Black Rose/Rosa Negra is a proud feminist organization. We take our political inspiration from the historical struggles of working class women, including those who carried out their work in the name of other movements or ideologies. While we value the feminisms that can be found in our own neighborhoods and workplaces, we also seek to learn all lessons possible from the parts of the world where feminism is ascendant. Our international partnerships have resulted in a strong Latin American perspective in our writing and ideological perspectives – something we find appropriate for an organization based in the Americas.
We are excited to present the second in a two part series by Bree Busk looking at anti-capitalist feminism in South America with a wealth of concepts and analysis that we can draw from in the U.S. See Part I for a glossary of terms used.
By Bree Busk
The student feminist wave of 2018 struck so suddenly and spread so quickly that its impact resonated far beyond Chile’s national borders. Like the student movement that rocked the country 7 years earlier, feminism forced its way into the public consciousness, changing the course of the country’s many social movements as well as government policy. This was accomplished through a series of groundbreaking events instigated by university and high school students as well as some of the largest feminist mobilizations ever to take place in Chile.
The first article in this series described how the current Chilean feminist movement held the potential to revitalize the country’s diverse social struggles through transversal, multisectoral politics. This strategy was exemplified by the Coordinadora 8 de Marzo (C8M), the feminist coalition which advanced under the slogan, “Against the Precaritization of Life!” in answer to the suffering generated by the neoliberal project in Chile and the pervasive threat of patriarchal violence.
C8M emerged from a movement rife with ideological conflict and harried by external threats. After coordinating a massive mobilization on International Working Women’s Day 2018, they might have easily disbanded or collapsed under the pressure of internal divisions like the Coordinadora NiUnaMenos before them. However, they were thrust into the driver’s seat of the movement when outrage peaked in the universities, eventually sparking feminist activity throughout the country. This rapid succession of events came to be called the Mayo Feminista (Feminist May) and marked C8M’s rise to prominence as the most representative body of the expanding movement.
As 2018 wore on, the wave of university occupations began to wane. However, the movement would soon be jolted back to life by the contagious energy of Argentina’s feminists who were making historic progress in their struggle for abortion rights. By July, Chilean feminists had donned their own green bandanas in imitation of their compañeras across the border. Consequently, Chile’s growing fascist movement launched its first counterattack. Meanwhile, the shifting political landscape compelled both grassroots and government forces to adapt to the new reality opened up by the student feminist wave.
The feminist wave was carried forward by a surge of collective frustration with university leadership regarding the handling of sexual harassment complaints. While some student bodies had successfully pressured their universities into implementing protocols to resolve cases of abuse, the slow pace of bureaucracy and lack of will on the part of the administrations often led to disappointing results. Other schools had no protocols whatsoever and feminists had to start from zero. Wherever the student movement had a foothold, this catalyzing issue was woven into the fabric of more established demands, such as the need for a non-sexist education (a disruptive demand raised in 2011 during the previous era of student mobilizations), institutional acceptance of queer and transgender students, and an educational experience free of sexual harassment and discrimination. Student feminists drew strength and direction from these common demands, but also organized at the level of their departments or institutions to define their own political priorities and determine appropriate tactics.
In Chile, high schools and universities have been self-organized for decades, tracing back to the period before the dictatorship. Students are often knowledgeable about their institution’s unique heritage and take pride in passing political traditions on to the next generation. When necessary, they draw on their popular memory of struggle, using strikes, school occupations, and popular assemblies to exercise their power. The movement has evolved over time, eventually incorporating a series of feminist demands. However, the eruption of feminist strikes in 2018 demonstrated that change was not happening fast enough.
