lobbying campaign
to pressure federal representatives and senators to approve paid maternity leave (MMTR
1994a: 3). The campaign also included an effort to establish the Single Health System
(SUS, Sistema Único de Saúde) which would provide general healthcare for rural women and
make familyplanning methods available at the local level. In addition to occupying the
Senate balconies as it debated the issue, women sent hundreds of telegrams and letters
supporting paid maternity leave and urging that it be available to rural women workers
(AIMTRSul 1994: 16). Legislation for implementing four months of paid maternity leave
through the National Social Security Institute (INSS) was finally approved by the
President in July 1994.

During 1994 the MMTR continued its broad program of obtaining further rights for rural
women workers in the area of health and childcare, and held workshops on nonsexist
education, abortion, sterilization, and violence against women. They also worked on issues
of internal democratization and tried to strengthen their links with other rural movements
such as the MST, CUT, and other women’s movements. Finally, they identified the
relationship between gender and class as an ongoing practical and theoretical puzzle that
needed more work, specifically raising the question, "When does gender supersede
class?" (MMTR 1994b).

In October 1995, the MMTR and the fivestate coalition took part in a national meeting
that included rural women workers from seventeen states in Brazil. At the meeting, they
formed a national coalition of rural women workers’ movements to coordinate their work.
They declared "the urgency of being conscious of the fundamental intersections of
class and gender not only in relation to the construction of new gender relations, but
also for the creation of a democratic society." Furthermore, they stated, an
integrated gender and class consciousness can provide a countermodel to "the current
authoritarian and macho practices of many workingclass organizations" (Carta às
trabalhadoras rurais do Brasil 1995). They vowed to continue their struggle to
recognize the full range of rights for rural working women and to intensify their action
at all levels of society. On March 8, 1996, International Women’s Day, they led a
coordinated set of debates, presentations, protests, and public rallies throughout Brazil.

At the end of six years of organizing in 1995, the MMTR could point to several concrete
victories they had helped win for rural women: guaranteed rights to retirement benefits,
to disability leave and pay, and to paid maternity leave. They also connected their
statewide movement to a national coalition and helped make the labor of rural women
workers visible to the state. Making that labor visible to women themselves and to members
of other rural social movements is the ongoing work of the MMTR.

In 1995, the movement could point to activities in over 110 counties in the state of
Rio Grande do Sul and to a base membership of from thirty thousand to thirtyfive thousand
women. They established a statewide leadership structure with ten regional
councils—in Sananduva, Erechim, Três Passos, Cruz Alta, Dr. Maurício Cardoso, Roque
Gonzalez, Sarandi, Cachoeira do Sul, Júlio de Castilhos, and Torres. They have a
statewide office in Passo Fundo. Each regional council is in turn made up of local
councils with ten to seventy women in each. Local councils elect leaders who then come
together at the regional level to elect two or three regional leaders who represent their
region in the statewide directorate. In 1995 twentythree regional leaders made up the
statewide directorate. Thus, all leaders at local, regional, and state level are elected.

The statewide directorate is made up of women from a variety of class, ethnic, and
educational backgrounds. Some are longtime activists, and others are women who first
became active in their local councils. In relation to other social movements in the
region, the MMTR is the only one that has continued to grow and strengthen into the 1990s
(see Z. Navarro 1994).

Dueling Discourses:
Christ, Class, and Gender

As seen in the political history of the MMTR, women’s organizing is tied to a specific
set of political discourses and ideologies surrounding its inception and growth. These
discourses have provided both constraints and resources for women as they fashioned their
struggles at home and within their respective organizations. The competing discourses on
class and feminism that the leadership of the MMTR were exposed to (as well as their own
experience of marginalization within the leftist movements they were part of) resulted in
overt ideological contradictions. The leaders of the MMTR confronted these contradictions
and, in the process of organizing, created a new ideology that prioritized gender concerns
as they related to a multiclass female population. This new ideology was also informed by
the dailylife experiences of women in local communities.

An interview with MMTR participants about the document they created as the basis for
organizing an autonomous women’s movement reveals the source of their original ideological
framework. Twentyfive-yearold Gessi Bonês states:

In the beginning, our companheiros imagined that the movement would depend on
the unions and other existing organizations for its structure and that it would remain
subordinate to these organizations. We didn’t have any resources at the beginning and no
new ideas to work with. As a matter of fact, the first document we created was simply
copied from CUT documents…. This also helped to reassure the men that we were not going
to break from existing movements.

