The Construction and Meaning of Women’s Spaces in Organizations for the Unemployed

Cecilia Cross
Florencia Partenio
Consejo Nacional de Ciencia y Tecnología, Argentina

Translation by Bonnie Mann

Beginning in the mid-90s, social struggles have been characterized by the proliferation of new forms of expression for social discontent. En effect, if until then traditional forms of protest were most common (strikes, demonstrations lead by unions and traditional political parties, for example), now blocking streets and routes of travel has come to be one of the privileged forms for denouncing the effects of neoliberal policies on the poor and impoverished sectors of the society. Organizations that have adopted said mode of protest have been called organizaciones piqueteras 1 and have become one of the most important centers of resistance against the increase in unemployment, inequality and poverty. In this way, the organizaciones piqueteras, in addition to putting forth the notion that the problem of unemployment is social in character, developed into spaces for denouncing the vices of traditional politics, presenting themselves as an alternative to “clientele politics” and to the “corrupt leaders” of traditional political organizations.

If these organizations in fact share many common characteristics—such as the political commitments already mentioned above, or the use of social politics as a tool for organizing—they are also the result of distinct forms of political development. In effect, each of these organizations is responding to political traditions that permit them to orient their actions in the public sphere, to build alliances and to identify their antagonists among the distinct piquetero groups and to confront other political actors, especially the national government.

In order to complete the present project, we worked with four organizations of the suburbs of Buenos Aires—some of them with a national presence—which are responding to different forms of political development. We will designate them with fictional names in order to comply with the commitment to confidentiality, which we made during the interviews. The organizations we analyze will be called by the following names: Federación Sindical Piquetera (FSP: Federated Union of Piquetera], Linea Clasista del Oeste (LCO: Class Line of the West), Frente Piquetero del Sur (FPS Piqueteros Southern Front), and Linea Zona Sur (LZS: Line of the Southern Zone). 2  The first of these—FSP—is a federation which is part of a center for union organizing, the second—LCO—is made up of the unemployed workers of another union which is connected to a leftist political party. The main leaders of both were persecuted 3 in the struggles for housing that took place in the 1980s. The FPS and the LZS belonged to the same piqueteros group which split in November of 2003, primarily because of their position in relation to the national government: If for the FPS , the present national government is essentially continuous with those who came before, and therefore should be confronted by the same methods, the leaders of the LZS taking into account popular approval of the president, think that it is necessary to build a truce with this administration.Today, these groups are in the process of coordinating joint actions in their struggle.

Since the beginning, women have been in the majority in these groups. As they gained experience, they assumed different roles in the communal work spaces and in three of the four organizations we analyzed—that is to say, in all but the LZS—we encountered specific spaces related to meetings and struggle for women piqueteras, which we have called “women’s spaces.” Each one of these has its specific name, in the Linea Clasista del Oeste (LCO) it regards the Matanza 4 affiliation of a non-governmental organization of women (which we will call the “Association of Women”), in the FSP “General Secretariat of Equality of Opportunities” (although one of its leaders told us that it should really be called the “Secretariat of Women”) and in the FPS “Space for Women in Struggle.”

The Women’s Association works in coordination with, but separated (spatially and organically) from the LCO. What establishes the relation between them is the presence of recognized participants of the LCO in the leadership of the association. This separation is understood from the historical founding of the organization in which the two spaces were always separated. The secretariat of gender of the FSP is organically related to that of the center for unions to which the federation belongs. It’s interesting to see how, at the level of the central organization, this secretariat is carried forward by feminist activists in the FSP, the leaders are neighborhood representatives who are very close to the leader of the organization. In this way, the demands end up being products of the interactions between various leaders. In terms of “Space for Women in Struggle,” its principal characteristic is that it is a meeting place for other women’s organizations from other movements that don’t necessarily belong to the FPS. In this case, as we’ll see below, this type of structure marks this space in a particular way.

