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US Feminists and Central America in the “Age of Reagan”: The Overlapping Contexts of Activism, Intellectual Culture and Documentary Filmmaking



This paper examines the attitudes of feminist activists, intellectuals and filmmakers to US intervention in Central America during the 1980s. It traces the development of mutual intellectual and political sustenance between feminism and anti-interventionism, arguing that as feminist thinking bred new ways of approaching US involvement in Central America, so anti-interventionist struggles bred new ways of thinking about women's activism. In making this point, the paper complicates narratives of the “age of Reagan” that overlook the persistence of left-wing politics during the 1980s. Instead, it argues that a specific form of international feminism enabled a community of activists to contribute to a vibrant culture of dissent that criticized conservative approaches to women's rights and, at the same time, vigorously contested the interventionist foreign policy of the Reagan administration.



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1 Bunch, Charlotte, “Global Feminism: Going beyond Boundaries” (June 1985), in Kahn, Karen, ed., Frontline Feminism, 1975–1995: Essays from Sojourners' First 20 Years (San Francisco: Aunt Lute Books, 1995), 453–57, 454.

2 Ibid., 456.

3 Daniel T. Rodgers has recently noted the inadequacy of such a focus on Reagan: “Divided, not unitary, government was the rule in the last quarter of the century … The age was not Reagan's in remotely the same way that the 1930s were Roosevelt's. If we are to look for clearer historical fault lines, we must look elsewhere than to presidential elections.” See Rodgers, Daniel T., Age of Fracture (Cambridge, MA: Belknap Press, 2011), 3.

4 See, for example, Schaller, Michael, Reckoning with Reagan: America and Its President in the 1980s (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1992); Johnson, Haynes, Sleepwalking through History: America in the Reagan Years (New York: W. W. Norton & Co., 2003); Ehrman, John, The Eighties: America in the Age of Reagan (New Haven: Yale University Press, 2005); Troy, Gil, Morning in America: How Ronald Reagan Invented the 1980s (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 2005); Collins, Robert M., Transforming America: Politics and Culture during the Reagan Years (New York: Columbia University Press, 2007); Schaller, Michael, Right Turn: American Life in the Reagan–Bush Era, 1980–1992 (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2007); Wilentz, Sean, The Age of Reagan: A History, 1974–2008 (New York: Harper Perennial, 2009).

5 Schulman, Bruce J., “The Reagan Revolution in Perspective: Conservative Assaults on the Welfare State across the Industrialised World,” in Canley, Richard S., eds., Reassessing the Reagan Presidency (Lanham: University Press of America, 2003), 94104; Moffitt, Kimberley R. and Campbell, Duncan A., eds., The 1980s: A Critical and Transitional Decade (Lanham, MD: Lexington Books, 2011).

6 For broader studies, see Elbaum, Max, Revolution in the Air: Sixties Radicals Turn to Lenin, Mao and Che (London: Verso, 2002); Gosse, Van and Moser, Richard, eds., The World the Sixties Made: Politics and Culture in Recent America (Philadelphia: Temple University Press, 2003); Jenkins, Philip, Decade of Nightmares: The End of the Sixties and the Making of Eighties America (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2006); Hall, Simon, American Patriotism, American Protest: Social Movements since the Sixties (Philadelphia: University of Pennsylvania Press, 2010); Martin, Bradford, The Other Eighties: A Secret History of America in the Age of Reagan (New York: Hill and Wang, 2011). See also chapters on the 1970s and 1980s in Rossinow, Doug, Visions of Progress: The Left Liberal Tradition in America (Philadelphia: University of Pennsylvania Press, 2008); Stansell, Christine, The Feminist Promise: 1792–Present (New York: The Modern Library, 2010); Kazin, Michael, American Dreamers: How the Left Changed a Nation (New York: Knopf, 2011). For more specific studies of localized movements or those targeting specific issues see Orleck, Annelise, Storming Caesars Palace: How Black Mothers Fought Their Own War on Poverty (Boston: Beacon Press, 2005); McAlister, Melani, “Suffering Sisters? American Feminists and the Problem of Female Genital Surgeries,” in Kazin, Michael and Martin, Joseph A., eds., Americanism: New Perspectives on the History of an Ideal (Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 2006), 242–61; Surbrug, Robert, Beyond Vietnam: The Politics of Protest in Massachusetts, 1974–1990 (Amherst: University of Massachusetts Press, 2009); Bell, Jonathan, California Crucible: The Forging of Modern American Liberalism (Philadelphia: University of Pennsylvania Press, 2012).