The first feminist occupation or toma took place in April 2018 at the Universidad Austral, located in the south of Chile. It was carried out in reaction to the mishandling of a disciplinary case against a professor accused of sexual harassment. It was almost immediately followed by a second, more prominent toma at the law school of the Universidad de Chile (UCh). UCh, centrally located in Santiago, is one of the most prestigious universities in the country and is known as a hotbed of leftist political activity. A specifically feminist takeover was completely unprecedented; however, the student body was used to leaping into action and the feminist occupiers promptly transformed their school into an informal headquarters for the growing movement. In a matter of weeks, over a dozen university departments were occupied or otherwise paralyzed by strikes.
School occupations are more than just a symbol of defiance or an act of civil disobedience. The interruption of “business as usual” serves as a check on institutional power and can force university administrations to find faster or more satisfying answers to student concerns. Furthermore, the occupied spaces become centers of self-managed educational, cultural, and political development. Students host and attend a wide variety of workshops and may even request specific trainings or political presentations from outside groups. Run by popular assemblies, tomas give students the opportunity to form their own opinions and participate in direct democracy. In intense periods of struggle such as 2006 and 2011, school occupations were so common that they became a cultural touchstone for a whole generation. This has led some Chileans to develop a jaded perspective, viewing student resistance as little more than an excuse to get out of class. However, the feminist strike gave new dimension to these traditional tactics.
On May 11th, the public was shocked when a group of 127 female students from the Law School of Pontificia Universidad Católica (PUC) delivered a public letter condemning the sexist environment they had been forced to endure, including a list of misogynistic comments heard in classrooms. The shock, however, came not from the content of this letter, but from its place of origin: PUC is a conservative, religious institution far more likely to be associated with gremialismo (a far-right ideology championed by Pinochet-advisor Jaime Guzmán) than feminism. Even at the height of student resistance in 2011, PUC only experienced a single toma. Of note, this occupation was motivated by the demand to dismantle the Chilean Constitution of which Guzmán was the primary architect. It was carried out at PUC’s East Campus, the location of Guzmán’s assassination in 1991 at the hands of the Frente Patriótico Manuel Rodríguez.
Everything changed on May 25th, when a group of feminist students occupied La Casa Central, the main building of the downtown campus. This historic event was marked with controversy, as the occupiers clashed with other students whose positions ranged from liberal feminist politics to outright fascism. These ideological conflicts largely played out in the media, but on the first night of the toma, students reported a brief confrontation between the occupiers and gremialistas. Both the unexpected nature of the feminist takeover at PUC and the subsequent right-wing backlash foreshadowed larger trends as the feminist wave continued to advance through the country.
High School Students Join the Struggle
There are several factors which distinguished the 2018 feminist wave from previous eras of student resistance, the most significant being that many of the popular assemblies voted in favor of “separatist” occupations, meaning that only women and sexual dissidents were welcome. Even in spaces where men were tolerated, their leadership was not. This understandably produced some confusion for many male students who found themselves relegated to the back seat when it came to making political decisions for the student movement. This dynamic was especially visible in the liceos emblematicos (emblematic high schools), the country’s most prestigious public schools whose mixed class character has produced a long tradition of leftist student resistance. The feminist wave forced the conversation on intra-movement sexism, threatening a separatist rupture if male students couldn’t adapt to the new political reality.
On May 15th, 200 students from the all-girls school Carmela Carvajal de Prat invaded and occupied the all-boys school Instituto Nacional in a landmark event. Using chairs and metal barriers as improvised stairs, the girls entered the campus at 12:15pm and established themselves in the building with barricades and feminist banners. A few hours later, they were joined by a new contingent of 60 students from Javiera Carrera (another emblematic all-girls school) who initiated a solidarity protest outside. This headline-grabbing action marked a turning point for these student bodies, because for the first time, their fight wasn’t exclusively against the school administrations.
