Feminism Is Uniting Argentina’s Left and Right

Ahead of elections, politicians on both sides are acknowledging the need to empower women.

Women dressed like the former actress and first lady Eva Perón march to celebrate the anniversary of women’s suffrage and denounce the policies of Mauricio Macri’s government in Buenos Aires on Sept. 23.
Women dressed like the former actress and first lady Eva Perón march to celebrate the anniversary of women’s suffrage and denounce the policies of Mauricio Macri’s government in Buenos Aires on Sept. 23. Ronaldo Schemidt/AFP/Getty Images

Two weeks before Argentina’s upcoming general elections, a squad of female congressional candidates addressed a euphoric crowd that had traveled from across the country to the town of La Plata for a 200,000-woman weekend of feminist strategy workshops and marches.

“With sensitivity, sisterhood, and gathering together, we’re going to knock it all down,” said 19-year-old Ofelia Fernández, an abortion rights activist and student organizer predicted to become Buenos Aires’s youngest legislator in history.

In fact, Argentine political parties on both the left and right are running several outspoken feminist candidates on their legislative tickets, a response, analysts say, to the massive feminist street mobilizations of the past four years that included women from across socioeconomic classes and political persuasions. Protests against gender-based killings of women, national women’s strikes, and a campaign that saw abortion nearly legalized in the National Congress last year amount to what Argentines call “the revolution of the daughters.”

The timing of their mobilization made sense. As of the end of last year, 10.5 percent of Argentine women were unemployed compared with 7.8 percent of men, while women with formal jobs earned an average of 25 percent less than men each month. Argentine women do three hours more unpaid domestic work then men on average daily, according to 2013 data. Such truths came into sharper focus after a spate of gender-based murders set the country’s long-organized feminist movement on the march in 2015, and activists intensified their debates on the quieter elements of a system that undervalues women’s lives.

The focus on gender equality is opening opportunities for consensus in a landscape known for its bitter divisions between left- and right-wing political factions.

Politicians, including this year’s presidential candidates, have taken note. “Of all of the demands that have appeared in recent times, undoubtedly the feminist collective, which burst forward in an incredible way, should most call our attention,” the center-left presidential candidate Alberto Fernández said in a televised debate on Oct. 13. Fernández is predicted to win the election by a wide margin; trailing him is the current president, the center-right Mauricio Macri, who said during the same debate that “it’s unacceptable in the 21st century that there are inequalities between men and women.”

Indeed, the focus on gender equality is opening opportunities for consensus in a landscape known for its bitter divisions between left- and right-wing political factions. “The gender agenda has overcome Argentina’s famous rift,” congresswoman Silvia Lospennato of Macri’s Republican Proposal party said in a recent interview. Last year, she brought many in Argentina’s Congress to tears with a speech denouncing women’s deaths after illegal abortions.

Cooperation on creative solutions to Argentina’s problems is urgent. The country’s economy is projected to shrink 3.1 percent this year, the incoming administration will likely need to renegotiate a mostly disbursed $57 billion loan from the International Monetary Fund (IMF), and 35 percent of Argentines are living in poverty, with women and youth overrepresented among the poor. Although feminist candidates from different parties have their disagreements about macroeconomic priorities, they are at least building consensus around proposals such as a government jobs program for domestic care workers, expanded paternity leave, and measures to fight gender-based violence.

“We are not going to have the productivity gains we need as a country without getting more women into the labor market,” said Republican Proposal congressional candidate Camila Crescimbeni, 29, who was campaigning last Friday with a book by the Indian economist Amartya Sen in her bag. “That means acknowledging all of the reasons they are not there, like unpaid care work.”

Paying for care work in particular has become a rallying cry of Argentina’s growing “feminist economics” community, as policy planners float initiatives to address both the female face of poverty and national shortages of infant and elder care. Plans for the first 100 days after the election commissioned by the largest party in Alberto Fernández’s coalition include a blueprint for a national care system that would train and employ younger people as at-home care workers for the elderly and would standardize and raise wages across the sector, including for early childhood caretakers and community center workers.

