Debate Regarding Whether Chicana Feminists Helped or Hurt Society Essay

Excerpt from Essay :

Chicana Feminists: How the Historical Debate Surrounding Them Came into Being

Gender roles in America have undergone a dramatic change since the Women's Movement began with women like Betty Friedan and Gloria Steinhem leading the way. Friedan, for instance, was an avid activist and strong supporter of equal rights for women whose The Feminine Mystique literally sparked the gender roles revolution. In her book she stated "that she came to political consciousness out of a disillusionment with her life as a suburban housewife," and out of that consciousness grew the activity that would see women establish themselves in roles previously held and dominated by men.[footnoteRef:1] Likewise, Steinhem founded Ms. Magazine and called for women's liberation in 1969 when she penned an article about how admitting to having had an abortion had empowered her.[footnoteRef:2] Yet, the gender roles revolution in America also drew a great deal of support from Chicana feminists -- Mexican-American, Chicana and Hispanic women in the United States. Normative gender roles of the 1950s onward faced pressure from many directions. This paper will not only show how Chicana feminists challenged these gender roles but also how Chicana Feminism has been written about in the past. [1: David Horowitz, Betty Friedan and the Making of the Feminine Mystique (Amherst: University of Massachusetts Press, 1998), 2.] [2: Gloria Steinhem, Outrageous Acts and Everyday Rebellions (NY: Henry Holt, 1984), 18.]

The historical debate surrounding Chicana feminists has not so much been about whether or not they did challenge gender roles (there is no denying that they did) but rather about how effective they were in transforming the common or normative (or traditional) gender roles of the past into the more progressive standards that the Women's Movement promoted, such as gender equality and sexual autonomy. For instance, some criticized the Chicanas from drawing attention away from the male-oriented Chicano movement which was begun in order to promote the needs of Mexian-American men in economic, social and political spheres.[footnoteRef:3] But the whole point and focus of the Chicanas was to refocus attention on themselves in light of the wider Feminist Movement, which challenged the patriarchal privilege of the past. As Alma Garcia notes, Chicanas were criticized for destroying "family values" and being too "individualistic" -- however, the Chicanas themselves never set out to destroy anything but only to redefine womanhood and to challenge the gender roles that had been assigned them within the male-dominated Chicano structure. This question of destroying the family structure could equally be aimed at the Chicanos or at the patriarchal societies of the past -- yet as they are the ones leveling the charge, it is unlikely to find them turn the criticism upon themselves. Nonetheless, the debate surrounding the Chicana feminist movement has been framed in such negative terms by opponents to the Chicanas that it is important to see another side to the debate -- namely, that side which is of the Chicanas themselves. By framing the historical debate in more positive terminology (as in were the Chicanas successful in promoting the progressive ideals of the Women's Movement) one can view the historiography of the Chicana movement in a much more complete, impartial, and historically accurate light. [3: A. Garcia, "The Development of Chicana Feminist Discourse, 1970-1980," Gender and Society, vol. 3, no. 2 (1989), 217.]

To appreciate the historiography of the Chicana movement it is helpful to understand how it began. The term Chicana was coined by the Chicana feminists who wanted to self-identify in a movement where identity and self-assertion was everything. These were Mexican-American women who first established their voice in contemporary social and political spheres in the 1960s and 1970s, in particularly at the 1969 Chicano Youth Liberation Conference. It was here that women began participating more fully in what till then had been a largely male-oriented discourse. From the Chicano Conference came la Chicana -- a Hispanic-American woman who would challenge the traditional or normative gender roles handed down by older patriarchal generations.[footnoteRef:4] [4: A. Garcia, "The Development of Chicana Feminist Discourse, 1970-1980," Gender and Society, vol. 3, no. 2 (1989), 218.]