In this study we intend to investigate, in the first place, women’s spaces that were built inside of each organization, where women faced common problematic situations and had to work through a series of obstacles to secure their role as active social and political participants. In addition to this, in the second part of the work, we will trace the meanings that the women attributed to these specific spaces and the connections they went about developing with other women’s movements.

Tensions involved in the construction of women’s areas in piquetero organizations.

As we stated before, there is a massive female participation in piqueteros organizations. These women assume different roles in social work spaces which support the material reproduction of the organization, i.e. serving lunch to children whose parents can not afford their alimentation (in “collective diners”), social care management, collecting and distributing clothes to neighbourhood’s families, etc. This participation can also be observed in the public sphere, by their involvement in piquete actions, mobilisations, streets or public buildings “camping”, etc. Concerning the organization’s structure, women are over-represented among the neighbourhood’s referents but only very few of them reach the leading positions.

We have interviewed both referents and leaders. Among them we have found two different profiles. In the first place, those who has inhabited in the neighbourhood for a long time. Most of them had already developed some type of political and social activities in 80’s and 90’s, oriented to solve up social needs in their neighbourhood. In the second place those who had former feminist activism experience. This group corresponds, in general, to middle class women who try to make a contribution to a new feminine conscience on female members of piquetero organizations.

In general these referents and leaders have been the basis of women’s areas constitution. Such areas exist in three of the four studied organizations (LCO, FSP and FPS), and their principal objective is to generate the above mentioned conscience. This women’s spaces are, conformed by women coming from both experiences, together with others who make their first appearance in the public space through their participation in piquetero organizations.

The women’s areas have started as a space for women reflection, about their participation as organization members. The first topic to discuss were related to women participation in assemblies, or in meeting where they have to interact with men. The nature of these problems led to the women to decide to meet first ” first by they own “, to be able to think better about the causes that were preventing them from talk aloud in that ambiences. Later on, the debate was slipping towards other topics that were not approached (at least as central topic) for the organization and were not part of the demands these were supporting. Hereby there a sort of gender agenda was been conformed, which gave new impulse to the women’s areas. These new issues are related especially to health, family planning, domestic and gender violence and “not – penalisation” of abortion, with different emphasis depending on the political tradition of the organization 5. At the same time the question of women’s chances of occupying directive charges in the organization still remains a central topic.

In all the cases, as we said, the conformation of women’s areas was the result of the joint operation of some feminist women -as individual (FSP and FPS) or as part of NGOs (LCO)- along with local women. However, since these areas were an attempt to re-shape women’s participation in the organization, they had to overcome two kinds of obstacles: on one hand, male’s suspicions and opposition and, on the other, women’s own tensions related to their different vital roles: as mothers and wives, as political partners, and as part of political organizations.

In the first place, women’s areas appeared as a threat to men’ s leadership. As one interviewed said: “they think that we join to defame them, but we are not only working for women… now I can explain to my daughter what a contraceptive method is, in other moment I would have felt very ashamed of doing so. “. Nevertheless the resistance to participation came also from home. In the frame of a “macho” culture, when women started working out of the house their husbands expressed their suspicions about women’s activities as a way of limit their independence: “To go out to fight for work, and for our children’s meal has its displeasures, because sometimes our husband say “you must be dating someone” and then your children ask you share more time with them, they hate the organization because it steals their mum and dad away“.

On the other hand, the women are not indifferent to these complaints. They express the feeling that when they meet on their own they are “betraying the male partners “, who are also partners of struggle, and sometimes their husbands and sons: “sometimes they [men in the organization] said to me that it was a betrayal to make a women’s area, and my heart is with the organization, but I felt we need an specific place for women problems“. Nevertheless what turns out to be more complex is how to raise the need to discuss “feminine” problematic when there is so much to do. This is what we have called a “hierarchical structuring of demands” (Cross and Partenio, 2004) 6, which is one of the most difficult aspects to overcome for women, provided that sometimes is a dilemma for themselves: “Sometimes we are running behind of the urgency, of children’s meal, but if one of our mates is beaten by her partner, that is also urgent, isn’t it?

