Argentine feminists were some of the first to originally call for an International Women’s Strike on March 8, following their very successful women’s strike on October 19 of last year. Organizing for the women’s strikes has come out of, not only a new wave of feminist activism in relation to gendered violence, but also the organizing of precarious workers and other forms of activism that overflow the institutional structures of trade unions and Leftist parties. Indeed, participation in the March 8 strike and subsequent march to Plaza de Mayo were huge, but they were not the only large mobilizations in Argentina that week. On Monday March 6, teachers went on strike and held a massive march in downtown Buenos Aires in support of public education and fair contract negotiations; the following day, the major union federations convoked another massive march against Macri’s anti-labor policies. However, at the end of that march, the union leaders were run off the stage by rank and file union members calling for the unions to set a date for a general strike. Thus, in a context in which the unions are largely seen to be capitulating to the government’s neoliberal measures, it is the feminist movement and movements of women workers that are leading the opposition to Macri, and in the process creating new alliances, infrastructures of care and self-defense, and processes of political organization.
In this interview, Spanish activist-researchers Marta Malo and Amador Fernández-Savater interview Verónica Gago and Natalia Fontana who were involved in organizing the women’s strikes in Buenos Aires on October 19 and on March 8. Vero and Nati draw on their long experience with militant research with Colectivo Situaciones and other groups, as well as their participation in the March 8 organizing from their own positions. Additionally, Nati serves as the communications secretary of the airline workers’ union, giving her insight into the tumultuous relation between unions and the women’s movements. In this interview, they point to a resonance between the current iteration of the women’s strike and the earlier experience of Precarias a la Deriva, of which Marta was a part, a militant research project exploring and intervening in forms of precarious feminized labor. The strike also highlights a new type of feminism in Latin America: a feminism of the masses, rooted in material struggles in working-class neighborhoods, migrant communities, and organizations of informal workers. It is in this territorialization of feminism where we can see issues of social reproduction being prioritized, perhaps laying the groundwork for a new feminist internationalism and a feminism of the 99%.
– Liz Mason-Deese
The vibrations generated by the Argentine women’s movement are felt at a distance. Therefore we wanted to approach it to learn more. We did so led by friendly hands: we had met Verónica Gago and Natalia Fontana through the waves produced by another explosion in Argentina, in this case the insurrection of December 2001 that they experienced as part of Colectivo Situaciones.
At that time, in Spain, we were wondering with other women, what is our strike? What is the collective gesture in feminine that interrupts the binary machine of production and reproduction? (That was the question that launched the space of action-investigation Precarias a la deriva). Now, the question reappears, with an unprecedented intensity and massiveness, in the Argentinean women’s movement, linked to the earthquake that shouted across the Latin American continent, “Not one less!” “We want ourselves alive!”
How does the idea of a strike appear in the women’s movement in Argentina? What can be done with a tool that originated and matured in another world (among factories, men, and unions)? How is a collective reasoning being woven that links violence against women to questions of precarity, territory, and community? What is Latin American feminism made of, what is its collective spirit?
Nati and Vero have been involved in March 8 at all levels, thinking about it and doing, constructing assemblies and moments of reflection, from a previous trajectory that allows them to be perfectly in tune with what is happening.
Marta Malo and Amador Fernández-Savater: First, we would like to ask you to tell us a bit about what happened between October 19 (when the first women’s strike was called in Argentina following the murder of Lucía Pérez in Mar del Plaza) and this March 8. What has this process been like? Where does the idea of the women’s strike come from and how has it matured?
Vero: There had already been two large protests under the banner “Not One Less” on June 3, 2015 and June 3, 2016. The protests had been called primarily through social media and in a few meetings, and they ended up being very massive. And we were thinking about what had happened, what had been mobilized.
It was then, while we were at the National Women’s Meeting in Rosario, that Lucía Pérez was tortured and stabbed to death in Mar del Plata. It was a very intense image of cruelty, with colonial resonances. Furthermore the murder occurred on the eve of October 12, heating up the scene even more. There was a feeling then that it was precisely at the moment when 70,000 women were mobilizing in Rosario that this crime appeared as a response. I think that was what generated an energy of mobilization and reaction so quickly.
