June 26, 2024

Contemporary Feminist Struggles: Some Thoughts from Mexico City

Irmgard Emmelhainz

Demanding justice for femicides on International Women’s Day in Mexico City. EPA-EFE, Sáshenka Gutiérrez.

Last March 8, Reforma Avenue was as packed as it was in 2020; it felt vibrant with creativity, visible in slogans and outfits, with each group better organized than the last one that had passed by. There was vandalism and beatings, tendederos,1 tears, laughter, shouting, dancing. The majority of demonstrators were young women in their twenties, but there were also older women, girls, and foreigners. We marched with a feeling of camaraderie in all our diversity, joyful and lively. And although the march symbolized the public circulation of what women had kept silent for hundreds of years, which is a huge leap forward in seeking justice, ending impunity, and stopping it from happening again, I can’t help but think of the pending accounts of the march, which grow every year. In a text from 1970, Rosario Castellanos wrote:

The liberation of women bears possibilities of change that touch the structure of the system very closely. In the political and sexual, economic and social, society will have to be fundamentally reorganized and that will be achieved through collective opposition and the transformation of relationships of production and institutions. It is about modifying attitudes and roles that define and reinforce the oppression of women. The liberation of women is basic because in order to achieve it, it necessarily needs to include men, family, and work. Women bear an enormous potential because their oppression is lodged in their sex, social class, and race. In the case of the white middle class woman, oppression is the manifestation of her sex; in the case of the black worker, the oppression is three-fold. The liberation of women will have repercussions at all levels: from the economic structure, to daily home habits, to a true search for identity for both sexes, to work seen as the pleasurable gratification of a need.2

This sentiment is as current now as it was when Castellanos wrote it. Above all, it says the idea of what we call “women’s emancipation” is related to changing socioeconomic structures and relations of production (here there is an implicit critique of capitalism and colonialism), changing sexual identities (which we would call “gender” today), and changing institutions. Castellanos further points to the need to change the “attitudes and roles” that reinforce the oppression of women.

This year marks seventy years since Lilus Kikus was first published.3 Elena Poniatowska’s novella is about the“awakening,” so to speak, of a thirteen-year-old girl who, as Poniatowska puts it, is in the “edad de la punzada,” the age when girls are neither children nor women. Lilus’s coming of age is an initiation into the dangers that await her and her friends as women under heteropatriarchy. The novella (beautifully illustrated by Leonora Carrington) reminds me of the ordeal of Palestinian parents in the West Bank and Gaza, who face the difficult task of explaining to their children that they live under Israeli occupation—a painful coming-of-age moment for the children. Lilus is initiated into the vicissitudes of heteropatriarchy when she gets her period. First, she is catcalled on the street. Then she learns lessons from the ordeals of others: her friend Borrega commits unthinkable transgressions like “putting a white lily on the ink pot” and “performing a diabolical dance” (which means that she does everything possible to lose her virginity). Borrega ends up being expelled from school when she gets pregnant. Lilus’s friend Chiruelita marries a painter at seventeen and devotes her life to looking after him, until one day when she decides to leave him; he “twists her neck” (back then the term “femicide” barely existed). Lilus is eventually sent to a nunnery, where she is taught her duties as a woman: to have children, to devote herself to her family, and, especially, to patiently submit to her husband.

What has changed in seventy years of feminist struggle for the Lilus Kikuses of today? I have a Lilus Kikus at home, and even though privileged girls are no longer encouraged to keep their lilies white—they learn about contraceptives and abortion, and that are taught that they can choose whether to marry and have children—girls today are still subject to the demands of heteropatriarchy. No longer carefully shaped by nuns, girls internalize the heteropatriarchal habits of “serving” men through observation at home and through the visual culture they’re exposed to. Now they live with the anxiety of looking good on social media, of being thin enough and tall enough (herein lies the origin of the epidemics of anorexia and bigorexia), of perform skin-care routines by applying expensive toxic beauty products that their complexions don’t even need. Girls as young as nine think that skin care is a form of self-care, when in truth it is a new form of bodily tyranny: of sculpting the face and body, as it is now taught in TikTok tutorials.4

I observe my Lilus Kikus negotiate her bodily consciousness of a “girl becoming a woman.” She compares herself to adult models, influencers, and actresses who she sees on platforms that make her feel uncomfortable with her body. I see her fight over boys with her girlfriends; all the girls base their self-esteem on social-media likes and the attention they receive from boys. The messages they receive are schizophrenic: appear available but be a prude; don’t express your sexual desire but please the guy (who is initiated into sexuality by watching pornography); consume but stay thin; “be free” (like Elsa from Frozen). You were born empowered but be careful because every day eleven women are murdered in Mexico (as of last year). Above all: don’t look or act smarter than boys.

