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When Jeffrey Rubin traveled on a MacArthur fellowship to rural Brazil in 2002 to study a grassroots women’s rights movement, his wife and three daughters went with him. Rubin brought his oldest daughter, 12-year-old Emma Sokoloff-Rubin, who had become captivated by her father’s stories of the Brazilian women’s spirit and determination, on an excursion to the small town of Ibiraiaras to interview a woman who’d been fighting for equal rights since her teens. That was followed several years later by a return trip that sowed the seeds of a 10-year collaboration between Rubin and budding journalist Emma, who shares a far-reaching curiosity and passion for politics with her father, a College of Arts & Sciences associate professor of history.
The result of the Rubins’ efforts is a new book, Sustaining Activism; A Brazilian Women’s Movement and a Father-Daughter Collaboration (Duke University Press, 2013). A rich, intimate blend of history and cultural observation, the book is about a group of young Brazilian women who in 1986 started a movement to secure rights such as maternity leave, pensions, and economic equality for rural women as well as to remake women’s roles at home and in their communities. Together with other activists across the country, the Rubins say, these women helped forge a new democracy in the wake of Brazil’s 20-year military dictatorship, which ended in 1985. As Rubin and his daughter, who are both fluent in Portuguese, returned to the small village year after year, they not only chronicled the women’s enduring grassroots struggle for better lives and a more just society, but formed deep and lasting bonds with the people who populate Sustaining Activism.
Bostonia recently sat down with the Rubin and Sokoloff-Rubin, now a New York City–based writer for Gotham Schools, to discuss their collaboration, their connection to the women of Ibiraiaras, and the evolution of Sustaining Activism.
Jeffrey Rubin: We had been in Brazil for a year—I was on a MacArthur fellowship. That experience changed our family’s life. I was researching several grassroots movements and was heading off to a statewide assembly meeting and took the family along. Emma was in middle school. I thought my family would enjoy seeing what I was doing, and I thought it would matter for the women. I had a hunch it would be fruitful to bring Emma. How do you do field research as an ethnographer or historian? How do you get people to trust you? As a man studying a women’s movement, bringing my family with me humanized me and made me more than just a person asking questions. It was also a way of bringing together my professional and personal life. And there, some connection was made between the women and Emma that bypassed me.
Emma Sokoloff-Rubin: I remember being struck by the ways that these women, who had fewer resources and less education than I had at 12, had completely transformed their communities, had become activists who’d achieved rights such as maternity leave and pensions. They were ordinary people who changed lives around them. I talked to them in church basements and was drawn in by what they were doing.
Rubin: These were women on small family farms, most of whom worked on other people’s land, who had started the movement when they were close to Emma’s age, and continued their commitments into their late 40s. I met them in 1997 and Emma met them in 2002, several years into the project. To give a little political context, Brazil was under military dictatorship until 1985 and practiced detention and torture, so this activism had its roots in the early ’80s, fighting first against the dictatorship, then organizing in the streets to get rights written into the constitution. The reason I went to Ibiraiaras was that it was one of the focal points of fighting to make Brazil a more democratic place. Brazil has had a fairly remarkable 25-year trajectory. It now has a woman president and is highly democratic, with many kinds of social programs, which grew out of the state-level women’s movement.
Sokoloff-Rubin: After the year we lived in Brazil, my view of the world was shaped by my conversations with those women, and I wanted to share what I learned with my classmates.
You still had to tell me to clean my room, and we were going off to do research together.
Rubin: My wife, a psychiatrist, told me I better keep her safe. I had never been alone with my daughter for a month and been in charge. There was this moment when I said, what am I getting myself into? But after that first trip she really wanted to go back to Brazil, so we came up with this idea that it would be safe and interesting—we’d go back this time and do interviews, and she’d find a way of teaching this in her school.
Sokoloff-Rubin: We spoke to a teacher and the principal at my South Hadley charter school about our idea to make a curriculum. There were not a lot of reading materials, so we started creating them, and after we got back from the second year research trip, when I was in high school, I taught a yearlong elective course, about grass-roots activism, at a middle school.
Rubin: We told the women, Emma wants to tell your story, to teach children in the United States about ordinary people making real changes. It was a transnational flip-flop—the learning was going both ways.
Sokoloff-Rubin: We were always brainstorming about the curriculum. We totally made it up as we went along.
Sokoloff-Rubin: We didn’t say, let’s go write a book.
Rubin: We were making it up as we went along.
Sokoloff-Rubin: The adjustment was way easier than I expected. The people were so welcoming. We stayed in a small hotel in town and had meals at the hotel or meals with families. I had the chance to step away from my high school, about a month at a time, and as time went on it became a place that was so comfortable.
Rubin: There was something very immediate, warm, and direct with these women, even though my research requires objectivity. Over time meant the women took pleasure in the fact that we were acting as a father-daughter team, especially in front of women who in their coming of age were challenging their own fathers. There was one woman who wanted to go to a meeting, defying her father, and walked a long way to the bus to get to that meeting.
Sokoloff-Rubin: I think a relationship like ours was something the women were fighting for. They wanted to speak at the dinner table, and help make decisions.
Sokoloff-Rubin: The men were a little baffled by Dad’s interest, and after one meeting, when Dad got up to help clear the table, which he always does, they said no, don’t do that, the women will do that.
Rubin: The men understood that something was changing, that nothing in terms of gender relations was happening smoothly.
Sokoloff-Rubin: For these women, it was easier to fight for pension rights than to get your husband to do the dishes. The men were proud of their wives’ activism, but then when it came to changing the dynamics of doing dishes and caring for kids, they were more conflicted.
Sokoloff-Rubin: I grew up with this project, and so I grew up with these people. I want to keep hearing from them, and I want to talk with them as I make decisions going forward. We care about them on a personal level. But we had to wait for visits there to catch up. They’ve just gotten email this past year.
Rubin: When we get there, there’s a lot of running up and hugging, then sitting and talking, having a meal.
Sokoloff-Rubin: But from the day we arrive, we’re talking about the movement, their jobs, their political commitments. They like talking about this stuff.
Rubin: A lot of progress has been made in the last 15 years. Before that, women in the countryside didn’t get social security, pensions, or maternity leave. Girls didn’t even have birth certificates. Those were hard-won rights that took a lot of organizing. The movement was about convincing their parents and each other, running to the bank to get that first check. So they won those first big battles, but there still weren’t equal rights, there still is poverty, there is domestic violence, and it was still hard to change things, which is true in the United States too.
Sokoloff-Rubin: There were these bursts of major accomplishments, and most had happened before we even got there. What we saw was more of the give-and-take. I do remember women saying at meetings that this was the first time they left their house without asking permission, or saying their husbands now share household tasks. The changes have become less identifiable and more personal. A big part of our work was trying to figure out, what does the movement look like now.
Rubin: We started writing profiles of the women, and I was using them in my classes at BU, including undergraduate courses in Latin American history and social movements in Latin America. It was a way of having students consider big questions without hitting them over the head, a way to give them a story and then they start asking the questions you want them to. When we saw how engaged the students were with the writing, we began putting it together.
Sokoloff-Rubin: We thought, hey let’s see if this is a book. It’s already book-like. Let’s see what a publisher thinks.
Sokoloff-Rubin: I’d gotten really interested in narrative nonfiction and essay writing at Yale, and my writing was changing because I was taking all these classes, so I was constantly looking at the text with new eyes.
Rubin: I was learning this from Emma, and our collaboration really changed. At first I was the professor and she was the daughter, but by the time we started writing this book, I was learning from her.