7 Zelizer, Julian E., “Rethinking the History of American Conservatism,” Reviews in American History, 38, 2 (June 2010), 367–92, 387.

8 Fein, Kim Phillips, “Conservatism: A State of the Field,” Journal of American History, 98, 3 (Dec. 2011), 740–41.

9 Peace, Roger, A Call to Conscience: The Anti-Contra War Campaign (Amherst: University of Massachusetts Press, 2012), 35.

10 Anderson, Bonnie S., Joyous Greetings: The First International Women's Movement, 1830–1860 (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2000).

11 Delap, Lucy, The Feminist Avant-Garde: Transatlantic Encounters of the Early Twentieth Century (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2007).

12 Davis, Carole Boyce, Left of Karl Marx: The Political Life of Black Communist Claudia Jones (Durham, NC: Duke University Press, 2007), 27. See also McDuffie, Erik S., Sojourning for Freedom: Black Women, American Communism, and the Meaning of Black Left Feminism (Durham, NC: Duke University Press, 2011).

13 On the relationship between anti-feminism and the New Right see Petchesky, Rosalind Pollack, “Anti-abortion, Anti-feminism and the Rise of the New Right,” Feminist Studies, 7 (Summer 1981), 246–67; Critchlow, Donald T., Phyllis Schlafly and Grassroots Conservatism: A Woman's Crusade (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 2005); Schreiber, Ronnee, Righting Feminism: Conservative Women and American Politics (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2008).

14 Evans, Sara M., “Feminism in the 1980s: Surviving the Backlash,” in Troy, Gil and Cannato, Vincent J., eds., Living in the Eighties (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2009), 8992.

15 Stansell, 355–56. On the UN efforts to develop an international community of feminist activists see Olcott, Jocelyn, “The Battle within the Home: Development Strategies and the Commodification of Caring Labors at the 1975 International Women's Year Conference,” in Fink, Leon, ed., Workers across the Americas: The Transnational Turn in Labor History (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2011), 194213.

16 “First World Conference on Women,” at, accessed 3 April 2012.

17 Çağatay, Nilüfer, Grown, Caren and Santiago, Aida, “The Nairobi Women's Conference: Toward a Global Feminism?”, Feminist Studies, 12, 2 (Summer 1986), 401–11, 405.

18 See, for example, Davis, Angela, Women, Race and Class (New York: Random House, 1981); Moraga, Cherrié and Anzaldúa, Gloria, eds., This Bridge Called My Back: Writings by Radical Women of Color (Watertown: Persephone Press, 1981).

19 hooks, bell, Ain't I a Woman: Black Women and Feminism (London: Pluto Press, 1981), 13.

20 On the internationalism of the post-1945 black left see Young, Cynthia A., Soul Power: Culture, Radicalism and the Making of a U.S. Third World Left (Durham, NC: Duke University Press, 2006). On Chicana feminism see Garcia, Alma M., “The Development of Chicana Feminist Discourse, 1970–1980,” Gender and Society, 3, 2 (June 1989), 217–38.

21 On the subject of genital mutilation see McAlister, “Suffering Sisters?”.

22 Chinchilla, Norma Stoltz, “Revolutionary Popular Feminism in Nicaragua: Articulating Class, Gender and National Sovereignty,” Gender and Society, 4, 3 (Sept. 1990), 370–97.

23 Emily K. Hobson, “Imagining Alliance: Queer Anti-imperialism and Race in California, 1966–1990,” PhD dissertation, University of Southern California, 2009, 267.

24 Randall has highlighted this link herself. See Randall, Margaret, Gathering Rage: The Failure of Twentieth Century Revolutions to Develop a Feminist Agenda (New York: Monthly Review Press, 1992), 16.

