“Si la mujer no está, la democracia no va”: The Impact of Gender Stereotypes on Chilean Women during the 1988 Plebiscite
In a nutshell, what is your research topic?
The presentation, role and participation of Chilean women during the 1988 Chilean political referendum.
How did you come to your research topic?
I was in a class entitled ‘“Where Memory Dwells’: The Memory Debate within Contemporary Latin America” in which we discussed memory in Latin American countries after traumatic, violent periods, especially dictatorships during the 1970s and 1980s. I was interested in learning more about these periods and was specifically intrigued by the events in Chile, in which the country held a public referendum democratically voted out General Augusto Pinochet 16 years after he took power via a bloody coup. I had read about Chilean women, mostly housewives, protesting the regime and fighting to find loved ones disappeared by the dictatorship and was interested to see if this desire to fight back appeared in political materials during the referendum in 1988. As I researched and engaged with primary sources, I was able to narrow down my scope to how women were presented in political propaganda, how they participated in formal and informal political spaces, and what role they played overall leading up to the vote.
Where do you see the future direction of this work leading?
How might future researchers build on your work, or what is left to discover in this field? In terms of future exploration I am currently working on an extension of this project after noticing similarities between how Donald Trump used political propaganda in 2020 to appeal to his base and what Augusto Pinochet did in 1988. I applied for and received another grant from OUR to examine this question and am currently working on this project, specifically focusing comparing the authoritarian rhetoric used by both men in their reelection bids in order to appeal to their conservative, female supporters. I’m hoping this research will illuminate some of the authoritarian, divisive tactics used by Donald Trump and explore similarities and differences in how female political responses, especially in conservative learning female voters, appear in Chile and America. I am also exploring how media can be manipulated in order to appeal to specific female stereotypes regarding safety, family and future security, and there is plenty of work to explore how various political leaders incorporate such stereotypes in their own political messaging.
Where are you heading to after graduation?
I am planning to take a gap year and then apply to law school, hopefully to focus on international law and politics and human rights law.
I argue that gender roles derived from the Latin American and Chilean societal expectation of marianismo, the idea that women should be morally pure and submissive to patriarchal figures, influenced both the opposition coalition (referred to as the NO in this text) and the military regime (referred to as the SI) to repeat certain gender stereotypes when presenting and appealing to women in their advertising campaigns for the 1988 plebiscite. I also argue that the existence of such gendered expectations impacted how the women’s groups, which were formed during this period, participated in the lead up to the plebiscite and how such participation was viewed by the political actors of the era. In physical campaign materials, women were often presented as women and mothers first, rather than individuals. Additionally, regardless of their political leanings, women were perceived as an important voter bloc that could be persuaded by appeals to the future and care of the family given their prescribed role as mothers. This argument is supported by analyzing archived primary documents from this time, qualitatively coding each for repeating themes, and then examining how traditional gender roles present in these themes dictated the participation and presentation of such groups during the lead up to the 1988 vote.
One way the impact of gender roles can be seen in this plebiscite is by examining the specific ways in which Chilean women included themselves or were excluded from political participation. Sources from the time period highlight how in the lead up to the plebiscite, Chilean women participated politically mostly in collectives and in more formal manners of political action, even though established gender roles and policies from the regime limited how women were able to participate in political parties. Political parties were reinstated around 1983, yet women were still not encouraged to join. Consequently, they focused on their own action groups instead. This shift to formal involvement outside party membership gave rise to women’s more frequent participation in protests, voter registration drives, and voting on the day of the referendum. The active collectives were often groups that had existed years before the plebiscite. Namely, these were support groups for women who had been adversely affected by the politics of the Pinochet regime and who needed economic and social easement in addition to groups pushing for advances in women’s rights. Women who were more aligned with Pinochet and the right-leaning political parties had their own action groups that were more keyed into counter protests against women’s groups rather than economic or social support. Most female groups that had formed during the dictatorship, regardless of ideology, shifted their attention toward the looming vote; it was fairly common for these groups to loosely associate with either the coalitions for the SI and NO depending on their alignment.
