Women in Latin America protesting with red handprints on their faces

Anthropology: The History of Women’s Rights in Latin America

Latin America has experienced its fair share of social revolutions and passionate outcries for national change throughout its history. Yet, one of the biggest issues facing this group of countries has largely gone unheard. For the women who live in Latin America, there has been an ongoing struggle to shift long-standing gender roles. But with the ever-growing crimes committed against women, Latin America has come to a breaking point. This is as its governments continue to neglect the basic human rights of women. Compared to the feminist movement of North America, feminist thought has often been squashed by the crushing power of Catholic influence in the area. This article goes over cultural perspectives on gender roles, the history of women’s rights, and ongoing issues being faced today.

Gender Roles for Women

Before learning feminist history in Latin America, it is important to understand gender roles that are unique to this region. These perspectives of femininity have a strong power over the mass of people’s attitudes even to this day.


Marianismo is a set of cultural rules in Latin America that the culture assigns to women. The term translates to “being like Maria” and is rooted in Catholicism. Maria refers to the Virgin Mary, mother of Christ. La Virgin Maria is a significant figure in Latino culture, almost eclipsing her son in the amount of worship she receives. Hence, the religious culture within Latin America and the Caribbean places La Virgincita as an ideal that women must follow. The Virgin Mary maintained her virginal innocence even after giving birth. As a result, she represents the perfect woman as the shameful act of a woman possibly having sex never taints her.

A crowd of people with the icons of the Virgin Mary in Latin America.
Image Source: Turismo Religiouso en el Mundo

What exactly does it mean to be like the Virgin Mary? For a Latina, this means being submissive and passive to all those around her, especially men. One must be virginal and innocent but also act as a sex object in the form of a wife and mother. She maintains innocence and, in doing so, becomes closer to God and the Virgin Mary. She is better than Latino men because she has the ability to control her sexual impulses while they cannot. One cannot speak about sex and only performs the act once she is married to her husband in order to produce children. She is ignorant of the outside world as her sole duty in life is to be a good daughter, wife, and mother inside the home.

The Virgin/Whore Dichotomy

The virgin/whore dichotomy is a dual system pitting Marianismo against what Latino culture deems as a failed woman. Also called the Madonna-whore complex, Sigmund Freud described it as “a split between the affectionate and the sexual currents in male desire.” The virgin encompasses purity, selflessness, and marriage material. The whore represents lust, desire, and shame. Although this is the case, Freud explained that “Where such men love they have no desire and where they desire they cannot love.” This means a man should marry the virgin but may not feel any lust for her. The whore presents a temporary solution for sexual release but is not worthy of marriage. A man can have sexual relations with a whore but must marry a virgin.

As a consequence, a woman having sex outside of marriage is an indecent act that decreases her chances of her getting married. Therefore, her worth goes down as well. This form of ideology has severely negative impacts on women’s physical and mental health. Because families rarely talk about sex and its risks, women do not know how to have safe sex or how to protect themselves against STIs. Furthermore, women’s bodies and behaviors are always met with a critical eye. Harassment or abuse can be blamed on a woman’s clothes. And when women do have sex outside of marriage, their family shun them. Men degrade them. This is true even in cases of assault and rape. All this builds a deep-seated shame that Latina women feel at every step of their lives.

Black and white image of woman covering her face in distress.
Image Source: Juan Pablo Serrano Arenas

History of Women’s Rights

Pre 1900s

Feminist history in Latin America begins with indigenous women prior to the 1900s. A problem that anthropologists face when studying tribes is a lack of written works that would have recorded people’s ideas. The same is true when linking feminism to indigenous peoples in Latin America. However, many tribes’ strong oral tradition has preserved stories of women acting against colonial forces. Although not directly tied to feminist efforts, the stories of unyielding women defy the rules of how women should act. Transformed into living myth and song, these indigenous women and their actions would inspire generations of women to come.

Notably, Juana Inés de la Cruz of Mexico is one of the earliest female writers to advocate for the rights of women. She was a 1600s poet who devoted herself to a convent at the age of 21. She continued to write during her time as a nun, but she controversially took up feminist themes. Modern feminist scholars praise her letter titled Respuesta a Sor Filotea as the first feminist manifesto that defended a woman’s right to education. But soon her convent attacked her radical work. They forced her to give up writing. Juana Inés de la Cruz has found recognition in recent history as being one of Latin America’s great philosophers.


The turn of the century saw political changes throughout the entire world. During this time, women from Latin America were beginning to get together to discuss issues they were facing. However, the projects led at that moment were not only feminist. More often, early campaigns worked to solve other problems faced by the community. One example would be improving the lives of poor working-class citizens. Feminist work was therefore grounded in the everyday settings that women faced in each country.

Still, Latin American women expanded their reach as they argued for voting rights. Ecuador was the first country to give women the right to vote in 1929. Some countries immediately followed Ecuador’s lead. But others stalled ‘el voto feminino’ with Paraguay giving voting rights to women in 1961. Yet, voting was not equal for all women. Several countries held that only women who could read could vote. Thus, indigenous and poor women could not participate.

A map of the world titled "Los Derechos Politicos De La Muger" translated as The Political Rights of the Woman.
Image Source: NACLA

The 1950s-1960s presents itself as an era bursting with feminist thought through writing. This is during a time when Latin America’s shape was constantly shuffling through political mobilization as well as disorder. As evident, intersectional themes of gender, race, and nationality are prevalent in women’s writings. Moreover, the Latin American Boom, a rise of internationally popular literature, took place in this period. Be that as it may, women writers did not find such transnational success as did their male counter creatives.


