by Aline Rossi
Aline Rossi is a Brazilian radical feminist living and organizing in Portugal. We have faced similar challenges in our own organizing in the WLM. We invite you to share yours in the comments section. — The Editors
AUTONOMY DOES NOT EQUAL ISOLATION
A feminist collective is autonomous due to the urgent need for women to organize in a space where we can talk freely about oppressions we suffer as women (and develop leadership skills) without the pressure of men’s presence. This autonomy is what ensures the group its independence in thinking, acting, defining its agenda and setting its own north.
On the other hand, autonomy must not be perceived as equal to isolation. The feminist collective, however revolutionary its ideas, is not an end in itself. Though certainly a means to power, organizing in female-only spaces shouldn’t be understood as power itself. Instead, as observed by Barbara Leon in “Separate to Integrate” it exists because sex-based segregation and discrimination against women in mixed spaces exist, and “women’s groups are progressive only if they exist for the purpose of making themselves unnecessary”. The natural conclusion is that a feminist collective necessarily has to form alliances and act alongside and within other movements, organizations and structures – pressing, raising consciousness, challenging male-dominated narratives and political lines – to execute its agenda.
In short, a feminist collective is a space where women get together to debate, plan and define our agenda as feminists. But it is out there, outside our collectives, where we carry out this defined agenda: not only on the streets, organizing rallies, pickets, debates, conscious-raising, etc., but also within unions, schools, universities, political parties and our very neighbourhoods.
For example, in Lisbon, I co-founded a feminist collective called “Lisbon Feminist Assembly” (Assembleia Feminista de Lisboa). Like many others grassroots groups, we had many ideas about what was to be done, what we needed, and what was being done wrong, but we didn’t have funds, experience or anything else. Our resources were our hands, our minds and our little free time. It was not clear how we would turn our ideas into real political changes and transformation.
Our collective was first born to organize for the International Women’s Strike of 2017, as we hadn’t found support nor interest within other women’s organizations in Portugal. Our first “strike” (it was actually a march) took 300 people to the streets. We organized it alone in the span of just one week. But 300 people wasn’t enough if we wanted to make it into a real strike and a mass movement. So we immediately started to plan and work to build the next March.
We held open meetings, book-reading groups, movie debates and public debates throughout the year. We were not an “unknown random women’s group” anymore. We invited groups, organizations, institutions, political parties and unions to build the next strike with us. None of them came. I dare to say that none of them really considered joining us in first place because they saw our collective as a “private thing”. No one was interested in working for what we wanted to do.
We soon learned that we couldn’t be everywhere doing everything – actually, we shouldn’t even want to do everything by ourselves either. We were spending all of our time, energy and resources in building a march that would happen once a year. We were missing what a feminist group was all about. Instead of limiting our activity to our own awareness-raising events, we thought it better strategically to participate in other social movements, taking a stance in other struggles while bringing allies closer together. Instead of working for our own collective as if it was kind of brand, we were working to grow The Movement, a mass movement.
One of our members joined the assemblies of a housing struggle movement. Another one joined a climate struggle collective. The other made the link with artist activists and anarchists. I myself was working with other organizations on the prostitution issue (an abolitionist campaign we are still running in Portugal), showing up as a speaker or an observer, making contacts and alliances. Thus, we had 2,500 people in the street for the Women’s Strike in 2018.
Two months later, we were invited to a women’s camp in Spain. It was a national gathering to evaluate the past Women’s Strike, and to prepare the ground for the next strike. The Spanish women held it in a city close to Portugal for the very purpose of having us there. Four of us went from the Lisbon Feminist Assembly and three other women from the north of Portugal. We took part in the task forces and discussions, and observed their method and organization. We watched and learned.
We observed a particularly insightful discussion. Before they divided and organized themselves into working groups, women lined up in pairs to report on the strike on behalf of their local chapters (i.e: two from Barcelona, two from Madrid, two from Zaragoza, etc). When they were done, some women demanded to “report” again, now speaking on behalf of their parties and/or unions. The discordance was loud. Together, women in the room said repeatedly that the “golden rule” for all of them was: the feminist perspective must come first. The Women Strike agenda should be defined by the movement as feminists. Political parties, unions and other associations should endorse this feminist agenda instead of bringing their own “agenda for women” onto our table. It was from the inside to the outside, not the other way around.
