The Chavez´Revolution is Feminist: Reconstructing Gender in Venezuela


One of the most important aspects of the Bolivarian Revolution is also the most overlooked: that the significant majority -often 90% or more [1]- of its participants, its leaders, and the beneficiaries of its social programs are womyn [2]. The phenomenon of the feminization of poverty is particularly strong in Venezuela, and poor and working class Venezuelan womyn have a history of working together to alleviate the same symptoms of poverty that the Bolivarian movement has begun to eradicate. Their organizing strategy of fighting these aspects of poverty reflects an acute understanding of their own economic struggles as being gendered. The Revolution, along with the broader social movements that support it, can be seen as a form of popular-or working class and poor- feminism, in which these “popular womyn” alleviate the specifically gendered forms of poverty that they experience.

Although it is vital to recognize that much of the situation of Venezuelan womyn relates to those of poor and working womyn in every country, including the United States, it is also vital to place this movement within its own context. In Venezuela, classism and sexism are intimately intertwined. To describe this phenomenon, scholars often use the term “feminization of poverty,” meaning that the burden of poverty increasingly falls on womyn. In many parts of Venezuela, to be a female adult (or female young adult) usually means to be a mother; between 60% and 70% [3] of households in Venezuela are run by single mothers, many with several children or more. Economically, this translates into the triple carga, [4] or triple burden, of womyn’s work: unpaid work in the private sphere of the home so that they can care for their families, paid work in the public sphere so that they can financially support their families, and community organizing across these two spheres so that they can alleviate and eventually eradicate these burdens.

I spent most of my time in Venezuela with a working class family in the small, rural town of Palo Verde. My “mother,” Esperanza [5], and many of her family members and friends worked at 8 de Marzo, a majority-womyn pasta and granola-making cooperative. Every day, Esperanza rose before 5 A.M., prepared arepas for her two teenage sons, and went to work. After she returned from work, often at 6 or 7 P.M., she might attend a community, church, or school meeting. On top of this, she was the primary caretaker of her sons, whose father lived in another town. This triple carga made it difficult to concentrate effectively on more than one aspect of her life, and I rarely saw Esperanza sit down without working on some task.

Besides facing these burdens on their own, womyn often find fewer resources to support themselves and their families. Particularly in rural areas, there are few “unskilled” paid jobs for womyn, and Venezuelan womyn are paid even less in proportion to Venezuelan men than womyn are paid in proportion to men in the

United States. [6] Womyn, even more than men, work in the “informal economy,” selling clothes on the street, working under the table as maids, or cooking and selling food out of their homes. These jobs provide no security, labor protections, benefits, or wage controls. Esperanza was lucky to have her job; outside of the local cooperatives and corner stores, there was precious little work in Palo Verde outside of the almost entirely male field of hired farm labor.

Borrowing from the idea of institutionalized racism, which describes the systematic nature of racial discrimination as it continually reinforces the poverty of people of color, we can describe some of the causes behind the situation of Venezuelan womyn. Though distinct from that of racism, their situation is also one of systematic exclusion and discrimination. Not only can they find fewer jobs and earn less money, but-even when financially supported by a partner- they tend to shoulder the responsibility of caring for their families, and therefore cope directly with the symptoms of poverty that their families experience. As they take on most or all of the responsibility of caretaking, womyn are often the last to have their own needs taken care of. Through the feminization of poverty, which we can thus conceptualize as institutionalized sexism, the symptoms of poverty affect Venezuelan womyn proportionately more than these symptoms affect Venezuelan men.

A local mother named Josefina, for example, relayed in a school meeting that she arrived home from work one Sunday night to find that her son had not begun his homework. Her son told her that he had been waiting for her to help him, but there was no longer time. As a separated working mother and the primary caretaker of at least one child, her attendance at the meeting and her apparent anxiety clearly demonstrated that her son’s education was a priority for her. Because of her triple responsibilities of a paid job, involvement in her son’s school, and caring for her son, Josefina was unable to give her child the large amount of help that he needed. These caretaking responsibilities meant that the educational problems in her community directly affected her more than they did her son’s father. To deal with these gendered problems, poor and working womyn have developed support networks within their communities.

Venezuelan popular womyn have a history of acting collectively to fulfill their basic needs for survival. Womyn have historically organized together within their neighborhoods, supporting each other and fostering a culture of solidarity and action based on immediate practical needs [7] such as healthcare, education, and land rights for themselves and their families. Mothers have formed supportive networks, both within their families and in their neighborhoods, trading or collectivizing tasks. During my time in Venezuela, I saw many small day-to-day instances of these supportive networks. One day, I asked Esperanza if she had a funnel. Rather than simply saying “no,” she sent her son from house to house until he found a relative or neighbor who had one. Her support network came through. On many days, these same family and friends came over to Esperanza’s house to eat squash soup; some might drop off their toddlers when they had other work to do. Just as Esperanza cooked and cared for others, they did the same for her; in this way, a small community of womyn collectivized the daily work that made up part of their triple carga.