The 1970s reached new heights of political instability. Revolts toppled governments. Dictatorships ruled with iron fists. National security took the rights of people away. For feminists, patriarchal oppression and militant regimes are interlinked together. As governments became more authoritarian, the nationwide violence trickled into the private sector, where women were often victimized.

In realizing this, feminists of the day repositioned themselves. Not only did they insist on the same rights afforded to men, but also freedom from paradigms of female subordination. As a result, feminists pushed for new ways of thinking outside of patriarchal perceptions. This explains why bodily autonomy has become a pressing issue. Women tried to disconnect motherhood from womanhood. In 1976, a feminist group held one of the first congresses on the need for accessible abortions.

During the 80s, organizations and forums for women’s issues began to flourish. An abundance of non-government organizations helped create centers for victims of rape and domestic abuse as well as health collectives for women. Forums became an increasingly popular way for women to voice their opinions and debate diverging ideas. The most famous of these events was the first Encuentro Feminista Latinoamericano y del Caribe in 1981. Shortened to Encuentro, this region-wide gathering hosted hundreds of women and indicated a rising growth of feminism in Latin America.

A group of women in Latin America protesting and holding signs.
Image Source: Hammer Museum

Whereas the 80s saw an explosion of independent feminist formations, the 90s would have feminism institutionalized. Prior radical feminist groups started working with government agencies to change public policy in favor of women’s rights. Because of this, they were severely limited in what policies they were allowed by the state to push. Thus, they became disconnected from the plight of local communities. Current feminist critical theory scrutinizes the institutionalization of feminism. They claim that this era did little for women overall. But the foundational work of Latin American feminists would influence new voices at the turn of the century.

Issues Facing Women Today

Progress in female rights has occurred in the last century. However, there is a much-needed demand to do more. Gender-based discrimination and attacks persist as feminist activists strive for a better future. They do so as governments turn a blind eye, laws limit their freedoms, and violence against women soars.


The illegalization of abortion has had devastating effects on women’s freedom and acts as a global issue. El Salvador, Nicaragua, and the Dominican Republic are part of the few remaining countries in the world that entirely ban abortion. In other countries, abortion is only accessible if it were to save the mother’s life. Paraguay faced a tremendous amount of backlash to this law when it refused to give a medical abortion in 2015 to a 10-year-old girl who had been raped. Only a few countries in Latin America and the Caribbean allow unrestricted abortions.

No sexual education mixed with the abortion bans creates devastating and fatal results for women in these countries. According to UNICEF, Latin America has the second-highest rate of adolescent pregnancy in the world. Additionally, 2% of women of reproductive age have had their first birth before the age of 15. Even if women meet the qualifications mandated by law, they are often rejected from having a medical termination. This is because of the cultural demonization of the practice. The illegalization of abortion has facilitated the rise of unsafe and illegal medical procedures. Three in four abortions in Latin America are considered unsafe by the World Health Organization’s guidelines. As such, this resulted in about 900 deaths and 760,000 injuries in 2014.

However daunting it may be, the change appears to be coming in the form of grassroots feminist movements. Just last year, activists had a major victory as Argentina legalized abortions without restrictions. In the same country two years prior, massive demonstrations woke Latin America up to the issue of female autonomy. Since then, more countries have become more lenient on the matter. Activists celebrated in Chile as laws permitted abortions in the case of rape or to save a woman’s life. Columbia is considering decriminalizing abortion beyond the heavy restrictions currently in place.

Violence Against Women

Group of women in Latin America protesting with red paint on their raised hands.
Image Source: Atlantic Council

Latin America has one of the highest rates of gender-based violence in the world. Brazil, Mexico, Argentina, Peru, El Salvador, and Bolivia represent about 81% of all global cases. Usually, violence against women occurs at the hands of an intimate or former partner. The definition of femicide is the killing of a woman based on her gender. This includes death from neglect, combined rape and murder, and honor killings performed on women who have brought shame to their families. In Latin America and the Caribbean, rates of femicide have swelled to mortifying heights. Activists have attempted to draw attention to this when they created the viral hashtag #NiUnaMenos (Not One Less). Regionwide demonstrations have also shown rising tensions.

Yet six years later, the entire region continues to be one of the most unsafe places for women to live. This cruel reality has only worsened by the isolating conditions brought on by the coronavirus pandemic. As the ensuing lockdowns forced women to stay in their homes, reports of domestic violence skyrocketed. Columbia saw a 175% increase in reports compared to the previous year. Mexico has had surges of domestic violence and femicide with about eleven women dying per day during the lockdown. While some governments have committed to change, others have ignored or denied the onslaught of gender-based violence. Mexico’s president infamously stated that 90% of domestic abuse calls are fake. This mindset is exactly what modern feminists are protesting. For the most recent Women’s Day, police clashed with protesters as they threw tear gas into crowds of women.

Cultural Significance in Anthropology

The issues facing Latina women today have come from a long history of struggle for equal rights. In grasping these matters, anthropologists can understand the social conflicts that inhibit women in Latin American cultures currently. Attitudes towards women have certainly changed over the last century. Feminism, what once was a ‘dirty word’, has morphed into a social movement garnering tens of thousands of women regionwide. Still, current issues prove to activists that the fight for freedom, safety, and equality is far from over.  

Leave a Reply