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The Desire to Change Everything Hero ;

The desire to change everything: La potencia feminista and the Tribune of the World Conference of the International Women's Year

Feminist Perspectives
Natali Francine Cinelli Moreira and Kelly Komatsu Agopyan

28 May 2021

Drawing inspiration from the Argentinean feminist strikes, Verónica Gago theorizes la potencia feminista as an alternative theory of power. In this article, we turn to a watershed event in women’s history to argue that this potencia has long been the driving force behind women’s fight for equality.

In 1975, amidst the Cold War, thousands of women – from the global South and North, from socialist and capitalist countries – gathered for the first time in Mexico City to celebrate the United Nations International Women’s Year.[i] In this context, two major events emerged: first, the World Conference of the International Year of Women (“Conference”), which had delegations sent by 125 UN member-States and resulted in the Plan of Action and the Declaration of Mexico;[ii] and second, the Non-Governmental Tribune (“Tribune”), where around six thousand civil society actors gathered to discuss the situation of women in their own countries. We found the roots of the feminist potencia in the Tribune.

As a desiring capacity, feminist potencia is the driving force to challenge the multiple forms of oppression that subjugate women: it translates into awareness, contestation, and action to claim – for oneself and others – a different destiny.[iii] It is an insubordinate urge to displace the limits imposed by neoliberalism, imperialism, and patriarchy: if power structures offer women domestic life and reproductive work, feminist potencia demands a life outside of the household, and financial independence.[iv] Feminist potencia does not exist in the abstract; a body is needed to transform desire into action.[v] Each body experiences its own expectations, trajectories, and memories, and it is the body itself that takes to the streets to vindicate another type of power. Bodies indeed become political subjects when they move and assemble with other bodies taken by the same desire to challenge the obligatory norms that demand that we become one gender or the other.[vi] To live more livable lives, then, women shall place their bodies “on the line, on the barricades, on the front (…)” against the precarity, subordination and victimization to which they are subjected.[vii] The place where women assemble is therefore crucial: when heterogeneous lives are placed together, unusual alliances flourish among “frictions, debates and disagreements”.[viii] The collective intelligence emerges out of these differences, as a shared feminist perspective on the multiple forms of oppression.

In dialogue with Verónica Gago’s work, we argue that this potencia has older roots than the feminist strikes; we found this desiring capacity to change everything in the Tribune. If delegates at the Conference officially represented their countries’ interests,[ix] women at the Tribune were free from governmental formalities: a widespread sense of informality marked the debates at the Tribune, and participants were not limited to official discourses.[x] Women attended the Tribune hopeful it would be a free space to meet and speak to sisters who shared similar experiences.[xi] Yet they soon realized that little connected them; “frictions, debates and disagreements” emerged. If liberal North-American and European women understood that political discussions should be avoided at the Tribune, for they only served as a distraction from debates on gender inequality - equal pay for equal work, access to education, etc. - women from socialist countries and the global South claimed that gender could not be dissociated from questions such as race, class, and imperialism.[xii] Domitila Chungara, a Bolivian activist married to a miner, gave a straightforward answer at the Tribune when a Mexican participant asked whether women could reach a common ground:

Every morning you show up in a different outfit and on the other hand, I don’t. (…). And in order to show up here like you do, I’m sure you live in a really elegant home, in an elegant neighborhood, no? And yet we miners’ wives only have a small house on loan to us, and when our husbands die or get sick or are fired from the company, we have ninety days to leave the house and then we’re in the street. Now, señora, tell me: is your situation at all similar to mine? Is my situation at all similar to yours? So what equality are we going to speak of between the two of us? (...). – Chungara note 12

The Tribune shed light on the existence of different women and feminisms. This disunity set the tone of the Tribune, yet it is exactly the main achievement of the event; women did listen closely to one another and heard their struggles.[xiii] Precisely because it took place in the real world, and involved real people, the Tribune was an arena where conflict met insubordination.[xiv] And from unfamiliar experiences, a collective intelligence of their discrimination emerged, accompanied by the desire to challenge power structures and displace limits to which they were subjected.

Regardless of their origins or political orientation, all participants had been discriminated against because of their gender. Their value production and workforce were invisibilised; they all felt the excessive workload that fell on their shoulders but was excluded from economic data.[xv] They recognized one another in the subjugated position they were placed compared to men, in their lives inextricably limited by the domestic.[xvi] Debates abounded on the invisibilization of women's work, and a Romanian woman noted with exasperation, “[w]e are too tired to fight about the division of labor”.[xvii]

The shared feeling of invisibilization did not erase different life experiences. For some, domestic work involved daily walks to collect firewood or subsistence food production. Multiple oppressions transversely challenge women's lives; beyond double burden, women of colour suffer racism, and working-class women are constantly concerned about how to pay the rent. Yet among their heterogeneities, the feeling of a lesser life was inescapable.