“These are low-carbon jobs that would stimulate local economies in low-income neighborhoods,” said one of the program designers, Lucía Cirmi Obón, who envisions a national care system eventually employing as many as 600,000 people. Some 2 million people are currently jobless in Argentina, the country’s highest unemployment rate in 13 years.

For his part, Macri has also pledged to expand government daycares and cash benefits for families with young children, as well as increase paternity leave from two to 20 days. His administration expanded telephone hotline assistance for gender-based violence and free access to long-lasting birth control methods, built more than 240 new daycares, and established Argentina’s first daily television program devoted to gender equality. After the Macri administration introduced a campaign to reduce unwanted teenage pregnancy, teen births in Argentina dropped 12 percent in two years.

In this year’s election, feminist candidates differ on how much, and from where, to fund such programs. “Our philosophy is based on quality public investment within our means, not indiscriminate spending, which got Argentina where it is now,” said Lospennato, referring to a string of left-wing governments, including that of former president and Alberto Fernández’s current vice presidential candidate, Cristina Fernández de Kirchner, who ran several years of fiscal deficits after inheriting a budget surplus in her first term.

Mercedes D’Alessandro, the founder of the popular site Feminist Economics, argues that a true feminist approach would recognize care work programs as “investments that put Argentina on a more sustainable path.” In a possible alternative scenario to state payment of such workers’ salaries and benefits, the government could require private employers to pay them, she said in an interview this week. D’Alessandro said a revised IMF agreement should prioritize concrete plans for Argentina’s growth. (They are an afterthought in the current agreement, which centers on monetary contraction and fiscal cuts.)

In broader strokes, Ofelia Fernández peppers her speeches and Instagram stories with the idea that “feminism is incompatible with neoliberalism.” She prefers a feminist labor pricing scheme in which care work is fairly paid. But such a plan would require a level of public and private adjustment that is impossible under the current austerity regime. Instead, this election’s victors will likely have to prioritize boosting employment at all.

In fact, even in the most optimistic scenario for the next two years, there will be little money for new jobs programs due to Argentina’s need to pay back tens of billions of dollars to both the IMF and private creditors. Recognizing as much, feminist candidates have emphasized that many of the initiatives they enthusiastically support are relatively low-cost, even cost-saving. These include requirements for the implementation of equal pay, expanded paternity leave, the legalization of abortion, and educational programming to prevent gender-based violence and provide comprehensive sex education.

The measures have growing appeal in today’s Argentina not only because of their price tags but also because activists and feminist lawmakers have persistently demanded them.

One more thing drawing female candidates together is the example set by a group of congresswomen from different parties in the outgoing legislature who repeatedly united to pass progressive measures on gender—including a requirement that parties run 50 percent women on their legislative tickets, which is in effect for the first time in this election. Approaching the 2018 vote on abortion, they named their group “Sororas,” Latin for “sisterhood.” Even as they now campaign against each other, the Sororas have continued to swap updates in their WhatsApp chat about gender progress in Argentina’s provinces, Karina Banfi of the Radical Civic Union said.

Despite the progress of recent years, Banfi and her colleagues are quick to point out that the most powerful decision-makers in Argentina’s political parties remain overwhelmingly male. And despite the new requirements, the next Congress may contain no more female lawmakers than the current 40 percent, because most parties topped their electoral lists with men, who will be the first to get any seats each party wins. Many parties are also running female candidates hesitant to embrace a feminist agenda, including a new crop of evangelical candidates staunchly opposed to the possibility of legalizing abortion.

“We are still satellites orbiting the real centers of power,” the feminist economist Delfina Rossi told me last week. Still, the likely change of government, the candidacies of several prominent feminist organizers, and continued pressure from the grassroots amount to a “strategic window” for Argentine feminism, according to the psychologist Diana Broggi, who was on the organizing committee of the 200,000-woman La Plata event.

As Argentina’s next government prepares to walk a social and economic tightrope, said the journalist Estefanía Pozzo, it will only benefit from a growing feminist perspective that “listens to more demands and builds consensus further than the traditional party system.”

“It raises the bar for Argentine democracy,” she said.

Catherine Osborn is the writer of Foreign Policy’s weekly Latin America Brief. She is a print and radio journalist based in Rio de Janeiro. Twitter: @cculbertosborn

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