The October 19 strike was organized in just one week. The call caught fire incredibly quickly and it really took off when at, a certain moment, people started saying: “enough of social networks, let’s meet in an assembly.” And they started calling assemblies. At first people said that it would be impossible to call a strike in a week, because it takes a lot of time. But it was precisely by incorporating the idea of the strike that we were able to talk about more than violence. That was the qualitative leap. We started saying: these images are trying to terrorize us, images that we repudiate for their violence and the increase in cruelty, but we have to respond by going beyond the discourse of victimization that leaves us impotent, that limits us to only speaking of specific cases of violence, and that only allows us to express ourselves in terms of mourning and grief.
The strike allowed us to make the call from a different position, undoubtedly a place of rage and anger, but it also enabled us to politicize what many people were already working on in different places, that is: the question of the production and reproduction of life. To strike is to challenge and block the forms of producing and reproducing life in homes, in neighborhoods, in workplaces. It is to connect violence against women with the specific political nature of the current forms of exploitation of the production and reproduction of life. The strike was the key that enabled us to unite those two things.
This produced an impressive effect. First, because it broadened the idea of the strike. We started bringing together women from all different sectors, salaried or not, young and old, employed or unemployed. This really caught on and activated people’s imagination about how to multiply the effectiveness of the tool of the strike. What does it mean to strike in your position? If you are not unionized, but also if you are in an organization (in school or a community network, for example) and so on. That is, it launched a level of questioning about what is meant by a “stoppage of activities” that completely overflowed the union, while it also forcefully challenged that world. The strike gave us another capacity of understanding, a very appropriate force of intelligibility that enabled us to connect violence against women with the economic, political, and social fabric.
The Challenge of Legitimacy for Non-Recognized Work
MM and AF: How was all of this removed from the union world? There are unions of women, but the union world is very masculine, marked by a masculine logic. How did the call for a specifically women’s strike stir up that world?
Nati: Well, there were two moments of discussion about the issue of the strike: the first in relation to October 19 and now around March 8. The call for the strike on October 19 was so fast that there wasn’t time for the union federations – nor for the women’s collectives in them – to elaborate on what it meant. It was an instantaneous, immediate, very corporeal reaction to the impalement of Lucía in Mar del Plata, as well as the stabbing of two girls in San Telmo.
It is now, in relation to March 8, that the toughest arguments and the most complicated problems have taken place. On the one hand, there are those who argue that the strike is a tool that belongs to the unions and only the union federations can call one. That is, they don’t consider that it could be a tool that goes beyond the unions or that it goes beyond the idea of the unionized formal worker. On the other hand, I think that it is difficult for the male leaders of the union federations to call a strike because of all the calculations that they carry out based on the legitimacy held by any new government, calculations about other conflicts between workers and their companies or with the state, and so on. It is hard for them to give credit to a strike called by women, women who are organized and who are capable of transversally coming together with other women from other unions federations and political and social organizations.
Speaking with the union federations, in the case of my union, meant speaking to the CGT [General Confederation of Workers] where we were surprised to find that the secretariats of equality and gender managed by women were sometimes more restrictive than the men themselves and that they did not agree with the idea of an international strike. And there was no way that they would call for a strike. They barely called for a mobilization. The good thing is that each sector of workers, beyond the union federations, organized different actions and activities. Therefore it doesn’t matter so much whether or not the CGT calls for a strike, because the union rank and file took it up as a proposal and the women workers were determined to definitely carry out actions during the day.
Vero: We have been debating several things during this time and that marks the difference between what happened on October 19 and what is happening now, when are working with the reality of the unions. There have been a ton of meetings, a ton of controversies, a ton of polemical debates, and thus several things became clear.