25 Randall founded the journal in 1959 in an effort to bring Latin and North American literary cultures into conversation. Published in both Spanish and English, El Corno Emplumado consequently printed a mixture of poetry, prose and letters in the hope of fostering a transnational, revolutionary literature. See Georgakas, Dan, “New Left Literature,” in Buhle, Mary Jo, Buhle, Paul and Georgakas, Dan, eds., The Encyclopedia of the American Left (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1998), 552–53, 552.

26 Beverley, John, Testimonio: On the Politics of Truth (Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 2004), 99.

27 Randall, Margaret, ed., Sandino's Daughters: Testimonies of Nicaraguan Women in Struggle (Vancouver: New Star Books, 1981), i.

28 See, for example, Randall, Margaret, ed., Inside the Nicaraguan Revolution: The Story of Doris Tijerino (Vancouver: New Star, 1978); and Randall, , ed., Cuban Women: Twenty Years Later (New York: Smyrna Press, 1980).

29 Randall, Gathering Rage, 35.

30 Dubriwny, Tasha N., “Consciousness-Raising as Collective Rhetoric: The Articulation of Experience in the Redstockings’ Abortion Speak Out of 1969,” Quarterly Journal of Speech, 91, 5 (Nov. 2005), 395–422, 401.

31 See Kolko, Gabriel, Confronting the Third World: United States Foreign Policy, 1945–1980 (New York: Pantheon Books, 1988); LaFeber, Walter, Inevitable Revolutions: The United States in Central America, (New York: W. W. Norton, 1984). For a discussion of revisionist historiography and the politics of intervention in Central America, see Witham, Nick, “Confronting a ‘Crisis in Historical Perspective’: Walter LaFeber, Gabriel Kolko and the Functions of Revisionist Historiography during the Reagan Era,” Left History, 15, 1 (Fall/Winter 2010/2011), 6586.

32 See Chomsky, Noam, Turning the Tide: U.S. Intervention in Central America and the Struggle for Peace (Boston: South End Press, 1985).

33 “Interview with Professor Cynthia Enloe,” Review of International Studies, 27, 4 (October 2001), 651–52.

34 Enloe, Cynthia, Does Khaki Become You? The Militarization of Women's Lives (Boston: South End Press, 1983), v.

35 Ibid., 160.

36 Ibid., 170–72.

37 Enloe, Cynthia, “Bananas, Bases, and Patriarchy: Some Feminist Questions about the Militarization of Central America,” Radical America, 19, 4 (July–Aug. 1985), 78.

38 See Cohn, Carol, “Sex and Death in the Rational World of Defense Intellectuals,” Signs 12, 4 (1987), 687–98; Elshtain, Jean Bethke, Women and War (Chicago: The University of Chicago Press, 1987); Stiehm, Judith Hicks, Arms and the Enlisted Woman (Philadelphia: Temple University Press, 1989); Tickner, J. Ann, Gender in International Relations: Feminist Perspectives on Achieving International Security (New York: Columbia University Press, 1992). For an overview of the field see Blanchard, Eric M., “Gender, International Relations and the Development of Feminist Security Theory,” Signs, 28, 4 (2003), 12891312.

39 Cynthia Enloe, Bananas, Beaches, Bases: Making Feminist Sense of International Politics (Berkeley: University of California Press, 1990), 7–11.

40 Rabinowitz, Paula, They Must be Represented: The Politics of Documentary (London: Verso, 1994), 2.

41 Rosenthal, Alan, “When the Mountains Tremble: An Interview with Pamela Yates,” Film Quarterly, 39, 1 (Autumn 1985), 4.

42 Riley, Christina M., “Maria's Story: A Question of Passion,” UCLA Film and Television Archive Newsletter (Nov–Dec. 1990), 6.

43 Howard Rosenberg, “Maria's Story Untold … So Far,” Los Angeles Times, 28 July 1989, available at, accessed 6 March 2010.

44 Ibid., 8.

45 Rosenthal, “When the Mountains Tremble,” 9.

46 CISPES Conference Programme, 25 May 1985, 9, Committee in Solidarity with the People of El Salvador Records, Wisconsin Historical Society, M94-308, Box 1, Folder 3.

