Father-daughter team brings Brazil’s feminist movement to BU
By Jessica Ullian
On a research trip to Brazil in 2001, Jeffrey W. Rubin, a CAS history associate professor, discovered a colleague who helped him find the personal stories behind the social trends, understand the human side of a political movement, and operate a digital video camera — his teenaged daughter, Emma Sokoloff-Rubin.
Rubin, a research associate at the Institute on Culture, Religion, and World Affairs, and the author of Decentering the Regime: Ethnicity, Radicalism, and Democracy in Juchitán, Mexico, brought his family to Porto Alegre, Brazil, in 2001 when he went to study social movements and the emergence of Brazilian democracy — a project for which he won a Fulbright Fellowship and a MacArthur Foundation Research and Writing Grant. Over the course of the year, Emma became fluent in Portuguese and fascinated by life in a foreign country, but it was a visit to a rural women’s movement conference that changed her worldview. The women in Brazil’s feminist movement, she discovered, were fighting for things as simple as the right to possess a birth certificate, while caring for their homes, farms, and families.
“I was really amazed at the power of these women,” says Emma, now 15. “They had less education than I did, they had very few resources, and they did so much.”
Two years later, the father-daughter team returned to Brazil to continue their research, profiling five women they viewed as crucial members of the growing Movement of Rural Women Workers. Using the lessons they learned about feminism, Brazilian culture, social movements, and each other, they are creating a high-school curriculum about how rural women fight for their basic rights in another part of the world.
“We have a lot to learn from people in Brazil who come up with new solutions, who are not tied to old orthodoxies,” Rubin says. “These are places where very exciting democratic experiments are going on.”
When the Rubin family first returned to the United States after their year in Brazil, Emma published a story in a youth magazine about her experience, in which she pointed out that many Brazilian feminists find it easier to fight the government for maternity leave than to get their husbands to do the dishes. It was an observation, Rubin realized, that “was really central to what was going on” — and it highlighted the difference between their research styles. While Rubin was more analytical, Emma was more observant, noting things ranging from the decorations in people’s homes to the seating arrangements at dinner parties.
“Emma noticed not only where the men were sitting and where the women were sitting,” Rubin says, “but which women were able to go back and forth between the men’s side and the women’s side.”
Rubin returned to Porto Alegre in 2003, and brought Emma’s article with him. Her reflections were so powerful, he says, that people cried — and both father and daughter realized they had discovered a potentially exciting project. Emma felt that by publishing her article, she had accomplished something for the women’s movement. And Rubin found that working with his daughter made his subjects view him differently. As a family, they were granted access that might not have been offered to a pair of academics on a research trip.
Last summer, when the two went back to Brazil — this time to Ibiraiaras, a small Southern town — they began chronicling the lives of five women involved in different ways in the women’s movement. Gessi has gone from protesting in the streets to running the local health department. Vera is the first woman president of the farmers’ union. Loiva is the president of the women’s movement, Elenice teaches sociology at a university, and Rosani works for both the farmers’ union and the health department.
In the course of their research, Rubin and Emma spent time in the women’s homes, met their families, and attended meetings and workshops with them. The differences between life in Ibiraiaras and life in the United States are apparent, they say — for many women, being able to leave the house without obtaining permission was a major victory. But at the same time, there are surprising similarities. The women of the movement felt conflicted about their choices. Some wondered whether they would gain more by demonstrating in the streets or by working within the system to effect change. Others had more domestic concerns — whether they could be good feminists as well as good mothers to their children, for instance. “Here were people,” Rubin says, “grappling with issues that seem remarkably current here.”
The unexpected link between American and Brazilian culture motivated Emma to bring her experience back to other students. Hearing each woman’s life story, she says, taught her important lessons about an individual’s role in his or her community. “I had learned things about being a citizen, contributing to your society, how to make change,” she explains.
Now, Rubin’s and Emma’s collaboration continues through editing and translating the 24 hours of video footage they brought back from Ibiraiaras. They plan to combine Brazil’s recent history with the women’s personal stories for their curriculum, hoping that students will be engaged, as Emma was, by the people involved in the politics. They have already tested their work at BU, in Rubin’s Social Movements in 20th Century Latin America and Modern Latin America classes, and hope to present a short course at Emma’s school, Pioneer Valley Performing Arts in Hadley, Mass., next spring or fall. They are also writing each woman’s story, so that schools around the country can use their course materials.
For Rubin, the ongoing partnership with his daughter has shown him that his work is accessible — and important — for a much wider audience than he had believed. “Emma serves as a bridge for me,” he says. “Part of the process is her teaching me what is interesting for people who aren’t college students or professors.”
For Emma, the journey into her father’s world has made her believe that if women without education, money, or power can have such a dramatic effect on their society, sharing their stories may encourage others to work for change as well.