As presented by the photo archives in this research, attending protests was one of the more documented forms of women’s political participation during this time. Photos of demonstrations captured a number of scenes, such as depictions of women standing in a sea of faces and specific women’s groups placed front and center at a protest. One particular archived photo from 1988 shows a group of female nurses in Santiago park holding a sign that says “for the NO,” demonstrating how specific groups would align with the coalition they supported.2 Additionally, some anti-dictatorship women’s groups would attend these protests to continue placing pressure on the regime and to find out what had happened to their detained and disappeared loved ones. A photo from the group “Mujeres por la Vida” depicts a woman holding up a sign with an outline of a human figure that reads, “I am a victim of the dictatorship. They tortured me, they raped me, they kidnapped me, did you forget about me?”3 Another woman photographed at a NO march wore a headband that read “NO,” holding a photo of a man captioned “Where are they?”4These documented forms of protest demonstrate the varied reasons women protested, yet collectives often had a larger stake in showing up and fighting for justice, especially when human rights were involved.
Women on the political right were also more formally active, attending SI rallies and conceiving methods of silencing those on the left. Given that most women tended to vote more conservatively, the SI camps actively encouraged women to support the regime and foster nationalism. One anti-communist pamphlet not associated with any political group encouraged folks to drown out the noises of anti-dictatorship protests by listening to the radio and “[turning] up the volume, so that your whole neighborhood can listen to those free chileans.”5Conservative groups were less likely to fight for issues related to women’s equality and equal political participation, given the discourse and stereotypes reinforced by the regime. Pinochet himself gave a speech in which he outlined that the female mission as women and mothers was to serve a moderating societal role, contributing work that “corresponds” to them (i.e. child rearing). He also explained that a woman’s “authentic participation” must “be exercised in relation to her characteristics.”6 The regime courted women in the absence of political structures to legitimize itself, to appeal to women as moderators and child-rearers only in efforts to reinforce the patriarchal structure the regime was attempting to cultivate within the country.7This is mainly why conservative women were not active in political parties or women’s groups that were as politically involved as those in the NO—the government continued appealing to stereotypes of marianismo and relegating women to their prescribed role in domestic spheres rather than including them in their parties.
Voting on the day of the plebiscite was one of the most important forms of formal political participation in which women could partake, and over 3.6 million did. In fact, women constituted 51% of all registered voters for this election.8 Lines at the gender-segregated voting booths spread multiple blocks, with folks waiting hours to cast their ballot. As an article from the magazine Solidaridad described, “even with the stifling sun and the line, women waited patiently in the middle of jokes and the occasional complaint about the lengths of the process. Their decision to vote was much stronger.”9 One smiling mother, leaving the voting booth with her daughter, used the collective when describing to the reporter how it felt to vote that day as a woman: “We have achieved another level as citizens, well, before, we were very apathetic, very restricted. In contrast, now, we have the drive, the energy to participate.”10 Alicia Blake’s testimony about that day echoes these feelings of hope and excitement: “I entered the secret chamber…and I remembered [Ricardo] Lagos and [Patricio] Aylwin, and my son, who repeated to me every day ‘without hate, without violence, without fear,’ and there I drew the most important line of my life.”11 The reference to Lagos and Aylwin in Blake’s testimony is from the NO television campaigns, where prominent oppositional political figures worked to ensure that Chileans from all walks of life felt safe and secure in their vote. Blake’s testimony reveals that she was comforted by these television spots and felt empowered to vote for herself, sentiments that were echoed by other women’s descriptions of the experience.
Before the election, “polls suggested that a majority of women would support the SI. Pinochet probably believed he would win the majority of women’s votes because a majority of women had always voted against the Left.”12 According to final vote tallies, 52.2% of women voted for NO, compared to almost 60% of men. As alluded to in the quotation above, more women than men voted for the SI, with only 40% of men voting in favor of the regime, compared to 47% of all women.13 The conservative women’s vote that Pinochet had hoped for was strong, yet it was ultimately not the determining factor. In fact, during the 1970 election, 68% of women voted against left-leaning Salvador Allende, meaning that 16% of women in the 1988 plebiscite who voted NO had previously voted more conservatively. This swing 16% was crucial in the NO victory, so women had a significant impact on the result of the election. Moreover, as reflected in the personal statements, voting gave many women a sense of empowerment, a feeling that their vote truly could make a difference. After 15 years of experiencing marginalization, women finally had the opportunity to express themselves politically regardless of their affiliation, and this power did not go to waste.