On the one hand, there was a clear generational divide between younger women from the unions who are often coming from experiences in women’s movements, for whom the National Women’s Meeting has been an educational space for many years. They don’t feel any contradiction between the union movement and the women’s movement. While for some of the leaders with more union experience, there is clearly an issue of competition and disavowal of the union by the women’s movement. All of this was made very apparent by who came to the assembly and who didn’t, who spoke from the internal commissions and who waited from authorization from the union leadership. The strike thus created a very interesting map of the turmoil and complexity within the unions.
On the other hand, another thing that happened is that they didn’t want to give us legitimacy, they accused us of not being “legitimate” workers: that is, not unionized. Therefore Nati’s position in the meeting was the most complicated, since she does participate in a union, she was the “traitor.” They scolded her more than the others (laughter).
Finally, another interesting point is how the unions refused to recognize the popular economy workers (trash pickers, mobile caregivers, the women who manage soup kitchens, sewing workers) who were a key element to us from the start. I’ll share an anecdote: a week ago an assembly of women workers in the popular economy was called in front of the Obelisk . We went with our friend Neka Jara (founder of the Unemployed Workers Movement of Solano during the crisis of the early 2000s) and she was greeted by and reunited with many women from the piquetero movement [the movement of the unemployed in Argentina during the late 1990s and early 2000s that protested by blockading roads]. But the most interesting thing, as Neka was telling us, was that 20-year old-women would greet her, that is, women who were only five or six years old during the assemblies of the piquetero movement around 2001. Neka said: “It’s very exciting, they are the daughters of the piqueteras.” There is a very strong generational element that brings to the street this intersection of the lineage of the movements of the unemployed and those of the popular economy. Of course this lineage is not linear nor can it be unproblematized. Yet this is intolerable for the world of unionism: for all of that to appear under the status of work is intolerable. Because it problematizes the idea of work itself.
Nati: For the unions it raised a very intense question of legitimacy. What is the legitimately recognized entity for calling a strike? They find it difficult to recognize the women’s movement as one of those legitimate entities that are constituted as subjects with their own voice and that make unprecedented alliances with unionized women in formal and informal work, with women in the popular economy. This is a strong challenge.
Vero: Another powerful point that came up in the discussions was that October 19 was the first strike under Macri’s government, which is clearly a government that has imposed all sorts of measures against the wage.
And that first strike… was carried out by women! That was very hard. In October people were already saying, “while the CGT takes tea with the government, women take the streets.” Because it is clear that the union organizations are negotiating the austerity measures. There is a lot of discontent in various sectors, in internal commissions, among women delegates, including many of whom were elected after October or for whom October was their first time taking to the streets as women unionists.
Overflowing the Strike: the Strikes of Atypical Workers
MM and AF: You are saying that calling for a strike takes the movement away from only denouncing gender violence, connecting it with other things, but, at the same time, it overflows the union. I am curious about those other forms of the strike, the strikes of atypical workers. How do domestic workers, immigrants, informal vendors think about carrying out their strike? What imagination is there for going on strike when one does not have a typical job, in a defined place, under a boss, etc.?
We know how to carry out a strike in the workplace. There is even a legal channel for doing so, workers feel interpellated when there is a call from the union, etc. But, how is an informal strike organized? How does one feel called in and sustained on not going to the flea market? How is a strike of unpaid care work organized?
Vero: On the one hand, there is a very close relationship with an emerging union tool called the Confederation of Popular Economy Workers (CTEP) that seeks to be a federation of workers from the popular economy and that, following October 19, has raised the issue of having a space to address gender issues. We have been meeting with them and having very interesting discussions. For example, the young women working as cartoneras [trash pickers] say, “Well, if I go on strike that day, I don’t eat.” The issue they raised was how to make that a reality of the strike and not a weakness of the strike. And they started to say, “We have to gather money in advance to sustain that day of being on strike.” Or work a little bit more in the days leading up to the strike to guarantee that day of strike. Other women vendors said: “We’ll take things to sell during the march. We know we’ll sell things and it is a way to be in the mobilization but at the same time materially sustain what being on strike for a day implies for us.”