47 Author's personal email correspondence with Pamela Cohen, 28 Aug. 2010.

48 Pamela Cohen to CISPES, 7 June 1985, Committee in Solidarity with the People of El Salvador Records, Wisconsin Historical Society, M94-308, Box 1, Folder 3.

49 Author's personal email correspondence with Pamela Cohen, 28 Aug. 2010.

50 Ibid. Evidence of the manner in which Maria's Story was distributed can be found in Polemicist, a left-wing student journal with ties to CISPES that ran on the Austin campus of the University of Texas during the early 1990s. In May 1991, the journal advertised a screening of the film, and stated that “on opening night, Gladis Sibrian, a U. S. representative of the FMLN (and like Maria Serrano, a woman originally from rural Chalatanago) will speak.” In its review of the film, the New York-based radical weekly Guardian advertised a CISPES/MADRE screening of the film at NYU scheduled for March 10 1991. See Bradwell, Scott, “Maria's Story,” Polemicist, 2, 6 (May 1991), 10; and Knauer, Lisa Maya, “Maria's Vivid View of Revolt,” Guardian, 6 March 1991, S-8.

51 Corry, John, “A PBS Documentary on Guatemala,” New York Times, 12 Jan. 1986, C14.

52 Beverley, John, “The Margin at the Center: On Testimonio (Testimonial Narrative),” Modern Fiction Studies, 35, 1 (Spring 1989), 11–28, 1213.

53 Ibid., 13–14.

54 See Stoll, David, Rigoberta Menchú and the Story of All Poor Guatemalans (Boulder, CO: Westview Press, 1999). For a detailed summary of the imbroglio surrounding Stoll's book see Arias, Arturo, ed., The Rigoberta Menchú Controversy (Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 2001).

55 Grandin, Greg and Goldman, Francisco, “Bitter Fruit for Rigoberta,” The Nation, 8 Feb. 1999, 25.

56 Rodriguez, Ana Patricia, Dividing the Isthmus: Central American Transnational Histories, Literatures, and Cultures (Austin: University of Texas Press, 2009), 7677.

57 In making this point, it is necessary to note the “strong female-gender orientation” of the testimonio genre, and the manner in which it has been used by Latin American authors to document the politics of sexual as well as neocolonial oppression. On this topic see Maier, Linda S., “The Case For and Case History Of Women's Testimonial Literature in Latin America,” in Maier, Linda S. and Dulfano, Isabel, eds., Woman as Witness: Essays on Testimonial Literature by Latin American Women (New York: Peter Lang, 2004), 1–17, 2.

58 Spivak, Gayatri Chakravorty, “Can the Subaltern Speak?”, in Nelson, Cary and Greenberg, Lawrence, eds., Marxism and the Interpretation of Culture (Urbana: University of Illinois Press, 1988), 271–313, 288.

59 Grandin, Greg, Who Is Rigoberta Menchú? (London: Verso, 2011), 15.

60 Reid, Larry, “Menchú Tum, Stoll and Martyrs of Solidarity,” Development in Practice, 11, 1 (Feb. 2001), 77–85, 78.

61 Ibid., 84.

62 Author's personal email correspondence with Pamela Cohen, 28 Aug. 2010.

64 Cooke, Miriam, “Saving Brown Women,” Signs, 28, 1 (Autumn 2002), 468–70.

65 Mahmood, Saba, “Feminism, Democracy and Empire: Islam and the War on Terror,” in Scott, Joan Wallach, ed., Women's Studies on the Edge (Durham, NC: Duke University Press, 2008), 81–114, 82. For excellent analyses of the complicity between feminism and US interventionism see also Mohenty, Chandra Talpade, “U.S. Empire and the Project of Women's Studies: Stories of Citizenship, Complicity and Dissent,” Gender, Place and Culture, 13, 1 (Feb. 2006), 720; Choudhury, Cyra Akila, “Globalizing the Margins: Legal Exiles in the War on Terror and Liberal Feminism's War for Muslim Women,” International Review of Constitutionalism, 9, 2 (2010), 129.

I am very grateful to Sharon Monteith, Tony Hutchison, Richard King, Nick Grant, Zalfa Feghali and two anonymous referees, who all provided insightful comments at different points during the completion of this article. I would also like to extend my thanks to Pamela Cohen, who generously answered my questions via email.


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