Another way gender stereotypes and politics intertwined during this period is evident in how women were physically represented in the campaigns. In primary documents cited for this analysis, the physical representation of women focused mostly on superficial traits such as physical appearance or the generalization of women as mothers. This narrow focus worked to appeal to the “common” women seeing themselves in the advertisements, to the hopes of those who wanted the idyllic, beautiful future promised by the NO campaign, and to women who wanted to secure safety for their children via the SI campaign. Though each campaign took a different approach, gender stereotypes associating the female ideal with domesticity constituted a common theme throughout the campaign process.
The NO campaign presented more women in their video spots, instead of in specific, female-targeted pamphlets or posters. In general, the NO campaign franjas have been hailed as impressive achievements in advertising, packaging democracy as a sellable product with catchy jingles and attention-grabbing, humorous shorts.14> The video franjas, namely the music video for “La alegria ya viene” (the main song of the campaign, “Happiness is Coming”), featured a variety of Chileans in a variety of everyday situations. According to one of the campaign’s creators, “given the predominance of discursive and rhetorical messages coming from the ruling leadership, it was essential that the sources of information and the actors of the events were the ordinary people, the citizen, the man, the woman or the youth of the popular sectors … whose opinions have never been taken into account by TV.”15 In this presentation, however, like most advertisements, the campaign ensured that those chosen were still physically attractive and representative of the idyllic future they were trying to sell. David Hojman describes how women were physically presented in the NO campaigns as follows:
In the NO ads, women were never portrayed as they usually are in soap powder ads, in traditional female roles, as dutiful mothers and housewives. The NO program makers seemed to be working on the assumption that Chilean women, at least in the key audience groups they wanted to address, hated to be cast into conventional gender stereotypes.16
Though Hojman cites a variety of skits and videos from the month-long franja campaign, all are consistent with the assumption that Chilean women did not want to be simply boxed in as stereotypical housewives. This point in the campaign ads is subtle and not expressly stated, yet the shot variety and repetition continually reinforces these messages of female empowerment and autonomy for the viewer.
However, one Chilean newspaper article reviewing the first few franjas noted that the NO spots included “near perfect frames, blonde and brown faces mixed with a specific attractiveness (that differed from the series of dazed women that were marching…in part of the Sí program”).17 In the writer’s view, the intentional attractiveness of those in the spot does not go unnoticed, especially in contrast to those in the SI. Similarly, a poster that is unaffiliated with a group other than being positive toward the NO continues this objectivization of women. The poster contains various cartoon drawings of a scene with situations all involving the word “no.” The drawing in the forefront of this scene is a group of men following behind a cartoon woman (one man is even drooling while staring at her behind). The woman has a “no” sticker on her breast and is waving her finger, a speech bubble declaring “NO” is drawn out of her mouth.18 It is suggested she is telling the men off for ogling at her. Here, the objectiviation of this woman is used for humor, as a caricature of situations in which someone would say no. This cartoon woman has no other purpose than just being a conventionally attractive object. The surface level focus in these documents is an example of how women are often described solely by their physical appearance rather than their contributions, as objects for men to critique and admire.
Overall, the video franjas of the NO campaign presented women through traditional advertising techniques such as celebrity appearances, showcasing traditionally attractive, “everyday” women, and highlighting certain groups who had been affected by the traumas of the dictatorship in order to appeal to a wide range of Chileans. Having women presented not just as mothers but simply Chilean citizens is how the NO campaign moved away from reinforcing gender stereotypes put in place by the regime and toward a more inclusive future, even if some spots relayed traditional conventions of beauty and male objectification.
The SI campaign’s presentation of women in both their franjas and other propaganda materials revolved around the idea that women are solely mothers in treating them as a bloc that only cared about family issues. In one campaign poster, photos of Pinochet with adoring women and children are placed around text declaring, “Women say YES, yes to the future, yes to the family, yes to progress, yes to Pinochet, yes to peace, yes to Chile.”19 Another SI poster has photos of a family (mother, father and six children) above the caption “Chile begins in YOUR family” surrounded by a border of the SI logo and the phrase “Yes to your family, to your Chile.”20 These photographs group women into one collective that seemingly only cares about family issues, insinuating Pinochet is a true defender of the family. The phrase “Chile begins in your family” in the second poster also presents women as the first line of naturalization for Chilean children—a good Chilean mother will raise their children to respect and love their country, and by extension the Pinochet regime.