The Latin-American tradition had largely been informed by the values of the Roman Catholic Church. But with Liberation Theology finding a grassroots support system among the Latin-American countries, which made its way into Mexican-American heritage, the Women's Movement found a new group ready to challenge traditional gender roles. Yolanda Taranga was one such Chicana who coupled with liberation theologian Ada Maria Isasi-Diaz to promote religious feminism within the Church and Catholic Latina communities. Ada Maria Isasi-Diaz combined feminist theory with Liberation Theology to form mujerista theology. This was not just a theology for women, but rather one by women -- the liberation theology itself would find its critics within the Church who adhered to more traditional standards and norms of religious interpretation.[footnoteRef:5] A mujerista, Isasi-Diaz believed, was a liberator, a helper of Latina women, and mujerista theology was designed to give voice to women and the Latino communities in which they lived. Ada Maria Isasi-Diaz took up this struggle more than a quarter of a century ago, when she first enrolled in the feminist movement: "I was born a feminist on Thanksgiving weekend, 1975, when over one thousand Roman Catholic women met to insist on the right of women to be ordained to a renewed priestly ministry in our church."[footnoteRef:6] This movement was a communal experience for Isasi-Diaz: It made her feel that she was finally part of something truly revolutionary, something actually making a stand. If the Catholic Church introduced her to the idea of salvation, the feminist movement introduced her to the idea that salvation could be achieved through solidarity with the oppressed and the lifting up of the voice. [5: Marcel Lefebvre, An Open Letter to Confused Catholics (Kansas: Angelus Press, 1986), 124.] [6: Ada Maria Isasi-Diaz, Mujerista Theology: A Theology for the Twenty-First Century (NY: Orbis Books, 1999), 16.]

However, the Chicana theologian Maria Pilar Aquino took issue with the term which Isasi-Diaz coined -- mujerista -- "because of the negative connotations of 'mujerismo' (the feminine stereotype complementing machismo) in Latin American feminism."[footnoteRef:7] This was one instance in which the trajectories of two common movements, though similar in their initiative and aim, contributed uniquely to a discourse in which identity and terminology were deemed vastly important because of the sensitive meanings associated with traditional ideas. In this case, the Chicana theologian wanted to break completely with the male-oriented identities of the past and, differing from Isasi-Diaz, chose to view herself simply as a Latina feminist. Isasi-Diaz formulated her own self-identity in favorable terms that drew from the patriarchal tradition but re-oriented the paradigm in a feminine context. For Aquino, the re-orientation carried too much baggage (namely, patriarchal) and should have been avoided. In this sense, one sees the historiography of the Chicana movement [7: Rosemary Skinner Keller, Rosemary Ruether, Marie Canton, Encyclopedia of Women and Religion in North America, (IN: Indian University Press, 2006), 20.]

Part of what was important to the Chicana Feminist movement was the new identity and nature of the female person that the Feminist movement wanted to promote. For the Chicana's influenced by both Catholic and Mexicana heritage, the issues centered on religious and cultural female forms that had been institutionalized for a long time. These figures ranged from Our Lady of Guadalupe to La Malinche and it was held among Chicana Feminists that these representative female forms inhibited women from achieving their sexual and bodily autonomy or their gender equality with men. More than this, the discourse that Chicanas took up was one that focused on rewriting the mother-daughter bond, stripping it of its paternalistic traditional narratives, and codifying it in terms of a new and complex, wholly woman-centered bond.[footnoteRef:8] The traditional female forms of Mexican-American womanhood had focused on the woman's role in relation to the patriarchal society or the male-dominated worldview, one in which Our Lady of Guadalupe was subject to her Son or was considered the "handmaid of the Lord."[footnoteRef:9] What the Chicana feminists strove to do was to disassociate the role of motherhood from any relation to male dominance or female subjectivity and instead promote the mother as an authority in an of herself, with a specifically female-oriented role that could be comprehended and appreciated in its own terms. [8: Cristina Herrera, Contemporary Chicana Literature: Rewriting the Maternal Script (Amherst: Cambria Press, 2014), 2.] [9: Luke 1:38, King James Bible]

What helped the Chicana feminists establish themselves was the different forays into the arts that individual Chicanas made, whether in painting or in music. They invoked a tough, autonomous vibe that provoked audiences and pushed the boundaries of gender norms, traditionally speaking. In many cases the Chicanas were influenced by other feminist artists, women like Cindy Sherman whose photographic art has been perceived as an enormous influence in the Women's Movement. Sherman is known for dressing up in various guises (both masculine and feminine) and photographing herself in these guises, essentially allowing herself to disappear…

Sources Used in Document:

Bibliography

Garcia, A.M. "The Development of Chicana Feminist Discourse, 1970-1980." Gender

and Society, vol. 3, no. 2 (1989): 217-238.

Herrera, Cristina. Contemporary Chicana Literature: Rewriting the Maternal Script.

Amherst: Cambria Press, 2014.

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