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Agricultura, sociedad y desarrollo

versión impresa ISSN 1870-5472

agric. soc. desarro vol.1 no.2 Texcoco jul./dic. 2004


Feminist theorizing in time and space: a study from Mesoamerica


Teorización feminista en tiempo y espacio: un estudio desde Mesoamérica


Marta Mercado 1


1 University of Guelph. 78 College Ave. West unit #3, Guelph, Ontario N1G 4S7, Canadá. (



Feminist thought has been expressed, in one or another way, since twelfth-century; its development has peculiarities in every geographical region. Gaining the right to vote for women was one of the earlier achievements of feminist movement. Gender as an analytical category in the social science emerged in Latin America in the seventies. Since then, there has been a huge advancement in feminist theorizing; this theorization has been complex and, at times, disorderly and has always sought to engage with and reinterpret the foundations of the theoretical frameworks it coexists with and, at times, draws from. In this essay a synthesis of feminist theorizing is made, framing it in three phases which locate the theoretical development of gender applying it in Mesoamerica. It concludes, finally, offering some theoretical elements for the analysis of gender transformations through time and space.

Key words: Gender relations, feminist theorizing, Mesoamerica.



El pensamiento feminista se ha expresado, de una u otra forma, desde el siglo XII; su desarrollo tiene peculiaridades en cada región geográfica. Uno de sus primeros frutos fue la obtención del derecho a voto por las mujeres. En la década de los setenta se empieza a hablar de la categoría de género en Latinoamérica y desde entonces ha habido un gran desarrollo en la teorización feminista. Este desarrollo teórico ha sido complejo y ha buscado reinterpretar los fundamentos de marcos teóricos con los cuales coexiste o, a veces, de los cuales ha surgido. En este ensayo se hace una síntesis de esa teorización feminista enmarcándola en tres diferentes fases que ubican el desarrollo teórico de la categoría de género aplicándola en Mesoamérica. Se concluye, finalmente, ofreciendo algunos elementos teóricos para el análisis de las transformaciones de relaciones de género a través del tiempo y el espacio.

Palabras clave: Relaciones de género, teoría feminista, Mesoamérica.



What do we exactly mean by gender? Sometime ago I thought that a synthesis of feminist theorizing might be very helpful, one that would explain the different meanings of gender historically in feminist thought, and that would also offer some useful theoretical elements for analyzing gender relations and their transformations through time. Mesoamerica was the chosen place of reference because allows me to refer to a particular historical, cultural and economic context, and to a pattern of life and resistance in which gender relations take place.

The premise guiding this essay is the conceptualization of society in a process of change, and that what human beings do in any society is to create relations and give meanings to them and their own world. The main arguments are those of some authors synthesizing feminist and postmodernist perspectives, the constructivist view of science, and the approaches that search for common ground between this view and the sustainability of rural communities.

Gender relations are in a continuing process of change and are affected by and affect the very society in which they take place. Time and space are crucial dimensions in the analysis of those relationships; space as a place and also as a cultural meaning. For example, the space of kitchen is not the same for the Mexican culture than for the contemporary one; to the former this space was a valued one (Kellogg, 1995). So, space refers to a physical area delimitated by the activities displayed there, the people who occupy it, and the symbolic meanings attributed to it. Time refers to the variants of amplitude in which different phases of the same thing are following one after another. Space and time allow us to have a dynamic vision of social relations and their transformations; space is structured as a human creation, to express the past, the present and the future (Del Valle, 1991).


Feminist theorizing: a historical view

Feminism2, as a social, political, and theoretical movement, has carried out the task of understanding the basis of gender relations3. In the 1970's gender, as a category of social analysis, appeared in the literature; before, there were important feminist developments4 labelled as modern feminism, among them, liberal feminism following upon the Enlightenment5 and the French. Revolution. The focus of liberal feminism is on the individual and on equality; the cause of women's oppression is identified as individual or group lack of opportunity or education. Therefore, the solution was to gain opportunities through education and economics, since if women were allowed equal access to compete, they would succeed6.

In the nineteenth-century the feminist movement had an international character, and attempted to gain the right to vote. Fourier, Flora Tristán, Saint-Simon and Owen, among the utopian socialists, called for the transformation of the family as an institution and condemned the double standard (Miguel, 1998). Marxian socialism, with the publication of Engels' The Origin of the Family, Private Property and the State7 showed that the origin of women's oppression was from social arrangements such as the emergence of private property and the exclusion of women from social production; the solution was the participation of women in production and their economic independence. Emma Goldman (1869-1940), claimed that the liberation of women could be achieved by means of their own forces and individual efforts. Engel's book presents a powerful sociological theory of gender inequality, one that contrasts dramatically with classical mainstream sociological theory (Lengermann and Niebrugge-Brantley, 1988).

Between 1840 and 1960 the social sciences emerged as academic disciplines, but references to the problem of women were conventional and uncritical8. Bem (1993) explains the essentialist thought about sexual difference, and the two biological theories of sexual difference and dominance that have dominated the scientific literature since the 1950s: sociobiology and prenatal hormone theory. Biological theorizing has been used to naturalize and perpetuate social inequality. Since the late nineteenth century there were four groups of scientists who emphasized the biological theorizing about women and men; they were headed by Edward Clarke, Hebert Spencer, Charles Darwin, Patrick Geddes and J. Arthur Thomson9.

As a social movement, feminism continued in different countries highlighting the struggle to get the right of vote10, but women achieved that right11 only in the first half of the twentieth-century in most of the countries. This struggle responded mainly to the postulates of liberal feminism, which adopted the ideas of freedom of choice, individualism, and equality of opportunities (Ollenburger and Moore, 1992).