The feminist takeover was initiated in response to the sexual assault of a Haitian janitor who reported being groped from behind by a male student a few days earlier. Tensions had already reached their breaking-point after the circulation of a mock rape video featuring Instituto Nacional students and an image of a school jacket customized with a crude sexist slogan. The students of Carmela Carvajal insisted on the resignation of the principal, Fernando Soto, arguing that he was a major contributor to the culture which produced sexist behavior in the student body. Furthermore, they endorsed a petition previously put forward by the Instituto Nacional’s English department which called for an official protocol to handle cases of sexual harassment or assault. They also insisted that the school become gender-mixed. Both demands reflected the broader program for non-sexist education.
Before the toma was dismantled in the early afternoon, the students of Carmela Carvajal, Javiera Carrera, and the Instituto Nacional called a spontaneous assembly on the back patio of the premises. In this meeting they discussed what needed to change – not just at their particular schools, but in the student movement and society as a whole. The president of the Instituto Nacional’s student government, Vicente Salinas, was quoted as saying, “We understand [this political intervention] as a new call to our conscience […] understanding that we have to energetically take charge of this issue and not turn a blind eye.” Less than two weeks later, Instituto Nacional students had their own toma violently broken up by riot police. This raid was unusually brutal, resulting in 20 reported injuries and 10 arrests – the latter including Vicente Salinas. After the fact, some feminists speculated that this act of repression on the part of the state was intended to discipline the student body for transgressing the pact of masculinity embodied by their elite, all-male institution.
All told, nearly a dozen high schools throughout the country participated in some aspect of the feminist strike, including a variety of solidarity actions carried out by male students. Separatist tensions remained, but it didn’t take long for feminism to become such a dominant force that male students felt obligated to get on board or risk being left behind. This robust participation was reflected in the size of the marches that occurred throughout May and into June. United under the banners of non-sexist education and an end to patriarchal violence, Santiago-based high school and university students mobilized on May 16th in record numbers. Initiated by the Chilean Student Federation (CONFECH), this march caught the world’s eye with its flashy contingents of young women marching topless while wearing maroon balaclavas — a choice that was as much a demonstration of power as a celebration of bodily autonomy.
C8M Popular Assembly
In 2011, the fight for free education opened the door to wider critiques of how neoliberal policies of privatization impacted working people. In this way, the student movement was able to reinvigorate social movement activity on multiple fronts. In the Mayo Feminista, the students once again dominated the popular narrative. However, the movement was only just re-activating and lacked the strategy and infrastructure necessary to unite feminists beyond the realm of education. This task would fall to the Coordinadora 8 de Marzo, which had the distinction of being the only broad feminist coalition still active when the university strikes began.
Five weeks earlier, C8M successfully brought together feminists representing Chile’s diverse social movements to march on International Working Women’s Day. Now, it faced the challenge of doing the same – not for a day, but indefinitely. This work was enabled by the fact that the coalition already counted on the participation of many of the most active student feminists. Furthermore, members of the Coordinadora No+AFP remained active in the coalition, using it as a launching pad for their first official conference on the topic of “Women and Pensions.” In this way, representatives of the country’s most powerful social movements were able to come together under a shared analysis to midwife a new era of feminist struggle into being. However, the movement was still largely defined by student activity and action had to be taken to transversalize it. C8M determined that the first step towards this goal was calling for an open assembly and actively soliciting the participation of women and sexual dissidents outside the educational sector.
The assembly was held on May 19th at the UCh Law School, the glowing ember at the heart of the student feminist movement. Over 100 feminists attended, with male students handling registration, security and childcare. Facilitation was provided by members of C8M whose job was not to determine the discussion, but rather to articulate and advance it through a series of guiding questions. When the floor opened to discussion, participants used the platform to introduce their unions or territorial organizations, give rousing speeches, and even ask for advice on how to promote feminism in their daily lives.
