Feminist policies, a shield against the far right

Prior to the elections in Argentina, an interview with Mercedes D’Alessandro.

A few weeks before the first round of elections in Argentina, the far right is ahead in the polls with candidate Javier Milei. Julia Muriel Dominzain of MIRA: Feminisms and Democracies interviews Mercedes D’Alessandro, feminist economist and the first National Director of Economics, Equality and Gender to discuss the achievements and challenges for the feminist agenda in the face of the electoral dispute.  

Mercedes D’Alessandro argues that today, in Argentina, feminisms dispute spaces of power and budgets. Perhaps that is why the cannons of the ultra-right in the world are aimed there.  

In recent years, Argentina has taken substantial steps in the gender agenda. From the conquest of the right to the Voluntary Interruption of Pregnancy to the National Budget with a Gender Perspective, including more than 300 thousand women who dedicated their lives to care work and were able to retire with a state pension. Psychological and monetary support programs were also implemented for people in situations of gender-based violence, training on gender and gender violence was provided to all branches of government (Micaela Law), the non-binary identity card was created, a transgender transvestite labor quota was established and the Law on Gender Parity in Areas of Political Representation was approved (2017), a rule that establishes that the lists of candidates for the National Congress and the Mercosur Parliament must include a mix of women and men.

D’Alessandro was born in the Argentine province of Misiones, holds a PhD in Economics from the University of Buenos Aires and carries an unusual cocard: she wrote a best seller on economics. It is called “Feminist Economics. How to build an egalitarian society (without losing the glamour)”. After living nearly a decade in the United States, she returned to Latin America in 2020 with the mission of being the first National Director of Economics, Equality and Gender in history. In 2021 Time magazine highlighted her as one of the 100 most influential people in the world. 

D’Alessandro warns that the achievements of the feminist agenda are in jeopardy. On October 22 there will be presidential elections in Argentina. According to what can be projected after the Open, Simultaneous and Mandatory Primaries that took place in August, there are three candidates with possibilities of ending up in the presidency. One of them is the current Minister of Economy Sergio Massa, candidate on behalf of Unión por la Patria. On the other hand, the former Minister of Security of Mauricio Macri during the previous government, Patricia Bullrich, is running for Juntos por el Cambio (Together for Change). Finally, the novelty: Javier Milei is a supposed outsider, a self-styled “libertarian” who represents the ultra-right. He proclaims to fight against the “political caste” although he is a congressman, denies the existence of the gender wage gap, proposes to plebiscite the right to voluntary interruption of pregnancy and promises to close the Ministry of Women, Equality and Diversity. How do feminisms respond to this scenario? Does having institutionalized demands for gender equity give them strength to resist? Does the State have the power to reduce these inequalities?

Mercedes D'Alessandro, first National Director of Economy, Equality and Gender in Argentina. Photo: Julia Muriel
Mercedes D’Alessandro, first National Director of Economy, Equality and Gender in Argentina. Photo: Julia Muriel Dominzain

In 2020, in Argentina, the National Directorate for Economics, Equality and Gender was created and you were the first to lead it. What is it about? 

It is a pioneering directorate in the region, which seeks to include the gender perspective in economic programming. Argentina was recognized internationally for that reason. The UN published the document “Governmental responses to Covid-19 lessons on gender equality for a world in crisis” and Argentina was in first place, with the highest proportion of responses.

During the pandemic, Argentine women regressed 20 years in their participation in the labor market. Although men were affected, women went to really low levels because schools were closed and women tended to stay at home to take care of children. It took two years to get them back into the labor market – it took two years – but when they came back, they came back with record levels of employment. Argentina is one of three countries in all of Latin America that managed to return to pre-pandemic levels.

Does this mean that the state does have the power to reduce gender gaps? 

Yes, and the numbers prove it. The fact that women have been able to return had to do with a battery of feminist policies that were put in place. It was the result of the existence of feminist institutions throughout the country, from a federal point of view. It was the result of more care infrastructure, of better pay for care workers, of having gender promoters. In any case, income levels are still lower than for men, conditions are more precarious, but a foundation has been laid. The next challenge is to improve the quality of these jobs.

Is it possible to say that progress has been made in the institutionalization of feminist demands? 

On the one hand, what used to be the National Women’s Institute became a Ministry. The National Directorate of Economy, Equality and Gender was also created, as well as gender spaces in many parts of the national public administration. Today, in almost every province there is a secretariat or ministry of women, gender and diversity. This is important. 

From the Directorate we set up a national round table, where we gathered women who not only had good intentions but also had a “pencil”, the ability to sign and carry things forward: ministers (although there were few), deputy ministers, secretaries, chiefs of staff. We managed to bring together 50 women officials from all the provinces, we sought to build in a horizontal way, according to the diversity of each locality. It is a transversal table, in ideological terms, and I believe that this is one of the things that has the greatest survival.

One of the most relevant issues of the Directorate was to achieve a budget with a gender perspective, what is it?

When a government plans its management, the budget is the law of laws. It allows you to say: “I have these objectives and I have this public money, I collect it this way, I spend it here, I invest it this way”. Having a budget with a gender perspective means, first, identifying inequalities. They may be related to income, access to the labor market or the possibility of formal jobs. They may have to do with whether there are sufficient care spaces. It may have to do with whether women are inserted in masculinized spaces, such as construction, public works or technology. Then it is a matter of setting priorities. And finally, defining the resources to be used. Financing means turning a slogan into a policy. Public policies without financing do not exist.

How is this achieved in practice? 

In addition to the National Budget, we managed to ensure that 18 of the 24 provinces had a budget with a gender perspective. The gender budget is a tool for women to fight for resources. 

