Sustaining Activism: A Brazilian Women's Movement and a Father-Daughter Collaboration

Sustaining Activism: A Brazilian Women's Movement and a Father-Daughter Collaboration

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Sustaining Activism: A Brazilian Women's Movement and a Father-Daughter Collaboration by Jeffrey W. Rubin, Emma Sokoloff-Rubin

In 1986, a group of young Brazilian women started a movement to secure economic rights for rural women and transform women's roles in their homes and communities. Together with activists across the country, they built a new democracy in the wake of a military dictatorship. In Sustaining Activism, Jeffrey W. Rubin and Emma Sokoloff-Rubin tell the behind-the-scenes story of this remarkable movement. As a father-daughter team, they describe the challenges of ethnographic research and the way their collaboration gave them a unique window into a fiery struggle for equality.

Starting in 2002, Rubin and Sokoloff-Rubin traveled together to southern Brazil, where they interviewed activists over the course of ten years. Their vivid descriptions of women’s lives reveal the hard work of sustaining a social movement in the years after initial victories, when the political way forward was no longer clear and the goal of remaking gender roles proved more difficult than activists had ever imagined. Highlighting the tensions within the movement about how best to effect change, Sustaining Activism ultimately shows that democracies need social movements in order to improve people’s lives and create a more just society.

Product Details

ISBN-13: 9780822354215
Publisher: Duke University Press Books
Publication date: 02/18/2013
Edition description: New Edition
Pages: 200
Product dimensions: 6.00(w) x 9.00(h) x 0.30(d)

About the Author

Jeffrey W. Rubin is Associate Professor of History at Boston University, where he is a Research Associate at the Institute on Culture, Religion, and World Affairs.

Emma Sokoloff-Rubin is a student at Yale University Law School. 

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A Brazilian Women's Movement and a Father-Daughter Collaboration



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ISBN: 978-0-8223-5421-5





Gessi Bones and Vera Fracasso were teenagers when they founded a women's movement that would transform the lives of women in southern Brazil. Two decades later, the movement—and the stories of the women who dared to start something their friends and family believed would fail—had a powerful impact on me. When Gessi and Vera talk about the early days of the movement, their stories sometimes have the sound of distant reflections. But when they try to explain what so enchanted them about activism, and how their lives and the movement they created have changed, they speak with the mix of passion and uncertainty they felt when they were my age.

Vera's father made all the decisions at home during her childhood. Her parents worked side by side in the fields, struggling to make a living on their small family farm. Her father made decisions about what crops to plant, when to harvest them, and what products to sell at markets in nearby towns. Her mother worked on the farm, prepared meals, cleaned the house, and washed laundry by hand. "She participated in the work," Vera told me in one of our earliest conversations, "but never expressed opinions or made decisions." When Vera asked her mother why she hardly spoke at home, her mother responded that life had always been that way.

Vera wasn't content with her mother's silence. "I never accepted that," Vera said, but daily realities resisted her at every turn: like most young women who grew up in the southern Brazilian countryside in the 1980s, Vera had to ask permission to leave the house. The difficulty of daily farmwork, paired with long-standing beliefs about men's and women's roles in the household, meant that there was little space in rural homes for conversation. Good soil and plentiful water allowed many rural families in Vera's state, Rio Grande do Sul, to achieve basic economic security, but solid wooden houses and a modest cash crop did not bring schooling beyond primary grades, access to basic medical care, or an escape from the authority of fathers accustomed to being in control. Even as the physical touchstones of modernity became available to rural Brazilians in the mid-1980s, new agricultural policies made it even more difficult for family farms to compete with large landowners and agricultural corporations. Vera watched her father work to end corruption in the local farmers' union and admired his commitment to making the union a reliable force for defending farmers, but the only workers the union took seriously were men.

Gessi's father also worked in the unions. He had "a vision of participation," she remembers, "and of fighting for rights for farmers." Gessi learned about political organizing from her father and about a different kind of organizing from her mother, who worked on the farm and managed to divide food, farm-work, and household chores among her nine children. Gessi didn't start school until she was nine—it was too much of a burden to get there every day—and when she did start, she walked five kilometers each way, missing two of the next six school years due to sickness. In the winter, she left for school before the sun rose. "We didn't have the road you drove here on," she told me two decades later, "so I walked through forest, on rocks." Growing up, Gessi saw up close the difficulty of everyday life and didn't believe things had to be that way.

