Teaching Gender in Latin American History

CLAH Newsletter, vol. 34, no. 2(Fall 1998)

Teaching Gender in Latin American History
Avi Chomsky
Salem State College
Last year I developed a new course on Gender in Latin American History. Such things were not even taught in the 1980s when I was a graduate student at the University of California at Berkeley, but when I began teaching at Bates College in 1990, I immediately became involved in the new Women’s studies program there, participating in two year-long Faculty Development seminars in Women’s Studies, and volunteering to co-teach “Women’s Studies 100,” an interdisciplinary, team-taught introductory class for Women’s Studies majors. When I designed my own course, though, I decided to make “gender” rather than “women” the organizing principle, because so much interesting work has come out on this topic recently (I was pleased to note that almost everything I used in the class had been published after I finished graduate school), and because it seemed to me that the issue of the social construction of gender is both a key element in women’s history, and one that is very difficult for students to grasp.

In studying gender in Latin American history, I wanted students to learn to think critically about gender in their own lives and society too. One of the greatest pitfalls of the course was students’ tendency to naturalize–and idealize–their own ideas about gender. Early in the class we discussed cultural and moral relativism, and how one could negotiate between understanding other societies in their own terms, and recognizing that what might at first glance seem to be hegemonic characteristics of a time and place are in fact often challenged from within that time and place. I also sought to draw parallels between the issues we were studying in Latin America’s past and issues in U.S. history and the U.S. present, to counter students’ tendency to counterpose a retrograde, sexist, and violent Latin America to an egalitarian U.S.

For example, before we read Evelyn Stevens’ essay on marianismo, I asked them to consider common stereotypes in the U.S. about differences between women and men, and whether they thought there might be any inherent psychological differences between women and men. (I also handed out selections from Sara Ruddick’s “Maternal Thinking” to read with Stevens.) Their answers showed them that there were elements of marianismo in their own thinking on gender, and also that there were strong disagreements within the class about the nature of “male” and “female.” I suspect that had I begun by having them read Stevens without first questioning their own beliefs, they would have concluded that what she described was a universal Latin American set of beliefs that was in total opposition to U.S. beliefs.

When we read Martínez-Alier’s book on nineteenth-century Cuba, their first reaction was to say that in the U.S. today there are no restrictions on interracial or cross-class marriage. I countered this by giving them Jacquelyn Dowd Hall’s “‘The Mind That Burns in Each Body’: Women, Rape, and Racial Violence,” and asking them to try to track down statistics on interracial marriage in the U.S. today. This class quickly turned into one of those marvelous classes that teaches itself. There were 20 students, and almost as many men as women (which does not tend to happen in courses that focus on women’s history). They ranged from first-year students to seniors, and three were Latin American or Latino. (Since there are very few Latino students at Bates, this seemed like a good number for the class.) Several were openly gay or lesbian. Thus, the class itself brought a wide diversity of opinion and experience to the discussions (although as is inevitable at a small liberal arts college, there was little diversity in class background). The concepts introduced–and questioned–in the first section of the course on “The Construction of Machismo/ Marianismo” really worked to give the students a common language and set of ideas and questions to work with. The readings and discussions in this section emphasized that gender and ideas about gender are imbedded in, and can’t be understood in the absence of, systems of race, class, and power. The second section, on “Class, Development and Gender,” tried to show that modernization or development was not, in itself, an uncomplicated solution to gender inequalities, and that the relationships between socioeconomic change and cultural change are complex and multi-faceted. The third section looked at self-conscious attempts to change gender relations, from the “first wave of feminism” through the Chiapas uprising, and looked also at the complexities of gender in the Cuban and Nicaraguan revolutions. We ended the class with “Gender and the Violence of Everyday Life” with readings on Latin America today.

One thing which did not work in this class was my attempt to have students write short “personal reaction” papers for each class meeting. I enjoyed reading these papers, but the students hated writing them. They admitted that the papers really improved the quality of the discussions, but after reading the students’ mid-semester evaluations, I decided to abandon them. The students, in return, promised to continue reading as carefully as before and coming to class prepared to discuss the readings, and for the most part they did. Perhaps the reward of seeing how well discussions could go when students were really prepared encouraged them to continue preparing.