Thinking about how Palestinian parents figure out how to discuss the occupation with their children, it is urgent to achieve a consensus on how to educate young children from a gender perspective. This is sorely lacking. Last year, when I taught a documentary class with a gender perspective at a private university, the (male) students cancelled me on their evaluations. The institution took the course away from me. By not supporting my content, they avoided confronting the (male) students with their real discomfort.

Going back to Castellanos’s quote: she says that in order to achieve the liberation of women, we must include men, family, and work. In the 1970s, feminism was already intersectional. Feminists acknowledged that oppressions are multiple and stem from gender, social position, and race. For Castellanos, women’s liberation implies a radical change at the very base of society—economics, the home. Labor should become something pleasurable, she writes—without exploitation and gender divisions and without reproduction being mandatory for anyone. Early and continued education in a gender-feminist perspective would be a great start.

Second-wave feminism was followed by a time in which the promises of women’s liberation were negotiated through the transformation of “liberation” into the neoliberal principle of “empowerment.” Although women achieved economic autonomy and parity as we entered the professional field (or productive labor), we realized that institutions and corporation were not supportive of women who were mothers and we ended up with the double responsibility of productive and reproductive work (on top of the fact that our salaries are 32 percent less than men’s and that we sustain, on our own, four out of ten households).5 We can indeed spend our money on signs of femininity and success (high heels, wine, trips with friends), on self-help, wellness, aesthetic surgery, and therapy. We can opt for having children and getting married, for embracing our sexual and gender identity. Neoliberal feminism, however, which we can date to the 1990s, coincides with the epidemic of femicides that not only haunt our country but have expanded across the globe.

In practice, activists, legislators, senators, and politicians have been able to modify laws to legitimize gender parity and to protect women from all kinds of violence. It is even surprising how progressive laws are in Mexico. Take for instance the “Law of Women’s Access to a Life Free from Violence” (2007), to which in February was added “Malena’s Law,” punishing attacks using chemical substances with a prison sentence of eight to twelve years. Or the “Victims’ General Law,” passed in 2013, which was modified last year to include “Ingrid’s Law,” punishing those who disseminate images of victims of violence (women in particular) with two to six years in prison. We could, however, go even further, like in France, where they are debating the implementation of the Canadian law of “Legitimate Deferred Self-Defense,” which recognizes the incapacity of a person to extract herself from a situation of abuse—the “abused person syndrome” that leads people not to press charges. Such people are considered to be under a permanent state of threat. If a woman kills her husband, even if she is not under threat at that moment—like Jacqueline Sauvage, who shot and killed her husband in 2012—the act is considered deferred, legitimate self-defense.

Femicide, as well as intrafamilial and workplace gender violence, is a global phenomenon. The indolence of institutions, in spite of our progressive laws, is appalling. That is why, since 2016, women in Latin America have marched in the streets to denounce oppression, discrimination, and the violence we suffer. This movement has been called “Fourth Wave” feminism, or “the Tsunami.” Many of us, however, observe with concern the lack of continuity between the struggles of second-wave feminists and the current wave. Although we keep having the same ordeals, the bonds for transmitting knowledge from one generation to another are nonexistent. Feminist Marta Lamas argues that the differences between feminists are due to the fact that we are products of historical moments. What splits us apart is precisely the fact that we are inserted in different historical junctures, and this is where our disagreements come from.6

And indeed, the conditions of the struggle have changed. Annie Ernaux, winner of the 2022 Nobel Prize in Literature, wrote that unlike past generations, today a woman’s introduction to society (let’s specify: of a certain class) no longer takes place through her family but through the publication of a book, most likely autobiographical.7 Today we see that the female characters in TV series and films are no longer accessories to male protagonists but are autonomous. They lead the narrative and don’t appear sexualized or objectified. Women directors and the voices of nonwhite, non-cis women are welcomed and supported. Now we talk about instersectionality and “feminisms” (instead of a single feminism). A film directed by a woman, Greta Gerwig, which tells the story of a doll for girls, broke box office records, earning $1.4 billion.8