Nevertheless, when the participation of these women is consolidated, they finally win their partners’ (men and women) respect and consideration. Simultaneously, the construction of such spaces installed as political matters issues such as: gender and domestic violence, contraception, the need to acquire a leading role in the organization, etc.

As we have mentioned, in FPS there is not a women’s area. At the very beginning they made part of the same group with another organization (FPS) but some differences in the present government “political characterisation” causes a rupture in November, 2003.

Actually the women in FPS had been working together with her female colleagues in FPS in the conformation of a women’s area for the entire movement. After the break, the feminist group that was stimulating the women’s discussion group decided to stay in FPS. Besides, the main opponent to the feminist action is the most important leader of FPS. Thus, the problem of a women’s area constitution in FPS seems to be conditioned by three principal reasons: the absence of an activist group propitiating its creation, the scarce motivation of the women in the organization to stimulate it, and the lack of political will of its male leaders. As we have seen the first two points are more important to explain the absence of a women’s area than the last one, since men had not been a support of women’s efforts to organise themselves in the other cases either.

In spite of this, it is very interesting to consider how the conflicts we have pointed out in the other organizations are also present in FPS. Although what we call de “gender agenda” is out of this organization’s political platform, one (female) leader explained that exists a dilemma to solve up for them, because they need “to find a moment to talk about what happens to women” but “daily fight against poverty does not leave us enough time”. Once again we see how women’s preoccupations are relegated to a second place, generating, a false opposition between the demands related to their poverty situation (pretended as more general) and the ones referred to their feminine condition.

So far we have seen how female participation in women’s areas leads to question gender relations in the organizations and at home. When women participates in family income generation and political activities, gender division of work in the heart, but also in the community is challenged. This process involves not only the conflict with male partners but also a reshaping of women’s subjectivity. In next paragraph we are going to analyse the way and the deepness of feminine roles transformation due to this experience.

Between the meaning of the spaces and the connections with other women’s movements.

In the previous section, we saw how participation in women’s spaces led to questioning relations of gender as much on the inside of the organizations as in the domestic sphere. In this section we will see how the women’s spaces are meaningful in each one of the organizations in which they exist, for this section we will not speak of the LZS.

As we said at the beginning, these spaces owe their origin first to the actions of some women who, moving beyond their diverse places of origin, were the first to perceive the necessity of organizing themselves to attend to the problems derived from the conditions of their gender.

The pioneers 7 or “movers and shakers” for these spaces, recognized the importance of nourishing the encounters between women of the movement because it permitted “seeing each woman through her own words,” and bringing their most intimate problems (cases of violence and abortion for the most part) out of silence and out of the private sphere. In this process, that which is lived as private becomes visible and acquires a public status which makes possible new forms of confronting, processing, and making meaningful one’s own experience. This visibility is achieved in the very space of the group meeting, by “taking the floor” and putting into play what Graciela Hierro 8 calls one’s own experience. In this way, it is through participation that the women take the first steps on a path from which there is no going back 9, which contributes to the sensation they have of “breaking the isolation,” politicizing the domestic sphere.

Their task has, then, two central axes, on the inside of the movement and with the women of which it is composed. This is to say, the cultural patterns which they combat are confronted with the men—the leaders for the most part—but they are also reproduced by daily activities that are carried out in the organization, in which the sexual division of labor is often confirmed by the attitudes of the women themselves.

A third axis has to do with the consolidation and growth of women’s spaces. This means on the one hand, the protection of their own space and on the other, the bringing together of new women who are interested in or drawn to the space. The interest is of two types: on the part of members of the organization who feel themselves to be challenged by the existence of gendered space, and on the part of activist groups that get involved in the movement in order to contribute to the creation of a new feminine consciousness. This last group has a strong presence both in the FPS and the LCO.