We came back to Portugal and worked together to replicate what we saw. We called out for a national assembly to found a network, where everyone was invited to take a seat: parties, unions, students, collectives, institutions, individual women, etc. We formed a national coalition (The 8M Network), made up of many city chapters which were, in their turn, formed of individuals and women representing other organizations (parties, unions, collectives).
Our goal was to organize a Women’s Strike. In the city chapters, we had responsibilities such as meeting with and convincing unions to stage a warning strike, carrying out campaigns to raise women’s awareness about the strike, creating pamphlets and dispensing press releases. Outside the network and the chapters, we had responsibilities within our own organizations and collectives to make the Strike happen.
Women who were organized in political parties took the Strike agenda to their parties; women who were organized in unions pressured their boards to convene the strike; women in students’ associations organized students and teachers for the strike; women in grassroots collectives were working in street interventions, holding awareness-raising activities, creating and distributing materials, etc.
That year, 2019, we had five Warning Strikes, mainly from sectors of highly feminized roles (like call centers and schoolteachers), and an estimated 30,000 people in the streets of the country. It was the biggest feminist march Portugal had ever seen.
POLITICS DOES NOT EQUAL FRIENDSHIP
For many reasons, it is common for young women to come into feminism expecting to find an affinity group. The idea that every woman is a friend because we share the same oppressed condition or that feminism is made of/by friends is an illusion. It might be a political horizon, but right now it is a dangerous delusion. It is the outcome of a liberal distortion of the original radical feminist sisterhood concept, which was suppose to be about building political alliance, not about naive and spontaneous friendship on the basis that we are all oppressed.
It is true that we want to destroy the notion of politics as we know it today – where power means domination – but it is also true that our starting point is not utopia, but politics with all the poison, all the structural, personal-political problems that this society so deeply rooted in each one of us.
It is undoubtedly easier to approach and be approached in terms of political organization by affinity or friendship. It seems clear to me that people are unlikely to join long-term projects – such as social movements or political parties – if they don’t feel admiration or have a friendly reference of one or more people who are engaged in them. However, friendship is not a prerequisite for organizing: it’s a consequence.
Making politics quite often requires us to deal with people we don’t like. These people can be women. It requires us to interact and work with people who might be, in our terms, criticizable or with whom we never imagined having any friendship. We often self-censor or try to measure our legitimate doubts and criticisms for fear of “hurting feelings”, when it is not about feelings at all, but about complex decisions or agenda for a project that we build with our life, our time, our mind and our hands – and a project that will probably be passed onto the next generation of women.
In the Lisbon Feminist Assembly some women left the collective because they alleged we were not “taking care” of each other when we discussed the imbalance in assuming and carrying out different tasks: “We are oppressed on the outside, I’m not coming to a feminist gathering to be oppressed in here too.” This happened in the 8M Network too, where discussions were silenced to avoid “disagreements” and “ruptures” amongst women: “We should focus on what we have in common, not on our differences.” Needless to say that “our differences” were key-topics in the feminist analysis, like prostitution, pornography, and gender. Though a strike is not about friendship, but about politics, we were invited to be silent to avoid “disagreements” and not to hurt feelings. How can we build a women’s liberation movement like this?
Politics is not a bed of roses, but nor is it a bed of spikes; politics also builds friendships. To quote Chilean feminist Edda Gaviola,
“Political complicity is the most difficult to build. I am convinced that, in order to do this, it is necessary to have common projects, to think together and to deeply recognize each other, in their knowledge and authorship, in order to achieve reciprocal learning. But also starting from a network of common ideas, a critical and shared analysis of the reality and the historical experience of women, capable of flowing and transcending in the act that goes from the personal to the political.”
Throughout the construction of the collective and the movement, some women distance themselves, some women leave to never return, some leave and then return, some go away without saying a thing, or they’ll say something and then disappear. And this happens for a number of reasons: lack of time, lack of motivation, going through a hard time, too much work, or they simply feel the group is no longer where they want to be. It’s normal. Distancing happens.
As the ultimate goal of feminism is not easy to accomplish and is unlikely to be achieved in our lifetime, physical or mental exhaustion can be a familiar and recurrent problem that comes and goes. It is common for any woman to feel the need to “take a break” from activism for a while to compose herself and then return with renewed strength. This can happen during or after very demanding campaigns, for instance after a year dedicated to building a large strike.
