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The Sights and Voices of Dispossession: The Fight for the Land and the Emerging Culture of the MST (The Movement of the Landless Rural Workers of Brazil)


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Sônia Fátima Schwendler


The Construction of the Feminine in the Struggle for Land and in the Social Re-creation of the Settlement

"The poor of the land, excluded, marginalized and dominated for centuries, walk silently and hurriedly on the ground of this long night of humiliation, and proclaim, through their struggle, resistance, rupture,and disobedience, their new condition, their path of no return, their ragged but dignified appearance on the scene of history" (José de Souza Martins)

"My wife was unable to speak to a stranger. Today, without going to school, she is a leader, highly advanced in the work of the struggle. The struggle is a school." (Testimony of the settler Daniel Ferreira Chagas, São Joaquim Settlement)


This article analyzes the importance of women’s participation in the struggle for land, emphasizing and redefining their space and their role in society. It also situates the construction of the feminine in the social re-creation of the space won the settlement. Woman is understood as a cultural and historical category of social relations: that is, a social construction, based on relations established between men and women, of the significance attributed to the feminine and masculine in the family, in work, in social struggles, and in the dynamics of the settlement. Within social struggles, it emphasizes, on one hand, the feminine presence in the construction of the Movement of the Landless Rural Workers (MST), and, on the other hand, the role of this social movement as an educating subject in forming the identity of the Sem Terra woman.

Building a social movement like the MST is understood as the result of a combination of objective and subjective factors. The former have to do with the history of the unequal distribution of lands with the modernization of agriculture, which concentrated lands, expropriated and expelled farmers from their land, reduced wage-labor with the introduction of modern machines and products, worsening poverty; and with the construction of hydro-electric dams that expelled people from their land without due compensation.

The subjective factors include the perception of exclusion and the comprehension of how it was historically created; the construction of a collective sem-terra identity from a common perception of needs and scarcities; the collective consciousness of the need to fight for rights, where the land is seen as a right for the one who works on it and needs it to live, which confers legitimacy on the occupying of unproductive lands.

The situation of impoverishment, together with the consciousness of the creation of misery and the collective recognition of a right are, therefore, fundamental factors in the organization of a movement and manifestation of its social struggle. A struggle that questions and denounces the unequal distribution of land and the lack of political will of the government to resolve the agrarian question forces the debate on agrarian reform. Through the struggle, the sem-terra people come on the scene as political subjects of the historical process, as those who build citizenship in the country, transforming themselves as they create the movement of social struggle and transform their own reality. In this sense, the process of the land-struggle is understood as a fertile space for socio-cultural re-creation, where the daily practices lived by the people are (re)drawn as a function of the objective and subjective conditions that the struggles create (Caldart, 1996; Gohn, 1997; Damasceno, 1995). According to Caldart:

the experience of participating in the MST organization educates the sem-terra basically through the social relations it produces and ends up by intervening pedagogically in several dimensions of human beings, and, at the same time, proposes and problematizes values, changes behavior, creates and destroys concepts, customs, ideas. In this way, it shapes the Sem Terra identity (2000: 220).

To join the struggle for land, demanding it as a right, implies a reformulation of the people’s vision of the world, as well as the establishment of new relations in their daily lives (Schwade, 1993: 77). On the other hand, the settlements spaces won and re- created socially by rural landless workers, beginning with a process of struggle bring about the (re)construction of a social space, of relations in daily life, based on norms that each subject brings with his life-story and collective norms (re)drawn in the struggle for land (Schwendler, 1995).

Woman’s Participation in the Space of the Land-Struggle

The experience of occupying lands and organzing settlements of landless working men and women with different life stories and a history affected by different forms of social, political, economic, and cultural exclusion, creates an identity for them, giving them a common objective the conquest of the land. The settlement, resulting from the occupation of an area by a large number of landless families, constitutes the MST’s strategy of struggle to apply pressure for the disappropriation of unproductive lands. For Caldart, the educational force of the struggle "is usually proportional to the degree of rupture it has established with the former patterns of social existence of these working men and women of the land, precisely because it requires the development of new cultural syntheses" (2000: 106).