These household tasks, including cooking, child rearing, and cleaning, are known as trabajo solidario. This term, while often translated as “caring work,” [8] can also be translated more directly as “solidarity work,” reflecting both the strong history of collectivizing these tasks and the political nature of supportive work in the sphere of the home. As womyn in the Bolivarian Revolution further their organizing to fight the feminization of poverty and ease the burden of the triple carga, they bring these tasks beyond the personal, recognizing the political nature of this systematic burden. Womyn working in a soup kitchen, or casa de alimentación, for example, expressed that their work was not “service… [but rather was] intended as a survival strategy to lessen the burden on women… who were not able to provide their children with nutritious meals.” [9] Collectivizing this task not only helped improve these mothers’ lives, but it also helped them recognize that their struggles to fulfill the great responsibility of feeding their children were deeply political. Many of the other programs in which womyn organizers are heavily involved, such as educational and medical misiones, provide high-quality services both for womyn and for those in their care, freeing up mothers’ time spent caring for sick or school-aged children. By openly and politically collectivizing their privatesphere trabajo solidario, working and poor womyn thus begin both to address the triple burden of their work and to erase the separation between the spheres of home and community that has plagued other feminist movements throughout the ages.

Through this involvement, womyn organizers are mapping the traditional “feminine values” of caring, solidarity, and community onto the socialist values of the Bolivarian revolution, and mapping the work of traditional family and community task-sharing networks onto the task sharing of cooperatives, social programs or misiones, and communal councils. The 8 de Marzo cooperative, although founded before the election of Chávez, is similar to the model on which the current co-op movement is founded, and most of its members are quite supportive of the Bolivarian Revolution. As in many cooperatives, the majority of the workers are womyn from one or two local families. I was lucky enough to participate in a session in which cooperative members evaluated one another’s work. In addition to how they performed their tasks, I was surprised to learn that female and male members “graded” each other not only on values such as collaboration, creativity, solidarity, and friendship, but also on how much time they spent with their children, how often they shared opinions in meetings, whether or not they let problems bother them, and the extent to which they organized in the community. No one announced any such criteria; rather, workers wrote about each member independently. This evaluation session demonstrated quite clearly both the cooperative’s erasure of the separate spheres of work, home, and community, and the fluidity with which the values upheld by womyn’s family and community networks transfer to the “socialist” cooperative setting.

Womyn’s collectivization of trabajo solidario, as well as their involvement in mixed-gender community organizing itself, has begun to raise both men’s and womyn’s gender consciousness, albeit inadvertently at times. Through the involvement of men, the misiones and other collective social organizations confront machismo, or a culturally specific combination of male chauvinism and sexism. Sujatha Fernandes notes, for example, that “treating the soup kitchen as a collective responsibility, and not as the sole work of the women volunteers, had the effect of challenging the notion that cooking is the domain of women.” [10] I saw this firsthand at 8 de Marzo, where workers sometimes alleviate the burden of the triple carga by bringing their children to work. “Gustavo,” one of three male workers and the only father, and “Julia,” his partner, sometimes brought their children to the cooperative; I often saw Gustavo playing with or talking to them. During my interviews with workers, womyn often expressed that these changes were part of a long process, but female workers had transformed into opinionated leaders and had learned to value their own opinions as they became increasingly involved in community work. When womyn organize and share ideas outside of the often-isolating private sphere, and particularly when men and womyn work together in the community, both sexes gradually begin to directly address the problems of machismo, from the division of labor that furthers the triple carga to womyn’s involvement in decision-making. Both the blending of the public and private spheres [11] by sharing domestic tasks with men and the act of organizing itself challenge the gender roles that further both the triple carga and the culture of machismo.