In the sixties, at the beginning of the second wave of feminism or neo-feminism, there was an important change in the feminism movement. In western societies it was the époque of legal equality; however, women's oppression had not been resolved. The Second Sex (Simone de Beauvoir, 1952) was a fundamental antecedent to neo-feminism, and to locate women's inequality and oppression. Also, feminism started to show a major diversity and embraced different approaches12. The radical stance was the stronger; the slogan the personal is politic was spread throughout the feminist movements of the world. It was also the time of political agitation, the formation of the New Left Civil Rights movement, and social movements such as the anti-racist, students, and pacifist.

In academia, women's studies programs started to proliferate and to use gender to explain the differences between men and women in the society. In feminist theorizing, gender has many different understandings; to clarify them lets start with some useful considerations about feminist theorizing based on Widerberg, 2000.

First, gender theorizing has a history told from a particular time and space; cultural imagination, representation, and intellectual debates influence the understandings of gender in each period and region. The organization of gender permeates the structure and functioning of societies.

Every understanding of society theories of society are therefore at the same time also theories of gender, and viceversa. Societies have gender, in a double sense: they are permeated by gender and are gendered as well as engendering (Widerberg, 2000:468).

Second, today we share many understandings and our intellectual tools are very much the same, although each region has its particularities13. Third, a characteristic of women's studies is to stay with a foot outside the classic and dominant theoretical traditions. That is, academic feminists have always been critical of those traditions, but have to work with them, while breaking disciplinary barriers. In this sense, feminist theorizing has made valid efforts to pursue interdisciplinarity.


Phases in gender understandings

I will talk about three phases in the development of gender understandings. These phases overlap through time.

Phase of gender as a synonym for women

Beginning in the seventies, and until the mid-eighties, feminist theorizing was characterized by using gender as a synonym for women, analyzing gender relations from a structuralist approach, and with emphasis on the fundamentally social quality of the distinctions between the sexes. The biological determinism that had permeated the explanations of these relationships was rejected (Scott, 1986). However, many explanations fell in a kind of essentialism14, since they referred to biological functions to explain social differences between the sexes. Besides, they always paid more attention to women since they were looking for the origins of women's subordination.

From a psychoanalytic perspective there have been two schools of thought: the Anglo-American and the French. Both start from a structuralist15 view, are concerned with the processes by which the subject's identity is created, and focus on the early stages of child development for clues to the formation of gender identity16 (Scott,1986; Squires, 2000). Anglo-Americans give the weight of gender construction to the women's capacity for mothering, which generated a defensive masculine identity in men and a male psychology that sustained male dominance (Chodorow,1978). Structuralists17, the French school, emphasize the discursive in the construction of gender, and those following Lacan locate in the unconscious the formation of gender identities. However, Squires (2000) points out that numerous theories, emerged during the eighties, privileged a different aspect of social relations as central to the construction of gendered identities: reproduction (O'Brien, 1983), moral development (Gilligan,1982), production (Hartsock, 1983), and sexuality (MacKinnon, 1989)18.

Goldsmith (1986) makes an excellent review of anthropological approaches. A debate exists between those who consider the subordination of women a universal phenomenon, and those who consider it a historical process and not universal. Anthropological works studied prehistorical humans groups and societies before European colonization. Women's subordination would be universal due to:

a) the social division of labor is justified because the use of heavy weapons requires men's force (Gough, 1971, cited by Goldsmith, 1986).

b) the universal undervaluing of women's activities compared to men's.

c) the association of women with nature, because of the activities they carry out; this helps to justify the social devaluation of women's position in society.

The non-universality of women's subordination is based, with some modifications, on Marxist approaches. Leacock (1981)19, argue that women's position depends, mainly, on economics and political processes which operate in a given society (Goldsmith, 1986). The following assumptions are based on their anthropological research: a) the control that women can exert on relations of distribution is a key factor in determining their status20; b) the position of women in relations of production, above all those of property and organization of labour, determine whether or not they are oppressed; c) women's subordination springs along with other forms of social inequality, which is attributed by Leacock (1981, cited in Goldsmith, 1986) to the increasing specialization of labour and the beginning of goods production (Leacock, 1981); d) there is complementarity between men's and women's activities above all in hunters and gatherers and horticulturals societies21, mainly those with matrilineal residence and where warfare was not important. According to Goldsmith (1986) it is necessary to discover in what contexts the gender differences become gender inequalities. That has to be analyzed on theoretical and empirical bases.

These feminist academics criticized the universalistic view of women's oppression on various levels. First, they questioned the universality of gender behaviors such as the prestige or discredit, assigned to either masculine or feminine activities from an empirical point of view. Sacks (1979, cited in Goldsmith, 1986) has criticized the fact that these arguments give too much importance to men's activities and to roles in which women do not have access. However, those arguments are related to the point of view of the researcher who starts from the premise that men's activities are more important than those of women; so, if women are excluded from these activities, it means that they are oppressed. Second, Sacks (1979), and Leacock (1981) criticize Ortner and Rosaldo and Lamphere (1974), cited in Goldsmith (1986), because they presuppose, without any explanation, a dichotomy between the public and private realms. It has not been proven that prehistoric societies divided their world into power domains22, and field research is necessary to assess if women's opinions reflect those of men and vice versa. (Reiter, 1977, cited in Goldsmith, 1986).