In the struggle for land, the woman becomes a fundamental historical agent, whether by confronting the situation caused by occupation, or by the relations she forms through her active presence in the struggle. The feminine presence as historical subject becomes fundamental in the land struggle and makes it possible. The settlers themselves attest to this importance:

"No settlement comes from men alone" (Teresinha, Nova Ramada Settlement).

"And if the women weren’t together in the struggle, organized, together with the men, I think there wouldn’t be any settlements. It’s very important to have women in the struggle. They are organized and they help to organize and join the struggle" (Valmir, Nova Ramada Settlement).

Even the pregnant woman or a woman with small children occupies the land, faces the police, takes part in discussions and organization, as well as in maintaining the settlement, whether in or out of it, seeking to ensure its survival. According to Lechat, these women "went into politics not as asexual beings, but as women, mothers of families taking part in everything, even pregnant or with them" (1996: 123). The woman, therefore, takes part in the settlement, remaking her role in society. The spaces for and roles attributed to the masculine and feminine are re-defined during the process of land-occupation and formation of the settlement through the organic structure itself, brought about by the forming of committees, where tasks are divided and taken on by men and women.

The MST is organized into committees to make possible the organic structure of the social struggle. Caldart says the following about the matter:

"The internal organization of an encampment begins with forming the so-called base nuclei, consisting of between ten and thirty families, according to the initial criterion of proximity, generally starting from the municipality from which the people originate. Through the nuclei, the division of the necessary tasks is organized to guarantee the daily life of the encampment: food, hygiene, health, religion, education, leisure, finances Through the nuclei, the discussions and studies necessary for making decisions for the next step of the struggle take place. Those responsible for the various tasks compose the work teams, meeting regularly to plan and evaluate their activities. There is a general co-ordination of the encampment, whose main responsibililty is to give unity to the work of all the teams, as well as carry on the process of negotiation and relations with the local society and wider area. The highest forum for decision-making on the encampment’s direction is the ‘general assembly of the encamped families’, which generally meets after a preliminary discussion of the issues of the base nuclei, the main channel of communication between the co-ordinators and members of the encampment" (2000: 115).

In the encampment, the woman begins to take on tasks not only in the private sphere washing, cooking, caring for the children but also in the public one discussing, organizing, co-ordinating tasks and groups, negotiating, taking care of security, confronting the police. In this experience of land-struggle, she broadens her space of participation in society, occupying spaces historically exclusive to men public life where she learns to argue, participate, express her ideas, and becomes the subject of many social conquests such as maternity wage, retirement, and others. The struggle also offers the possession of land, which before was restricted to men, since the woman was not recognized as a rural worker (Schwendler, 1995).

In this way, the woman learns, beginning with experience in other spaces, to think and live questions beyond the quotidian and the domestic, resignifying her place in the world, her presence as a woman in history, relearning as a Sem Terra woman. The woman who fights for the right to land, to living-space, to taking part, to her being recognized as a worker of the land and the dignity of her gender, also re-develops the role of women and men in society.

The woman enters public life but does not abandon the private space, even in the struggle, for she still continues to be responsible for the life of the home, which leads to the maintenance and reproduction of already established family relations. Although many of the old relations between men and women are maintained, carried over from the experience before the struggle, the experiencing of new relations in the space of the struggle leaves its marks, which stay in the memory as meanings and "can be maintained or recovered in concomitant or later situations" (Melo, 2001: 175).

The Participation of Women in the Dynamics of Agrarian Reform Settlement

The traditional division of distinct roles for men and women is sustained by a rigid sexual division of labor that historically has relegated women to a secondary role in work, in political life, in social struggles, making them responsible for the non-visible tasks. The marriage contract itself has legitimated the role of the woman in doing invisible work, leading her to accept the obligation of home and family in exchange for being supported by her husband. Relevant to our discussion are the different concerns parents have had historically in relation to their sons and daughters, giving the man the land and the woman the trousseau for the house. Thus, the girl learns from her mother domestic chores and child-care, and she does not learn how to discuss policies, negotiate, buy and sell, discuss production, which is the boy’s duty, who also does not learn from his mother domestic duties and child care. It is up to the mother to give birth, take care of the children, maintain the family, do the domestic work, and reproduce the force of work, she being destined for an auxiliary role in work, as an extension of the home. Analogically, the woman "helps" in the fields. In most cases, it is not up to her to decide production, or negotiate, buy and sell products, discuss agricultural credits these are regarded as masculine jobs. And yet, the active presence of women in social struggles has contributed to the questioning and/or break with some daily practices that relegate her to a secondary role in society. It has also contributed to women organizing to fight for rights that have been denied them historically.