One of the assembly’s priorities was to discuss mobilizing for a general strike on March 8, 2019. This theme evoked both excitement and controversy, since it was clear that many participants were wary of a feminist movement anchored in the elite universities of the capital. One attendee passionately argued that not all feminists could occupy their school or go on strike for even one day. A C8M member provided a response, reminding participants that the seeds of a transversal movement had already been planted and that perfection should not be the enemy of the good. To build a general strike that was truly representative of the complex realities experienced by Chilean, migrant, and indigenous women, she argued, the movement had to develop political common ground and advance multisectoral demands that leave no one behind. The general strike – like feminism itself – must be a tool to confront patriarchy on all fronts.
The assembly determined that the first test of this commitment would take place on June 1st, with a call for a “Day of Feminist Action Against Precarity.” Instead of limiting themselves to a march through downtown Santiago, C8M encouraged decentralized actions reflecting the daily struggles of participants. This strategy arose from an understanding of how precarity itself was the primary condition impeding women’s participation in traditional methods of resistance. Informal workers had no unions, homemakers and caregivers received no wages, and migrants risked legal consequences if they walked off the job. Therefore, the fight against precarity would also be a fight to create the conditions in which these marginalized workers could self-organize and build power. This would require going toe-to-toe with the Piñera administration on labor rights, healthcare, education, immigration policy, and the privatization of natural resources, among other issues. However, the feminists were ready for the fight.
Feminist Day of Action Against Precarity
The June 1st day of action was organized to coincide with President Piñera’s cuenta pública, the Chilean equivalent of a State of the Union speech. With the feminist wave in full swing, Piñera was expected to push his Agenda Mujer, a series of policies designed to address gender inequity while avoiding the deeper systemic critiques posed by the feminist movement. His proposals made no mention of non-sexist education, safe and legal abortion, or ending patriarchal violence. Piñera broadly endorsed the economic advancement of women, but failed to address the factors that made it impossible for them to thrive, such as lack of stable employment, affordable healthcare, or access to dignified pensions. In fact, it seemed as if the Agenda Mujer was designed exclusively for women already in the upper echelon of society.
When Piñera spoke before the Chilean Congress, C8M carried out of a cuenta pública of their own via Twitter. In a 10-minute video, spokespeople took turns describing the complex manifestations of patriarchal oppression in the lives of women in Chile, underscoring the need for a transversal feminist movement. As the day advanced, a wide variety of activities unfolded throughout the country, including neighborhood-level mobilizations, popular assemblies, artistic interventions, unpermitted marches, actions blocking traffic, and cacerolazos (noise demonstrations). In the capital, several actions were met with police repression; most notably, police broke up a large downtown feminist gathering with water cannons and arrested over a dozen participants.
Despite its national impact, the day of action was not enough to sustain the initial momentum generated by the Mayo Feminista. Late July marked the beginning of a new semester and many student assemblies felt it was time to end their strikes and occupations. Some tomas had already been removed by police on the orders of the university administrations, whereas others had been voluntarily dismantled after winning some or all of their demands. On July 9th, the feminists of the Uch Law School voted to end their toma after negotiating a three-month suspension of the professor accused of sexual harassment. The toma’s spokesperson swore the fight for the professor’s full dismissal would continue, but without the pressure of an occupation, there was no guarantee of success. The feminist wave was clearly receding and many were left wondering what would happen to the movement once the students returned to their classrooms.
The Green Sea
Beginning in 2015, feminist movements in Chile and Argentina were lifted by a rising tide of outrage against patriarchal violence. Whereas Chilean feminists went on to articulate their struggle as being “against the precaritization of life,” Argentinian feminists focused on the fight to legalize abortion. This was a natural extension of the NiUnaMenos movement instigated a few years earlier, since Argentinian feminists saw the denial of safe, legal, and accessible abortion as a form of state femicide. Historically, abortion was only legal when the pregnancy threatened the life of the mother or was a product of rape. That said, it was still incredibly difficult to obtain one, even when those conditions were met. The result was a high death rate associated with clandestine abortions.
