In a recent online discussion, there were heated debates about a conservative legislative proposal, aiming to limit the freedom of Brazilian teachers to choose what is taught. During the discussion, one woman commented that, in her opinion, such a proposal was positive as a topic such as feminism, for example, is ‘fashionable’ and has already been overemphasised in schools. She labelled feminism a ‘thorny issue’. As a Brazilian woman, this frustrated me. By venting my emotions in writing, I have been able to find some relief. Speaking out might be healthy.
Despite the ‘thorny’ connotation, feminism of course aims mainly to ensure women enjoy the same rights as men. Surprisingly (at least for me), all too often, some women in Brazil choose not to call themselves feminists. However, if we argued that their rights should be different from those of men (and probably inferior) they would invariably rise as one to resist such an idea. They would be right to do so, as the principle of equal rights is guaranteed by the Brazilian Constitution (article 5º), the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, and many others pieces of international legislation and treaties.
It seems a contradiction that, in 2019, women still undervalue feminism. If many women enjoy an improved reality today (despite the stresses and strains of everyday life) surely we owe it to the campaigns of women throughout history. If teachers cannot explain the practical outcomes of feminism, girls will never understand the power that women have when we speak with one voice. Children must be taught at school about the achievements of women. Women in Brazil have made many contributions to history, but history has in turn made them invisible.
Liberata, for example, was a slave bought at the age of 10. Mistreated and raped by her owner, she fought bravely for her freedom; going to court against such a powerful man and demanding her freedom. Despite the difficulties inherent in a legal battle, she was freed 74 years before the abolition of slavery in Brazil (Debora Thomé, 50 Brasileiras Incríveis para Conhecer antes de Crescer, Galera, 2017).
Giving visibility to the history made by women such as Liberata would teach both girls and boys to respect what women can and have achieved. It would help them to understand the nature of feminism, and the need to transform it into a more democratic movement, crossing social, racial, and class barriers. Another example is that of Nísia Floresta, an educator, translator, writer and poet, considered the first Brazilian feminist, who was influenced by the writings of Mary Wollstonecraft. In the 1830s she not only battled the male dominated press to have her work published, but also started a girls’ school in Rio de Janeiro whilst writing in defence of the rights of women, indigenous people and slaves. Equally, Berta Lutz and Lelia Gonzalez, two distinguished feminists, spoke up for the rights of women. Berta Lutz, a zoologist, politician, and diplomat, led the Brazilian suffrage movement in the 1920s. She was also responsible for ensuring women’s rights were included in the preamble of the Charter of the United Nations in 1945 (Evento em NY lembra importância das diplomatas do Sul Global na criação da ONU, at https://nacoesunidas.org/evento-em-ny-lembra- importancia-das-diplomatas-do-sul-global-na-criacao-da-onu/). Lélia Gonzalez, a professor, anthropologist, philosopher, was a pioneer of black feminist research in Brazil. She also founded the Instituto de Pesquisas das Culturas Negras do Rio de Janeiro – IPCN/RJ (‘Research Institute of Black Cultures of Rio de Janeiro’) and the Nzinga Coletivo de Mulheres Negras (the Black Women’s Collective). Brazil’s history is full of women to be celebrated.
Teachers should research and refer to women who contributed to the school subject they teach, since history has not been made solely by men. Women have been warriors, scientists, soldiers, mathematicians, footballers, pilots, engineers, politicians and leaders. This could enable girls to learn naturally that they can do whatever they want. For centuries, history has attributed achievements and discoveries to men. It is time to challenge the history that is taught.
Feminism is also ‘reflected’ in Brazilian legislation after a long and challenging process. Many women struggled to enable women to benefit from the rights we have today: to study at Brazilian universities (granted by law in 1879); to vote (1932); to have the right to equal pay for the same job (1934 Constitution); and the legal right for married woman to work without the husband’s permission (1962). These rights seem natural today, but they are the result of the feminist movement. All women who benefit from those rights today should support ‘feminism’ and the persistence of women’s struggle. Equality has not been achieved yet, as legal progress is not always reflected in ‘real life’. The current debate on feminism may be the outcome of a maturing global society. Social media has intensified this. For all this, education is crucial. Knowledge of the history of women can enable girls to face challenges in the future so they can also fight for equality, or to maintain achievements. Moreover, men have a role to play as well. We should invite girls, boys, women, and men to understand and so to value the beautiful meaning of ‘feminism’.
After all, the Brazilian Constitution guarantees gender equality. As Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie says, “We should all be feminists”. Let us honour Lelia Gonzalez and fight for the democracy of the movement of women. The voices of all women deserve to be heard (Djamila Ribeiro, O Que é Lugar de Fala?, Letramento, 2018). So, all in all, is feminism actually fashionable? I see feminism as more than a ‘fashionable’ word, but as a long-standing movement, which has proved being essential for many reasons such as justice, democracy, and development. Social media has simply enhanced the debate and attracted more allies.