Feminist Activism: Social Movements and Music Performers
By Elia Romera-Figueroa – 2020
From 2017 to 2020, the Lab hosted four talks directly focused on the global Feminist Strikes (2018, 2019, 2020), and several others related to struggles against gender- and sexuality-oriented forms of exploitation (see the archive of events at the Lab). This gave a dimension of both the temporal continuity of such movements, as well as of how the discussions around them developed over time. Featuring prominently in these debates was the reconceptualization of the “strike” as a tool of resistance: How do you strike when you are not a formal, recognized, waged worker? Can you organize a massive strike without initial support from trade unions? #Niunamenos social movements (also known as 8M) proved it possible to have massive strikes called by feminist platforms worldwide (not by unions), showing the patriarchal understanding of labor of those unions which were once the main organizational networks of 20th Century workers’ movements.
The primary characteristics that distinguish social movements from other political formations are under question today. My research, focused on Spanish singer-songwriters, interweaves cultural studies, sound studies, and social movements, joining a long tradition of scholarship focused on music and sound in contexts of protest (Kutschke and Norton; Tausig; Fast and Jennex). At the intersection of these related fields, there is an ongoing discussion about whether music helps and accompanies social movements (Eyerman and Jameson; Spener), or whether some counter-cultural music scenes should be considered as social movements themselves (Marcus; Frith). This debate is central to my work, which focuses on female performers in Spain from 1952 to 1986, during the late years of Franco’s dictatorship (1939-1975) and the subsequent transition to democracy (1975-1978), a period officially framed during those three years, but whose real closure continuous under debate. By studying previously overlooked performers and their songs, my project enriches the larger history of the period, asking: How did the predominantly male portrait of singer-songwriters construct a patriarchal history of the fight against Francoism? In what ways does our understanding of those decades change when we study feminist women singers? How did singer-songwriters play a key role in toppling the dictatorship, while building a net of support for Second Wave feminist movements in Spain? What constituded a “singer-activist”?
The Social Movements Lab offered me a space to think about these issues while helping me to connect the 1960s with contemporary struggles. Three of the themes that guided the Lab’s discussions were particularly tied to my work: The perdurability of social movements in time (in other words, the lasting effects and duration of a movement); their genealogies (what previous movements, groups or references they recognize as their main influences); and intersectionality in contemporary struggles (going beyond single-axis frameworks, and emphasizing both oppression and privilege).
Today’s feminist social movements took an international dimension that is not entirely new to the 21st Century. The global feminist uprisings discussed at the Lab (from 2017 onwards) took place less than a decade after another international cycle of mobilization: the anti-austerity struggles of 2011, including the Arab Spring, Occupy Wall Street, and the Spanish 15M movement, also known as Indignados movement. The 15M movement successfully organized itself around issues of broad consensus within the Spanish society, such as public healthcare and the social right to housing. However, this transversality did not necessarily involve intersectional practices. Indeed, feminist and migrants collectives already stressed this absence at the time (Taibo).
Unlike the movements that arose in the wake of 2008 economic and social crisis, contemporary feminist social movements aim more directly at resisting power that encompasses sexism, racism, class discrimination, heterosexism, and other axes of oppression in their complex interconnections. For instance, Anusha Hariharan spoke at the Lab about Dalit women’s activism, considering their “triple discrimination” understood as subjects affected by “caste, class, gender” . Lindiwe Dhlamini also emphasized different layers of oppression (race, class, sexuality) in the context of the #FeesMustFall student-led mobilizations at the University of Cape Town in South Africa. Also, activists at #FeesMustFall asked to recognize the multiple forms of violence that queer and trans activists endured both from the police and from comrade-to-comrade violence (Collison). Other speakers highlighted how certain subjects were doubly affected by the violence of border imperialism (such as migrant women). First, Amarela Varela and Blanca Cordero’s session talked about migrant caravans of Central American migrants moving toward the US border. Also, Enrica Rigo focused on the intersections of migrant networks in the Mediterranean Border and the feminist movement in Italy #NonUnadiMeno.
