by Romina Akemi
On May 8, 2017 the LA-based feminist collective Intersectionality NOW organized an event at the Women’s Center for Creative Work titled Feminists Against Capitalism. The panel participants included Miranda Sklaroff from the Democratic Socialists of America (DSA) Left Caucus, Solîn Bendewa who is an editor for the social media platform The Middle Eastern Feminist, Romina Akemi for the Black Rose Anarchist Federation, and was moderated by Karlynne Ejercito from the Jacobin Reading Group. Sklaroff spoke in detail about a paper she recently co-wrote about Universal Basic Income (UBI), as a possible strategic demand for feminists. Bendewa discussed their organizing experience with Serve the People in East LA. Below is the talk script by Romina Akemi who is an educator and anarchist feminist militant in LA and Santiago, Chile.
“Feminists Against Capitalism” Panel
Event organized by Intersectionality NOW
At the Women’s Center for Creative Work
May 8, 2017
I want to begin by thanking Intersectionality NOW for coordinating this event and the Women’s Center in Highland Park for providing the forum for this discussion. I am also honored to be asked to speak on the subject on why we need to have a working class perspective in our feminism. I realized recently that I have devoted a great part of my life organizing among working class women, mostly garment workers, and been active in revolutionary circles, but have never been asked to speak on this question.
In the last several years, we have seen feminism grow in the public dialogue, focusing on sexual assault cases and attempts to hold perpetrators accountable. Most cases were exposed by high school and university students, which is not surprising for two reasons. First, high school and college campuses have been a foci of feminist and queer activism, confronting instances of rape culture and heteronormativity in their institutional environment. Second, statistics demonstrate that the majority of social media users are women, under 30 with college education who have an income of over $75,000. This is not to say that poorer men and women with non-formal education do not participate in social media because they do, but their voice is less dominant. In consequence, there tends to be an imbalance in the public discourse about how to implement feminism or the recognition of many feminisms. Furthermore, this is further perpetuated by the idea that class is not considered a social barrier in US society, even though social mobility has declined; or as an accurately titled article by The Atlantic stated, “Poor at 20, Poor for Life.”
Social class is a determining factor in both the rate and how women experience gender violence and femicide. While college campuses have received much of the attention, statistically a woman is more likely to be sexually assaulted if she or they are poor. According to a study that used data by the Department of Justice’s “National Crime Victimization Survey”, it stated that 6.1 per 1,000 college students are sexually assaulted, while 8 per 1,000 of non-college educated women are assaulted. This means that working class women have a 30 percent greater probability of being assaulted. The study goes on to say, “Women in the lowest income bracket, with annual household incomes of less than $7,500, are sexually victimized at 3.7 times the rate of women with household incomes of $35,000 to $49,999, and at about six times the rate of women in the highest income bracket (households earning $75,000 or more annually). Homeownership is another example of how economic advantage serves to protect women from sexual violence. Woman living in rented properties are sexually victimized at 3.2 times the rate of women living in homes that they or a family member own…Single women with children living in the home have the highest rate of sexual victimization.” Another study about farmworkers in California states that between 80-90 percent of women farmworkers reported sexual violence by a foreman or co-worker. If you include femicide in this analysis, you will find that Native American women who live on reservations and poor Black women are the most vulnerable. If you include profession, sex workers – in particular trans sex workers – are murdered at higher rates. Even how women experience and understand their assault is associated with class. According to one researcher who interviewed women from different social classes, they noted that middle class women described surprise that they were assaulted, while working class women tended to rationalize those experiences as expected. Class and race also weighs heavily in how institutional power treats victims of assault and femicide. This is not meant to pit college victims against working-class survivors, but in order to confront the normalization of patriarchal violence in our homes, in the streets, and in our workplaces, feminists need to develop discourse and demands that reflect the realities of those who are the most affected. This will also highlight the type of feminism we are fighting for.