These analyses should fall into the structuralist forms of constructionism; that is, when the sex/gender distinction is taken up and developed in the context of a more structuralist framework, attention is placed directly on the power relations that produce and perpetuate gender identities23.

If gender is not determined by sex, but it is a product of socialization, it becomes important from a structuralist approach to theorize on the nature of the social structures at work. At any given moment, gender will reflect the material interests of those who have power and those who do not (Squires, 2000).

However, almost all those assumptions took sex as foundational. The causal connection between sex and gender is presumed, and these presumptions of the conceptual stability of sex and the causal connection have been scrutinized; at this point, a post-structuralist approach emerges within feminist theorizing.

Phase of deconstructionism

Deconstruction is the tool of the post-structuralist theorizing about social relations, and it took place mainly from mid-eighties to nineties24.Its main purpose is to deconstruct25 the dichotomy sex/gender just as other dichotomies used in social analyses. Squires (2000) names it discursive constructionism and asserts that the categories of femininity and masculinity may be defined in relation only to one another. This generates a form of relational rather than material constructionism. The question of gender then becomes primarily linguistic or discursive, rather than material or social.

In shifting the attention to the discursive, relational constructionists recuperate an element of de Beauvoir's original discussion of woman that was not prioritized in earlier constructionist accounts. Humanity, argued de Beauvoir, is male 'and man defines woman not in herself but as relative to him... He is the Subject, he is the Absolute she is the Other (de Beauvoir, 1997, cited in Squires, 2000) Otherness, she argues, is a foundational category of human thought.

In this way woman is defined not by biology, or by material structures based on this biology, but by her otherness to men. To understand the nature of gender within this approach, one needs to explore how femininity is articulated as the other of masculinity. Feminist poststructuralists locate this articulation in discursive structures, so the meaning of femininity is relational and contextual.

To me, this approach, although rejecting the fact that sex determines gender, falls into a relativism in which femininity and masculinity are just abstract notions, without roots in the very experience of men and women creating relationships in the society. Besides, if a material constructionism is tied to biological aspects in explaining gender relations, a discursive constructionism is tied to discursive structures; both are determining gender relations and are impeding the agency of the subjects. The structures, material, biological or discursive determine gender relations; however, it depends on the rendering of constructionism:

While constructionism was originally conceived as a means of refuting biological determinism, it can entail a form of cultural determinism or a form of individual autonomy. If construction is used to imply that certain laws (material, linguistic) generate gender difference along universal axes, then constructionism implies a form of determinism. If the culture or society that constructs gender operates according to immutable laws, gender is as determined as it was under the biological determinist accounts. If construction were used to imply a form of choice informed by individual reflection, gender would use to imply a form of choice informed by individual reflection, gender would appear to be a matter of free will. Constructionism can then encompass either determinism or free will, depending on its particular rendering (Squires, 2000).

It has to do with the feminist debate about essentialism and autonomy26. But, so far, it is not clear how we can go beyond the dichotomy sex/gender27.The debate is not about whether gender is constructed or not, but rather the extent to which the structures of social construction are open to modification, and are multiple. Degrees of mutability range from the universal and atemporal to the historically and socially contingent and infinitely mutable (Squires, 2000). The question is that the category of gender becomes highly sophisticated, but sex is un-theorized. Donna Haraway, Judith Butler, Andrea Dworkin28, Dorothy Dinnerstein, and Monique Wittig29 agree with the. social construction of sex and that biology is a result of systems of social organization. Within studies of masculinity Connell promoted the denaturalization of sex:

The reproductive dichotomy is assumed to be the absolute basis of gender and sexuality in every day life (...); for many people the notion of natural sex difference forms a limit beyond which thought cannot go. Yet, doctrines of natural difference are fundamentally mistaken. In contrast to both biological determinism and material constructionism social practices themselves construct sexual difference by converting an average difference into a categorical difference. The body itself is transformed in social practice, my male body does not confer masculinity on me, it receives masculinity. In others words, biological determinism and the constructionist tendency are condemned. The physical sense of maleness or femaleness is a consequence of chromosomes, possession/absence of a penis, and a personal history of habits of posture and movement, of particular physical skills, the image of one's own body and so on (Connell, 1987, cited in Squires, 2000).

This kind of theorizing invites us to think in a different way; we have to turn our thinking to a more holistic30 way to understand the social and natural worlds as products of our own cultural practices. Each culture creates its own understandings of gender relations, and in this way they have to be analyzed. Some elements of the previous debates are taken, in order to understand the transformations of gender relationships in a changing social world.

However, I am not starting from a post-structuralist account of gender, which postulates the deconstruction of the very notion of woman, saying that it is a fiction. They assert that the subject, woman, is over-determined, that is, constructed by social discourse and/or cultural practice. Various post-structuralist authors focus on it from different approaches: Lacan from psychoanalysis, Derrida from grammar, and Foucault from the history of discourse. Each one uses that to de-construct our concept of subject as having essential identity and an authentic core that has been repressed by society (Alcoff, 1994).

Post-structuralists emphasize social explanations of individual practices and experiences, but it seems to erase any room for maneuvering by the individual within a social discourse or set of institutions. The totalization of history's imprint is rejected in a post-structuralist view. They deny the subject's ability to reflect on the social discourse and challenge its determination; the main constraint is a sort of neo-determinism, in which individuals have little choice about who we are. Derrida and Foucault say that individual motivations count for nil or almost nil in the scheme of social reality; Foucault says that we are bodies totally imprinted by history (Alcoff, 1994). In this sense, the subjective experiences are determined by macro forces. However, what has attracted feminists to post-structuralism is the possibility of theorizing about subjectivity and relates its construction to the social and cultural. But the difficulty is nominalism31 and a politics always against (Alcoff, 1994).