If we try to gauge where we are in relation to Lilus Kikus, we realize that the feminist struggle hasn’t resulted in a progressive succession of conquests. Heteropatriarchy is present in the predatory and capitalist way in which we sustain human life on earth. It remains a structuring force of the collective imaginary. For instance—to mention Hollywood again—Poor Things by Yorgos Lanthimos won way more awards than Barbie. The movie tells the story of Bella Baxter, an experimental woman created by a Dr. Goodwin. To create Bella, Dr. Goodwin transplanted the brain of an unborn baby to her dead mother’s body. The film recounts Bella’s awakening to life and discovery of the world as she learns about sexuality. Eventually she opens her eyes to the ugliness and misery of the world and later makes a living as a prostitute, in full ownership of her body and sexuality—until finally she returns to Dr. Goodwin (“God” as she calls him) and takes up the vocation of scientist-doctor. Bella’s emancipation is contingent on heteropatriarchy and the privileges it offers to a white woman (she inherits Goodwin’s practice and takes control of her husband’s money). Her character is based on the sexist fantasy of a full-grown woman with the brain of a baby.

In contrast, Gerwig lays out all the contradictions that women must navigate under heteropatriarchy in order to become emancipated. In her Barbie, the doll lives inside the bubble of a perfect world created by the utopian dreams of women. But then she goes on a trip to see the real world. In the last scene of the movie, Barbie choses to break her bubble and embrace her womanhood under heteropatriarchy. She drives up to an office building with her new family, made up of her Latina alter ego, Gloria (whom we see “tying herself into knots” as she tries to navigate this world), Gloria’s daughter, Sasha, and Sasha’s father. They encourage Barbie as she gets out of the car. “Estoy muy orguoso de ti,” says Sasha’s dad to Barbie (“I am very proud of you,” but in bad Spanish). Sasha corrects him: “Orgulloso.” He repeats it: “Orguuuullioso.” “There you go, close enough,” says Gloria. Barbie nods and walks excitedly toward the building while the dad calls out again: “Sí se puede!” To this an annoyed Gloria says, “That’s a political statement,” and Sasha chimes in, also irritated, “That’s appropriation dad.” As Barbie goes to her gynecology appointment, we see that she has changed her heels for pink Birkenstocks; this marks her transition from “a doll in a pink world” to a “woman in the real world.” What interests me about this scene is how Gerwig highlights the multicultural and intergenerational aspect of the feminist struggle: Gloria and Sasha are Latinas living with a white American man. Throughout the movie, we see him struggling to learn Spanish, to understand Gloria and Sasha’s language. The character becomes an allegory for how the allies of feminists are trying to understand but failing. The relationship between Gloria, Sasha, and Barbie also speaks to the intergenerational and racial breaches of feminist intersectionality. We are at the crux of those tensions. Contemporary feminisms in Mexico, even though they are popular, even though the streets were filled with joyful and angry women on March 8, lack a common agenda beyond the rejection of gender violence. We also lack a class analysis of how violence affects women differently depending on their social origin, and how it is connected to other structural forms of violence.

We have seen the transformation of the women’s struggle, originally thought of as collective, into neoliberal empowerment lived as a personal-private ordeal. We talk about intersectionality but without denouncing the exploitation of workers and domestic laborers, the precarious situations of migrant women, and climate change. Meanwhile the racialization of forced migration, domestic labor, and inequality deepens every day. We are not fighting enough to make psychotherapy and feminist theory and history available for everyone, so that we can all begin to heal from multiple forms of violence. This is why polarization and resentment divide us; they are obstacles to having a global vision of the situation of women. By contrast, in the 1970s, feminists in Mexico developed as astute socioeconomic analysis of the situtation of women—starting from their class—and fought for each other collectively. I am thinking of Maricarmen de Lara’s 1985 documentary No les pedimos un viaje a la luna (We are not asking for a trip to the moon), about the struggle of sweatshop workers to unionize after an earthquake devastated their workplaces and killed many of them. Contemporary feminisms tend to be based on the voicing of victimization, which loses sight of structural problems inherent to heteropatriarchy. During the march, we felt united and intersectional, but since March 8, we have been polarized. In real life and at the workplace, we fall out with each other, behaving like machas, making each other stumble.

We imagine that macho men must be gloating. They must thoroughly enjoy seeing we women draw swords against each other, stick out a foot to make a rival trip, in our desperate search to achieve power, important posts, and well-deserved recognition. In his collection of short stories El camino de Wembra (2023), Adrián Curiel imagines a dystopian science-fiction scenario in which the world is taken over by woke trans people and feminists who adopt the worst authoritarian attitudes, perfectly reproducing heteropatriarchy but now oppressing a new minority made up of cis men.