In the last several years, the term white feminism has been used to critique white supremacy and, at times, used tangentially to highlight classism, transphobia, and US exceptionalism. However, someone can also be conscious of said oppressions and opposed to racism, heteronormativity, and injustices produced by class society, and still support capitalism as a natural order of human social organization which is what we call liberalism. The term, I am saying, is not enough to highlight our disagreements with Ivanka Trump and Sophia Amoruso (self-proclaimed Bossgirl) feminisms. Even though people are aware that celebrities accumulate enormous wealth and are active participants in the dissemination of cultural imperialism, they are often described as individuals that represent no social class and who can be silly just like us. Yet, not only do they benefit from capitalist exploitation but are the face brand of capitalism. As one contributor to The Guardian noted, “The celebrities you see most often are the most lucrative products, extruded through a willing media by a marketing industry whose power no one seeks to check.”
The last introductory point is why I chose anarchist communism as my political home. Communism underlines the future social organization that I support, while anarchism underscores both the prefigurative and horizontal politics that I am committed to. In practical terms, this means that the Black Rose Anarchist Federation is my political organization that allows me to reflect and exchange experiences with my closest comrades, while my political activity is grounded in social movement work, either in my workplace as an educator or in the social arena as a feminist activist. Black Rose is ideologically positioned as especifista–which means that we think that the specific anarchist organization is necessary to develop an anarchist communist political current within the working class–and we are tactically committed to social insertion that places focus on strengthening popular power and autonomous organizing within working class social movements. We are politically sceptical of non-profits, avoid taking positions of power that has us direct rather than fight alongside fellow workers. And, above all, we consider the nation-state not to be a malleable entity, but a nineteenth century institution created to protect private property and the efficient governance by the capitalist class. I cannot expand further on that question since it will lead us into a debate about “Reform or Revolution” or whether the state can wither away.
Today I plan to speak about the tactics and strategy by Latin American feminists who have galvanized feminism into the social movement arena, placing the working class as their political base. It is necessary, first, to offer some political background to historical particularities of the Latin American experience that has contributed to their feminist current. My examples will concentrate on South America, since that is the area I am most familiar with.
Outside of the Western world, most women who fought for social equality did not fall into the feminist waves. The struggle for suffrage was also an early twentieth century phenomenon in Latin America, however, many countries did not grant suffrage until mid-century due to male liberal concern that women were too pious and conservative, and would vote in the interest of the Catholic Church. Following the 1959 Cuban Revolution, revolutionary movements spread like wildfire across the continent, causing the US concern in engendering interventionist organizations such as the Peace Corps (which functions under the Department of Justice) and counterintelligence programs led by the CIA. The rise of communist guerrilla movements and political organizations reflected a generational radicalization. Beginning in the late 1960s and through the 1970s, the US government coordinated and funded the overthrow of governments and installed military dictatorships that led to thousands of radicals being tortured and disappeared. In Chile, approximately 3,000 disappeared and in Argentina the disputed number is between 10-30,000. In the case of Argentina, the accounting for lost loved ones proved difficult since thousands were disappeared by drugging them and throwing them out of helicopters into the Rio de la Plata. These numbers do not account for thousands upon thousands who were tortured and the psychological trauma that affected society as a whole that continues to linger today. According to the Chilean feminist Julieta Kirkwood, the military dictatorship was the embodiment of patriarchy. Some of the women who were forced into political exile continued their political militancy. In the case of Italy, the women exiled there were exposed to Lotta Femminista (Feminist Struggle), a working class feminist organization that worked with the Wages for Housework movement. In some ways, that organization shattered their perception that feminism was only a middle-class or elite cause. They reflected on their experiences in the revolutionary currents and how they had to hide or were silenced when they tried to expose patriarchal violence. But even with a more visible feminism movement at the time in Italy, there was still minimal space to confront gender violence. In some ways, such experiences mirrored those by women in US-based political organizations in the Black Power and Chicano movements, as well as communists organizations during that same era.
The rise of feminism as a social current since the early to mid 2000s is largely a product of deepening neoliberal policies, the re-rise of social movements that have not been seen since the late 1960s and early 1970s, and the spread of feminist and queer theory. There are certain realities that must be noted: abortion is illegal in Latin America (except for Puerto Rico, Cuba, and Uruguay) and is the number one cause of maternal death, and Latin America accounts for over half of global statistics of femicide (with Central America and the Caribbean with higher per capita rates).