This break does not necessarily mean that the collective is fruitless or that the movement is not viable. Sometimes people who idealized the activism or the group in a certain way find reality did not coincide with the expectation or someone was not in the “right moment” to dedicate themselves to such a journey. Other distancing may happen due to disagreements or for reasons completely unrelated to the women in the group.
Since distancing happens, it is important to evaluate each instance in order to try to understand the cause and the impact of that loss on the group. It may be an impact of breaking cohesion, a climate of distrust or demotivation that requires a reduction in external efforts and directing the group’s efforts to internal reinforcement. It may be the loss of a member who holds important responsibilities which causes a breakdown of processes that needs to be redistributed.
Regardless of the situation, it is important to periodically take stock
of the entries and exits of members of the group. This can give an overview of
what has been working and possible gaps that need to be narrowed in order for
the group to be more politically efficient. Without internal cohesion and
coherence, it is impossible to act successfully externally
“Tidying up the house” is always the first and most important step. The alignment or thinning of the members will come over time. But until then, we need to understand what attracts people to the movement and what drives them away.
PROBLEMS OF HORIZONTAL ORGANIZATION
Because we are born and raised in a hierarchical society, from our homes to our workspaces and our educational institutions, reproducing it within our feminist groups is the most obvious scenario, even when horizontal organization is a principle of our collective.
There are three situations in which this is most noticeably broken: tasks distribution, decision making, and membership and adhesion.
Tasks distribution is perhaps one of the most common (and flagrant) example. It normally goes like this: women present ideas/proposals for an activity; the same women won’t take responsibility for doing it (or when they do so, they don’t show up). This delegates the task to other women – not by common agreement, but from necessity to carry out what was agreed upon.
Brainstorming ideas is clearly easier than executing them. The outcome is a vicious dynamic in which there are more women proposing than hands to execute – and we know human resources are the Achilles’ heel in social movements. Thus, the task gets delegated, voluntarily or involuntarily, to other women of the collective, which ends up looking much closer to a hierarchy than the election of leaders.
There are also administrative activities. Sometimes a woman performs tasks with no turnover amongst members (such as writing minutes, organizing meetings, managing new members) when, in fact, the group never decided that she should do so to begin with.
Since feminist collectives tend to be composed of few people, it is common to use consensus as the preferred path for decision-making, keeping voting as a second option. However, consensus decision-making can create the false impression of horizontality while mutual agreement hides these inequalities.
Some of the problems with consensus are:
• Although there is a political alignment among members, it’s more likely that each of the women in the group is at a different stage of political awareness/consciousness, which impacts how they articulate, perceive and analyze whatever is being discussed.
• There will always be some women who are more eloquent and articulate, and some women who are more reserved and less talkative; the obvious result is that often the strongest or most repeated (not necessarily the better) opinion tends to prevail;
• Illusions of unanimity lead members to believe that everyone agrees and feels the same way;
• Self-censorship causes those who have doubts to hide their fears and disagreements, while the direct pressure to conform and adhere to the group’s “consensus” is placed on those who ask questions and take notes.
As for membership/adhesion, women’s groups are usually created in one of two ways: Either a number of members come together and create a “closed” collective which is not always actively recruiting new members, or a number of women start a group which is “open” for everyone where people go in and out until a stable nucleus eventually settles down.
There is this illusion that an absolutely open group is the very essence of horizontality, because the collective is seen as “equal” or “for everyone”. The obvious problem is that it creates a lack of control over what is said and/or done on behalf of the collective. Any woman who has ever participated can claim to be a member and speak in the name of others – even if her speech shows a clear political misalignment with the group’s principles (of course, the less the involvement and time of participation in the collective, the greater the dissonance and misalignment).
In the early life the Lisbon Feminist Assembly, we had women who were themselves members of socialist parties (MAS – Movimento Alternativa Socialista, and ER – Esquerda Revolucionária). They accounted for half of the collective. Indeed, they were the ones who suggested that we found a collective, very organically, after we had jumped from group to group in Lisbon but weren’t welcome anywhere (mostly because those groups belonged – though they didn’t say so openly – to this or that party, and our friends were from a different party, so the others didn’t want them there “disturbing the order”).