We had to train technical staff to have indicators, diagnose problems and monitor. These indicators have become tools within the states to project statistics and data with a gender perspective, which are fundamental when it comes to discussing policy. You may not use them, but this capacity is already installed in the “permanent” workers (i.e., permanent employees). If the government changes, the officials and the heads of the portfolios change. What we did was to install it in the rank and file.

Gender budgeting is a tool for women’s dispute over resources.

Being “the feminist of the people” is not the same as being part of a strategy with a federal perspective. For us it was important what happened when we met with the women of the federal roundtable. For example, a councilwoman from a town of ten thousand inhabitants would come and we would receive her at the Ministry of Economy, at the Casa Rosada [headquarters of the National Government] or at the Chief of Cabinet. That woman, perhaps, is the first time in her life that she has been in a place like that.  Maybe the mayor of her town has never been to the Casa Rosada. Then, many of them told us that the mayor called them to ask how they got there, and for them it was a factor of empowerment. Politics also has something of acting, doesn’t it?

Another thing we did was the exchange of good practices. For example, in the province of La Rioja they launched the Constructoras program, which consisted of training women in masonry, painting and electricity. The idea was to form labor exchanges or even for women to be able to fix their houses in a self-sufficient way. This, when discussed at the table, generated interest and was replicated in other places, until it became a national program. It came from a provincial experience and became national, not the other way around.

Understanding that feminist policies can be made from the economic point of view opens the head.

What resistances were encountered? How was this construction?

We traveled to each place. We went, we sat down, we commented on politics and many of them understood that this was useful. In Argentina, the demand of “Ni una menos” (Not one less) was the one that massified feminism. Before that, it was a question of historical militancy but of niche. Thus feminism was associated with demands against gender violence and later with the demand for legal abortion. On the other hand, economic issues were sometimes more blurred. We showed the economic part to many men, ministers, governors. Understanding that feminist policies can be made from the economic point of view opens their heads. When they are convinced of this, they see it as a much more important tool. Because they understand that poverty is feminized and that female-headed households are the poorest.

In the current public debate there is an idea that constantly appears, which is to affirm that the ultra-right candidate (Milei) can win because of “the fault of feminists”. Is it a fallacy? What is behind this statement?

That sentence has a truthful part but within a rather strange argument. The feminist movement in Argentina broke the status quo in many ways and has been growing for a long time. There are segments of men who find it difficult to react to this and feel overwhelmed. In this context, a candidate appears who promises them that women are going to take a back seat and they are going to recover their virility, on a somewhat strange cultural level. It is a phenomenon that also occurs in other countries. 

Milei is a character that grows a lot with an anti-“caste”, anti-State discourse, in an Argentina that is in the top five of inflation worldwide. If there was no gesture in politics to try to transform this idea about themselves, are we feminists to blame? We end up being the scapegoat. 

Feminism disputes spaces of power and budgets, things it did not dispute before. Before, perhaps, the disputes were more symbolic and did not get so much into the axis of economics and money. I believe that there are those who take advantage of this because it is a way of positioning themselves in a space they believe has been lost by more organized women with their own agenda and objectives, who take advantage of this because it is a way of positioning themselves in a space they believe has been lost by more organized women with their own agenda and objectives.

However, although there have been many advances, it is most likely that in 2024 we will have all provinces governed by men. That, from my perspective, is a major setback for a country that has made substantial progress. The last government won with a very open feminist agenda, promising legal abortion. Today, mentioning those things is very difficult. 

Why do you think so much has changed in such a short time? 

It has to do with the growth of this conservative ultra-right that has women, feminism, as its political enemy. It is not only happening in Argentina, it is all over the world. When you look at the campaigns of Meloni, Bolsonaro, Trump, even in Sweden, in Spain, they are all candidates who promised to eliminate women’s ministries and put a stop to all those conquests that, for them, are “aberrant”. They put feminism as the enemy and direct their cannons towards it.

Does the fact that these policies have been built institutionally and in a cross-cutting manner make them more resistant to attacks?

When institutions are strengthened, it is more difficult to get rid of them. To cite an example: during the pandemic, with the confinement and the drop in income, the gender promoters who went from house to house brought us information about the fact that there were colleagues who were unable to manage their menstruation: they used rags, T-shirts, old diapers. There were even cases in which they decided not to leave their homes because they did not have the money to buy pads or tampons. So we made programs to buy and distribute from the State. 

There were textiles that were producing reusable cloth wipes, so we promoted lines of financing and microcredits for them. Now there are already six provinces with laws that imply discounts on menstrual management purchases or free delivery of menstrual cups or reusable wipes. 

Javier Milei could blow up the Ministry but he cannot take out everything that has been built in each province.

There was a program to teach women victims of gender-based violence how to sew. They started teaching them to sew reusable towelettes, which are sold at local fairs. Some of them were bought by the municipality to be distributed free of charge in schools, and thus take advantage of the opportunity to talk about sexual and reproductive health. Circuits were generated that are very good. 

I believe that there are initiatives, regulations, laws, institutions that, if a government comes along that is totally opposed, it cannot break them so easily. Javier Milei could blow up the Ministry of Women’s Affairs but he cannot remove everything that has been built in each province. However, experience shows us that we have to be attentive to defend what we have conquered.

Julia Muriel Dominzain is an Argentine journalist. She writes and collaborates in several media outlets in Argentina and the region. She was correspondent from Moscow. She has worked in television, participates in documentaries, scripts, produces and broadcasts podcast series. She is a regular contributor to MIRA: Feminisms and Democracies.



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