The first shift that I noticed took place in Argentina a couple of years after the collapse of the Argentine economy in December 2001. Since 1983 (the return of democracy) there had been a yearly women’s conference called Encuentro de Mujeres that would gather approximately 1,000 women, mostly academics, professionals, students, and revolutionary militants. In 2003, two years after the collapse, the number of participants jumped from 1,000 to 10,000. If you look at conference photos you can visibly see the high presence of working class women; many wearing their union or unemployed organization smocks. Within a few more years that number spiked to 30,000, which is currently the average number of yearly participants. I learned, from following these movements, that during the feminist gathering in the early 80s, Latin American feminists decided on mark September 28th as the Day to Decriminalize Abortion in Latin America and the Caribbean and November 25th as the Day Against Violence Against Women (a date that simultaneously commemorated the murders of the Mirabal Sisters under the dictatorship of Rafael Trujillo). These dates, along with March 8, have become anchors to coordinate the rhythms of struggle and social demands.
The call for the legalization of abortion exploded across the Southern Cone around 2007, gaining moment year by year. This momentum led to the legalization of abortion in Uruguay in 2014 and congressional discussions in Chile to allow abortion in cases of rape, incest or if the woman’s life is in danger. Chile and El Salvador have the strictest abortion laws, criminalized under all circumstances. There are women across the continent serving sentences for pregnancy interruptions. Many of you have also heard how many countries in Latin America, including Argentina, have passed progressive identity laws allowing trans citizens to change their identity on government documents without the approval from doctors and the court, which continues to be a form of social violence used in the US. However, it has become clear, that the Catholic Church has decided to place more of their resources and institutional weight in assuring the continued criminalization of abortion.
How do Latin American feminists make working class women their organizational base?
I will begin by describing where they are located. Some years ago, I interviewed a feminist doctor, Zulema Palma, who in 1995 was one of the founders of a women’s center called Mujeres al Oeste (Women to the West) in the shantytown of Morón in Buenos Aires Province. In a 2009 interview she explained that 1993 “was a convalescing moment in which we realized we could continue working in the West [of Buenos Aires] for our interests where women who lived in the most marginalized sectors could be approached about themes they lacked.” This group of feminists decided to concentrate their efforts by offering workshops and needed resources to women whose marginalization prevented access to information or the financial means to tap resources due to low wages, distance, transportation, or even familial violence. In Chile, during the dictatorship, revolutionary women organized sewing circles in Catholic parishes to teach poor women to make arpilleras (embroideries) which gave them an income and organizers used the opportunity to discuss and teach politics. In the case of Mujeres al Oeste, their space became a community entity, creating dialogue and cultural change in the neighborhood. Their latest public event was titled: “Debate and Proposals Cycle: In Face of the Violence Against Women, What’s up Men?” The Mujeres al Oeste recently spoke out against a public communication by the Department of Health in a Morón public hospital informing staff of their legal obligation to report suspected cases of pregnancy interruption. Because of their community ties and respect, Mujeres al Oeste were able to publicly denounce this “lack of ethics and systemic violence against women’s health,” as Zulema Palma noted. It also helped that Zuelma is a doctor, giving her comments a level of legitimacy among the press.
The feminist movement does not consider themselves a separate cause from other social issues. Yes, it depends on the organization. I want to highlight the anarchist feminist organization La Alzada – Acción Feminista Libertaria (La Alzada – Feminist Libertarian Action) that is mostly composed of college students. In 2014 they coordinated their presence at a port workers strike, offering solidarity while at the same time discussing feminism. They also published a zine that included their declaration, interviews, and reflections. I am going to quote from an article I co-wrote with Bree Busk titled “Breaking the Waves: Challenging the Liberal Tendency Within Anarchist Feminism“:
La Alzada’s defining divergence from other feminist groups is that they are a social political organization in which membership requires a predetermined level of political activity. An Alzada militant participates in insertion work with working class women, within the student movement, and advances their own political interventions within the anarchist and feminist movements. Membership is open to all and they encourage the inclusion of male-identified militants. They work closely with the domestic worker unions SINTRACAP and SINAICAP that are divided by Chilean-born (the former) and foreign-born (the latter) members who mostly hail from Peru and Bolivia. They organize union workshops, such as teaching oral and body expressions to build confidence and political development for rank-and-file members.
