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06/01/93

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WOMEN OF CHILE REDEFINE POLITICS AND PUBLIC LIFE

STANFORD - When poor women around Santiago, Chile, first joined survival groups in the wake of the 1973 military coup, the men in their communities were either jailed, dead or forced underground by military repression. Researchers assumed the phenomenal growth of women's organizations would be short-lived, a reaction of mothers to harsh economic necessities.

Two decades later, thousands of these organizations still are growing in number, size and scope. There are talleres productivos, in which women produce products, mostly textiles, to help support their families financially. But these and other women's organizations also provide social services and in some cases an important political voice for their neighborhoods, and even in their homes, helping to overcome male domination.

What is going on in the squatters' communities that rim Chile's capital city is no less than a redefinition of public life, a definition shaped by women who are "active agents" of change, not simply passive mothers responding to a family crisis, says Liliana Suarez, a Stanford University doctoral student in anthropology.

Whereas once these women stood at the fringes of politics, today they have expanded the public services in their area to include day care and alternative health services.

The members of the talleres "think of themselves as more than an economic alternative," she said, because the necessities of life in their neighborhoods also include "protecting themselves from powerful forces - violence and structural economic conditions - that have been out of their control."

Suarez's soon-to-be-published study of women's popular movements in Chile won the 1993 Robert Textor Award for outstanding anthropological creativity. The $500 award, endowed by the Stanford professor emeritus after whom it is named, is open to all Stanford students who apply anthropological approaches to the study of a significant problem. Her work is an incisive contribution to the study of contemporary social movements as well as to gender studies, said Professor George Collier, chairman of the Anthropology Department and himself a researcher of social movements in Latin America.

Suarez spent her first eight years in Colombia and moved with her family to Spain. As a university student, she became interested in how popular masses in Latin America gain more voice. She became fascinated reading about the growth of women's movements in urban squatter communities throughout much of Latin America, and was particularly amazed by the women in Chile because virtually all public life had come to a halt there until the poorest women emerged as a challenge to the state's absolute authority.

"Most of the research I read said that women participated because they are mothers facing economic necessity," Suarez said. "But I wondered, why don't we find this around the world, because there are very poor families in many places?"

Suarez went to Santiago in 1991 and befriended members of several women's organizations. In exchange for their help with her research, she took photographs for their brochures, which they need in order to try to sell their textiles around the world.

"I've made many friends, and we still write letters," she said.

She found that what the women call necessity, or necesidad, is not simply economic and that no existing organizations were able to address their perception of it, which determined the direction the women took.

"They've had to develop their own strategies because their necesidad didn't fit within the strategies and goals of the church, the feminists or the leftists," she said. "I've watched some of these organizations work with the church on one thing and with the feminists on another at the same time."

The Catholic Church, the political left that has traditionally represented the poor of Chile in politics, and private feminist organizations from other countries all played a role in bringing the women together or in setting the tone of their discussions, she said. After the 1973 military coup, a dictatorship imposed economic policies that caused massive unemployment and a dramatic reduction in education, health care and services such as water and electricity.

"Almost immediately after the coup, the church supported collective survival strategies . . . and its impact was greater among women than men," Suarez said.

Community kitchens, dining rooms, gardens and buying groups were organized to feed and clothe the poor, often in the courtyards of churches. The church's "moral legitimacy helped women not only to negotiate with their husbands the 'permission' to participate in the new urban organizations but also, and most important, to reconstruct their role in society" from passive subjects to active citizens, Suarez said.

Necesidad, in this historical context, is partly defined by the sexual division of labor, she said.

"In a dependent, underdeveloped country like Chile, women join the labor market because of poverty, not because of increased employment opportunity," she said.

While the women were able to organize themselves to produce textiles that intermediaries could sell internationally, they could not entirely replace their husbands' lost income, she said. This prompted them to create more organizations to provide for such needs as child and health care. The talleres, which most often produce textiles, also took on training women to operate machinery, handle finances and in other ways increase their professional skills.

The women's participation, Suarez said, has more to do with the "hegemonic, male-dominated, dependent capitalist society than with women's identity as mothers." In other words, poverty and political exclusion, in some circumstances, she said, can "mobilize women in a way that challenges the traditional family structure" of the culture and also its definitions of the public sphere of life.

To take charge, women first had to find a physical space they could control, she said.

"It cannot be in a house, because that is a specific woman's territory," she said. "It must be a neutral place, and many started in the backyards of churches."

The organizations had to become separate institutions to meet all their necesidad. The church, for instance, did not address gender issues such as women's health needs, especially those related to birth control. The feminists were often middle-class women, who talked in abstract terms and had women like the ones they were trying to counsel to take care of their own houses and children. The leftist, class-based political movements did not address sexual discrimination or strategies for dealing with battering husbands and other forms of machismo.

"Most of the women's organizations stress the importance of democratic and cooperative principles," she said, and some have had difficulty in trying to market their products independently because it requires a division of labor and non-democratic decision making.

"The organizations are democratic, but it is not because they are women's groups," she said. "There is just a strong emphasis on everybody talking, everybody having the opportunity to be included."

Men are joining the groups too, even as democracy has returned and allowed them to once again participate in more conventional male- dominated political organizations.

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