Outside of posters, the SI franjas include women in a few of their spots as well, though not at the level and representation of the NO franjas. The spot that aired on Sept. 29 is a strong example of two ways in which the franjas physically presented women. The ads begin with what appears to be a reporter interviewing folks at a pro-SI rally, asking them who will win the plebiscite. More women than men are shown in these interviews, spanning various ages, and all expressing confidence in a SI victory. Mixed in with these public questions are staged interviews of women declaring their support for SI. In one, the scene opens with a woman stirring something in a pot. She then looks up, notices the cameras, and introduces herself as a housewife, “as you all can see.”21 Her on-camera presence is not as strong as an accomplished actor would be, yet she still delivers her message that life with Pinochet is considerably better than with Salvador Allende, since now she does not have to wait in long lines just to buy bread and other necessities. A shopkeeper in another interview also reflects on the long lines under Allende to purchase simple products, and wants things to stay the way they are, because “how we are is fantastic.”22 These women as housewives, shopkeepers, and excited citizens interviewed publicly are presented as a reminder for all watching that Pinochet is the right choice for Chile, insinuating a vote for NO would be a return to hardships. The women formally interviewed put it more explicitly: Pinochet saved a disintegrating Chile from Allende, and now the country is better than ever. Here, the regime connects NO with governments of the past, using the presence of these women as physical reminders of life under Allende. Women are presented not as ordinary citizens, but as mothers and providers who defend their household and support Pinochet given he makes this task safer and easier for them to carry out. They also represented the tradition of Chilean women voting more conservatively when presenting women who were decidedly anti-Allende and were affected by his presidency. This selective presentation reiterates stereotypes of women as obedient, morally pure, and champions for an idealistic, non-radicalized future as propagated by marianismo and the discourse of the Pinochet regime.
The intentional targeting of women by the advertisements and campaign materials from both the SI and NO campaigns is yet another way gender roles played a part in this vote. The materials used by the two campaigns had different overall aims and structures; however, both strongly appealed to women as mothers by emphasizing what each campaign could do for the future of Chile and the future of the family. The idea of presenting women solely as mothers and caretakers is now taken a step further with campaigns and political groups explicitly appealing to what marianismo claims women should care about: the security and well-being of their families above all else.
One of the main tactics of the SI campaign was to present fear and reminders of the past, such as product scarcity under Allende and lack of child care resources, to convince voters that Pinochet was the secure choice for a better future. They often falsely painted the NO campaign, communists, and other far-left groups as extremely dangerous and violent individuals. This fear mongering was then used to communicate to women, the saintly protectors of the home and family, that they must vote for Pinochet and save their families from disintegration. The SI campaign also presented some of the positive things Pinochet had done for the family as reasons to continue supporting his regime. One poster with a drawing of a smiling woman wearing a SI button and holding her thumb up contains the text, “And what is happening today? Numerous open centers and day care centers exist to care for, nurture and educate your children while you work. For these reasons, vote YES.”23 Another pamphlet drawing features an armed soldier in the foreground with a family standing in the background next to a house and Chilean flag. The caption of the page says, “Thanks to the armed forces for caring for the future of our children.”24 Even a simple matchbox is adorned with a message from the SI campaign that claims, “We have always wanted Chilean families to have continually better health, better housing, better well being.”25This phrase on the matchbox explicitly connects the government to the family, insinuating that Pinochet’s patriarchal government structure has always cared for the health and best interests of Chile’s families. These examples demonstrate how the SI collective relied on fear and their continued relegation of women to domestic roles in order to court their vote, claiming this regime was the only way to protect Chile’s families and prevent a return to chaos.