Local priests and nuns were the first to take seriously Gessi and Vera's refusal to accept the limitations of their parents' way of life. Bishop Orlando Dotti of Rio Grande do Sul was known for his commitment to liberation theology, a radical current that had been gaining ground within the Catholic Church. Along with other leaders in the liberation theology movement of his time, Bishop Orlando insisted on incorporating the fight for social change into his religious practices and was committed to using his power as representative of the Church to initiate and strengthen this fight.

In the 1960s, when teenagers in the United States were taking to the streets and beginning to speak about citizenship and sexuality in new ways, Brazil was seized by a military dictatorship that would rule through violent repression for the next twenty years. Citizens who dared to continue protests in the 1970s risked and often lost their lives. So the 1980s, the decade when Brazilians overthrew the military dictatorship and could discuss politics and protest against the government without as high a risk of arrest, was in many ways Brazil's version of the 1960s: a moment of possibility and determination that stood in stark contrast to the past. But for Brazilian teenagers in the 1980s, the past was darker than it had been for their American counterparts two decades earlier. Gessi and Vera didn't experience police brutality firsthand until they joined social movements in the mid-1980s, but they still experienced the 1985 transition to democracy against a backdrop of torture and death. Like many Brazilians of their generation, they were both cautious and desperate for change.

For supporters of liberation theology in Brazil's Catholic Church (liberationists), the political shifts of the 1980s led to a period of rapid internal change. Conditions in rural Brazil improved after the military dictatorship ended, but liberationist nuns and priests, who worked closely with community members and communicated with a wider network of clergy across the country, saw that poverty and violence endured. They developed new ways of thinking about Jesus, the Bible, and the Church itself, and they approached their work with an unprecedented level of commitment to improving the material conditions of poor Brazilians and to helping people live with voice and dignity.

The priests and nuns organized youth groups in which rural teenagers discussed issues of gender and inequality, grappling in new ways with the challenges they faced as a nation and in their daily lives. Father Cláudio Prescendo, a priest in the small town of Sananduva, where Gessi grew up, observed "the harm of concentrated wealth, of large landholdings, of neoliberalism and free-trade agreements that benefit the richest groups," and he thought youths would be the most powerful force in countering these harms. Father Cláudio brought busloads of rural teens to nearby shantytowns, just as other clergy had brought him to work in poverty-stricken areas as a teenager. Though many rural families worried about income and food on a daily basis, most of them had shelter and land. This exposure to a different reality, guided by nuns and priests, was instrumental in providing a broader sense of Brazil to teenagers who, according to Father Cláudio, "had never left their worlds." Many of the people who went on to lead social movements trace their activism to these youth groups, which changed their understanding of the world and of their power as citizens.

Did parents want their children to change? Gessi's parents were less concerned about what she learned at the meetings than about her going alone. They didn't mind when she went with her brother, but when he was out on a date or with friends, they always tried to keep her from going to the meetings. Even when Gessi's older sister Ivone began to participate, their parents resisted letting the two sisters travel alone. The social conventions they were fighting against—the silencing of women, the control of fathers over their daughters' lives—often kept Gessi and Ivone at home.

That's not to say the guys had a free ride. Gessi's husband, Ari Benedetti (known as Didi), also faced resistance from his family. When I asked Didi's father how his son and daughter-in-law got involved in activism, he threw up his hands and laughed, "When the priests

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Table of Contents


Emma's Preface....................     ix     

Jeff's Preface....................     xi     

Part I: Origins....................          

1. LEAVING HOME Emma....................     3     

2. TRANSFORMING SOUTHERN BRAZIL Jeff..................     16     

3. FAMILY TIES Jeff....................     28     

4. GAMBLING ON CHANGE Emma....................     38     

5. FIGHTING FOR RIGHTS IN LATIN AMERICA Jeff..........     50     

Part II: The Enchantment of Activism..................          

6. HOLDING PARADOX Emma....................     59     

7. SIX MEETINGS Jeff....................     69     

Gallery of Photos....................     87     

8. INTIMATE PROTEST Jeff....................     96     


Part III: Moving Forward....................          

10. "WHEN YOU SPEAK OF CHANGES" Emma..................     123     

11. MOVEMENTS IN DEMOCRACY Jeff....................     136     

Acknowledgments....................     161     

Notes....................     167     

Index....................     179     

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