Global Feminist Profiles highlights feminist leaders all over the world who are creating change and empowering their countrywomen to demand equality.
The history of Mexico’s feminist movement over the nearly forty years since its inception is inexorably linked to Marta Lamas. Marta, called Mexico’s leading feminist, was instrumental in the birth of the movement and in the construction of brilliant discourse on issues critical to women’s rights, including gender construction and abortion. Since the foundational years of the movement, Marta Lamas has been a theoretician and an organizer, an inspiration and an agent for change.
She has criticized modern feminism, however. She’s written that the modern movement is divided by identity politics, that conservative forces hold back new critical theoretical analysis, and that there aren’t enough young feminists. She does have some faith in us, though– she said to one interviewer that
I have a lot of hope for the young generation of feminists. There is a generation of young girls who are seeing things in a new way; and I hope that they will bring a new discourse and new answers.
The Leader of a Movement
An anthropologist by training, Ms. Lamas currently serves as a Political Science professor at the Autonomous Technological Institute of Mexico (ITAM) and editorialist for several important Mexican newspapers (El Processo and Diario Monitor). Ms. Lamas describes herself as “a feminist activist and an intellectual, a mix of theory and practice.” She was there as the feminist movement grew and refined its tactics and messages. When she saw a hole in the movement, she founded a committee or a journal or an organization to fill it.
Marta Lamas is now one of the leading feminist intellectuals not just in Mexico, but in the entire region. In 2005, Ms. Lamas was recognized by the international community when she was nominated for a Nobel Peace Prize as part of the project “1,000 Women for the Nobel Peace Prize for 2005.” She has written a host of books and articles on feminism, gender and abortion, and since 1990 has edited the regions’ most important feminist journal, debate feminista. Her most recent book is entitled Feminism: Transmissions and Retransmissions (Feminismo: transmisiones y retransmisiones).
In 1992, after informal participation in various committees and feminist action groups, Marta Lamas and several colleagues co-founded the Information Group on Reproductive Choice (GIRE, by its initials in Spanish). GIRE was founded because Lamas and her colleagues saw that the debate around abortion had been dominated by extreme positions and misinformation. They set out to systematize and disseminate information on abortion and reproductive and sexual health and rights from the bioethical, social and legal perspectives to lawmakers and the press. Over time, GIRE’s legal function has grown, and it is now the leading legal and legislative organization on these issues in Mexico, and a vanguard in the region.
Marta also founded the Simone de Beauvoir Leadership Institute, and describes Ms. De Beauvoir as an idol. Marta is president of the board of a women’s fund in Mexico called Semillas (Spanish for “Seeds,” and a rough acronym for their full name, Mexican Society for Women’s Rights) that raises money from women to support women’s initiatives. Semillas explicitly recognizes that “women are the central motor for the majority of families in Mexico, but women are left out of the human rights discussion in social, economic, political and cultural discussions.” Their model is one of empowerment and of social investment: “Women Investing in Women.” There is great power in that model in Mexico, where women for so long had little control over financial resources—both the investors and the women who receive funding are empowered through the exchange. Speaking of empowerment, Marta also serves as coordinator of the Independent Sex Workers’ Support Group.
Years of effort by Marta Lamas and her feminist sisters bore fruit in 2007 when abortion was decriminalized up to 12 weeks gestation in Mexico City (more complete discussion of the legislation here and here). The legislation was undoubtedly the result of the 38 years of work by the movement, driven by Ms. Lamas’ ingenious positioning of the issue of abortion. GIRE lawyers helped draft the legislation, and later helped coordinate its defense against unconstitutionality lawsuits at the Mexican Supreme Court. Marta Lamas testified.
Marta Lamas is known in Mexican intellectual and political society for her cutting analysis, and for her off-color sense of humor. She’s performed with two political cabarets, one called Las Leonas. These days for the release of new issues of debate feminista Marta performs with an act called Las Moscas Muertas that presents spectacles characterized by original political folk songs, physical humor, and wild props.
I worked for more than a year at GIRE and met Marta a number of times—I was even her secret Santa! But I’m still in total awe of her. She has been called, tongue-in-cheek, the Gloria Steinem of Mexico. But this title doesn’t do justice to the influence her thought has had on both feminist and gender theory and the vibrant activism that theory has driven in Mexico. The progress brought by feminism in Mexico, however stilted and stalled by machismo and the political machine, is inarguably in part a result of Ms. Lamas’ brilliance, passion, and commitment.
Brook Elliott-Buettner is a freelance human rights policy researcher and writer living in New York. More information and work is available at www.brookelliottbuettner.com.