It was really interesting to begin to think about and imagine very concrete strategies for going on strike in atypical places. Because if we are serious about the strike, if we are really proposing it, we have to address all of these questions that we have about what it means to strike. It can’t be allowed to force us to give an image of ourselves that does not correspond with our everyday reality. What is powerful is that the women from the popular economy were the first to say “we will strike.” That is, these questions are asked from a position of a determined wager on the strike, in order to strengthen the strike. They really liked striking and they are eager to continue elaborating these questions about what it means to go on strike when you don’t have a boss, when you work in a cooperative, when you receive welfare, and so on. To include all of these realities in the strike, it is necessary to overflow it and effectively think about work beyond the typical job, under a boss, in a determined place, and so on.
Another interesting question that has been debated recently has to do with how to connect the strike to care work, and in the way in which that care is carried out in homes, in community or neighborhood spaces or is self-managed. On the one hand, thinking about what it means to take those spaces to the mobilization, that the mobilization takes responsibility for that part of care work. There is a double measure to the time of the strike. We strike for a few hours in our workplaces and for the whole day we remove ourselves from the gender roles that assign us tasks of care. We strike and we make time for ourselves. That was a very powerful slogan: we organize ourselves to be able to dispose of our time, to free ourselves from daily obligations, and open up that time.
Nati: On October 19, we went on strike from our sites of formal employment for two hours, but we went on strike for the whole twenty-four hours from those activities that have to do with care, as well as from activism. We went on strike and we only made ourselves available for gathering with women to take concrete action. Many of the activist men did not understand much of this, that we were no longer there for them (laughter). That was our experience on the 19th and now it is being replicated in a more conscious way.
Spirituality, Infrastructures of Care, and Community
MM and AF: Our impression is that the type of feminism that is exploding, at least in Latin America, is not exactly a “liberal” feminism. The situation of women and violence are thought to be imbricated in a living and daily fabric along with work, precarity, the neighborhoods, the community issue, etc. It is not that “the issues add up,” but that a very concrete fabric is woven. We wanted to ask you about this, about these discussions, about these concrete forms of reasoning and restoring the everyday fabric of exploitation and life practices. What images of the world are proposed by this Latin American feminism that mixes all of these issues?
Vero: Here there is a very strong popular, communitarian, villero [associated with the slums] feminism. These are several names that, as they indicate, are not pure “thematizations,” but rather an accumulation of social, political, bodily experiences. There is a very strong territorial dimension to all of this: work sustained by organizations, networks, fabrics that ground this feminist narrative. It is a powerful key from Latin America. For example, in Honduras and Guatemala, they speak about “territorial feminicide” because violence against women is targeted toward those who are leading the struggles against transnational extractivist corporations. The most well-known case is that of Berta Cáceres, but it is not the only one. The struggles make a practical connection between violence against women and defense of the territories and resources of common life and this enables the concept of body-territory to circulate as a single word.
Then a web started to be drawn, not as a general and abstract discourse, but as a weaving together of very concrete issues. For example, women fighting against agribusiness on the soy frontier of a town in Paraguay said: “yes, we are striking. We are striking against the poisoning of our families by agrochemicals.” Or the way in which the dismissal of Dilma in Brazil was supported by arguments in favor of the Church, God, and family. There is a general offensive of the churches in Latin America against what a local theologian has called “the ideology of gender.” In other words, the strike was a sort of connector of realities and struggles that, at the same time, raised multiple questions. It was evidence of a very diverse and transversal state of rebellion.
The issue of the Church is fundamental. We have seen the alliance that the Vatican promotes with social movements as a way of directing the critique of the so-called “excesses” of capitalism. The women’s movement radicalizes the agenda and offers an alternative to the charitable, philanthropic, and paternalistic ways of responding to the dispossession and exploitation of capital. There is an intense debate about this that is rooted in the community: how can we produce an “infrastructure of care” without reproducing the type of spirituality associated with the church, whether it is Catholic or Evangelical, which clearly runs counter to the sovereignty of women’s bodies. Because now I am going to say something intuitive: I have the impression that the women’s movement is not exactly secular. It has a very strong collective spirit [mística]. Then there is also a dispute at the spiritual, affective level.