Thus, the founding document of the MMTR was in fact just a reformulation of CUT
documents that focused on how to organize women of the rural working class. Indeed, the
importance of class as a category was built right into the name of the organization as a
movement of trabalhadoras rurais, or rural workers. This was a deliberate and
marked difference from one of the MMTR’s predecessor groups, a group that designated mulheres
da roça, or country women.

An examination of MMTR documents from 1989 through the present reveals a consistent
concern with class as a category, but also a reworking of class to include gendered
concerns and women’s issues. The evolution of the organization reveals a consistent effort
to look at the interconnections between class, gender, and culture. The 1989 document that
formed the basis for the formal incorporation of the MMTR as a movement was loaded with
references to the working class. Discussion questions included the following:

How should we be participating in the workers’ struggle? How do we guarantee women’s
participation in other movements? (MMTR 1989: 8)

How do we organize our women’s movement so that we won’t be controlled by the
bourgeoisie? (MMTR 1989: 12)

A working document one year later continues to identify women as part of the
workingclass struggle, but focuses more specifically on questioning the power relations
within some of the institutions women work in. Discussion questions include these:

What kinds of discrimination against women do we find in the family, in unions, and
in political parties?

How do we overcome different kinds of discrimination? (MMTR 1990a: 11)

Discrimination against women in the left, in the Church, and at home was also the
subject of a 1990 bulletin published by the movement. Says Mariza Scariot, a participant
in a local council who is interviewed in the bulletin:

I think that a majority of women suffer from discrimination. One of the most
concrete forms of discrimination can be seen in the different kinds of education found in
the family, where women are taught only to cook and to take care of children. This kind of
work doesn’t earn money, so it isn’t valued. (MMTR 1990b:6)

Interviews with movement participants in local councils revealed a similar perspective
when women reflected on the socialization of many of the smallholder and landless women
who make up the base of the movement. Elenice, a twenty sevenyearold smallholder states:

Women were socialized from the beginning with the idea that they are in charge of
the children and the man has no responsibility…. It’s a cultural question. It’s hard for
women to realize that we are discriminated against…. I know women who have had fifteen
children and never knew what it meant to have a sexual relationship or to feel pleasure in
a relationship. They get married with the idea that it is their duty to reproduce
people… have children. The Church reinforces this idea, even today.

Domestic violence and issues of female sexuality have also become part of the MMTR’s
organizing agenda, categorized as issues of reproduction. According to the elected
statewide leadership of the MMTR, a focus on issues of sexuality, domestic violence, and
women’s health was a threepart process.

First of all, through contact with sociologists, psychologists, and other
instructorfacilitators in national meetings and local workshops, elected regional leaders
of the MMTR began to consider the gendered relationships that men and women have both at
home and in their organizations. Thus, in 1989, the MMTR joined a fivestate coalition that
included rural women’s movements from the states of Rio Grande do Sul, Mato Grosso,
Paraná, São Paulo, and Santa Catarina. This coalition had annual workshops and meetings
that included representatives of NGOs and women’s organizations from other parts of
Brazil. Activities of the coalition were the first training ground for the MMTR regional

Second, these regional leaders would educate local leaders, using videotapes, role
playing, and discussion. The local leaders would in turn disseminate information and
training through local councils. One particularly popular video, a tool for examining
gender relations in the home, was titled Acorda, Raimundo [Wake Up, Raimundo]. In
it, a workingclass couple wakes up one morning to find that they have switched roles. The
wife goes off to work in a factory, stays out drinking, demands dinner, and ignores the
husband. He stays at home all day with the children, washing, cooking, and waiting for the
wife to return. In the end, the whole scenario turns out to be a dream, and life goes on
as usual with husband and wife playing their traditional roles. The video was quite
successful in generating discussion among women in a humorous manner.

Finally, local leaders would organize activities with women in their communities in
order to discuss topics that women had expressed interest in, sometimes using tools like
the Acorda, Raimundo video. Popular topics among local discussion groups were
childbirth and pregnancy, problems between husbands and wives, and women’s health.

Beginning in the 1990s, sexuality and reproductive and maternal health gained
prominence in the movement’s literature. The training manual from one workshop, done by a
sexologist from Rio de Janeiro, included the following questions:

When are women unable to fulfill themselves sexually?

When is there sexual violence in a relationship?

Why do women have to stay home while their husbands leave to participate in political
struggles? (AAMTRES 1990: 11)

At the same time, the training manual talked about sexuality in relation to four
classes of women—dominant class (mulheres dos patrões), peasant women and
rural workers (camponesas e trabalhadoras rurais), working class (operárias), and
modern middle class (classe média moderna)—thus continuing to link gender
issues with class (AAMTRES 1990).

