In This Article Expand or collapse the "in this article" section Women’s Political Activism and Civic Engagement in Latin America

  • Introduction
  • Important Works
  • General Works

Political Science Women’s Political Activism and Civic Engagement in Latin America
Tiffany Barnes, Victoria Beall, Gregory Saxton, Dakota Thomas
  • LAST REVIEWED: 19 April 2021
  • LAST MODIFIED: 24 April 2019
  • DOI: 10.1093/obo/9780199756223-0273


Under the authoritarian regimes that dominated the 1950s to the 1980s, during the regional wave of democratization, and as citizens of new democracies, women have been instrumental political actors in many facets of politics in the Latin American region. Due to the many ways women are involved in politics, academic studies of the role of gender in contentious politics are equally varied, encompassing disciplines such as political science, sociology, and anthropology. Women engage in politics both inside and outside the state in many different ways. In this bibliography, we are focused on women’s political activism outside the state and women’s engagement as citizens. Whereas the study of women’s representation in government focuses on women as elites, this bibliography focuses on political activism from non-state actors, such as social movements, nongovernmental organizations (NGOs), opinion leaders, and grassroots leaders, as well as political engagement in terms of citizens’ participation. For more information on women in formal political roles, see the separate Oxford Bibliographies article Women’s Representation in Governmental Office in Latin America.

Important Works

This section highlights some of the most influential research on women’s political activism from non-state actors and women’s political engagement as citizens. In particular, it draws the reader’s attention to foundational research in the field, research that was the first of its kind in Latin America, or work that has inspired new lines of research. To begin with, the foundational work Molyneux 1985, draws on the case of Nicaragua to illustrate the critical opportunities that women’s involvement in democratic transitions affords women to make progress toward gender equality. Waylen 1994 was instrumental in de-marginalizing the important role that women played in regional pro-democracy movements. This research has informed work on women in civil society, women’s movements, and improved the study of democratization more generally by pointing out women’s overlooked contributions. With respect to women’s movements specifically, innovative research by Alvarez 1990 demonstrates the important role that women and women’s movements played in bringing about democracy in Latin America. Leveraging case study evidence from Brazil, Alvarez elucidates the role of gender issues in motivating social movements in Latin America. Baldez 2002 developed a new theory to explain when women’s movements will emerge. Alvarez’s research on Brazil and subsequent work by Baldez on Chile has inspired countless studies on women’s movements in Latin America and beyond. In the author’s pioneering research on NGOs, Alvarez 1999 describes the 1990s “boom” in NGOs specializing in gender policy and elucidates the factors that challenge feminist NGOs’ capacity to promote policy changes. Alvarez’s work has been widely read and cited—forging the path for a large body of work on feminist NGOs in Latin America. Finally, Desposato and Norrander 2009 and Zetterberg 2009 broke new ground using cross-national survey data to systematically examine women’s mass political behavior. Though these works were relatively recent, their empirical framework simultaneously using country level data as well as public opinion data was new to the study of gender in Latin America. These works have motivated a number of scholars (in Latin America and beyond) to investigate how women’s numeric representation (Desposato and Norrander 2009) and the adoption of gender quotas (Zetterberg 2009) shape women’s political engagement, public opinion, and gender attitudes.

  • Alvarez, Sonia E. Engendering Democracy in Brazil: Women’s Movements in Transition Politics. Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press, 1990.

    In spite of a longer authoritarian streak than any other Latin American nation, Brazil also had the largest, most successful, and most diverse women’s movement of any state in the region. Placing Brazil in a comparative frame, the author shows the importance of small political changes and shifts in women’s gender consciousness in creating the conditions for the movement as a whole.

  • Alvarez, Sonia E. “Advocating Feminism: The Latin American Feminist NGO ‘Boom’.” International Feminist Journal of Politics 1.2 (1999): 181–209.

    DOI: 10.1080/146167499359880

    Drawing on fieldwork and over two hundred interviews conducted in Brazil, Chile, Peru, and Colombia during 1997 and l998, Alvarez examines three factors claimed to undermine NGOs’ ability to promote feminist policies and inspire social change: (1) state and IGOs treating NGOs as gender experts rather than citizens’ groups; (2) the assumption that NGOs are a substitute for civil society; (3) increasing subcontracts between state and feminist NGOs on government women’s programs.

  • Baldez, Lisa. Why Women Protest: Women’s Movements in Chile. New York: Cambridge University Press, 2002.

    Now considered a classic work on social movements, this book points to three aspects of social movements as important factors in their emergence: tipping, timing, and framing. Tipping refers to movement coalescence, the point when various groups can be said to have formed a movement. Timing and framing refer to the political context of a movement, and the intentional choices of a movement, which enable mobilization.

  • Desposato, Scott, and Barbara Norrander. “The Gender Gap in Latin America: Contextual and Individual Influences on Gender and Political Participation.” British Journal of Political Science 39.1 (2009): 141–162.

    This article was one of the first to apply research on gender gaps in political participation from industrialized democracies to the developing world. In Latin America, the authors find little evidence that economic development helps close gender gaps. Rather, women’s workforce participation helps close gender gaps in conventional forms of political participation. The authors find that regime type affects men’s and women’s political participation differently. In countries with fewer political freedoms, women protest more, whereas men participate in protest at higher levels in countries with more political freedoms.

  • Molyneux, Maxine. “Mobilization without Emancipation? Women’s Interests, the State and Revolution in Nicaragua.” Feminist Studies 11.2 (1985): 227–254.

    Despite women playing an outsized role in Nicaragua’s transition to democracy, institutional inequality for women persisted under the new regime. However, the author challenges assertions that women are always worse off after transition, showing that some progress toward gender equality was made during transition that might otherwise have been impossible.

  • Waylen, Georgina. “Women and Democratization: Conceptualizing Gender Relations in Transition Politics.” World Politics 46.3 (1994): 327–354.

    The existing literature on democratization tended to minimize or ignore women’s contributions to pro-democracy movements. This article advances our understanding of democratization by showing that women usually play a critical part in pro-democracy movements and the subsequent transition to electoral politics.

  • Zetterberg, Par. “Do Gender Quotas Foster Women’s Political Engagement? Lessons from Mexico.” Political Research Quarterly 62.4 (2009): 715–730.

    Latin American countries have been at the forefront of gender quota legislation. Zetterberg explains that in addition to increasing the number of women in office, quotas are meant to generate women’s advancement in all spheres of society. In one of the first cross-national analyses of women’s political engagement at the citizen level, he uses Latinobarometer survey data to show that quota legislation on its own has no discernible effect on women’s political engagement in Latin America.

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