On the other hand, I should clarify that when the community is spoken about from a feminist position, it is not only referring to the indigenous-peasant, but it also has to do with cities, the slums, the settlements, and so forth. Therefore, there is a dispute over spirituality, a dispute over the infrastructures of care, and about how to make the connection between the communitarian and the popular, whether it is done according to the Church’s way or in the way of the women’s movements that radicalize bodily autonomy. These are central issues in Latin America.
There is also a very serious question about violence in the territories. This is one of the most screwed up issues. Discussions about possible strategies for confronting it are taking place. Beyond asking the state to take certain measures or increase the budget, beyond having an agenda to demand five things from the state. Having institutional demands are clearly not the movement’s problem, rather everything is beyond discussed, including institutional complicity in violence. We are inspired by that phrase: the time for revolution is now.
Women’s participation and leadership was clear during the 2001 crisis but the feminist register did not appear as an internal narrative belonging to and circulating within the movement. If you called yourself a feminist in a neighborhood, people would look at you strangely or with distrust. Now that doesn’t happen anymore. The issue of violence is tied to the communitarian issue in relation to the question of how to defend ourselves. How do we defend ourselves from the austerity measures, from the crisis that is coming, from the violence in neighborhoods that is very intense here right now?
MM and AF: When the feminine and the communitarian come together sometimes a certain Marianism appears: the image of the mother who can do everything and sustain the community with her self-sacrifice. What other images of the feminine are appearing in connection to the strike, for example, that “availability for ourselves” that you talked about?
Vero: Here there is a strong presence of young adolescents in the movement and they are definitely not into self-sacrifice (laughter). Two weeks ago there was a horrible femicide in the neighborhood of Florencio Varela where four sixteen year old friends were killed. What occurred there was the criminalization of how they portrayed themselves, through their pictures on Facebook, for example: with a lot of make-up, older than they were, going out to the club, going out alone at night, and so on. The violence is more an attack on these gestures of autonomy, against certain images of pleasure and desire with which the girls appeared. They did not represent a vindication of women as the selfless “moral reserve” needed to overcome the crisis.
Nati: There is an entire generation of very autonomous boys and girls. I don’t know if it has something to do with the fact that they were raised by people who experienced 2001… It has really caught my attention how for young kids, for example my son and his friends who are between twelve and fourteen years old, when they want to get into it with someone who has said or done something, they say: “but you’re so patriarchal,” that’s the way of getting them to stop. And really young kids are saying this! There is an accumulation of issues that have occurred over these years and I see the kids today as very different, much more autonomous in many areas. Raised by mothers who experienced, who organized and constructed different types of communities around 2001, raised by those mothers who shed that form of self-denial…
Caring for the Process and the Assembly to Compose the Common
MM and AF: Finally, we wanted to ask you about the vitality of the assemblies. There are times when movements display a lot of power in their concrete actions, but when the time for talking comes, a division is produced, ideological polarization, identitarian closure. How has this moment of speaking been elaborated so that something different happens?
Nati: What strikes me the most about the assemblies is the virtuosity that has been deployed so that women coming from the humblest sectors can co-exist with congresswomen, women for abortion rights, women activists from very structured organizations, unionized women, and so forth. Managing to call a March 8 from that assembly, coordinating it all together, is an incredible and unprecedented virtuosity. This had never happened before in Argentina. There are always two separate groups that organize for March 8.
There is always this tension. You see political activists from left-wing parties who want the party’s position to prevail, but you also see their desire for the assembly not to break. And they strain and then relax, testing how far they can go and where they cannot. These tensions occur in the same body. There is a general awareness that this is a major confluence that implies many things and that enormous care must be taken of the process above all. I don’t know later up to what point something like this can be sustained nor do I know if it would be good for an assembly to continue as the site of permanent coordination. But what I have seen is that in this tension the desire to arrive at a confluence among all these voices prevails. In other places, we have seen it thousands of times, postures tend to strain and break. However, here there has been a very powerful sense of wanting to show the society something beyond the identities belonging to each individual, something very feminine in caring for the process.