Phase of alternatives

Some feminists32 raise alternatives based on a synthesis of various stances. They search for a way that it is theoretically cogent and politically effective. The main assumptions of this alternative start from the synthesis between feminism and postmodernism33 (Fraser and Nicholson,1990), which attempts to transform both sides (feminism and postmodernism) in significant ways.

Postmodernism34 shares many elements of post-structuralism, but it is anti-foundationalist and some of its main characteristics are pragmatism, contextual and localism. It refuses the master narratives, which purport to explain the whole movement of history and social life as a single interconnected totality, and it offers little narratives which do not necessarily add up, but which may be woven together as a succession of short threads into a blanket (Andermahr et al., 1997).

Postmodernism may be seen as an analysis that argues the situatedness of human thought within culture, but it goes beyond to focus on the very criteria by which claims of knowledge are legitimized (Nicholson, 1990). It criticizes the idea of a possible theory of knowledge, justice or beauty, since those are based on the modernist conception of transcendent reason35. It is a reason able to separate itself from the body and from historical time and place.

According to Fraser and Nicholson (1990) postmodernism provides a basis for avoiding the tendency to construct theory that generalizes from the experiences of western, white, middleclass women; they claim not to make generalizations that transcend the boundaries of culture and region; however, postmodernism needs not demand the elimination of all large theory, much less theory per se, to avoid totalization and essentialism.

The key is to identify types of theorizing, which are explicitly historical, that is, which situates its categories within historical frameworks, less easily invites the dangers of false generalizations than does theorizing which does not. Thus, our criticisms of writers such as Chodorow are not based on the mere presence of generalizations within theories, as on the fact that the categories that they employ, such as mothering, are not situated within a specific cultural and historical context (Nicholson, 1990).

Thus, postmodernism must insist on being recognized as a set of viewpoints of a time, justifiable only within its own time and cultural space. Some feminists criticize postmodernism or are skeptical about it, but Fraser and Nicholson (1990) call for an encounter between both; others think that feminism has always worked in a postmodernist frame. I think this has to do rather with the feminist stance from which one starts. In my opinion the key aspects that feminism shares with postmodernism are identity, subjectivity, difference, equality, experience, and situatedness; they are for thinking about an alternative cogent and politically effective.

Squires (2000) calls for a notion of mobile subjectivities, that is, there is no single feminine identity, gendered identities are more complex and less binary than previously assumed. The notion of identity as multiple and sometimes contradictory came later in the new feminism, only after the intervention of black women and women from the South, who protested against thehomogenizing trend adopted by white western feminism (Braidotti et al., 1995) This new notion was the result of searching for a new praxis of feminism coupled with a rejection of the knowledge systems, which had produced an identity of women as passive and naturally subservient (De Lauretis, cited in Braidotti et al., 1995).

Feminist concept of identity is not at all the statement of an essential nature of woman, whether defined biologically or philosophically, but rather a political-person strategy of survival and resistance that is also, at the same time, a critique and a mode of knowledge.

In this sense Tuñón (1997), starting from Mouffe (1993) talks about identities as the diverse, structured social relations or subject positions that individuals share in a society and culture. These subject position operate as a referential point in order to achieve the conformation of collective wills; that is, individuals are not marked just by one social determination (social class or gender, for example) but they are conceived as a set of subject positions. Thus, within the complexity of the subordination relationships in a society, the same subject can be dominant in a particular relation and subordinate in other one. In this sense, gender is not always the nodal point36 in every relationship, neither the signal through which the subjects mark the set of their social relationships (Mouffe, 1993 cited in Tuñón, 1997). So, a key aspect in this notion of identity is that of relationality. It is necessary to stress the relational aspect, between genders, which are continuously subject to a process of reinterpretation and are never static, but it does not mean that they should be viewed as irrelevant. Studies of masculinities have emerged from this approach.

Feminists need to explore the possibility of a gendered subject that does not slide into essentialism (Alcoff, 1994). Thus, the specificity of a feminist theorizing has to be sought (De Lauretis, cited in Alcoff, 1994), in that political, theoretical, self-analyzing practice by which the relations of the subject in social reality can be articulated from the historical experience of women and not in femininity as a privileged nearness to nature, the body, or the unconscious. The way out of the totalizing imprint of history and discourse is through our political, theorical, self-analyzing practice. In this sense, the social and the experience are privileged. But, they are privileged in a context; that is in its situatedness. In this way self is thus not simply a reflection of experience (i.e. reality), it is constituted in complex historical circumstances that must be analyzed and understood; this more nuanced approach to the subject does not deny agency (Braidotti et al. 1995:3). Thinking of equality in a feminist project in this vein is to refer to an equality created from the subjects that interact in a relationship, defined in certain time and space; that is, the definition of equality is not a universal one, it is not that proposed by the parameters of The Enlightenment, nor that defined by men.


A sketch of mesoamerican history

The term Mesoamerica37 Literally means Middle America, and was widely used to refer exclusively to the aboriginal cultures of the region referring mostly to the ancient Mesoamerican cultures38. However, it is better to use a more flexible definition of Mesoamerica and to think of it as a particular historical tradition (Carmarck et al., 1996):

Mesoamerica cannot be adequately defined by a list of essential traits or ideas; rather, we must examine the relationship through time between these ideas and the social and material processes involved in their creation. Both the cultural tradition and the processes by which Mesoamerica has changed are worth tracing, because they have profoundly influenced the participating peoples of México and Central America.

