Heather Dashner has been a socialist activist since the 1970s, but she always disagreed with male leaders in the movement who believed that women's liberation should wait until after the working class took power. Women, Dashner continues to recognize, remain an oppressed group based on their gender, and she’s been at the forefront of every struggle for women's equality in México. Dashner has edited two books where she and her fellow women comrades tell their stories, Feministas Trotskistas in 2019 and last year’s Rebeldes y Transgresoras: Feministas Trotskistas, testimonios 1974-1992.
The 1970s saw an upsurge in women’s organizing and in socialist politics. How did you become a feminist/Trotskyist?
In a word, I got shat on a lot!
I came of age in the United States during the student movement, and we were all exploring how to become revolutionary activists. In my early days, I considered myself an anarchist. But then, in 1973, I was in Chile when the democratically elected Marxist president Salvador Allende was assassinated and his supporters brutally slaughtered. For me, a moment of terrible clarity: We need more than mass organizations. The people need a political instrument.
I moved to México in 1974 and became — and remain — a member of a Trotskyist group. My husband at the time wrote an article on the importance of the 1975 UN International Women’s Year Conference held in México. He asked if I would sign the article with another woman, to make it seem like women wrote it. That gives you a sense of gender dynamics back then! I agreed with his article totally, but its publication would set off a firestorm within our organization. Many comrades argued that gender equality didn’t rate as “a proletarian issue.” We’ll deal with it, they said, “only after the revolution!”
Over time, I would gain the confidence and the experience to become a leader in my own right, but my socialism could not exist together with women’s oppression! My closest comrades and I faced an ongoing struggle. Men would give us underhanded compliments. How unfortunate, they would say, that our most capable women leaders focus on women’s issues. But we persisted and won leadership positions in a women’s movement that included women of all classes and political orientations.
Can you describe the women’s movement in those early 1970s days?
It was not a mass movement. We began with small groups of women talking with each other and analyzing our experiences as women. Our oppression at home and in society still remained things not talked about publicly. So just saying out loud what was happening and what we were feeling — and getting validation from other women having the same experiences — became really important.
The main issues back then? Bodily autonomy basically: freedom of maternity, the right to decide whether to become mothers and when, rape, domestic violence.Women’s caucuses also proliferated within existing organizations. As a teacher, I organized a women’s group in my school. People organized politically independent unions in women-dominated fields, among teachers and telephone workers, for instance.
Another major phenomenon: Wives and family members of union members formed committees to support worker struggles, much like the women’s committee that organized strike support for the historic 1936 auto worker sit-down strike in Flint, Michigan.
In 1976, a Mexican feminist coalition for the first time called for abortion on demand. Working class women added “free!” to that demand, and non-socialist women accepted that as well. In 1979, peasants, teachers, and feminist groups came together with urban community organizations to form a national coordinating committee. But by 1981 the movement slumped. We had just worn ourselves out!
Did the 1985 México City earthquake prove a pivotal moment in México’s feminism?
Yes! Two existing movements came together to re-invigorate feminists. At that time, many small garment shops employed women under terrible conditions. Many of these women worked in criminally neglected buildings that collapsed on the seamstresses working inside, with the doors locked. The owners saved machines, not workers.
The deaths of so many women galvanized national attention. Workers at 80 different shops formed a coalition to negotiate with shop owners for severance pay. Five shop owners refused to negotiate. The owners all happened to be Jewish, and anti-Semitic sentiment began to grow. A Jewish comrade then went to the local Jewish organization. You better get those owners to negotiate with the workers, he urged, to prevent a generalized rage against Jews. The owners came to the table the next day.
The earthquake left many families homeless, and a mass movement of the homeless with mothers in the forefront soon formed. These two sections of grassroots women pushing from below re-energized women from all social classes. After that, we saw national meetings of peasant women, urban community women, and union women. In México, unlike the United States, women largely organized around issues facing working class women.
Peter Menzel/Science Photo Library
The issue of abortion rights has risen to the top for women in the Americas. What has been the history of that legislative fight in México?
From the beginning, we’ve had internal disagreements about what to demand from the state. How many months after conception, for instance, should abortion be legal? Three months? Six? No limit? Should having an abortion after a limit make you a criminal?
Under México’s penal code, stealing a cow rated as a more serious crime than raping a woman. And if you terminated a pregnancy, you were committing a crime. We had to decide how much we should ask for, how much progress we could realistically make. After much debate, we agreed that we would avoid the language of criminalization.
Until 1980, no legislator would touch the abortion issue. Only the Communist Party deputies ended up willing to propose a law allowing abortion. And that legislation didn’t just not get to the floor of Congress. The CP women who proposed the legislation found themselves under attack. So later, in 2021, we felt we had won a huge victory when lawmakers finally decriminalized abortion at the federal level. Abortion rights still vary from state to state, but a woman’s right to control her own body has taken a big step forward.
You helped lead the feminist movement from the 1970s to the 1990s and you continue to be active. How would you describe the status of women and the feminist movement in México today?
Confronting something as old and ingrained as male supremacy will never be smooth sailing. Despite some important institutional advances, women still lead lives steeped in sexism. But a whole new generation of young women has joined the fight, above all around the issues of violence against women and the impact of neoliberal economic policies.
And just as we’ve had in the past our periods of upsurge and slump, just as we’ve argued over strategies and tactics, just as we’ve unified and split, all these dynamics continue today. But the basic determination of women to keep fighting also continues — and won’t stop until we achieve gender equality, our human right.
Photo: Nuestro Sur, Boletín Mensual de la Coordinación Internacional
del Instituto de Formación Política de Morena, November 2022