These workshops and later meetings also included discussions of sterilization, birth
control, and abortion. While Mulheres da Roça, one of the MMTR’s parent groups associated
with the Catholic Church’s CPT had an explicit stance against abortion and divorce,
beginning in 1990 and 1991 the MMTR began to deal more openly with these issues under the
guise of maternal health. Abortion had been discussed openly, in relation to women’s
health, by the National Commission on the Question of Women Workers of CUT in 1988. Some
women from the MMTR were present at that discussion. The 1992 working document for the
second statewide meeting of the MMTR follows the CUT initiative, stating:

Within the question of women’s health, we also see thousands of women searching for
any form of contraception who are subjected to sterilization…. Today nationally, 27
percent of women of fertile age are sterilized…. Another issue of relevance to a lack of
healthcare for women is the fact that Brazil has the seventhhighest level of deaths from
clandestine abortions in the world. (MMTR 1992: 3)

A 1994 document from the fivestate coalition dodges the issue of abortion in a lengthy
discussion of maternal health, focusing instead on the more flexible notion of
"family planning." Specific recommendations about family planning are made
cautiously, signaling the continued difficulties and divisions among women as to just what
"reproductive control" means:

We understand that it is important, beginning now, to fight for the introduction of
family planning that respects the cultural and economic differences of each region, always
defending the preservation of life.

Public authorities are responsible for creating conditions so that men and women have
access to contraceptive methods and information. (AIMTRSul 1994: 14)

Introducing "family planning" while "preserving life" leaves it
ambiguous whose life is being preserved—that of the mother, the fetus, or both. The
ambiguous language no doubt allows those with different positions on abortion to work
together in a broader effort to support women’s health.

While the MMTR’s elected leaders are clear that they are not endorsing abortion, they
see it as an important issue to discuss. Says Gessi Bonês:

Our discussion is just that. It’s not a question of the movement saying that we are
in favor of abortion. In our understanding, abortion is a question that should be
discussed today as part of women’s health. People should know the consequences and causes
of abortion. 

Activists such as Gessi take this position publicly while privately indicating that
they do support a woman’s right to abortion. Some other women within the MMTR, however,
are strongly opposed to abortion. They are willing to talk about abortion because of their
opposition to it, but they realize this is a point of disagreement among women within the

Discussion and consideration of the abortion issue by the MMTR obviously reflects a
major distancing from the Catholic Church by the movement’s leadership and some members.
It also reveals the continued influence of the Catholic Church’s proscription of abortion
in that it is such a divisive issue. While MMTR members acknowledge some of the positive
results of working with the Church—such as a strong commitment to the participation
of all base members of the organization in decisionmaking and discussion—they also
blame the Church for some of the most difficult problems women face. Marlene, an elected
regional representative from Erechim in 1990, reflects on this:

I can say openly that the Church has a great deal of responsibility for those years
in which women were dominated…. Today we work in the area of family planning, which is a
question the Church also dealt with…. The Church had a big effect on people that you can
see when you work with women on religious questions, and there are people who grew up
believing that you never question anything a priest or nun tells you…. [B]ut today, even
at the base level, people are questioning what the Church taught.

Marlene and others acknowledge that their current organizing strategy is bound to
result in conflict not only with the Church but also with political parties, unions,
families, and society at large as they begin to seriously question inequalities in gender
roles. A key ingredient in this questioning has been their ongoing contact with the ideas
of "popular feminism" disseminated through NGOs.

The reception of popular feminism by MMTR participants varies significantly. Some women
from local committees I interviewed were uncomfortable calling themselves feminists. A
typical response to the question "What do you think of popular feminism?" was
the following, from twentyfiveyearold Lucinha, a landless married mother of two who has
participated in a local MMTR committee for two years:

I don’t really know what that means. We are all working with men. In my community we
are working to make women’s lives better. Getting our husbands and children to help us
more, learning about our bodies this is what we are working on.

Many MMTR leaders are also reluctant to call themselves feminists, yet because of their
exposure to the language of feminism their speech is peppered with such terms as
"gender," "production and reproduction," and "women’s
oppression." A 1994 document outlining the future work plans of the MMTR identified
the interconnected relationships between "gender," "production," and
"reproduction" as key. In the document there is a diagram with arrows
connecting the three terms in a circular fashion. At the local level, such issues are
discussed in terms of "how I get treated by my husband and children," "how
I have more work responsibilities than my husband at home," and "feeling like
things aren’t fair for women." What seems to be working is that the issues the
organization has focused on are very real in the lives of women in the communities. They
are eager to talk about them and to make some changes in their daily lives.

Excerpted from Women and Social Movements in Latin America by Lynn Stephen,
University of Texas Press, Austin, 1997, 332 pp.

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