What do these two examples have in common? They represent the coordinated efforts by a group or organization. They are not individual decisions to get a job or volunteer some place, but collective decisions that have lasting impact. Another example of the class conscious character of the Latin American feminist movement can be observed through their demands. For example, in 2009, the lead banner at that year’s Encuentro de Mujeres march stated, “Legal abortion so we don’t die, free contraceptives to not abort, and sexual education to not get pregnant.” The first hurdle that feminists have is the legality of abortion, then to make sure it is free, and then the issue of accessibility.
The legacy of military dictatorship is another important factor, affecting discourse, chants, and demands. First, about the question of life. During the dictatorships, the mothers of the disappeared called for “aparición con vida” (to appear alive) and human right’s organizations emphasized the sanctity of life to be protected from state violence. Some individuals in the Left, began using that discourse against the growing calls for legal abortion. And, of course, the Right, that includes fascists, began using the language of human rights organization, even though they thought killing communists was for the greater good of society. In response, one chant stated: “Ahora, ahora, ahora quieren vida, cuando en dictadura mataban con la DINA (Now, now, now you want life, when during the dictatorship you killed using the DINA.” The DINA was the Chilean secret police that organized disappearances, kidnapping, and torture. Second, I want to mention human rights organization tactics. During the 1990s, after the return of democracy, the majority of torturers and murderers who committed state violence were free and in high positions of power. Due to the lack of justice and social repression, human rights groups began to organize funas or escraches, which is a coordinated effort to publicly shame these individuals. In the case of Victor Jara’s murderer, Edwin Dimter Bianchi, they went to his workplace making lots of noise, posting and leaving flyers denouncing him and letting everyone know what he had done. Feminists and queer activists began using similar tactics to denounce rapists, sexual abusers, and homophobes who refused to take accountability or faced no repercussions for their actions.
The last two examples I want to give are Educación No Sexista (Non Sexist Education) and #NiUnaMenos (Not One Woman Less). Non Sexist Education is a feminist demand within the student movement. It not only complements, but strengthens the student movement demand for free education, which is a direct attack against neoliberal policies and the class prejudice and limits placed on access to higher education. The demand for a Non Sexist Education forces the student movement to commit to fighting patriarchy in campus life and political circles, but also forces the institution and professors to look inward on how they contribute to the perpetuation of patriarchy through departmental appointments, courses materials, etc. The other movement I mentioned is #NiUnaMenos that has pushed the term femicide into the public dialogue. Latin American feminists have called for governments to acknowledge femicide as a legal to collect data and for use in prosecution cases. It was recognized under law in Argentina in 2012, and in Brazil and Colombia in 2015. These last two examples highlight a few things. Their success have been because they have supported a demand; some demands have more mass appeal like opposition to femicide and others are still within the battle of ideas such as legal abortion. Another contributing factor has been feminist coalition building, using the National Encounter as a place for debate, to reflect on the success and shortcomings of the previous year, and a place to decide on actions and demands for the following.
Review difference between US and Latin American feminism:
- Social issue versus individual: Feminism has become a cause for personal betterment and not social change. While that has altered a bit recently in the US, the dominant voices from the Women’s March expressed moral outrage against patriarchy, but little about specific demands to anchor our energies and create social momentum for change.
- Visibility of issues versus criminalization: There is a tendency among US middle-class and elite feminists to focus on higher sentencing or gun laws as the root of the problem with patriarchy. The further criminalization of black and brown bodies will not end gender violence. The focus should be visibilizing issues, not criminalizing.
- Reforms: Some resist making specific demands for change for fear of seeming reformist. I have also heard some radicals opposed to abortion as a demand from the state because it is reformist or asking for the state for anything is simply wrong. I always use the example of the voting rights struggle. Yes, the Civil Rights struggle that expanded the legal right to vote in the US was a reform, not social revolution, but it was reform that directly confronted white supremacy. There are similar examples when reforms open doors to challenge the parameters of power. However, where I disagree is spending too much time and resources on trying to change the system from within, when that energy can be better spent creating autonomous organizing.
- Memorialization of martyrs: The public memorialization of women who have died because of complications from abortion or femicide have become powerful symbols that underlie the class character of who dies. They are also remembered as victims of patriarchal and state violence.