Our members who were part of political parties were constantly insisting that all our meetings be open to everyone, women and men. Everyone should be able to come and participate. We had days managing full assemblies with 30 women (although we didn’t forbid access to men, they never came anyway). However, those women contending that meetings should be for everyone wouldn’t assume responsibility for carrying out all the tasks that resulted from open meetings with 25 or 30 women (who sometimes were just curious, checking out what was going on).
We soon learned that it didn’t matter if we had five or 50 women in the meetings, it would always be the same old group of three to five women who would ended up buried in tasks to their necks. One of our members, Gema, a Spanish woman, proposed a “godmothering system” where each militant would welcome and guide another newcomer. That’s because there are many Spanish women in Lisbon and when they wanted to approach our collective, they invariably looked for Gema, and she was tired of doing the work alone. Gema was accused of proposing something similar to sexist college hazing, a paternalistic and condescending hierarchy to welcome new members. It was rejected. But in practice, since no one accepted responsibility to share the task (“not to be patronizing”), she was the one who had to handle the workload alone.
Our “comrades” from MAS left the collective two years later as the contradictions amongst us were growing wild. Their justification for leaving was that our collective “was taken over by radical feminists”. A few years later, we found out that they were there by orders of their political party, which needed an “arm” to act within the feminist movement. That’s also why they pushed for the assemblies to be wide open; the collective was never intended to be more than an entry door, a recruiting pool for the party. They (the women) never talked frankly and openly with us about it – they couldn’t do so. They probably knew it wouldn’t be well-accepted and would create problems, especially with our anarchist members. They were patronizing us; women in our collective felt they were been used.
Long story short: horizontality can only exist when there is a sharing of responsibilities and duties.
WE CAN’T RECRUIT ALL WOMEN
A cohesive, active and functional group of five is better than a group of 15 women that is unable to make decisions and execute tasks. Usually, the larger the group, the more difficult and exhausting it becomes to keep it active for long periods.
Radical feminism refuted the possibility of individual liberation, personal empowerment, and consistently pointed out that only the political and organized struggle of women can effectively bring structural changes. However, it is not rare that this thinking somehow leads to the false perception that we must – or even that we can – recruit all women. This couldn’t be more wrong.
It is counterproductive, and I would even say impossible, to organize a woman who lacks class-consciousness as a woman. A woman who does not see herself as discriminated against won’t see why to join a political struggle either. On the other hand, because women are primarily responsible for the burden of ensuring care in domestic and reproductive work, imprisoned in compulsory motherhood and in the most precarious jobs, it is also common to find women who do not have the time or mental and physical disposition to politically organize, no matter how much they themselves want it.
It is in our best interest to raise awareness and organize as many women as possible, especially women who are closer to the muddy-ground than to the glass-ceiling. But we are not necessarily interested in organizing every woman into our own collective. It is up to us, as movement organizers, to create and offer alternatives where more women can organize themselves and especially to train more and more women to become organizers themselves. This is the so-called “grassroots work.”
I experienced another type of recruitment error. Though it’s mainly composed of women who already participate in other feminist groups and organizations, another collective of which I’m a member, Geração Abolição Portugal (Generation Abolition Portugal – GAPt) was formed to lobby around the themes of prostitution, pornography, womb renting, and to campaign for the so-called “Nordic Model” in Portugal. After a series of training on abolitionism led by the European Women’s Lobby, I and other women took the opportunity to engage those young participants and mobilize them around that issue.
In our first year, we had around 25 members from all over the country. Some of us knew each other before, some were friends and/or from the same city. Three of our members were also members of the Portuguese Communist Party (PCP). After a national meeting where one of the points was about our participation in two marches that would take place on International Women’s Day (one of which was organized by the women’s sector of the PCP, which two of them were part of), we received a letter signed by our PCP friends, saying that they didn’t agree with the decisions made during the national assembly. Although they had been in the meeting, participated and voted, they now asked the whole group meet again and review decisions we had made together.
This was not the first time they asked to review decisions that were discussed and voted in meetings in which they participated then later demanded that we meet again to evaluate their wishes and requests. Some members accused them of boycotting collective decisions. They accused us of “not privileging” a connection with the women’s section of the PCP as the oldest abolitionist movement in Portugal. When they left, they took with them all recruits with whom they had cultivated friendship. This was an example of herd behavior based not on political reasoning but friendship.
