The Feminist General Strike in Chile

Doris Salcedo, Untitled (1995-2008).

The images coming from March 8 in Chile have been without a doubt eloquent and exciting. March 8 was one of the largest and most significant mobilizations of the post-dictatorship period in our country, and these images constitute documentary support for reading the feminist movement today as capable of appealing to increasingly broad masses of women from very diverse realities and contexts. However, one might be tempted to think that this street protest and those that preceded it express a kind of spontaneism. Or that they are a mere fact, on the basis of which we should consider, from the outside, the relevant political issues concerning it and their relationship with what some call the passage to the moment of the dispute for power. What I would like to do with this text is offer elements for a different interpretation of these images, for those who see them from afar. How can we understand this process not as a sequence of isolated moments of irruption into the streets of an inorganic mass, but rather as a growing process of organization with power of its own? And how then can we understand that it is precisely within this process that, with all the difficulties that weigh on it, a political discussion is developing about constituting the capacity to produce and drive an effective social transformation? For that, and because perhaps no analysis by itself can speak more eloquently than this history that we have been writing, I will present what amounts to a brief sketch of the path taken.

October 2016: From Argentina came the echo of a cry of horror at the unceasing violence that, we increasingly recognize, constitutes a normal condition of our everyday life. This time, the call was answered not just by collectives and organized groups: thousands of women filled the streets in a first demonstration of both a boundary and a power – that of saying No, of saying Enough.

2017: feminism started to be a common term. Our everyday lives became the center of the debate: we recognized each other, and this recognition started to become a denunciation and a demand in each one of the organizations of which we are a part. The organizations that did not rise to this interpellation cracked. A pot started to boil, full of lively activity, impatient and intense. With this, an inexhaustible force came into view.

Toward the end of the year, the organizing for the next March 8 began. The students made an initial call, to which some dozens of comrades responded. We said: we’ve spent a long time putting violence on the table, showing it to be a central element of our lives. Now it’s time to go a step farther and question this position of victimhood in which we find ourselves, so comfortable for the order that rests precisely on that violence. We said: it’s necessary to be able to speak about our life, in all its complexity; of how this life is ever worse for those of us who sustain it with our labor. We then crafted the slogan that would also serve as an orientation for struggle: working women to the street, against the precarization of life.

We heard of the call for an International Women’s Strike in that moment, and in an assembly of militants, union leaders, feminist activists, and women organized in their communities, we decided that the conditions for such a call were adverse, and that it would require something that we still didn’t have: a force of our own. We called amongst ourselves, in any case, for a different kind of March 8: we would reject flowers and gifts. We called for a national day of protest. That’s how we welcomed the year: three days before Sebastián Piñera assumed his second presidential term, we gathered ourselves to go on the offensive. We targeted his government and all those who administered the precarity of our lives. And we spoke of racism and territory, of sexual dissent and sexual and reproductive rights, of work and of pensions.

After March 8, 2018, on which 28 Chilean cities rose in response to this call and one hundred thousand women filled the Alameda, Santiago’s main thoroughfare, we met once again. We were dozens of feminist comrades, brought together from distinct spaces: women that fought for seeds, for housing, for territory, for education, for health, for work, for pensions, against violence, for abortion. We wanted this space to continue to exist and, so it would not only be a show of good intentions, we decided that it made sense since this time we would indeed respond to the call for a strike on March 8. We resolved to give ourselves a year to work on it, and that in the process we would develop three objectives: to transversalize feminism within the social movement, that is, to expand a feminist perspective onto the activity of social organizations and thus expand the very meaning of the feminist movement; to dynamize the articulations between distinct organizations, and to raise a common agenda of mobilizations against the precarization of life. We resolved, so that nobody could tell us what we were fighting for, to draft a program, and that we would do it at a Pluri-National Meeting of Women in Struggle.

Between March 8, 2018 and March 8, 2019 then, we built a way forward centered on our capacity to articulate, beginning with feminism and the force of its interpellations, its capacity to bring our concrete, everyday lives into the open. In May, through the recently formed Coordinadora Feminista 8M (March 8 Feminist Coördination), we organized a Meeting on Women and Pensions: framed by the recent struggle of workers to end the system of individual capitalization and achieve a system of solidaristic and tripartite distribution, we maintained that this new system should recognize reproductive work as work and those who carry it out as workers. We argued that care work is skilled work and that motherhood is heavy labor. And for the first time, we formulated the idea of struggling for a single care system as part of the struggle for social security. That same month was the beginning of a process that would stake out our territory: the struggle against violence and the practice of denouncing it spilled over into educational spaces, which were unable to deal with this new form of political contestation over their structures, their networks of power, and the invisible sexual politics of their obscure curriculums. In Valdivia, toward the south of our country, the students took over the university, demanding that its authorities end their negligence and act once and for all to address the complaints. Their action kicked off a wave that spread throughout the territory. Universities were taken over and on strike, full of banners and slogans: for spaces without assault or abuse, for a non-sexist, public, and decommodified education. Students called people into the streets for a non-sexist education, and tens of thousands of women went out to protest and comply with that call.

