Book Review: ‘Latin American Women’

Overturning machismo

‘Latin American Women’, edited by Olivia Harris. The Minority Rights Group (London. 1983)

This report from the Minority Rights Group aims to draw attention to problems experienced by Latin American women “in the context of economic instability and class difference”. It makes no pretence of being comprehensive but is a valid insight into some of the problems facing working class women in Latin America.

The report is highly critical of the ideology of machismo, which attempts to emphasise a demarcation of sexual characteristics. In this ideology housework is a female occupation and men who undertake it are labelled effeminate. Man is seen as authoritarian, exercising control of female kin whereas woman is submissive, dependent on the male and devoted to family and home. Some aspects of the report are limited in their criticism of this problem. Suzana Prates in her essay “Women’s Work in the Southern Cone. Monetarist Policies in Argentina. Uruguay and Chile” writes of the repression of trade unions and the lowering of the real wage. Women have been forced on to the employment market to supplement the family income and Prates complains that “unless there is some change in the burden of responsibility women carry for housework and care of their children, additional employment will merely increase the burden”. But the real problem is not so much that women have an unequal share of domestic responsibilities but that their absorption into the labour market is a means of exploitation of them as members of the working class.

Guillermina V. de Villalva in “A Throwaway Work Force? Women in the Mexican Border Industries” argues that there was a massive incorporation of women into the workforce because “their low wages guaranteed the profitability of the new enterprise”. This is accounted for by women’s docility arising out of their lack of trade union consciousness and their willingness to work extremely hard.

The report is torn between an indictment of the exploitation of women as workers and their subversion within the home. The reality is that the ideology of machismo is being exploited by the forces of capitalism. Virginia Guzmán in “Women of the Lima Shanty Towns, Peru” argues that “. . . women end up with the least stable work because it has to be combined with their responsibilities in the home”. During a period when there is increasing male unemployment, women are used as a cheap substitute. Prates argues that the effect of male unemployment is to force wives into paid employment but that this is in the area of ” . . . unskilled and part-time or temporary jobs . . . (because] women . . . have to combine housework with earning something to survive”.

The report ought not to look simply towards the equalising of domestic relationships but to recognise that the ethos of machismo allows for the division of the working class on sexual grounds. Women are a cheaper clement of the working class, which their non-participation in union activity will exacerbate. The real issue is the suppression of the working class by selectively exploiting its weakest members. It is not a question of male versus female in the same way as it would not be between a cheaper immigrant workforce and an indigenous population. The need for maximum profits will ensure that if there is a section of the working class who can be more efficiently exploited then that exploitation will take place.

Women in Latin America should recognise their working class status and participate in trade unions to resist the erosion of wages that is taking place. It is true that the ideology of machismo must be overturned but that can only be done through the conscious recognition of working class interests regardless of sexual differences. It is in the interests of the capitalist economy, because the survival of capitalism relies on the division of the working class among themselves, that ideologies such as machismo exist.

Philip Bentley

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