Nora Castañeda, a professional with a working-poor background, provides a rare glimpse into the popular womyn’s movement’s analysis of machismo in her interview with Michael Albert. She relates,

The work that women are doing is certainly changing, so what men are doing is changing too-but the machismo culture is still very strong. So now we are additionally working a lot on what is being called masculinity, on the new position of men in society… We still maintain that our enemy is imperialism and capitalists. Our enemy is not the men at our side. But we also have to resolve the problem of machismo.[12]

This is where intersectionality comes in: capitalism is another reason why poor womyn stay poor, and they need male allies in that struggle, so outsiders may not observe as many direct challenges to sexism here as they would expect in middle class movements. Fernandes also notes that both womyn and men have begun to name and criticize machismo in the process of their organizing [13]. Corey Fischer-

Hoffman quotes the Madres del Barrio mission, a program that pays poor mothers a stipend for housework and provides training in the formation of cooperatives:

We do not see socio-productive inclusion as a mechanical fact that to start a women’s economic project will immediately change their consciousness; it will be a dialectic process. For this reason, socio-productive inclusion will be accompanied by socio-political work; leading to a change from values of selfishness for those of solidarity… we see socio-productive inclusion as a strategic objective in a new consciousness for Venezuelan women.[14]

Through collective social organizing both with and without men, popular womyn in Venezuela may have managed to begin a revolutionary transformation of gender consciousness based on socialist values. This organizing places importance both on the act of trabajo solidario and on the value of womyn in and of themselves [15] while working towards a change in consciousness and the division of labor.

The Bolivarian government, including President Chávez, is an additional important component of the popular womyn’s movement. The president’s discourse of feminism has affirmed the importance of womyn to the larger popular movement and strengthened the womyn’s movement itself. During an extemporaneous speech that I witnessed at the Worker’s March for the Yes Vote, he proclaimed that “everyone should be a feminist, [16]” and that “to be socialist is to be feminist.” [17] The Chávez government, of course, backs this discourse up with the creation and maintenance of social programs, laws, and other policies that support the grassroots fight against the feminization of poverty. In addition to the Misión Madres del Barrio and other misiones addressing education, health, and related concerns, the government has created several programs exclusively for womyn. Nora Castañeda heads Banmujer, a low-interest microcredit bank that trains, supports, and funds womyn starting small cooperative businesses. Inamujer, which has recently become Minmujer, or the Ministry of Womyn, is a distinct branch of the government created for the sole purpose of generating and changing policy on behalf of womyn. The Venezuelan government is one of the first in the world to recognize explicitly the need to support womyn’s voices as a distinct political bloc.

Just as the Bolivarian state supports popular womyn’s organizing, many poor and working class womyn support the government and President Chávez. As Nora Castañeda recounts, during the attempted coup against the president, “people were organizing for battle, but at the same time they were… in mourning… especially the women,” [18] because “grassroots women have managed to survive conditions of terrible poverty and with the revolution they have gained so much that to lose it would be truly unbearable… ‘They won’t take our president away from us.'” [19] In her interview, she reminds Michael Albert that womyn head four out of five of the branches of the Venezuelan government, but she echoes the popular sentiment that “we don’t want to replace the president, not even with a woman… because he has a very strong commitment to women, and if we had a woman take his place we could end up with a woman who doesn’t have a very strong commitment to women. Someone like Margaret Thatcher.” [20]

This is the first time that Venezuelan womyn have been encouraged and supported by a government in their organizing, and they do not want to let that slip away.

The poor and working womyn’s movement in Venezuela still faces many issues. Despite the fact that community organizations are beginning to speak about and deal with machismo culture, men’s consciousness appears not to be changing as fast as womyn’s. An emphasis on the alleviation of the poverty that Venezuelan womyn face is clearly integral to their movement, but the great burden of the triple carga can not be completely solved until Venezuelan society encourages men to become involved in housework and incorporate “feminine” (now socialist) values into their lives. Especially as womyn are taking on increasing amounts of responsibility through community organizing and “socioproductive inclusion,” gender equality demands that men take on increasingly mixed roles as well. Furthermore, keeping socialist values such as solidarity and caring largely within the realm of the female encourages men not to be caring. Maribel, another local worker, served dinner to the father of her children when he came over; she explained to me that this was an act of caring for a family member. That he almost never thanked her or even put away his dishes, however, signaled that he might not see this work as a humyn [21] act of trabajo solidario, but rather that he was simply accustomed to his gendered role of eating and not cooking. This is not to say that popular men are more engrossed in the culture of machismo; on the contrary, men of all classes and nationalities can be quite sexist. Such anecdotes, however, do speak to Castañeda’s concern that the popular movement must also examine the role of masculinity.