It is now necessary to examine the role of women in the settlements, that is, after the period of struggle for winning the land and the resistance in the encampments. The Settlements of Agrarian Reform in themselves establish a historical process of transition and transformation of the old Brazilian agricultural structure, of the reorganization of territory, for it is a process of the conversion of the latifundium into a space where many landless families may begin to live and produce. They are established in territories won in the course of struggle and resistance, of occupying unproductive lands, highways, plazas, and public buildings; in short, of the whole organizational process of the MST. For Fernandes, the settlement also means "the attempt to begin again as new subjects it is the possibility of re-creating the dimensions of social space and movement itself it is the result of a transformation project for winning citizenship" (Fernandes, 1996: 236). I quote a female worker from a settlement on this transformation process in terms of gender:

"When we began to make the internal rules of our co-operative, the men thought that the women should not have rights or obligations ... when we began the co-operative, when we began our organization, it was difficult to make the women conscious that they should go out of the house and take part" (Teresinha, Nova Ramada Settlement).

An important fact is that the women entered the lines of struggle, but when it went into the phase of negotiation, they usually went back to former standards. In the new organization of the settlement, the life experiences of the working men and women settled before the organization, also came into play their customs, traditions and experiences as well as the lived process of the struggle, where the socio-political commitment of the agents involved takes place in different ways. An explanation is given by Paulilo, for whom "the repertory of possible ways of acting is formed both by the new ideas and by the old experience" (1994: 197-80). With the process of struggle that they lived through, these two social agents modified their situation and themselves. Yet, this change does not imply a denial of their past or their history, but their overcoming (Schwendler, 1995).

In his work Revolution Within the Revolution, James Petras analyzes the gathering of the women in the post-revolutionary period, after their intense participation in the social struggles. For the author, each step of the struggle consists of a school for the next step. In this sense, if the woman occupies a secondary place in the organizational structure during the process of organizing the families for land-occupation, she will also play secondary roles in the encampment phase and there will not be any women for the
co-ordinating of the settlement. Soon, Petras warns:

"If woman are not present in the negotiation committee, their needs will have no voice. They will return home, to the former traditions of oppression. The men say "we won the struggle" but they are on the committee and she is in the kitchen! That is why at the time of negotiation her presence is important, as she will transmit the content of her demands for post-revolutionary transformation or post-occupation of lands" (1998: 14).

On discussing the masculine and feminine spaces in building this new way of life the settlements Ferrante reveals the timid participation of women in discussion, deliberation, political decisions, for in "meetings and assemblies women sit near the doors, as if they were ready to leave a space that is not theirs" (1998: 267). In the same line, from the account of the settlers it can be seen that when women take part in the areas where they exercise leadership in the settlement, these are generally connected with education and health, regarded historically as feminine spaces. Even in these areas, the settled woman still finds it difficult to take part, mainly when she needs to leave her home to go on a trip, take courses or take part in organizational activities, and even in the education of young people and adults in the settlement itself, since she often ends up being spoken of or seen as someone who does not fulfill her obligations. Many women do not take part in the youth and adult literacy courses because they need to make dinner for their husband or even because the husband does not let her take part.

In developing an extension project in the settlements during the period 1997 to 2001, titled ‘Exercising citizenship in the field: an examination and multidisciplinary commitment in an occupied area of the Movement of the Landless Rural Workers’, during the meetings with the community, the collective meal was still the responsibility of the women, making their participation in the discussions, the decisions, the planning of the community impossible. Sometimes the men helped with the washing of dishes or each member washed his own, a common practice in the MST meetings, marches, and land-occupations. In one of the actions planned and carried out with the working men and women of this settlement, a communal garden was organized. The plants of the garden became smothered by weeds, and the garden was only re-planted when the group of women took on the job. Care for the garden is seen as a feminine role, since it is a question of subsistence production. In this context, the work of the woman is not regarded as work and its product, which contributes to subsistence, is not counted as a product. According to Nobre and Silva, the cultivation of the garden, the raising of animals, the work in the fields, and the production of artifacts work that produces merchandise whose sale contributes to the support of the family are embedded in what is called ‘taking care of the house’ (1998: 29).

