“Rags. Petrol. Matches.” A Conversation with Amneris Chaparro Martinez, Feminist Political Theorist, Visiting Professor, and Rice Fellow at Yale MacMillan Center
By Seina Cho
On Wednesday, March 8, International Women’s Day (IWD) was once again celebrated by women’s rights advocates to honor the social, economic, and political achievements of women and to raise awareness about continuing gender inequality around the globe.
To commemorate this International Women’s Day, Visiting Professor and Rice Fellow at the Council for Latin American and Iberian Studies (CLAIS) Amneris Chaparro Martinez, a feminist political theorist from Universidad Nacional Autónoma de México (UNAM), delivered a lecture entitled “Rags. Petrol. Matches.”
The talk title borrows its name from an incendiary passage in Virginia Woolf’s 1938 essay Three Guineas, in which the narrator instructs that her guinea donation for a new women’s college at Cambridge should be earmarked “not for rebuilding the college on the old plan” but instead, for “Rags. Petrol. Matches.”
In her lecture, Chaparro Martinez explored the different means that women in Latin America today use in both public and virtual spaces to convey their demands, including hashtags, humor, monument interventions, performance, destruction, Molotov bombs, hammers, and rags, petrol, and matches. She also examined some normative questions that arise from these scenarios—in particular, the implications of using violence to denounce violence against women.
Chaparro Martinez asked, “In a context where violence against women and feminized subjects is widespread, what should we do with their desire to set everything on fire?”
Chaparro Martinez’s research primarily focuses on characteristics of contemporary feminism, namely: neoliberalism, post-feminism, and dissident feminisms. Chaparro Martinez has taught undergraduate and graduate level courses on feminism, human rights, and political theory. She has also offered training courses on non-discrimination, workplace harassment and gender awareness for personnel from different government agencies. Chaparro Martinez also sits on the Executive Committee for the Latin American Interdisciplinary Gender Network (LAIGN). In the following Q&A, she reflects on what she is working on and how she got there.
Could you tell us a little bit about your course “Feminism and Knowledge in Latin America: Epistemic Injustice, Theorization, and Resistance” and what you hope students take away from your class?
The course Feminism and Knowledge in Latin America seeks to explore the different dimensions - theoretical, political, ideological - that take part in the creation of knowledge with particular attention to the development and contributions of feminist thought in the region. Although it is a theory-oriented course, it takes colonialism and coloniality as the framework from which we draw the historical conditions of possibility for knowledge production. Hence, the notions of epistemic injustice and epistemic expropriation are of value insofar as they allow us to critically explore the reasons behind the, at times, marginal treatment of Latin American feminist and non-feminist scholarship in other academic contexts.
In this train of thought, I think it is important to address resistance as a key concept in the development of academic traditions for it fosters creativity as it is usually accompanied by a long history of struggles in the construction of autonomous and free academic environments for women, feminized and racialized individuals, as well as other sidelined subjectivities. Having said this, the course is in constant dialogue with the legacy of Western thought and acknowledges its contributions in the making of contemporary institutions (including universities), belief-systems, and subjectivities.
What do I hope students to take away from my class? My modest hope is that they get a broad picture of the dynamics and importance of knowledge production in Latin America, that they critically engage with the authors we read, and that they see the connection between knowledge production, feminist theory and the desire to build a more just, egalitarian, and why not, enjoyable world. Yet, my more ambitious hope is that they become passionate about these topics even though their professional lives may lead them to other adventures. That is, that they will be able to use some of the course contents in different settings, both academic and non-academic, professional and personal.
What inspired you to study feminism as a subject?
Even though in graduate school I switch disciplinary lanes to political theory, my first degree is in sociology. Sociology provided me with the tools to approach the world through inquiry. I wanted to understand what explains existing inequalities between men and women, why there was a thing called gender violence, and why there were so few women in positions of power and representation. My inquiries were mostly external, addressed to the injustices of the outside world. This is because I am extremely fortunate to have grown up in a household with strong egalitarian principles. My parents encouraged me and my siblings to achieve our goals without restricting our interactions with the world based on things such as gender.
At university in Mexico, I came across a seminar on feminist theory and gender studies taught by Professor Estela Serret. The seminar was illuminating, formative, and life changing. A profound and complex interdisciplinary theoretical and methodological tradition was disclosed before me. Mary Wollstonecraft, Christine de Pizan, Simone de Beauvoir, Celia Amoros, bell hooks, Nancy Fraser, Anne Phillips, Judith Butler, Marta Lamas, amongst others, became household names that accompany my research to this day. Feminism addressed my questions whilst simultaneously opening more avenues of study. Both as theory and practice, feminism speaks truth to power; however, it does so through a combination of academic rigor, attention to grassroots protest, and acknowledgement of the wide array of emotions it provokes.