Vero: The assemblies have been tremendous work and luckily they’re over (laughter). The process itself has been very powerful: taking seriously all that radical heterogeneity in a practical exercise of the composition of bodies and voices, of trajectories and expectations. From the beginning, they said it would be impossible to create a common document because there were more than sixty organizations of all different types in the assembly. However, last Friday we agreed upon a common document with popular acclaim, with a bunch of us crying and applauding. Up until the last minute, we didn’t think that we would be able to reach agreement, in the midst of a battle – that was virulent at times – between abolitionists and sex workers, unions that contemptuously referred to the women from popular economy organizations and workers in that economy as “artisans,” and so on. However, there was a sense that it would be very powerful if we achieved it and Friday was really impressive. A mess of an assembly, but one in which nobody wanted to leave behind that possibility of achieving something in common. I think the atmosphere was flooded by the perception of being part of a certain historic truth. Everyone, coming from a thousand different places, says that this hasn’t happened in any other space. Assemblies that were a carnival of all positions and political origins, in the heat of the summer, but with a general willingness of each individual to give up some of her tone and language to compose something together.
MM and AF: And where do you think that legitimacy of the women’s movement comes from that allows it to create that transversality?
Nati: I think that many people thought that it would be impossible for October 19 to be so massive. There was even torrential rain that day. But there were so many people, women, girls, everywhere… Therefore we cared for the space of the assembly, because we know that it is something different, something that strengthens each of us in our own places and that legitimates all of the work that each of us has been doing.
Vero: The call for October 19 really touched a lot of people. Everyone returned to their place with a very powerful force, a sort of tattoo. Many women were encouraged from then on to take the discussion to their unions, their neighborhoods, and so on. The other day a Bolivian girl said to us: “I hold my head up high because I know that I am part of this assembly.”
I’ll recount a scene: a public maternity clinic was closed recently, which is very interesting because we have been working against obstetric violence for many years. The women who had been laid off came to talk about what had happened, creating a very intense scene: the assembly as a space of collective elaboration and the politics of grief. There is something about this moment of Macri’s government that quickly puts you in a position of cynicism or of impotence. The power of of the assembly is that you can move yourself out of both positions and invent something different. Without much guarantee, for sure, because we don’t know what we are going to do after March 8. But women arrived there with a type of anguish and they received a different political elaboration. And if you don’t find a place this way, you stay at home poisoning yourself with television or being nostalgic for some time when you thought things were better, both of which are very profoundly sad positions. And in the assembly something happens, a space is opened up, outside of both nostalgia and cynicism.
March 8: A New Feminist Internationalism
Vero and Nati: March 8 was massive. They are saying that there were more than 500,000 people in the street. The Plaza de Mayo was full even before the organizations arrived with their columns.
The stage was a heterogeneous composition of all the voices that we had sewn together in the polyphonic document that was read and that now we have to continue deploying, specifying, and sharpening. We perceived an unusual attention to the reading. Many compañeras were crying. We ourselves were moved: we were together, we were saying that we were embodying a new feminist internationalism and that were were specifying each one of the demands that we had constructed, but we were also launching a common shout beyond our demands. Because we want ourselves alive, we had the strength to convene ourselves, to connect with each other, to produce such a powerful voice. We experienced the festival of mobilizing together after having gone on strike and having woven that strike together body by body, word by word.
This was a notable counterpoint to the CGT’s demonstration the day before. Three male leaders were speaking, with no content to what they were saying, repudiated by their bases for not specifying a date for the general strike, and finally the lectern collapsed as a result of protests and the leaders were forced to leave running.
We did set a date for the general strike. We organized ourselves. We went on strike. Because we are moved by the desire to construct here and now the world in which we want to live.
– Translated by Liz Mason-Deese
This interview originally appeared in Revista Alexia.