The problem I am trying to articulate manifests in two ways: the reproduction of gender violence by men against women, but also by women against women, or what we could conceptualize as the projection of mommy issues onto the professional and social realms. From this point of view, it is important to recall the reflections of French feminist philosopher Luce Irigaray. At a conference in Montreal in 1982, she led a seminar on the topic of women and madness.9 Irigaray presented a critique of psychoanalysis that resituated the Freudian myth of the homicide of the father as the founder of the primordial horde and, ultimately, the social order. She centered instead matricide and the burial of women in madness. That is to say, Irigaray situated the origin of heteropatriarchy in the mutilation of the imaginary and symbolic relationship to the woman-mother. The originary matricide substitutes the phallus for the umbilical cord, because the phallus enables the father to forbid the bodily relationship with the mother and opens the way to the image of the virgin goddess, obedient to the law of the father. Irigaray posits the mother and the hatred of her body induced by the phallus as the “black continent” of Western culture. She argues that motherhood is the function that sustains the social order and the order of desire; however, the law of the father forbids, censors, and represses the desire for and of the mother-function and her body. Therefore, for Irigaray, the first step towards dismantling heteropatriarchy is to revive the mother, who was sacrificed in the symbolic origin of our culture, rejecting the destruction by patriarchal law of the desire for the mother and her body. This implies, first and foremost, healing the relationship with the body of the mother and with the bodies of our daughters, honoring our female genealogies and our love for other women. For Irigaray, this love is necessary so that we can transcend the servitude of the phallic cult and go beyond being exchange objects for men, who maintain women as objects and rivals in the market. To reconcile ourselves with our mothers is thus a necessary condition towards our emancipation from the authority of the father. Strengthening the mother-daughter, daughter-mother bond can be an explosive shift in our societies. In sum, the new urgent front of the feminist struggle is to establish intersectional relationships of reciprocity between women, salvaging our female lineage and calling out macha aggressors to work on their mommy issues. This will enable radical changes in our relationships to each other, truly dismantling heteropatriarchy once and for all.

Seventy years after Lilus Kikus, we find ourselves with the urgent task of working on our mommy issues and overcoming our polarization. We must do this in order to form a common agenda that categorically rejects heteropatriarchy and, as Rosario Castellanos wrote, thinks and materializes not only personal life changes but also changes in the economy, work, and the ways we sustain human life on earth. Perhaps we can follow the example of Indigenous women from Cherán, who in 2009 organized to kick political parties and illegal loggers out of their forest. They began to autonomously self-govern their community, emancipating themselves from the yoke of criminals, the government, and heteropatriarchy.10


Invented by Mexican feminist artist Mónica Mayer, “el tendedero” is a device to publicly denounce gender violence, which has now become a widespread practice. See .


Rosario Castellanos, “Feminismo en 1970: Curarnos en salud,” in Lo personal es político, ed. Ana Sofía Rodríguez and Marta Lamas (Planeta, 2023), 54. All translation by the author.


Elena Poniatowska, Lilus Kikus (Era, 2008).


Nuria Labari, “De la cultura de la dieta a la maldición del ‘skincare,’” El País, February 10, 2024 .


Figures from an Instagram post by Gina Jaramillo .


Marta Lamas, Lo personal es politico: Textos del feminism de los setenta, ed. Marta Lamas and Ana Sofía Rodríguez (Lumen, 2023), 47.


Annie Ernaux, La vie extérieure (Folio, 2000): “Forty years ago, middle class girls awaited this event to make their entry into society. Now they wait to make their entry with their first literary work: this is an improvement.”


Lindsay Bahr, “Greta Gerwig es desairada en la categoría de dirección de los Óscar,” LA Times, January 24, 2024 .


See Luce Irigaray, Cuerpo a cuerpo con la madre (Paradiso Editores, 2021).


Their story is told here .

Protests & Demonstrations, Violence

Irmgard Emmelhainz is an independent translator, writer, researcher, and lecturer based in Mexico City. She is the author of Jean-Luc Godards Political Filmmaking (Palgrave MacMillan, 2019), The Tyranny of Common Sense: Mexico’s Post-Neoliberal Conversion (SUNY Press, 2021), and Toxic Loves, Impossible Futures: Feminist Lives as Resistance (Vanderbilt University Press, 2022). She is a member of the SNCA in Mexico (National System for Arts Creators).


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