This book originated in a conference titled “Learning from Latin America: Women’s Struggles for Livelihood,” held in Los Angeles February 27-29, 1992. The conference brought together women scholars from six Latin American countries and the United States.
As described in the editors’ introduction, the stimulus for this gathering was Latin American women’s emergence during the 1980s and 1990s “into an enlarged public sphere” through their activities related to self-provisioning of livelihoods, labor market participation, and political action. These activities arose in response to urbanization and political mobilization; growing impoverishment, partly caused by the social and economic impact of structural adjustments; weaker state powers; and the retreat of governments from the social sphere. The central themes addressed in the book are women’s participation in livelihood systems and in citizens’ rights movements.
The volume is divided into four parts. Part 1, “Context,” consists of an excellent introductory essay by Lourdes Beneria about the impact of foreign debt and structural adjustment policies. Part 2 includes two chapters on “Collective Social Action and Labor Markets” (the weakest of the volume). The five chapters on “Political Practice” in part 3 comprise the heart of the volume. The annotated bibliography that makes up part 4 is a useful compilation of selected books published since 1980 with a focus on poor women’s attempts to cope with poverty in Latin America. Its various topical sections include testimonies and narratives, household economy and everyday life, women’s employment in urban and rural areas, literature reviews, anthologies, regional studies, and bibliographies. There are also author and country indexes. The bibliography includes 83 items, the great majority of which are published only in Spanish or Portuguese.
Like most edited books, this one is somewhat uneven, but is readable throughout, even in translation from Spanish. In addition to the initial chapter by Beneria, there is also a strong analytical piece by Maruja Barrig on collective kitchens, the state, and citizenship in Peru. The concluding essay by Sonia Alvarez continues the themes raised by both Beneria and Barrig. In addition, there are moving accounts by Cecilia Blondet and Malena de Montis, respectively, of political struggles in Peru (Sendero Luminosos targeting of women leaders in Lima’s collective kitchens) and Nicaragua (the evolution of the feminist movement). An especially interesting chapter, by Elsa Chaney and Aida Moreno Valenzuela, is presented as a dialogue between a researcher and an activist. They focus on the work conditions and history of organizing domestic workers in Latin America, and on the role of researchers in supporting women’s political struggles.
As a whole, this is a well-crafted and refreshing set of chapters that follow through on the key themes from different angles. Although they show that the results of women’s “emergences” have been ambiguous, they provide useful glimpses of the scholarship and action taking place in the region.