At this point, it is important to trace the influence of other occasions that serve to articulate and install a “gender agenda” within the movements. In the coordination of actions, women who are involved realize a daily “labor of ants,” 10 that raises questions within the movement’s communal work spaces. In this sense, their participation had influence in generating changes in relations with men. In the experiences of the FPS and LCO the men, who at first showed themselves to be very reticent, began to collaborate so that their compañeras could travel to the National Women’s Conferences. The leaders remarked that many times the men took this trip to be more or less “like an excursion,” when in reality it is part of the “political struggle.”

We observed, then, the presence of distinct intersecting connections in terms of a “gender agenda” that is connected with diverse organizations. Taking into account the categories developed by Chejter and Laudno 11, we can think in terms of types of connections between the women’s spaces of the organizations of the unemployed and women’s movements and feminist organizations.

a. —Connections made annually and of short duration, like the National Conference of Women, where feminist organizations, peasant organizations, indigenous organizations, organizaciones piqueteras, human rights organizations,political parties, et. al., converge. Observing the organizations studied, we noted that all of them participated in the last conference in Mendoza. But the LCO and the FSP were represented by much more robust delegations than the other organizations we looked at, and moreover, they were composed of women from all over the country, which is directly related to their larger size, their national presence, and their access to resources. There is a correspondence between those stories told by the women representatives to the conference, they converge in maintaining the importance of the conferences as a place in which there is “strong debate, there is an extremely important process because even the compañeras find their world-views deeply challenged or shattered. 12

b. —Specific connections for a particular date that includes marches or mobilizations that take place regularly.

c. —Specific connections in relation to a theme from the “gender agenda” (violence, repression, etc.), which in contrast to the cases mentioned before are daily realities and known to the politicians.

d. —More restricted connections and of medium duration for actions related to training, cooperation, or development.

These connections, which cross all the organizations, mark them in a certain way which, together with the actions deployed and the political traditions of the “pioneer” women, contribute to endow each of the women’s spaces with a certain stamp. These particularities—which we analyze below—have to do with how the spaces are developed (from the ground up or vice versa, from the outside in or internally), with their level of institutionalization and their place in the organization.

In the case of the General Secretariat of the FSP, it is important to emphasize that their development was achieved through a top-down process. This is to say that, at the national level, the particular groups were instructed to create local spaces for women. This explains the high level of institutionalization and formal recognition, as much on the part of the federation as of the central office. If indeed this space is a product of the national leaders’ initiative, men and women, who considered its development, creation and consolidation necessary, it isn’t weakened free of contradictions in respect to its role in the organization and its areas of competence. 13 Moreover, the top-down development generates a lot of tension because of the heterogeneity of positions within the same space, which brings the principal activists to recognize that there is still “much work to be done:”

In this way, beyond the difficulties that position the secretariat at the federation level and the central office level, the work within the secretariat at the level of women’s consciousness who participate there is the primary challenge confronted by the pioneers of the FSP. In effect, the fact that among the movers and shakers of the women’s space there are feminist activists and active Catholics generates innumerable contradictions. No less important are the tensions generated by the fact that many of the women who participate do it because of their personal affinity for the local leaders—who are often the wives of the local male leaders—who are generally far removed from a politics of gender. In terms of the connections with other women’s organizations we should say that in this case we observed that these were mainly to be found in public forums and through the words of the principal leaders of the women’s spaces.

For its part, in the experience of the FPS, as we already mentioned, the connections with other women’s organizations are central and form part of the habitual activities of the women’s space. In effect, we observed that in the sexual and reproductive health workshops, conferences, marches and artistic activities in public, their work was frequently coordinated with peasant organizations— MOCASE, 14 MOCAFOR 15 and Red Puna 16—groups of young feminists—Women of the West—and women’s political action groups—Public Women. Moreover, they took up the historical experiences of Latin American women’s organizations as a reference point, especially the women of Brazil’s MST, 17 to whom they own their slogan “When a woman advances, not a single man is set back.”

In contrast to the previously mentioned case, even if the levels of commitment and consciousness aren’t totally homogeneous, the women who participate in this space do it because of their conviction that it is necessary to develop their own space for struggle.