Mesoamerica39 has changed through time and space; their traditions are a complex mix of regional and local cultures in a continual flux. The legacy of those cultures has been very strong, but it is difficult to think of them as a unity because they are extremely diverse and localistic. Even today, millions of mesoamericans are identified more with their village, region, or language, rather than to the nation-state where they live.

In most contexts and time periods, mesoamericans have tended to see themselves mainly as first, members of a lineage; second, as participants in a community; third, as speakers of a common language; and finally, if at all, as mexicans, central americans, or mesoamericans (Carmack et al., 1996).

In this essay I refer to Mesoamerica as a geographic area with different cultures, which has undergone great changes; one of them refers to its gender relations. In past centuries there were romanticists and scientific precursors. At the beginning, and until the middle of the 20th century, there were the cultural historians and cultural evolutionist approaches, neither giving a comprehensive picture of Mesoamerica. The former gave more weight to values and ideas rather than to the material determinants of the cultures, analyzed them as isolated, self-contained units, it was difficult to account for change, and the hypothesis was static and insufficiently historical. The second paid more attention to behavior than to ideas, and it was possible to draw a sequence for Mesoamerica following developmental stages; it locates the cultures as dependent on their natural, social and political environments, but this approach looked more at the influence of external conditions on cultural change and neglected the internal ones. Thus a new approach was necessary; capable of creating a synthesis between materialist and idealist theories in which it was possible to locate the practices as special kind of behavior based on the human capacity to respond to both cultural and changing material conditions (Carmack et al., 1996)

We have to focus on the processes by which humans create, reproduce, and change cultures in response to material conditions. Our object of study should be seen as objective structures or systems, but also as human products in the making. This is the approach of the present study; it sees cultures as dynamic, being transformed as circumstance change, not a static one, and sees local developments in terms of their regional and global contexts. Mesoamerican cultures can be analyzed in terms of their symbols and meanings, and the material and behavioral contexts within which they are transformed.

Several groups populated Mesoamerica40 and by 7 000 B.C. rudimentary agriculture was developed. Then, the population achieved the domestication of plants such as amaranth, squash, tomatoes, chiles, avocado and beans. Maize was the most nutritious and its earliest remains are from Tehuacán around 5 000 B.C. However, there is little knowledge about the earliest villages, and no evidence of a hierarchy of communities; consensus among archeologists is that the earliest Middle American villages were egalitarian and autonomous (Carmack et al., 1996; Rudolph, 1985; Weaver, 1993; Wenke, 1990).

The formative period41 was characterized by the cultivation of plants and the settlement of populations in villages throughout Mesoamérica; the end of this period coincided with the emergence of temple-pyramids, which became the nuclei of large towns. The classic period42 was marked by the development of large scale political states and the florescence in the arts. The main cultures in this period were Teotihuacán in the valley of México, Zapotecs in Oaxaca and Maya in southern México and in Guatemala, Belize and Honduras. These cultures had irrigated agriculture, large populations, trade, and complex social organizations, and started to decline in the late classic giving rise to other ones in post-classic43 Mesoamerica, such as the Toltecs, Purépechas, Chichimecas and Aztecs. Most of them were competing power centers with military empires, and the Aztecs were the main culture at the arrival of the Spanish conquerors (Carmack et al., 1996; Rudolph, 1985; Wenke,1990).

The position of women in those cultures has been studied, although just a few researchers have focused on gender relationships44. Now there are studies about gender relationships from a feminist historical archaeological perspective of construction of gender. These studies critique the androcentric biases of prior archaeological studies, which have use assumptions, theories, and methods that have reified the modern gender mythology of women's subordinate status in at least three major ways:

a) by ignoring gender or subsuming women in male defined categories or generalizations, thus reifying beliefs in the insignificance of women and gender.

b) by considering women in the past only in currently low valued roles, such as housewives, without researching how people, especially women, valued these roles in the past.

c) by interpreting all of women's roles in the past as subordinate or inferior to those of men (Spencer-Wood, 1991).

It is argued that gender is a basic aspect of culture that crosscuts other subsystems such as the economic, social, ideological and political, and cannot be reduced to any other more fundamental variables. Some of these studies have argued for a conception of gender parallel or complementarity in pre-Hispanic cultures of Mesoamerica: those who write about the complementary male/female principle among the Maya (Bassie-Sweet, 1999); the transformations of gender relations from parallel and equivalent, to separate and unequal in Tenochca society (Kellogg, 1997); the moral precepts in ancient México and the existence of an ideology of gender balance (Marcos, 1991); Aztec women in the late post-classic and early colonial times (Nash,1980); gender parallel in local communities in the Inca Empire (Silverblatt, 1987). This complementarity of men's and women's roles is given as though their activities were sharply circumscribed (Joyce and Claassen, 1997). These studies emphasize the autonomous, yet reciprocal, nature of indigenous gendered roles in Mesoamerica, which spoke more clearly of connection than opposition (Schroeder, 1997). Some studies assume that, as in all ethnographically known societies, women in prehistoric groups were social agents; they demonstrate that the unitary category woman opposed to an equally unitary .man breaks down under archaeological examination (Joyce and Claassen, 1997). Gendered roles were restructured to follow hispanic models, and indian women were challenged to preserve order and their place in an often forbidding colonial milieu (Schroeder, 1997). Symbolic valuation of gender cannot be entirely divorced from practical experience; if being socially female was associated with high status, as it was among Classic Maya, at least some aspects of performing gender in everyday life must have a positive value (Joyce and Claassen, 1997).