- Commemorative dates become the cycle or rhythm of struggle: I mentioned this earlier, about the rhythms of political action. In Chile, we have seasonal protests that also have their anomalies. Commemorative dates tend to be important indicators when organizations plan actions and organize public discussions, in which we organize most of our actions between March and November This does not include strikes that can happen at any moment. We take February (the last month of our summer) “off,” allowing us to revitalize for the coming year. Wouldn’t it be nice to blackout the month of August collectively to reinvigorate our political energy? But, more importantly, planning ahead for certain dates that we already know are on ‘the revolutionary calendar’ to organize our resources and build momentum toward a demand or a cause.
- Make working class women, not celebrities, our heroes: In the last couple of decades, mainstream popular culture has taken more of a center stage in what we call popular culture. We are less likely to create local art projects that centers the working class as the intended audience. As mentioned earlier, social media is dominated by college educated, middle-class. Youth culture, statistics show, have greater desire to become celebrities over the course of the last twenty years, in which social media does produce microcosms of celebrities and group popularity. This is complemented by feminists who uphold female celebrities, politicians, entrepreneurs as role models, in which the foci is more access to power, not changing social relations. The cultural tempo in the US has become deeply embedded and dictated by mass and social media, or what Noam Chomsky called the manufacturing of consent.
We are at a turning point, in which deconstruction has reached its use, and now we need to construct. Whether we make class a core issue of our philosophical vision will determine the character of our organizing and it will determine the social changes we are able to accomplish. “Social Media Fact Sheet,” Pew Research Center in Internet, Science, Tech posted January 17, 2017 (accessed May 7, 2017): http://www.pewinternet.org/fact-sheet/social-media/
 Callie Marie Tennison, “Privilege, Among Rape Victims,” New York Times (December 12, 2014): https://www.nytimes.com/2014/12/22/opinion/who-suffers-most-from-rape-and-sexual-assault-in-america.html
 Sara Kominers, Working in Fear: Sexual violence against women farmworkers in the United States (Oxfam America, 2015), 15: https://www.northeastern.edu/law/pdfs/academics/phrge/kominers-report.pdf
 Mary Annette Pember, “Missing and Murdered: No One Knows How Many Native American Women Have Disappeared,” Indian Country Media Network (April 16, 2016): https://indiancountrymedianetwork.com/news/native-news/missing-and-murdered-no-one-knows-how-many-native-women-have-disappeared/
 Allison Phipps, “Rape and Respectability: Ideas about Sexual Violence and Social Class,” Sociology 43, no. 4 (August 2009): 667–683. http://citeseerx.ist.psu.edu/viewdoc/download?doi=10.1.1.958.2282&rep=rep1&type=pdf
 Geoge Monibot, “Celebrity isn’t just harmless fun–it’s the smiling face of the corporate machine,” The Guardian (December 20, 2016): https://www.theguardian.com/commentisfree/2016/dec/20/celebrity-corporate-machine-fame-big-business-donald-trump-kim-kardashian
 For further information, read Social Anarchism and Organisation by FARJ: https://libcom.org/files/social_anarchism_and_organisation_farj_en.pdf
 In Latin America the term desaparecido is used to refer to victims who were disappeared by the state. At times, their bodies were later identified in mass graves, but many were never recovered.
 Patrick Cuninghame, “Italian feminism, workerism and autonomy in the 1970s: The struggle against unpaid reproductive labour and violence,” libcom.org (October 25, 2010):
 Entrevista a Zulema Palma, “La violencia contra las mujeres está naturalizada,” Defensoría del Pueblo del Municipio de Morón (22 de agosto de 2009).
 Jacqueline Adams, “Movement Socialization in Art Workshops: A Case from Pinochet’s Chile,” The Sociological Quarterly 41, no. 4 (Autumn 2000): 615-638.
 La Alzada-AFL, Solidaridad Feminista con el Conflicto Portuario Hacia una Sindicalismo de clase, de lucha y feminista (enero 2014): http://issuu.com/laalzadaafl/docs/port_feminismo
 Romina Akemi and Bree Busk, “Breaking the Waves: Confronting the Liberal Tendencies within Anarchist Feminism,” Perspectives: Anarcha-Feminism by Institute of Anarchist Studies (May 2016): https://anarchiststudies.org/2016/06/29/breaking-the-waves-challenging-the-liberal-tendency-within-anarchist-feminism-by-romina-akemi-and-bree-busk/
 “Funa del asesino de Victor Jara.” https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=UA9lGZMgoQc
 “Funa a violador.” https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=lGXqODeDCEs