by Leora Lihach
April 2015

Gender inequality has cross-culturally revolved around the patriarchal idealization of motherhood, which isolates women in the private sphere, denies them selfhood, assigns them all the work of caretaking, and sets impossible standards for mothering (O’Reilly 20). O’Reilly observes that as a medium for isolating, regulating, and judging women, “motherhood, as it is currently perceived and practiced in patriarchal societies, is disempowering” (17). Latin America consists of patriarchal societies, the dominant prescription of which historically “mandated the formation of patriarchal families based on formal, indissoluble marriage, endogamy, legitimate procreation, and careful control of female sexuality” (Milanich 450-1). The patriarchal idealization of motherhood is central to Latin America’s family structure (Koepsel). This idealization inspires the labeling of some women as “bad mothers,” which reinforces gender inequality in Ecuador. However, this idealization also gives women cultural esteem, which politically empowered Argentinean and Chilean women. As a status with twofold effects, the patriarchal idealization of motherhood has served to disempower Latin American women and to undo this disempowerment.

In Begging as a Path to Progress, Swanson illustrates how the labeling of “bad mothers” reinforces gender inequality in Ecuador. Many people view child beggars as the products of bad mothering (Swanson 82). Ecuador’s Code of Childhood and Adolescence lists begging as a form of child abuse, suggesting that the mothers of child beggars are abusive (93). Many people accuse these indigenous women as exploitative mothers who rent children as props for begging, but this accusation ignores the complexities of indigenous economies of caring (83). The labeling of these women as unfit mothers legitimizes the goal of “saving” child beggars and frames the exclusion of mothers from the public sphere as being in the children’s best interests (82).

Because patriarchal ideology dominates the general view of child begging in Ecuador, this practice inaccurately frames mothers as unfit. While poverty is the factor driving children to beg, people instead blame bad parenting, especially mothering (Swanson 94). Additionally, criticisms of child begging lead to criticisms of communal mothering among extended relatives—a practice directly at odds with the patriarchal standards for idealized mothering. In 1999, Quito police forces seized over fifty child beggars to discourage begging (96). After releasing the women watching these children—many of them extended relatives—authorities kept the children detained, refusing to return them to anyone but biological parents (96-7). This police action used the practice of communal mothering unique to the indigenous women to threaten separation between them and the children. In this case, the status of motherhood has disempowered indigenous women who deviate from the patriarchal standards for idealized mothering.

Elsewhere in Latin America, motherhood has empowered women. Koepsel explains how Argentinean women acquired a forceful identity as the Madres de Plaza de Mayo (“Mothers of the Plaza de Mayo”). In 1977, these women mobilized to protest the military regime’s human rights violations (Koepsel 3). While patriarchal ideology confines women to motherhood in the private sphere, the Madres defied this confinement by entering the public sphere to protest the regime’s disruption of motherhood (4). The Madres therefore undermined patriarchal ideology from within. Furthermore, they used the patriarchal idealization of motherhood to empower themselves. Marianismo ideology maintains that feminine spiritual superiority and self-sacrifice make the ideal mother (4). By appealing to the cultural esteem that Marianismo designates mothers, the Madres effectively advanced political demands (4). These women took motherhood beyond the domestic role and created a public space of representation for mothers, where they received international support and recognition (9-10). Koepsel observes, “They have defied the stereotypical limitations of women and motherhood” (11).

Chilean women did the same in their mobilization against Pinochet’s military regime (1973-1990) (Okeke-Ihejirika and Franceschet). These women also mobilized as mothers to protest human rights violations and consequently, reconstructed motherhood as a forceful, public role (Okeke-Ihejirika and Franceschet). Motherhood became such a powerful status, that Michelle Bachelet’s promotion of maternal leadership won her the presidency in 2006 (Thomas). Because Chileans had long valued masculinist leadership, the campaign revolved around debates over whether Bachelet was capable of presidential leadership (Thomas 64). Bachelet and her competitors “engaged in a process of ‘regendering’ beliefs about political power and leadership” (Thomas 64).

Bachelet’s success was not only a presidential victory, but a cultural one for all Chilean women: the recognition of women’s leadership potential. Because gender inequality is largely cultural, someone from within a culture calling for change can create the most impact. Bachelet advanced gender equality by calling from within her culture for an understanding of leadership that valorizes women’s experiences (Thomas 77). Bachelet argued that she offered a new style of leadership: “liderazgo femenino” (feminine leadership), synonymous with “maternal leadership” (65). Thomas includes a quote by Bachelet about maternal leadership: “It’s not a thing about being hard or soft. Women can be firm, but they can also be caring, nurturing” (75). Bachelet’s supporters felt that she was more understanding and in-touch than male political elites (75). Her presidential victory demonstrates that Chilean women have gained respect as maternal leaders—leaders who are nurturing, understanding, and in-touch. Once linked to leadership, the status of motherhood empowered women. Regarding her election, Bachelet explains, “Some people said it’s because people need on one hand, authority, but also need somebody to protect them. So some people said, ‘You are the big mother of everybody’” (Women, Power and Politics).

The patriarchal idealization of motherhood has demonstrated twofold effects in Latin America: the force to disempower women and to undo this disempowerment. The labeling of “bad mothers” in Ecuador is one way this idealization perpetuates gender inequality. However, Latin American women have engaged in maternal empowerment “to reclaim the power denied to mothers in patriarchal motherhood” (O’Reilly 21). Women can embrace the strengths and cultural esteem associated with motherhood to combat patriarchal oppression. In patriarchal societies, O’Reilly explains, “Mothers acquired moral superiority and cultural prestige […] in and through their identity as Mother” (22). Women can use their forceful status as mothers to lobby for social and political change. And in doing so, women can reconstruct motherhood as a forceful, public role. The Madres de Plaza de Mayo, the Chilean women who similarly mobilized as mothers, and Michelle Bachelet all demonstrated the effectiveness of maternal activism. The agency of these women within their cultures is necessary to change the deeply rooted beliefs and traditions that disempower women. As Eva Mendes said so well, “Women are not the problem, they’re the solution” (Half the Sky).

Works Cited

Half the Sky: Turning Oppression into Opportunity for Women Worldwide. Dir. Maro Chermayeff. Perf. Nicholas Kristof. PBS, 2012. Film.

Koepsel, Rachel. “Mothers of the Plaza De Mayo: First Responders for Human Rights.” (2011). Print.

Milanich, Nara. “Whither Family History? A Road Map from Latin America.” American Historical Review 112.2 (2007): 439-458. Academic Search Complete. Web. 28 Oct. 2014.

Okeke-Ihejirika, Philomina E., and Susan Franceschet. “Democratization and State Feminism: Gender Politics in Africa and Latin America.” Development and Change. 33.3 (2002): 439-66. Print.

O’Reilly, Andrea. “Outlaw(ing) Motherhood: A Theory and Politic of Maternal Empowerment for the Twenty-first Century.” Hecate. 36.1/2 (2010): 17-29. Print.

Swanson, Kate. Begging as a Path to Progress: Indigenous Women and Children and the Struggle for Ecuador’s Urban Spaces. Athens: University of Georgia, 2010. Print.

Thomas, Gwynn. “Michelle Bachelet’s Liderazgo Femenino (Feminine Leadership).” International Feminist Journal of Politics. 13.1 (2011): 63-82. Print.

Women, Power and Politics. Dir. Mary Olive Smith. Supervising Prod. & Writ. Maria Hinojosa. Senior Ed. & Writ. David Brancaccio. JumpStart Productions, 2008. Film.


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