These examples talk about the importance of interaction and positionality, elements shared by a broad spectrum of contemporary theory, which attempt to look for common grounds between diverse positions such as social constructivism, environmentalism and scientists concerned about the way of knowing our world (Hayles, 1995).

Interactivity points toward our connection with the world: everything we know about the world, we know because we interact with it. Positionality refers to our location as humans living in certain times, cultures, and historical traditions: we interact with the world not from a disembodied, generalized framework, but from positions marked by the particularities of our circumstances as embodied human creatures (Hayles, 1995).

In this way, we are not separated from our social, cultural, and physical environment; in particular times and spaces, our relations are created and evaluated by the meanings we give them. These contexts can be the communities in which people live; these communities refer to the geographical area, organizational spaces that people create to achieve certain interests. Into these spaces they can discuss how to manage with sustainability and how to build a balance in gender relations. This task has to do with the creation of democratic spaces in which obstacles are not absent. However, these spaces can be engaged in building organization to create common understandings raised from daily life experience, so shared situations foster local political action that can orient democratic processes.

I understand sustainability as a process that involves several dimensions such as the ecological, the social, the cultural and the economic. Ecological sustainability aims to maintain biological diversity and resources; the social means maintaining peoples' control over their lives and well being; cultural sustainability demands development compatible with the culture and values of the people; economic sustainability requires efficiency and equity within and between generations and genders (Hombergh, 1993). The balance of gender relations is a fundamental aspect to achieve sustainability, and it is just achieved by means of fostering equity. This equity might be defined and discussed by the people, taking into account their social, cultural and physical environment.



In this essay I have reviewed feminist theorizing in a historical perspective, arriving to alternatives which point out some theoretical elements useful in the analysis of gender relations in Mesoamerica. The conceptualization of gender is separated from the usual understanding that gender is a synonym for women, and from understandings that privilege social or discursive structures in the construction of gendered identities. The elements in feminist theorizing proposed here are:

a) Stressing the relational aspect in the conceptualization of gender, so it is not understood as a synonym for women, but as a component in social relations.

b) Referring to contextuality, locality, positionality, situated knowledges that express what gender is in a given society and in a determiried time45.

c) Taking into account that identity is not a fixed characteristic in people's life, and rather it is created and recreated in the making. One of the dimensions of identity is gender, and its expression depends on the historical situations of the individuals.

The studies on gender in Mesoamerica in the seventies and eighties, and some of them until now, have understood gender as a synonym for women. Some of these studies have victimized the situation of women in Mesoamerican societies. In the middle eighties and in the nineties there were more theoretical efforts to understand gender from a structural and post-structural perspective. These studies have enriched the conceptualizations of gender in Mesoamerica; however, I think it is necessary to look at the elements highlighted in this essay in order to advance in those conceptualizations and open them to a debate. Some researches try a more postmodernism46 view of gender: rancheras in the central part of México are women who seem autonomous, because of their participation in several production and reproduction activities; and the study compare men's and women's activities, so gender is treated in its relational way (Chávez, 1994); indigenous women in the highland of Puebla, México use their gendered and ethnic identities as strategies of adaptation before the economic crisis, and gender relations have changed through a process of gender awareness gained by these women as participating in communal organization (Alberti, 1997).

Finally, I think that it is necessary that we47, as academics involved in practical development, theorize over and over our practice. I hope that this paper represents an invitation to do that.



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2 Feminism is understood as the different historical moments in which women have articulated in practice, and or in theory, a set of coherent demands and have organized to achieve them. Feminist theorizing is diverse and heterogeneous. It is, mainly, the work of an interdisciplinary community, which includes not only sociologists but also scholars from other disciplines, such as anthropology, biology, economics, history, law, literature, philosophy, political science, psychology, and theology (Lengermann and Niebrugge-Brantley, 1988).

3 The first writings about women's oppression in society are from 1399. Christine de Pisan, in 1405, wrote City of Ladies, in which she attacks the discourse of women's inferiority and offers an alternative to their situation. Some of the first writings referring just to women-men relations are Marie de Goumay: l'Egalite des hommes et des femmes (1604), Poulain de la Barre: De l'Egalite des deux sexes (1673), cited in Miguel, 1998.

4 The intention is to present a synthesis of the main ideas in the feminist movement before the seventies which had an impact in the women's movements in Mesoamerica.

5 The Enlightenment may correspond to the late seventeenth through the late eighteenth centuries. Its main goal was to re-impose an order on a world which had philosophically fallen apart due to various scientific discoveries.

6 The critiques of this view are that it omits a systematic analysis of structural factors and assume that societal barriers can be overcome by individual effort and governmental interaction, (Ollenburger and Moore, 1992).

7 It was written and published by Engels in 1884, based on extensive notes made by Marx in the years immediately preceding his death in 1883 (Lengermann and Niebrugge-Brantley, 1988).

8 The best example is found in the theories of Talcott Parsons, who considered a specific family structure as an indispensable prerequisite for social stability. He argues that, in order to function effectively, there must be a sexual division of labor in which adult males and females play different roles, (Lengermann and Niebrugge-Brantley, 1988).