Through my approach to feminism, I realized that growing up in an egalitarian family setting should not be a matter of brute luck. This led me to explore a more normative take during graduate school to imagine what a good, egalitarian, and more just society ought to look like. Currently my research on feminism is concerned with two main themes. On the one hand, I am fascinated by its development as academic discipline, thus explaining my interest in epistemology and knowledge creation. And, on the other hand, I care about the normative questions current feminist movements in Latin America activate. What does it mean to overthrow patriarchy? How should a feminist society look like?
How has your experience been as a visiting professor at Yale?
My experience as a visiting professor at Yale has been both stimulating and revealing. I have been teaching for some years now, first at the University of Essex in the United Kingdom and then in Mexico’s UNAM so I was rather curious about Yale students and how they would react to a seminar on feminism and knowledge in Latin America. Since the very beginning, the response has been edifying, enriching, and quite fun. I love the level of commitment, passion, and enthusiasm each student has shown in class. The type of questions they ask me during the seminar or via email is testament of their growing interest in the overall subject matter. They challenge me in the most thought-provoking ways and seem willing to learn further about the topics we discussed each week. I also get to learn a lot from them, which leads me to the second part of my answer.
I was born and have lived most of my life in Mexico, so I never really thought of myself as a woman of color, a Latina or even Hispanic for those labels only seem to make sense in the context of the United States. Ethnicity boxes here, nonetheless, allocate me as part of a minority group: Hispanic of any race. This got me thinking. I am usually skeptical of identity politics because in the case of minorities A) they tend to place substantial duties on individuals as the representatives of an entire group; and B) they risk attributing immutable, a priori, essential characteristics to those groups as if their members were simply identical. When someone is in condition A, their behavior is heavily scrutinized and in case they misbehave or fail at something, the failure is not individual but collective. When someone is in condition B, it seems that no matter what they do or achieve there is no escape as they will be seen as part of the whole and not in their uniqueness.
Teaching at Yale has made me aware that A and B are not unsurmountable. They are not because representation truly matters; and it is important even when it may come with risks. As a Mexican visiting professor in a university with eleven percent of self-identified Hispanic students, I am reminded that what I have to offer to my students in the classroom comes not only from having the privilege of conducting research but also from my own situated knowledge. That is, from the multiple contexts that inform my work, my political stand, my feminism, and yes, my identity. This is why I say that my time here has been a revelation in a rather unexpected yet meaningful way, and I owe much of this to the students’ enthusiasm and appreciation of my class.
What will you be speaking about at your talk at Yale on International Women’s Day as well as your talk at UNAM-Boston?
International Women’s Day (IWD) has gained an increasing notoriety in the US and Latin America in the past few years. This may be explained by the constant threat to disenfranchise women from already-gained political rights, the threat of violence, and the precarity of working conditions. I am honored to conduct a series of talks at Yale and UNAM-Boston on a topic that, although difficult, is necessary.
I have prepared two talks for IWD that are aimed at students, academics, and the general public. The first one, to take place at Yale’s CLAIS on March 8, borrows its name “Rags. Petrol. Matches” from Virginia Woolf’s description of potential female arsonists in Three Guineas. I will describe current feminist mobilizations within the IWD framework to trace some connecting dots between these and past demonstrations. I am interested in exploring the different means women in Latin America use in both public and virtual spaces to convey their demands (hashtags, humor, monument interventions, performance, destruction, Molotov bombs, hammers, rags, petrol, and matches). I also look at some normative questions that arise from these scenarios; in particular, the use of violence in the denunciation of violence against women and its implications on the future of feminist mobilization and the pursuit of justice.
The second talk, on March 9th is hosted by UNAM-Boston, addresses the fact that not even the pandemic prevented women from organizing and marching, thus defying government mandates and confronting riot police. Although women’s and feminists’ demonstrations are not new, current demonstrations reflect on the contemporary zeitgeist informed by social media, mass consumption, and dramatic forms of violence against women and girls. In this talk, I also draw on Latin American feminist demonstrations to illustrate this phenomenon and, at the same time, conduct inquiry on the motivations and contradictions that come with the call for protest in neoliberal times.