Who are the women we want to recruit? We want to recruit women who can be multipliers of the liberation movement. If our collective participates in activities of other movements (say, the black movement, indigenous people’s movement, trade unions), is it more strategic to try to recruit all the women from the “other” movement and bringing them into our collective. Alternatively, we can recruit *the* woman or women with greater/some influence within that movement, so that she can take the feminist agenda with her to these other spaces where she already is – spaces that we and our collective may not have access to.
Another way to recruit is to keep close those who are already close – in
other words, women who are orbiting around the collective, who attend its
activities, who appear in debates, films and demonstrations, but may not
directly ask to organize themselves within the collective. These are women who
have a vested interest in becoming aware and politicized
– and who will
make this journey at least partially through attending our activities. In
theory, it takes less effort to recruit them than to recruit an unknown woman
outside the range of the collective.
There is a constant guilt in feminist groups, which is always brought up, for “not reaching those women” – even if the group itself is entirely composed of working women, young mothers, not young students. “Those women” are imagined as middle-aged housewives, mothers, grandmothers, workers, generally as belonging to racialized groups – black, indigenous, etc. The weight of guilt, pressure and the feeling of responsibility to recruit these women regardless of their politics – which emerged from the idealization that they are the natural leaders of a feminist revolution – can often neutralize the activity of a collective or even put an end to the group before it actually begins to work.
We can’t, we won’t, and we don’t want to recruit all women. We want to recruit those who will help us to multiply our reach, to spread our agenda and who are politically aligned with us to carry out the activities. We recruit whoever we can, whoever we are able to. And, having set our group, we will try to reach and raise consciousness of as many women as possible.
POLITICAL COLLECTIVES ARE NOT SERVICE ORGANIZATIONS
“The character of any organization is naturally and inevitably determined by the content of its activity.” — Vladimir I. Lenin (1901)
Some months ago, I held the first meeting to create a new feminist collective in Braga, a small city in the north of Portugal. Two other women joined me. Neither had ever been in a feminist group before, and one had never been in a political group of any sort. I had long expected to organize a collective in the town, but never had success. The city is small, very conservative and the few activist women were organized in political parties with liberal views on feminism. I began by asking what they expected from a feminist collective, what they were missing, what they need and wanted to do in a political group. One, who had been studying radical feminism for a few months (and had recently woken up in the prostitution debate – abolition vs. regulation), answered that she wanted to approach prostituted women in the street, she wanted to help them, to reach them – and asked me how we could do that. I myself was thinking about debates, marchs, campaigns, raising awareness, working with parties and unions, working with other feminist groups to build a mass movement…
The purpose of a feminist collective is not, from my perspective, to provide services or provide a little relief for the oppression that women experience in their daily lives.
Many young women who have recently become aware of the real dimension of oppression – how women are affected by the lack of day care centers, the lack of sex education, the lack of contraceptives, violence, rape and prostitution, etc. etc. – may feel compelled to create assistance groups or services to “help” women. That is not the role of feminist groups.
I’m not saying that it cannot be done or cannot possibly be part of the group’s actions now and then. However, assistance is palliative, an immediate help that does not transform reality – it just softens the blow. As Carlos Marighella said, “The goal of revolutionary groups is to make the revolution” – not to heal the wound made by this male-dominated capitalist system.
The old question “reform vs revolution” can certainly be raised here. Many groups get lost in “single issues struggles” or in reformism, losing sight of their goal: the complete transformation of the male-dominated society. It is impossible to achieve women’s liberation through a series of reforms, brick by brick (Here I highly recommend Brooke Williams’ “The Retreat to Cultural Feminism” in the book Feminist Revolution by Redstockings, 1975)
Change from within” is not an option since laws and “rights” are an abstract social agreement, a pact of this historic moment and it can be revoked or modified to meet the needs of the status quo. Abortion is a good example, certainly an achievement that still needs to be accomplished in several countries (my home country Brazil being one of them). However, abortion has been banned and legalized in different political situations and historical moments according to the needs for a labor force, even within the same country.
Still, we can’t immediately dismiss the importance of reforms in feminist struggles. The subordinate condition of women in the male-dominated social hierarchy is always an obstacle to the revolution because, as a rule, it takes from women the quality of being political subjects and transforms us into the objects of history. Reforms as a path to a certain level of emancipation and a dignified life can help to rescue a sense of political subject in women. They can mean changes in consciousness that the struggle demands.