The first meetings took place in the organizations general monthly assemblies, which permitted women from various neighborhoods to find a moment to meet, to discuss for an hour their concerns in relation to women, activists, mothers. This was the beginning of the “Space for Women in Struggle.” With time, as the group was consolidated, they began to open the meetings to women from other organizations.

In opposition to what we observed in the FSP, the recognition of this space was very complicated and was resisted by the men of the organization, above all before the organization split. For this reason the space was presented as a “space” and not as an “area of work.” The advantage here is that participation is voluntary and assumes a certain commitment, and that being a more informal space they can avoid “setting down the party line.” At the same time, it generates an additional work responsibility for the women of the women’s space, because the activities they organize are not recognized at the same level as the work which is done in the “areas of work.” From this fact, as well, comes the difficulty of making the activities of the organization and the women’s space compatible, in spite of which the women emphasize the importance of continuing to meet.

In terms of the development of the space of the Association of Women of Matanza, this is the result of a process engaged in by the “pioneers” after they decided to acquire their own space in their neighborhood. The later connection with an association of women—with a national profile—contributed to a greater level of institutionalization of the space. This model, if it is also “top-down” in the sense that the principal movers and shakers were important leaders of the LCO, is different than what was observed in the FSP, insofar as these were “neighborhood women” and the space was developed outside of the organización piquetera.

On the other hand, the organic separation between LCO and the Association, permitted them to sidestep some of the tensions that we found in the case of the FSP. Nevertheless, when they decided on the creation of the Association, the women were subjected to some comments in which they were called “traitors” to the groups cause because they were “starting up something parallel.”

In addition, they haven’t escaped some situations in which the demands associated with class status imposed themselves on those associated with women’s condition. Two examples of this are, on the one hand, the transfer of the first locale for the Association to the LCO, and the tensions that were generated when, faced with a case of domestic violence, doubts arose about how to proceed if the batterer was a compañero.

The connections that were woven over time ranged from training to coming together in marches and actions with women’s and feminist organizations, around the cause of violence against women.

In regards to the place of the Association in the organization, if as we have said they were essentially separate spaces, there was a distribution of skills between them that turned out to be mutually beneficial. The Association concerned itself with questions related to gender and domestic violence, the struggle for the decriminalization of abortion, training in sexual and reproductive health, etc. The LCO concerned itself with the development and administration of social politics, and the interaction with public functionaries and other social organizations working in these areas. In this way, these specializations are seen as a virtue and not as a problem on the part of the women.

In this way, we see how in this development, the fact that the women’s space and the organization emerged at the same time together with a clear separation of skills, allowed for the dissolution of many of the tensions which we observed in the other two cases, if not their complete elimination.

Final Reflections

Throughout these pages we’ve analyzed how the formation of women’s spaces—or their absence—put various points of tension into play. In the first place, the men’s resistance and reticence when faced with the women’s decision to organize themselves autonomously. Then, the process through which women succeed in resignifying their lived realities, putting social problems which appeared to be confined to the private sphere into perspective. Finally, the fruit of an exchange between women of distinct social sectors and with dissimilar political histories, the appearance of new concerns and demands that weren’t part of the political agenda of the movement and that began to be promoted from these spaces.

In this way, a new role for women in the organization began to be delineated, which requires at the same time a questioning of the sexual division of labor.

In the second place, we reviewed how this process is perceived by its protagonists and the implications the connections with other experiences and the political traditions of the organizations have for the forms of development of women’s spaces in each case.

The tasks we noted to be pending aside, one cannot think of the social matrix in which these women’s struggle and that of the organizations to which they belong are embedded in isolation. The question of the full political participation of women—which is to say, also in decision making—continues to be a difficult issue to resolve and confront, because it assumes the overcoming of certain cultural and social patterns which are found to be deeply sedimented and which are produced almost imperceptibly—but in an inexorable form—in the daily, most ordinary practices. The fact that in the spaces we analyzed there is a consciousness of this, seems to us to be the principal contribution of these women to the always arduous struggle for a society in which men and women will have the same rights and the same possibilities for struggling toward a world of which they dream. At times, the collective struggle is the catalyst 18 for changing the relations of power in the home, in the barrio, and in the organization.