9 Some of them started from the laws of the thermodynamics. For example Edward Clarke's Sex in Education book, used the conservation of energy principle to naturalize the antifeminist belief that higher education was not a suitable activity for a woman, since she had to keep her energy to reproductive activities and Clarke's main thesis was that the nervous system has a fixed amount of energy. Spencer used the second law of thermodynamics, and his explanations served to naturalize virtually every hierarchy in Victorian society, including the roles of women and men. Spencer concluded that the existence of class and sex-based division of labor in society is biologically ordained, that biology has molded the classes and the sexes to fit their respective social roles, making males more competitive and women more nurturing. It was Darwin, whose theory gave scientific legitimacy to the conservative politics of the period, and his

10 Socialists saw the suffragist struggle as one of bourgeois women and they did not consider women's problem high-priority. Thus, feminism was considered as a bourgeois and dangerous movement.

11 Dates in some Latin American and Caribbean countries are: 1929, Ecuador; 1932, Brazil; 1934, Cuba; 1942, Dominican Republic; 1947, Argentina and Venezuela; 1949, Chile and Costa Rica; 1950, El Salvador; 1952, Bolivia; 1953, México; 1954, Colombia; 1955, Honduras; Nicaragua and Perú; 1961, Paraguay. In years of political strife, when military takeovers suspended the constitutions, no one voted. These are the years women got the right to vote, not necessarily the years when the laws were implemented. In England, John Stuart Mill (as a member of the parliament) presented the first petition in favor of women's vote in 1866, however it was not until 1928 that women in England could vote (Navarro and Sanchez-Korrol, 1999).

12 There are many classifications of feminist: in the sixties and seventies the more famous were those of a liberal, radical, marxist or socialist bias.

13 Gender is an english word adapted to other languages. In México, Lamas (1996) referred to this adoption in spanish. In Scandinavia, Widerberg (2000) talks about gender expressing it in her language. In this way we could find many examples. At this date the debate about gender understandings is a general and international one, although each region has its own peculiarities, and the adoption of the term has been according to its experiences. Hodgdon (2000) notes the particularities of this adoption in the mexican context and talks about the cross-fertilization of mexican and U.S. feminism.

14 Essentialism can be defined as a theory that attributes women's psychologica1 and social experiences to fixed and unchanging traits resident in women's physiology or to some larger order of things. Biological determinism should fall within this category, but so too would some of the more rigid and grand culturally determinist theories (Ferguson, 1993, cited in Squires, 2000).

15 Structuralism is a form of theorizing the social. Yet, it is difficult to provide an accurate definition of structuralism precisely because it is so much intertwined with current ways of theorizing about the social.

16 The Anglo-American school refers to the object-relations theories, which stress the influence of actual experience (the child sees, hears, relates to those who care for it, particularly, of course, to its parents). Melanie Klein and Nancy Chodorow represent it. The French school starts from structuralist explanations emphasizing the centrality of language in communicating, interpreting, and representing gender. Feminists supporting this approach start from Jaques Lacan. For Lacanians the unconscious is a critical factor in the construction of the subject. It is the location of sexual division and, for that reason, of continuing instability for the gendered subject. By language, structuralists do not mean words, but systems of meaning such as symbolic orders that precede the actual mastery of speech, reading, and writing (Scott, 1986).

17 It refers to structuralism of the second strand explained in note 15. " Se refiere al estructuralismo de la segunda corriente, explicado en la nota 15.

18 However, all of them privilegedjust one characteristic in the acquisition of gendered identity, one that actually focused mainly on the experiences of white, middle-class, western women. Squires (2000) explains that there was a movement from single to multiple social structures in the feminist theorizing, which tried to explain how gender is constructed.

19 Rodriguez (1990) also mentions some of them.

20 This assumption is from Friedl (1974) in The position of women: Appearance and Reality (cited in Goldsmith, 1986).

21 Martin y Voohries (1975, cited in Goldsmith, 1986).

22 Besides these critiques, one has to note that the universalistic view of women's subordination is impossible to prove, since we cannot know everything about every culture in the whole of history.

23 Rubin (1975) offered one of the first articulations of such a structuralist account of the sex/gender distinction, and the functioning of the gender system.

24 Post-structuralism is a school of thought that emerged from structuralism by the end of the sixties.

25 In Jacques Derrida terms, deconstruction means (for this case) ana1yzing in context the way any binary opposition operates, reversing and displacing its hierarchical construction, rather than accepting it as real or self-evident or in the nature of things (Scott, 1986).

26 Essentialism is a hard concept within feminist theory, so there is a necessity to indicate how the notion of essentialism relates to the determinism/constructionism distinction. Essentialism is defined as a belief in true essence- which is irreducible, unchanging, and therefore constitutive of a given person (Fuss, 1981, cited in Squires, 2000). In feminist theory, essentialism is cast in the form of appeals to a pure or original femininity, a female essence, outside the boundaries of the social and thereby untainted (though perhaps repressed) by a patriarchal order (Fuss, 1989 cited in Squires, 2000). Constructionism stands in direct opposition to essentialism, insisting that what appear to be essences are actually historical constructions. Whereas the essentialist would assume the natural itself to be determining of social and political practices, the constructionist would argue the natural itself to be a construction of the social and/or political (Squires, 2000). But essences can be materially and symbolically, as well as biologically, given. It is no less essentialist to hold that there is a historically or socially given female essence than it is to propose a biologically given one (Moi, 1997, cited in Squires, 2000).

27 The sex/gender distinction was formulated much as Marxist conceived the material/ideological distinction: with femininity and masculinity standing in opposition to an identity which counts as truth (and which can be discovered through consciousness-raising) and in a secondary position relative to their material determinants - the body. The constructionist perspective aims to explore how men and women become masculine and feminine subjects. While arguing for a clear relation between sex and gender, these theoretical perspectives presume analytical separability and focus upon gender as a conditioning of the mind (Squires, 2000).