Collectively they diagnosed their own precarity, and, refusing to accept their invisibility, participants took the ideas of the Tribune back home to challenge their own limits. The Tribune was indeed an important arena for the transnational diffusion of ideas, and women there were agents of diffusion and translation.[xviii] The Tribune was a transnational event with no “specific territoriality”,[xix] where women from all over the world designed, circulated, and re-designed ideas: “After the exhilaration of the tribune, many activists shared one participant’s view that it had “fantastic potential as a fruitful learning-teaching-sharing device and even perhaps as an embryonic ‘parliament of the world’ (...)”.[xx] As true protagonists, participants interacted and created personal bonds which resulted in the consolidation of transnational networks, which are central mechanisms for the diffusion of gender mainstreaming bureaucracies.[xxi] Translating what they learned collectively at the Tribune, they returned home and established feminist non-governmental organizations and promoted regional encounters to discuss their own situation.[xxii]

The feminist potencia is a counter-power that challenges the dominant structures. It is a proposal to fully transform society, which cannot remain oblivious to the integral role of women. We suggest that this potencia is found in the Tribune, whose legacy still crosses borders and generations. Within their own heterogeneity, women at the Tribune interacted in a transnational arena, circulated ideas, and translated them into their local realities. They carried the potencia and the desire to claim for a new future, the same driving force that still carries women to strikes and assemblies to demand less precarious lives.

This research received the financial support of the Coordination for the Improvement of Higher Education Personnel/Coordenação de Aperfeiçoamento de Pessoal de Nível Superior - CAPES


[i] Resolution A/RES/3010 (XXVII) adopted by the General Assembly during its 27th session, 1972. Available at: <>. Accessed on May 11, 2021.

[ii] Document n. E/CONF.66/34: “Report of The World Conference of the International Women 's Year”. Available at: <>. Accessed on May 11, 2021.

[iii] Gago, V. (2020). Feminist International: How to Change Everything. London: Verso. Verónica Gago theorizes the feminist potencia considering the experience of multiple subjects oppressed by the patriarchy, including women, lesbians, travestis, trans people and non-binary. In this text, we refer to the experience of women.

[iv] Gago note 1, at Chapter 4.

[v] Gago note 1, at Introduction, para. 8 and Chapter 5, Excursus.

[vi] Butler, J. (2015). Notes Toward a Performative Theory of Assembly. Cambridge: Harvard University Press, at 32-34.

[vii] Gago note 1, Chap. 5, Excursus, para. 5.

[viii] Gago note 1, Chap. 1, Unprecedented Alliances, para. 4.

[ix] Ghodsee, K. (2018). Second World, Second Sex: Socialist Women’s Activism and Global Solidarity during the Cold War. Durham: Duke University Press. See also: McCarthy, H. (2015) “The Diplomatic History of Global Women’s Rights: The British Foreign Office and International Women’s Year, 1975”. Journal of Contemporary History, 50(4), 833-853.

[x] Olcott, J. (2017). International Women’s Year: The Greatest Consciousness-Raising Event in History. Oxford: Oxford University Press.

[xi] Ibid, at 139. See also: Chungara, D. (1978). Let me Speak! Testimony of Domitila, a woman of the Bolivian mines. New York: Monthly Review Press, at 197.

[xii] Ghodsee note 10. Olcott note 11.

[xiii] Chungara note 12 at 202-203.

[xiv] Olcott note 11, at 5.

[xv] Whitaker, J. (1975) “Women of the World: Report from Mexico City”. Foreign Affairs, 54(1), 173-181.

[xvi] Olcott note 11, at 143.

[xvii] Ibid. See also Whitaker note 16.

[xviii] Whitaker note 16, at 179.

[xix] Oliveira, O.; Pal, L. (2018). “Novas fronteiras e direções na pesquisa sobre transferência, difusão e circulação de políticas públicas: agentes, espaços, resistência e traduções”. Revista de Administração Pública, 52 (2), 199-220.

[xx] Ibid, at 207.

[xxi] Olcott note 11, at 231.

[xxii] True, J.; Mintrom, M. (2001). “Transnational Networks and Policy Diffusion: The case of Gender Mainstreaming”. International Studies Quarterly, 45, 27-57.

[xxiii] The Mexican feminist collective La Revuelta and the 1981 Latin American and Caribbean Feminist Encuentro, in Bogotá, Colombia are examples of these translations. See Olcott note 11.

Image Credit

(Olcott, J. (2017). International Women’s Year: The Greatest Consciousness-Raising Event in History. Oxford: Oxford University Press, at 3.

Wikimedia Commons

About the authors

Natali Francine Cinelli Moreira is a Ph.D. candidate at the Institute of International Relations, University of São Paulo (IRI-USP). She holds an M.Sc. in International Relations from the same institute and an LL.M. in International and Comparative Dispute Resolution from Queen Mary, University of London. She earned a bachelor's degree in International Relations from the Pontifical Catholic University of São Paulo, and a bachelor's degree in Law from Mackenzie Presbyterian University. She is a member of the research group on Gender and International Relations at IRI-USP (MaRIas).

Kelly Komatsu Agopyan is a Ph.D. candidate and she also holds a master’s degree at the Institute of International Relations from the University of São Paulo (IRI-USP). She holds a bachelor’s degree in international relations at the Pontifical Catholic University of São Paulo. She is a member of the research group on Gender and International Relations at IRI-USP (MaRIas). From 2014 to 2016, she was an advisor for international affairs at the Municipal Secretariat for Human Rights and Citizenship of São Paulo City Hall.

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