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Feminisms in Brazil – the war against gender

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Eva Alterman Blay is a pioneer of women’s rights in Brazil and the founder of the Center for the Study of Women and Gender Rights at the University of São Paulo. She is active in politics and was the first woman to sit in the Brazilian Senate. In September, Blay gave this talk on feminisms and the history of feminism in Brazil at Australia’s University of Wollongong.


To understand the present, let us take a quick look back at the Brazilian redemocratisation after the 1964-1985 dictatorship period. In 1988 we created a new Constitution – the Citizen Constitution – to which the women sent a “letter” in which they gathered the demands discussed and collected for four years throughout the country. In summary, we can say that from 1988 onwards, Brazilian women achieved political citizenship. This means that ‘men and women are equal in rights and obligations’, women can recognise the paternity of their children regardless of the father’s presence; women have the right to work and to spend their money regardless of their husband’s permission. Women have the guarantee of labour rights, such as unemployment insurance, vacation bonus, 44-hour workweek, right to strike and trade union freedom.

Strikes and claims were before treated as police cases, marking the maintenance of a slavery mentality. We started to have freedom of speech, and the end of censorship of the media, films, plays and music, etc.

In the health field, the SUS – Unified Healthcare System was created; a milestone in indigenous rights began to be discussed with the demarcation of indigenous lands and protection of the environment. Black women’s entities and leaders with a broad political trajectory highlighted the need to include topics such as the condition of incarcerated women and trafficking of women. This framework of social and political rights describes advances in a democratic country.

But…as we know in societies, changes are dynamic, there are advances, but also setbacks. Especially on the topic of gender issues, it is necessary to be always alert as there are conflicts of interest, and traditional values resist. (Just look at what is happening today in Afghanistan or Turkey). 

In the second half of the 20th and 21st centuries, Brazil has gone through profound structural changes: broad urbanisation, modernisation, reduction of population and rural work, tertiary growth, advanced technology, development of science, expansion of higher education. There were profound changes in the economic structure, the diversification of social classes was expanded, but without a reduction in poverty, marginality, and above all, the inclusion of the black population and rural-urban migrants. We have gone through economic crises, ups and downs, and political struggles for power. 

Modernisation can be described as erratic and unstable. Neoliberalism marked society by deepening inequalities. Social protection institutes were not created. Economic differences have deepened racism even further. Black women were (and still are) the base of the social pyramid: they performed manual functions and often performed tasks considered unproductive, associated to the care economy, such as domestic workers or caregivers. At the same time, the formation of intellectual boards and political activism of black women associated with feminism grew. 

Over the last two decades there has been deindustrialisation and urban unemployment has increased. Population segments were expelled in a process of gentrification, urban planning prioritised large buildings – in which most companies were involved in corruption – violence increased, policing became inadequate and militias expanded.

Brazilian society, which was predominantly Catholic, saw the expansion of radical evangelicals. From the point of view of sexual and reproductive rights, both religious strands are similar: they have conservative orientations, are against abortion, fighting for the right of the unborn child, and are against sex education. 

How to understand then, that a society with neoliberal economy elects a government that adopts a conservative policy on customs and is against science, against women, against social gender relations? 

Families are increasingly reorganising around women and their children: women currently head almost 40% of families. Paradoxically, this family constellation was not enough to extinguish patriarchy. On the contrary, male economic destabilisation is possibly responsible for the extraordinary number of femicides. Research shows that it is acceptable for women to work, but they are much more valued when they take care of the children and the house.

The contradiction between the conservatism of customs and the modernisation of the means of communication was extensively manipulated for political purposes. The federal government’s ‘sexual education for young people and adolescents’ program (before 2018) was demonised by conservative politicians. The current President of the Republic, in his electoral campaign, spread through fake news (thus using very modern means of communication) that the sexual education program in schools aimed to sexualise children and turn them into addicts. Although untrue, it eroded the proposal, which ended up being withdrawn from government plans, and disqualified the opposition candidates. 

The gender agenda entered the same line: it came to be qualified as ‘communist’ propaganda. Therefore, to exclude a ‘gender agenda’, the federal government and its supporters proposed to create a ‘non party school’. Needless to explain the contradiction of a non-party school precisely because it includes ‘a particular’ party!

The term ‘gender’ was banned by the federal government

At the moment, the country is experiencing the destruction of a gender policy. The term gender was banned by the federal government, by the Ministry of Education, it was removed from school books. While in the civilised world, science woke up precisely to include in its research the gender dimension – researching the male and the female – here we have returned to the medieval period.

Several ministers support the President in this anti-gender campaign. The picture is complete when we analyse the actions of the Ministry of Women, Family and Human Rights – which leads the policy of war against gender. The authoritarian framework described here has stimulated intense reactions that aim to stop the erosion of democracy. In universities and scientific organisations, there are intense manifestations: my critical pronouncement on the erasure of the gender issue is only possible because I work at a university that is open to various forms of knowledge, and does not censor or impede innovative aspects. Social movements are relatively clouded, but political parties have resumed the old protesting ebullition. As we live in a presidential regime, large public demonstrations are linked to electoral periods. Reactions to the fascist movement of the current government are beginning to emerge and survey data have shown that the most intense reactions are coming from the female population. 

Every day we need to remind society that we are people with human rights. They have already confused us with beings endowed only with a womb, destined for procreation; destinies determined by a body without intelligence, devoid of its own will, subservient to another being. Even today it is supposed that women are a homogeneous group, at best a working mass. 

Feminisms came to act in historically constructed concepts and had to deconstruct ideologies that dehumanise women, in general, and, in particular, Black women, Indigenous women, poor women, migrant women.

Multiple feminist movements, groups of women from all social classes, became aware and organised themselves all around Brazil, forming networks, long before the internet. Feminist struggles stimulated demands for equal social rights beyond women, Black people, LGBTQIA+ and other marginalised social groups. 

The history of feminist movements teaches us that we need to be on constant alert: we have come a long way, but the risk of going backwards is always present. Achievements are not definitive, they last only if we are on constant alert.


São Paulo, September 17th, 2021. Eva Alterman Blay, Emeritus Professor Department of Sociology Faculty of Philosophy, Languages and Human Sciences (FFLCH) University of São Paulo.

Feminisms: why engineers (and everyone) should care? was presented at the fourth seminar from Australia-Brazil Women’s Research Engineers Network (WREN) at University of Wollongong, September 27 2021.


To learn more about LAB’s ongoing Women Resisting Violence project in collaboration with King’s College University, head to wrv.org.uk.


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