In April, the Argentine Congress agreed to open discussion on possible changes to the law. Feminists rallied around this political opening, filling the streets and plazas of the capital and beyond with their mobilizations. Like the Mothers of the Plaza de Mayo who resisted the dictatorship while wearing white kerchiefs, the feminists fighting for legal abortion had popularized bright green bandanas as a symbol of their struggle. The momentum peaked on June 14th when a bill legalizing abortion in the first 14 days of pregnancy passed the lower house. The celebratory crowd outside Congress numbered in the hundreds of thousands and with their green bandanas and face-paint, the feminists had transformed into a marea verde or “green sea” filling downtown Buenos Aires to the brim.
This victory flew across the Andes to infect Chileans feminists with joy and hope. As recently as 2017, Chile had one of the most restrictive abortion laws in all of Latin America. This law was amended under the Bachelet administration, depenalizing abortion in the cases of threat to the life of the mother, an unviable fetus, or rape in the case of girls 14 and younger. However, feminists had continued the fight under the slogan #nobastan3causales or “three causes aren’t enough!” This new wave of transnational feminist enthusiasm was channeled into Chile’s annual march for abortion rights which was just one month away.
The tradition of marching on July 25 began in 2013 with a march that ended in the occupation of one of Santiago’s most important cathedrals, interrupting a special mass attended by the mayor and other government officials. Every year since, abortion rights activists have organized a march through the Coordinadora Feministas en Lucha (Feminists in Struggle Coordinator or CFL), a coalition composed of pro-abortion groups, now including C8M. CFL took full advantage of the energy injected into the movement via the advances in Argentina. Their first major accomplishment was developing a Chilean version of the iconic green bandana, featuring a logo combining a historical feminist suffrage graphic with an image of a topless student protester. The new bandanas were mass distributed through pañuelazos – pop-up events where feminists rally under a massive green banner and drum up attention for their cause. All told, CFL representatives reported giving out more than 7,000 bandanas in the run-up to the march.
The 2018 march was massive, with almost 100,000 people mobilizing on the national level and 50,000 marching in Santiago. However, the resurgence of abortion as a topic of public debate provoked right-wing extremists who used the march as an opportunity to launch their first major anti-feminist attack. The Movimiento Social Patriota (MSP, a third-positionist fascist organization) drenched the street with animal blood and attempted to disrupt the march route with burning barricades. In a different section of the march, a group of masked individuals appeared and stabbed several women as they passed by. The following day, MSP released a statement denying responsibility, but their account was refuted by the victims and witnesses. As news of this incident spread, feminists responded by saturating social media with inspirational photos from the march, declaring that this act of terrorism would not keep them from the streets.
Two weeks later, feminists had the opportunity to show the far-right opposition that they hadn’t been cowed by the recent acts of violence. The time had arrived for the Argentine Senate to hold the decisive vote on the long awaited abortion bill. In solidarity with feminists mobilizing in Argentina and throughout Latin America, C8M and allied feminist formations called for a massive pañuelazo to take place in front of the Argentinian Consulate in Santiago. The marea verde once again rose to fill the streets, but with disappointing results. After 15 hours of debate, the pressure exerted by the Catholic Church and conservative forces in the northern provinces proved too strong and the Senate narrowly voted down the bill, 38 to 31. Despite this defeat, the feminists who had thrown themselves into the fight for safe and free abortion were undaunted. They had come closer to victory than ever before, and the struggle would continue.
Memories of Feminist Rebellion
In Chile, September marks the return of warm weather and the week-long celebrations in honor of the national holidays. For many, it is a time for family, barbecues, drinking, and relaxation. However, September 11th is the anniversary of the coup d’etat that toppled the democratically elected government of Dr. Salvador Allende and installed the dictatorship of Augusto Pinochet which went on to hold power until 1989. For that reason, September is also a month for reflecting on the atrocities committed in that period and remembering those who were detained or disappeared. It was in this spirit that C8M — now the Coordinadora Feminista 8 de Marzo or CF8M — collaborated with the Colectivo de Mujeres Sobrevivientes, Siempre Resistentes (Collective of Women Survivors, Always in Resistance or CMS-SR) to transform September into a celebration of the innovative and powerful history of feminist struggle in the face of repression. Together, these organizations coordinated a wide variety of activities around the theme of “Memories of Feminist Rebellion.”