For Ferrante, even in the settlements, "the participation of women in the different strategies of income formation coexists with the reproduction of inequalities and exclusions in the area of decision-making" (1998: 274). The author claims, however, that masculine and feminine responsibilities do not have rigid boundaries at all times, keeping in mind that there is relative co-operation between men and women in defining the future of the piece of land. The very fact that external agencies currently require the signature of the couple in order to make resources available for production and organization of the settlement has contributed to this joint planning. And yet, fulfilling this demand does not mean that the woman has in effect the power of decision, for the last word is usually the man’s, as the women themselves argue.


The collective learning experience of the land-struggle has already contributed significantly to the reconstruction of gender roles, since men and women jointly take part in a process that has brought significant social, economic, political, and cultural changes reflected in the re-creation of the new space the conquered land. Nevertheless, apart from the moment of struggle, the woman still continues to be excluded from the decisive moments, mainly in the areas seen as masculine, such as production and the organization of the settlement.

There is still much to build, there is much to conquer in the struggle for the humanization of men and women. As Freire puts it:

"Humanization and dehumanization, within history, in a real, concrete, objective context, are the possibilities of men as incomplete beings but conscious of their incompleteness. But, if both are possibilities, only the first seems to be what we call the vocation of men Dehumanization, which is not seen only in reference to robbed humanity, but also, although in a different form, in what robs it, is the distortion of the vocation for ‘being more’" (1987: 30).

The struggle takes place by way of winning land, housing, education, health, but also by way of rebuilding the relations of gender in the family, school, work, in the social struggles and in the settlements themselves. For the Sem Terra woman, therefore, there is a great challenge: to perform her historical task as a social subject who comes on the scene by also occupying the public space, taking part in the decisive instances to make, with her differences as a woman, a different history.

Women are different: "They affirm themselves with other words, other gestures" (Perrot, 1988: 212). Woman has her own way of being, of representing herself in the world. And it is this difference that needs to be sought so that we may make another history, build another society. "Between the public and the private, the political and the personal, men and women, the divisions dissolve and recompose a landscape" (Perrot 1998: 2). This landscape is building in a movement, where women and men re-define roles, rebuild their histories, re-create culture, to which the collective learning experience of the land-struggle has already contributed.


Caldart, Roseli Salete. Os movimentos sociais e a construção da escola (do sonho) Possível . In: Contexto e Educação. Ijuí: UNIJUÍ, Ano 10, n 41, Jan-mar., 1996.

Pedagogia do Movimento Sem Terra; escola é mais do que escola. Petrópolis, Rio de Janeiro: Vozes, 2000.

Damasceno, Maria Nobre. O saber social e a construção da identidade. In: Contexto & educação. Ijuí: UNIJUÍ, Ano 9,N 38, abril/jun., 1995.

Fernandes, Bernardo M. MST: formação e territorialização em São Paulo. São Paulo: Hucitec, 1996.

Ferrante, Vera L. B. Assentamentos rurais: espaços masculinos/femininos na construção de um novo modo de vida. In: Abramo, Laís, e Abreu, Alice R. de P. (Orgs.) Gênero e trabalho na sociologia latino-americana. São Paulo; Rio de Janeiro: Alast, 1998.

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Nobre, Miriam da S.P. e Silva, Nalu F. O que é ser mulher? O que é ser homem? Subsídios para uma discussão das relações de gênero. In: Coletivo Nacional de Mulheres MST. Compreender e construir novas relações de gênero. São Paulo: Peres, 1998.

Paulilo, Maria I.S. Os Assentamentos de Reforma Agrária como objeto de estudo. In: Romeiro, Adhemar et. al. (orgs). Reforma agrária: produção, emprego e renda. O relatório da FAO em debate. Petrópolis: Vozes/IBASE/FAO, 1994.

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Schwade, Elizete. "A luta não faz parte da vida... é a vida": o projeto político religioso de um assentamento no oeste catarinense. Dissertação de Mestrado. Florianópolis-SC, 1993 (mimeo.).

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