Because of this, in the face of the discourses that postulate that women’s autonomous actions put the integrity of the organization at risk, they respond by organizing themselves more and organizing themselves better to struggle for a world without oppression: neither of class, nor of gender.




1 Translator’s note: Organizaciones piqueteras are organizations of poor, unemployed people, who take their name from their primary tactic for political action, i.e. “picketing,” which here means blocking streets and routes of travel. Such a blockade is called a “piquete” or “picket” in Argentina. Because an English translation would be awkward at best, the authors and I have agreed to leave the name in the original Spanish. This will hold true for all grammatical forms of the word: the noun form designating persons who participate in such organizations and actions is piqueteros (masculine) and piqueteras (feminine).

2 Translator’s note: The term “linea” here is to be understood as a “political line” or tendency. Linea Clasista refers to a political tendency that is focused on economic class as a site for political organizing. Throughout the article the organizations will be named by their Spanish acronyms.

3 Translator’s note: “Fogueados,” more literally “baptized by fire.”

4 Translator’s note: “Matanza” is the name of the poorest and largest district on the outskirts of Buenos Aires.

5 In those spaces where feminist activists are more represented the claims against penalisation of abortion and gender violence are more strongly supported. In FSP, where catholic values are more spread, these demands are relegated to a second place, while domestic violence become the central issue.

6 We have worked in this notion in Cross, Cecilia and Partenio, Florencia “Mujeres y participación: Las organizaciones piqueteras y las relaciones de género”, work presented in Second National Congress, Social Sciences, Buenos Aires University , Buenos Aires, October 2004, Publish in CD.

7 We take the “pioneers” notion developed by Norma Giarraca in “El Movimiento de Mujeres Agropecuarias en Lucha: protesta agraria y género durante el último lustro en Argentina” en Norma Giarraca comp. ¿Una nueva ruralidad en América Latina?, Clacso, Asdi, Buenos Aires , 2001

8 Hierro, Graciela (1998) Ética y Feminismo, Coordinación de Humanidades, Col. Diversa, UNAM, México.

9 Retaking Karina Bidaseca’s expresión in “Piqueteras: Identidad, Política y Resistencia”, electronic publication in , Buenos Aires, 2003.

10 Translator’s note: “Labor of ants” or “trabajo de hormigas” refers to very difficult, very busy work.

11 Chejter, Silvia y Laudano Claudia (2002) Género en los Movimientos Sociales en Argentina, CECYM, Buenos Aires.

12 Translator’s note: “find their world-views deeply challenged or shattered” is my best attempt at translating “se les quiebra la cabeza” which means “break their heads,” literally. The authors explained this phrase to me as follows: “They discover things they had never thought about before, which brings them to a “break” with their previous way of thinking, particularly about women’s situation—and they begin to see their reality in another way, their relationship with their partner, their family, their work, and their political activism.

13 Author’s explanation: In spite of the formal support for the creation of this women’s space, they have had and still have tensions/discussions about what the role of the secretariat and its areas of competence should be. In reality, the founders think it should be called the Women’s Secretariat, rather than the “Gender Secretariat,” and that the inequality between men and women inside the organization should be addressed. The male leaders aren’t entirely in agreement with this.

14 Translator’s Note: “Movimiento Campesino de Santiago del Estero” or “Peasant Movement of Santiago del Estero” which is a northern province in Argentina.

15 Translator’s Note: “Movimiento Campesino de Formosa” or “Peasant Movement of Formosa,” another Northern province in Argentina.

16 Translator’s Note: Puna is a northern region of the country, this organization also involves people from other provinces like Jujuy, Salta, etc.

17 Translator’s Note: “Movimiento sin tierra,” or “Landless Peasant’s Movement.”

18 Translator’s Note: “Puntapié,” literally “kick,” translated here as “catalyst.”