Verónica Gago, who participated in one of the first events organized by the Lab, highlighted the tension of current struggles like #Niunamenos, which operates on a massive scale without losing their minoritarian vectors (Gago and Gutiérrez Aguilar 115). To understand this constructive friction between the global and the local in the 8M movements, the Lab hosted events with critics and activist such as Gago, Enrica Rigo, Lucia Hellín Nistal, Julia Kubisa and Katarzyna Rakawska, who could speak about the idiosyncrasy of the Feminist Strike in Argentina, Italy, Spain and Poland, respectively . One of these particularities are the different genealogies that each group relates to. For instance, Gago pointed to the Mothers of the Plaza de Mayo and the piquetero movement of the 1990’s and 2000’s (113). In Poland, the main references were the Single Mothers Movement in 2004 (Majewska et al. 2), the 2007 All Poland Trade Union of Nurses and Midwives, and the March 8th Alliance that began in 2001 protesting against the ban of abortion (3). In the case of Spain, the closer precedent would be the Catalan “Vaga de totes” (Women’s Strike) of 2015 but, on a larger scale, the country had not experienced such a wave of feminist protests since the second wave feminists, on whose experiences my work is focused.
This connection between 1960s and contemporary feminist movements in Spain was made clear during the 2018 8M strike in Bilbao. During one of the demonstrations, a group of women sang the Anti-Franco resistance song “A la huelga” (see/listen). The song was written by the anarchist Chicho Sánchez Ferlosio in 1963 (listen), and it was also recorded by the feminist singer Julia León in 1972 (listen). Singing those lyrics during the 8M strike was a powerful way to connect the anti-Franco struggle with current ones. Placing the 8M Spanish movement as an heir to 20th century feminism would imply a certain continuity. Nevertheless, the country’s supposed agreement to move to a “democratic future” for all (both victims and perpetrators) made the Transition a dubious one – and complicates the evolution of feminist thought in Spain. Students, workers, and feminist movements helped achieve the social and political Transition to democracy. During this period, feminist demands (decriminalization of adultery, divorce and abortion law, legal status to work, etc.) were not considered a priority for left-leaning groups. As a result, after the first anti-Franco wave of protests went down, feminist collectives kept protesting during the 1980s to confront the juridical continuation of the regime. Influential scholars situate the 15M as the struggle that tore apart the “myth” of the Spanish Transition (Kornetis; Labrador; Juliá). And yet, the 15M also perpetuated some of its practices, such as placing white male heterosexual demands as those of greater priority (Taibo). Thus, I would suggest that the 8M was one step further in breaking with the paternalistic narratives and practices of the Transition. A proposal that is agreement with Duncan Wheeler’s claim when saying that “the rise of the new political parties has often gone in tandem with an increasingly mainstream feminist movement, another sign that the social contract of the Transition is in the process of renegotiation.” (292). Even if they are certainly not symmetrical historical processes, both in the 1960s and today, important struggles aiming to find “transversal consensus” (Anti-Francoism and 15M) were followed by feminist movements (Second Wave and 8M) that advocated to center their claims, since they were not fully tackled in the first cycles of protests.
The 8M #Niunamenos Strike has been described as a process, an “opening act” (Gago and Gutiérrez Aguilar 113). In 2020, the 8M demonstration happened to take place at a time when countries were about to call for the stay-at-home orders due to the COVID-19 pandemic, thus creating a climate of uncertainty around the Feminist Strike. However, I believe that, in 2020, the feminist movement has been just as present and vibrant, it has simply reinvented itself once again. A new attention to performance has created a sense of unity among feminist groups in many corners of the world, as exemplified by the happening, “Un violador en tu camino” [A rapist in your path], conceptualized by the Chilean artistic collective LASTESIS (see/listen). This song was performed mirroring #Niunamenos slogans such as “if they touch one of us, they touch us all.” The artists took Rita Segato’s critical work as their reference and spread it through Twitter. However, while the performance kept its core message and choreographed dance, the lyrics and the outfits were adapted to the many different contexts where it has been performed (from Turkey to Washington, D.C.), keeping the aforementioned tension between the global and the local in contemporary feminist movements alive.
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