Faced with this scene, the media and the right began an offensive, giving visibility to the protest so as to isolate it: feminism was a phenomenon of privileged university students, the demand of those who have nothing at stake, a whim of the élite, something with which “laboring” women could never identify. Piñera presented his “Women’s Agenda,” a series of phantom measures that were little more than ink on paper, oriented in particular to the most well-off women.

A couple of weeks before the government’s Cuenta Pública, the president’s yearly address on the state of the nation, we held an assembly in the occupied Law School at the University of Chile. Hundreds of women resolved to organize a day of protest on the day of the address, so as to demonstrate two things: that feminism was not an élite movement, and that women already had our own agenda – it would be our own Cuenta Pública, popular and feminist.

That June 1, the day began with blocked streets, with marches all over the country. And toward the end of the day, there were territorial assemblies. We feminists were not only in one place, but in many. From this day of action, new organizational spaces arose: networks of women and syndicalists; new territorial assemblies; seeds for organizing the coming first attempt at a strike.

The following months were full of activity and strength. In June, for the fifth march for open, free, safe, and legal abortion, our presence in the street multiplied. We took as our own the green handkerchiefs from the Argentinian struggle over abortion, which we watched with enormous enthusiasm, and we stamped them with images that testified to a long history of feminist struggle in our country. Facing police repression, we accompanied our Argentine sisters in the streets during their August 8 vigil. For the first time in a long time, the chauvinism of our reality as a province trapped between mountains and ocean began to recede, at least a little.

We acted to reclaim the memory of the history of struggle which we carried, stepping out of recollections linked only to pain and death, and used it as a resource, which we called “a memory of the future” – the memory of rebellions and resistance, of struggle against the dictatorship and its legacy.

In October we announced the Plurinational Meeting of Women in Struggle and we prepared for it with more than fifty pre-meetings realized autonomously in various parts of the country. In two days with the participation of 1300 women from all over the country, we managed to define our program along ten axes, each one with three demands and orientations against the precarization of life, and we also defined our strike: it would be a Feminist General Strike, and we defined more than 100 ways to be involved.

We raised different kinds of strike committees: by territory and sector, by union, by educational institution, by social setting, and by sexual orientation. We raised brigades of art and propaganda for the diffusion of our program, and hundreds of organized comrades realized interventions in public space which became irreversibly inscribed in our collective memory.

Seventy-two cities and smaller towns throughout the country prepared themselves for the day. Ships carried propaganda about the strike to small islands in the southernmost extremes of the country. The have-nots, the never-woulds, and the nobodies went out to the street all over, making feminism their own, many for the first time.

The work that we propose now is to create more and more chances for our program to be taken up, to bring it to all possible spaces so it can be deepened and amplified and thus convert it into a useful tool of struggle. In this way, we will consolidate the articulations we have been constructing, to contend with and collectively overcome the obstacles of a union bureaucratism blind to the force of this movement, and to allow us to impose our strength. We will reorganize internally and begin to intentionally weave together our international ties, calling an International Meeting to coincide with the meeting of APEC (Asia-Pacific Economic Coöperation) that will take place in our country. We will imagine a kind of international political activity to surpass milestones and unify the processes of construction that make those milestones possible; to permit us to develop a shared battle that grows our effective power to fight for a radically different kind of life. We will build our strength to discuss and engage in the political debate that sustains each of our past and future steps. Facing the magnitude of our circumstances, we have the sometimes overwhelming challenge not to lose perspective of the path we have taken.

We have carried forward this construction, a process toward the overcoming of the practical fragmentation of the working class of which we are a part, without any more orientation than our collective intuitions; but we face, necessarily, the same challenges of preceding generations that organized to substantively transform life. That puts us in a position of undeniable responsibility, forced on us by the necessity of attempting our own answers and overcoming the limits that the sexual division of labor has imposed on us. We cannot do it alone. We will need everyone, in every corner of the world in which this force is simmering, to advance the unexplored path of this new historical moment in which the possibility of a radically different order is emerging.

Now we are together, now they see us.

– Translated by Robert Cavooris

Author of the article

is one of the spokeswomen of the Coordinadora M8 of Santiago and a member of the editorial board of the journal Posiciones.