On September 2nd, a group of feminist collectives carried out an intervention in front the former torture center known as “Venda Sexy” or “La Discotéque.” Maintained from 1974 to 1975, Venda Sexy was the site where many political prisoners were held before being disappeared by Pinochet’s secret police. Among other crimes, it was infamous for the sexual violence inflicted on prisoners as part of their torture. The feminist organizers confronted this legacy directly, highlighting how rape and sexual humiliation were used to not only punish women for their political activity but to show what happens to women who don’t stay meekly in their homes. Speakers described how authorities have failed to recognize these human rights violations as examples of gendered violence, which prevented them from seeing the connection between the brutal tactics employed under the dictatorship and the modern familial violence that often concludes with a femicide. Despite the dark history commemorated at this event, there was still a great deal of joy. The older feminists joined together with the younger under one empowering slogan: “We are not victims of violence, we are survivors!”
All month long, iconic methods of resistance were resurrected within a new context. On September 10, CF8M and CMS-SR hosted an olla comun or “common pot” in the plaza in front of the presidential palace. In order to survive food shortages under the dictatorship, people came together to share what they had – including subversive ideas. In this modern incarnation, organizers invited participants to recognize the revolutionary heritage present in the simple act of feeding friends and neighbors.
On September 28, CF8M joined with other pro-abortion organizations to host a program of activities to mark the Day for the Depenalization and Legalization of Abortion in Latin America and the Caribbean, which included a public forum, a feminist theatrical performance, and a cacerolazo in downtown Santiago. These events lacked the robust participation seen in previous months, likely due to the recent defeat in Argentina and lack of government movement on the issue in Chile.
September marked another important date that featured heavy feminist participation but wasn’t an official activity organized under the umbrella of “Memories of Feminist Rebellion.” On September 30, immigrant and human rights organizations initiated a March Against Racism with the intention of raising consciousness around the discrimination and inhumane treatment endured by migrants, particularly those from Haiti. This event commemorated the death of Joane Florvil, a Haitian migrant who died after being detained by police for the alleged abandonment of her infant daughter. Joane was mourned as an individual by her loved ones, but the tragedy of her death had also turned her into a symbol for the struggle against state violence. C8FM was the only explicitly feminist formation involved in organizing the march; their participation was motivated by an intersectional analysis of how xenophobia, anti-Black racism, and misogyny manifest in both government policies and individual acts of discrimination. They acknowledged that it was not their place to lead, but to stand in solidarity with all migrants.
Throughout 2018, CF8M was able to anticipate the ebb and flow of the movement and position themselves accordingly. The fruit of this labor was evident in September, as the feminists who survived the dictatorship joined hands with the students fresh from their university occupations. Furthermore, green bandanas had come to represent far more than the fight for legal abortion. The movement was slowly transversalizing, and correspondingly, growing more influential. Only 6 months remained until the next International Working Women’s Day and it was time to flex this newfound power under a fresh slogan, one that would soon be on the lips of feminists in every part of Chile: La huelga general feminista ¡va! The feminist general strike is coming!
Bree Busk is an American anarchist living and working in Santiago, Chile. She currently contributes to movements in both countries through art, writing, and providing the invisible, reproductive labor that organizations need to survive and flourish.
If you enjoyed this article we also recommend by Bree Busk “A Conservative Threat Offers New Opportunities for Working Class Feminism” and the critical anarchist feminist piece, “Breaking the Waves: Challenging the Liberal Tendency within Anarchist Feminism,” also authored by Busk together with Romina Akemi.