28 She has maintained that the sex distinction itself may be in part a social product (cited in Squires, 2000). Dinnerstein agrees.

29 She has argued against the idea that there is a natural division between men and women. Her belief is that nature has been used to oppress women

30 Holism suggests that the various parts of a system should not be investigated independently of each other.

31 Nominalism is the philosophical doctrine that states that universal concepts which define general classes of things cannot be conceived of as having real existence in the way that individual things exists. (Jarvy and Jarvy, 2000). Post-structuralists have a nominalist view of women, since they state that women do not exist, just exist as the other, in relation with men (Alcoff, 1994).

32 They are, from my view, Alcoff (1994), Braidotti et al. (1995), Flax (1990), Fraser and Nicholson (1990), Haraway (1991), Marchand and Parpart (1995), Tuñon (1997), Squires (2000), and Widerberg (2000). -Son, desde mi punto de vista, Alcoff (1994), Braidotti et al. (1995), Flax (1990), Faser y Nicholson (1990), Haraway (1991), Marchand y Parpart (1995), Tuñón (1997), Squires (2000) y Widerberg (2000).

33 For an excellent review on feminism and postmodernism see part one of Marchand and Parpart's (1995) book.

34 Postmodemism is not easily encapsulated in one phrase or idea, as it is actually an amalgam of often purposely ambiguous and fluid ideas (Marchand and Parpart, 1995).

35 This reason comes from the notions of the Enlightenment. Flax (1990) points out some issues in which postmodernists do not agree with the Enlightenment: the existence of a stable, coherent self.

36 Tuñón (1997) understands nodal points from Mouffe (1993) as the signal through which some subject determinations mark the set of their social relationships.

37 Mesoamerica is a term coined by Paul Kirchhoff in 1943, to refer to a geographical region in the western hemisphere that shared a basic cultural unity at the time of the Spanish Conquest in 1521. The area generally includes central and southern México with the Yucatán Península, Guatemala, El Salvador, and parts of Honduras, Nicaragua, and northern Costa Rica. The northern border roughly separates hunters and gatherers from their more sophisticated neighbors to the south. The southern limits are less sharply defined culturally (Weaver, 1993). This area is also characterized by some traits that people shared: ball courts with rings, particular farming techniques, codices, hieroglyphic writing, human sacrifices, position numerals, stepped pyramids, and a year of eighteen months of twenty days plus five extra days.

38 These cultures are the Olmec, which was the first complex Mesoamerican culture (Wenke, 1990; West, 1989; Carmack et al., 1996), the Teotihuacana, the Maya, the Toltec, the Chichimeca, the Aztec. These cultures were the main ones, however several groups populated Mesoamerica since 11 000 B.C. For a review of these cultures and several ancient groups in Mesoamerica see Wenke, 1990; Diamond, 1999. For a chronology see the web page from the Institute for the Study of Religions, Vienna University:

39 However, the definition of Mesoamerica at this time depends on the group that defines it. So, to anthropologists it is a cultural region. To practitioners in sustainable development it is a zone of high biological diversification in which it is possible to create a regional system of protected natural areas in order to form a larger biological corridor. In this sense, the current Mexican government has proposed a huge plan called Puebla-Panamá, in which there would be a large inversion from international and domestic budgets. To the grassroots organizations, Mesoamerica is their territory and that of their indigenous ancestors.

40 According to Rudolph (1985) archeological evidence testifies the presence of early hunters and gatherers in Mesoamerica around 10 000 to 8000 S.C. Carmack et al. (1996) point out that the earliest people to inhabit Mesoamerica arrived at the end of Pleistocene epoch (also known as the Ice Age), sometime between 40 000 and 10 000 S.C. They were part of several migrations of peoples who crossed from Asia to the New World over a land bridge that linked Siberia and Alaska. However, there is a controversy about that subject, as Cheetham (1970) states there are two schools of thought known as the Americanists and the Diffusionists. The former says that the whole of the continent was peopled from eastern Asia, or more exactly what is now northern China or eastern Siberia. The later supposes that the elaborated cultures of Indian America grew and flowered in isolation and unaffected by developments in other continents. Yet, the Americanist theory is the more credible, since there are archaeological sites from this time period in North and South America: those are Meadowcroft Rockshelter in Pennsylvania, Pedra Furada in Brazil, Monte Verde in Chile, and several sites in México like El Cedral in the Mexican state of San Luis Potosí and Tlapacoya in the Valley of México. Likewise, at nearby Tepexpan, a complete female skeleton dating to around 8 000 B.C. was preserved, although the excavation report called her Tepexpan man (Carmack et al., 1996).

41 Formative or Pre-Classic period was from around 2000 B.C. to A.D. 200, during which many societies in the Mesoamerican region became more complex (Carmack et al., 1996). I know there are other forms to account pre-historical phases, as that explained by Diamond (1999) based on calibrated radiocarbon dates; however, in this essay I am referring to my sources.

42 It was from approximately A. D. 200 to A. D. 900.

43 From A. D. 900 to the time of Spanish contact in 1519.

44 I refer to them in the part of gender as a synonym for women.

45 These elements take into account the experiences of people living in a determined society and time. It has to do with the standpoint theory. For a good discussion on this theory see the articles wrote by Sylvia Walby, Sandra Harding and Joey Sprague in Signs: Journal of Women in Culture and Society 2001, vol. 26, No.2.

46 In the sense that postmodernism has been discussed here. That is, from a synthesis between feminist and postmodernist perspectives.

47 As we, I am referring to the academic team I belong in México and all the academics that do this kind of work.

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