“[R]evolutionary Marxism, too, fights to improve the workers’ situation within capitalist society. But in contrast to revisionism, it is interested far more in how the fight is conducted than in the immediate objectives. To Marxism the matter of the moment in the trade-union and political struggle is the development of the subjective factors of the working class revolution, the promotion of revolutionary class consciousness. The blunt statement of reform against revolution is a false statement of the question; these oppositions must be given their proper place in the whole of the social process. We must avoid losing sight of the final goals, the proletarian revolution, through the struggle for everyday demands.” — Paul Mattick, “Luxembourg versus Lenin” (1935).
WHAT IS TO BE DONE?
Throughout my (ongoing) journey in feminism, I’ve seen two configurations of women’s groups: a) “feminist” collectives formed by left-wing parties to mobilize women, to recruit them and to set the political line within the movement; b) autonomous feminist collectives formed by small numbers of women.
As a rule, that first formation fails because its objective is not to advance the women’s liberation agenda, but rather to recruit women for the political party. Therefore, it cannot offer a solution and neither can it be considered feminist. It fails to address the problems of male domination because, acting in the interest of a mixed organization – almost always male-dominated– it can’t name the oppressor without being accused of “divisiveness.” Its analysis of women’s oppression becomes inefficient and obscure, blaming a “system.” This abstraction is difficult to visualize in the daily reality of women, and the party offers only the mirage of a future revolution as a solution for the problems we are living now.
The second type, autonomous collectives, often fail due to the lack of experience of its members. Regarding the collective as an end in itself, instead of a means to power is a common error. When a collective becomes independent of everything and everyone it is unable to offer long-term solutions to women. Naturally, its reach and ability for action are limited by the human resources available. Feminist collectives have limited political influence also because they rarely have any supportive national or international communication.
Sometimes this model of an autonomous collective seems only an echo of the original developed by the Women’s Liberation Movement that emerged mainly from Europe and North America. Especially in countries of South America and Africa the problem lies in having imported an idea without framing it in its own political, historical and cultural context. An idea, therefore, displaced and misrepresented.
The Women’s Liberation Movement started at a particular time, in the earlier days of the solidification of the neoliberal globalization project, during the imperialist wars (such as the war on Vietnam, the offensive against several countries in the Middle East and in Africa, not to mention dictatorships in Latin America supported by imperialist powers, specifically the United States), while movements were struggling for civil rights, for a welfare state, etc. This is no longer our context.
Our current context is a society swallowed by neoliberal globalization, drowning in its evident contradictions, as we can see in the ever-growing “refugee crisis”, imperialist occupations and the indigestible “humanitarian aid” market. A context in which male, imperialist and capitalist domination is global requires an internationalist movement, joined in a political and action-oriented network, with local roots and global reach.
Feminist collectives need, for once, to drop the illusion of the women’s group as an end in itself. We need to articulate what we are: spaces where women get together to plan, debate, set our agenda and strategy. When the agenda is defined, it is not within the collective that we take action: it is “out there”, in parties, unions, in different organizations. Influencing power structures and, simultaneously, raising consciousness.
It is high time for feminist movements to join forces, starting with the collective confederation on a national front and, later, expanding that horizon to internationalist fronts. How can we claim a collectivist struggle if our countless collectives continue to act isolated?
Acting isolated generates several weaknesses that contribute to the dissolution of the collectives themselves and, consequently, the ability to make feminism a massive and revolutionary movement. Some of the weaknesses of an isolated collective are that it:
• is an easy target for backlashes that can dismantle it.
• has little or no influence over political decision-making at national and sometimes even local levels.
• more easily contradicts the decisions of other collectives due to the lack of alignment that arises from communication between groups of women. This means that when an isolated collective fails, the whole movement takes the blame.
Organizing a feminist mass movement which intends to be effective and revolutionary is the task of our times. Women in the ’60s and ’70s have opened the way and prepared the ground: they gave us theory, experience, legacy. We can’t and don’t want to “re-create” that moment. Indeed we do need to carry on the work that has been started: the unfinished women’s revolution.
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Related Reading: A brief history of the Women Liberation Movement in Portugal is available here.