Although there is room for growth within both the popular womyn’s movement and the Venezuelan government, the two have made enormous progress in their work together to fight the institutionalized sexism of the feminization of poverty and to change the gender consciousness of both men and womyn. This relationship with the state has helped many popular womyn to further formalize, politicize, and strengthen the collectivization of their trabajo solidario, transforming the “feminine” values of that work into socialist values. Venezuela’s recognition of the labor and experiences of doubly and triply oppressed people-Latina, Afro-Venezuelan, and indigenous womyn from the popular classes- is unprecedented and transformative, both for their own culture and for womyn worldwide. This movement, like all feminist movements, is relevant to the lives and immediate goals of its participants and leaders; it is located at the intersection of these forms of oppression, and it has grown out of the longstanding support networks that popular womyn’s lives necessitate. An important difference between this feminism and almost every other, though, is that its members, leaders, activities, and ideology overlap so much with the larger, government-supported Bolivarian movement that the two are nearly one and the same. This has given Venezuelan popular feminism greater strength, but Sujatha Fernandes cautions that populist governments led by men often clash with womyn’s movements and their interests in the long term. [22] Although female leaders abound at some of the highest levels of Venezuelan government, there is no certain prognosis for the role of popular womyn in the Bolivarian movement. My interviews with Venezuelans have shown me, however, that womyn currently retain a protagonistic [23] and supportive-yet critical [24]-role within both the state and the larger social movements. They are not merely followers of a male feminist president. On the contrary, all womyn’s movements have an incredible amount to learn from Venezuelan popular feminists’ keen, growing understanding of their own poverty as institutionalized sexism, their understanding of the particular economic burdens and experiences of womyn around the world, and their understanding of the strategies and tactics they need to fight their own oppression.

Courtney is a student at the Evergreen State College in Olympia, Washington. She recently spent three months studying in Venezuela with Evergreen’s academic program Building Economic and Social Justice.

Notes

1 Fernandes, Sujatha. “Gender, Populism, & Women’s Participation in Popular Politics in the Barrios of Caracas” Paper presented at the annual meeting of the American Political Science Association, Marriott Wardman Park, Omni Shoreham, Washington Hilton, Washington, DC, Sep 01, 2005 . 2009-05-25 : 10.

2 I use this spelling as a feminist statement. Although I am aware of the etymology of the words “man” and “woman,” the “y” differentiates the two, pointing not to the difference between people based on sex, but rather to the fact that a “wo-man” is not simply a different kind of default “man.” When I quote other writers or titles, I use the original spelling.

3 These statistics come from two of the following sources, but specific citations are currently unavailable.

Albert, Michael and Castañeda, Nora. “Gender In Venezuela: An Interview with Nora Castañeda.” ZNet. 20 Sep 2008. 10 Oct 2008 .

Castañeda, Nora and the Women’s Development Bank of Venezuela. “Creating a Caring Economy.” London: Crossroads Books, 2006: .

Fernandes, Sujatha. “Barrio Women and Popular Politics in Chávez’s Venezuela.” Latin American Politics and Society 49.3 (2007): .

Fernandes. “Gender, Populism, and Women’s Participation in Popular Politics in the Barrios of Caracas”: .

4 Fischer-Hoffman, Cory. “Misión Madres del Barrio: A Bolivarian Social Program Recognizing Housework and Creating a Caring Economy in Venezuela.” Masters of Arts Dissertation, Latin American Studies Department, University of Kansas. May 08, 2008: .

5 I have changed all names, and slightly changed some situations, out of respect for those who helped with or contributed to my research and stay in Venezuela.

6 Friedman, Elisabeth Jay. “Venezuela.” The Greenwood Encyclopedia of Women’s Issues Worldwide. Central and South America. Ed. Lynn Walter, Amy Lind. Westport, CT: Greenwood Press, 2003: .

7 Fischer-Hoffman: .

8 Castañeda: .

9 Fernandes. “Barrio Women and Popular Politics in Chávez’s Venezuela”: 18.

10 Ibid: 19.

11 Fischer-Hoffman: 144.

12 Albert, Michael. Italics added.

13 Fernandes. “Barrio Women and Popular Politics in Chávez’s Venezuela”: 4, 4-15.

14 Fischer-Hoffman, Cory: 91.

15 Ibid: 119.

16 Chávez Frías, Hugo R. “Untitled.” Worker’s March for the Yes Vote. Caracas, Venezuela. 22 Jan. 2009.

17 Ibid.

18 Castañeda: 35.

19 Ibid: 37.

20 Albert, Michael.

21 I also choose this spelling to differentiate it from the word “man.” The similarity to the word “womyn,” however, is not intentional; I do not mean to imply that womyn are more humyn than men are. I now spell “humyn” in this way as a personal convention.

22 Fernandes. “Gender, Populism, and Women’s Participation in Popular Politics in the Barrios of Caracas”:24.

23 “Protagonistic” is a popular term in Venezuela, meaning that the person or group takes an active, leading role in a movement or in their own lives.

24 Bohmer, Peter. Interview with Courtney Frantz. 05/28/2009.

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