This tactic of appealing to female voters by referencing families and family safety is found in the television franjas as well. One spot starts with a sleeping baby and a voice-over explaining to the child that “this country is yours,” and it is the adult’s job to protect the child so they “will grow up in peace” with Chile at their side. In the same franja, an unnamed female reporter in a conversation about how children need peace and security to grow up and thrive notes that “the triumph of a child is the best recompensation for a mother. The failure, an immense pain.”26 SI seems to be appealing to mothers and the need to protect the future, but also putting mothers in a box, implying that their most important role is to raise a successful child. The SI propaganda suggests that this is something that is only possible with the current government, and not, as the same female reporter claims, in reference to the NO coalition, “an uncertain future.”27
The NO campaign and other female-organized opposition groups also used rhetoric about a better future in an effort to appeal to women and mothers. One pamphlet for the NO addressed workers, young folks, and women specifically. In the section targeting women, the text reads, “Women we call you to say NO to the increases and high prices, NO to hunger, to alchoholism, to child prostitution. Chilean women: Say NO, Vote NO, Defend the NO. For the right to health, education, family security, and women’s rights.”28 This call out simultaneously champions women’s rights and addresses issues of family security, appealing to the more “feminist” in the ranks and those who are in control of their family’s well-being. Another pamphlet calls out women directly as well, addressing some of the stereotypes used by the regime’s advertising:
There are those who believe that because we are women they can convince us anything. Today, a man that has spent 15 years in power asks us for our vote. He promises peace, progress and tranquility. Can we believe him? Us women know to say things by their name. Under this government in Chile today there are 600,000 unemployed. Drug addiction and crime are on the rise…Us women go to work and we do not have nurseries to leave our children. We want to live in peace, in a happy country without violence, where there is work and tranquility. We want a country where our children have opportunities to develop. This is why we will vote NO.29
This piece is noteworthy because it specifically counters the regime’s reliance on what they believe to be the obedience and naivete of Chilean women. The targeted audience of this pamphlet is being appealed to with facts and logic rather than by relying solely on the emotional appeals cited as Pinochet’s tactics. That being said, the end of the piece reverts back to reminding women that they want a safe, peaceful world for their children to grow up in, which is the same promise the SI campaign makes to their female audience. This demonstrates that no matter the ways in which the appeal was made, the apparent end goal for many politically-involved women was a better future for their children. These ads call out women explicitly, using numbers and statistics to justify the need for change rather than fear and emotion. The NO offers the same promises for a better future as the SI but addresses the failures of the current government as well, telling women not to be naive and to look at those around them when making judgements.
In summary, when examining primary sources regarding how Chilean women participated both formally and informally in the plebiscite of 1988, how they were physically presented in the campaigns for both sides, and how the SI and NO coalitions specifically targeted women in their political materials, the influence of specific gender roles can be seen in a variety of different ways. First, the existence of political materials from women-only action groups highlight how the opportunities afforded to women in regards to political participation often did not involve political party affiliation. This is due to the entrenched expectation that parties were male-only spaces and women should exercise citizenship in more domestic ways. Sources related to the voting process detail how women who aligned with the opposition participated in voter registration drives in and outside of these action groups, a role that challenged the idea that female participation was not meant to be active and formal. In arguably the most impactful form of political participation, women from all factions of the Chilean political spectrum cast their ballots on election day, with 47% of women voting for SI and 52% voting for NO. The expectation going into the vote was that women would vote more conservatively, given past trends and the perception that women aligned themselves with the strict morals and patriarchal expectations set by the regime, though this turned out not to be the case. The physical representation of women in the NO campaign aimed to present women as active citizens from all walks of life, yet would intentionally feature physically attractive women and therefore reinforce stereotypes regarding traditional expectations of beauty. For the SI campaign, women were presented often solely as mothers and wives, given that was how the regime had viewed and treated women under their patriarchal government structure. Finally, those aligned with the NO campaign appealed directly to women by speaking to their power to change the current way of life while acknowledging the exaggerations and lies of the dictatorship. This approach empowered women as political actors rather than keeping them on the sidelines, contrasting stereotypes of female fragility. The SI campaign relied on fear-based propaganda when directly addressing women, claiming that the current regime was the only way to protect their family and prevent a return to chaos and degradation of morals. Appealing to women in this way was directly perpetuated by marianismo ideals, namely that women should be the moral guardians of society and only focus on caring for their families. Overall, the presence of gender roles and specific stereotypes reveals that the political participation of Chilean women during this intense moment in the history of Chilean democracy was constantly gendered, and women were often not seen as intentional, formal political actors, though their impact on the final vote was crucial in securing a NO victory.
1. John L. Rector, “Women’s Suffrage in Chile,” OHRH, February 16, 2018, https://ohrh.law.ox.ac.uk/womens-suffrage-in-chile/.
2. Photo, “Por el NO,” 1988, CLMMDH 617-01-05, Patricia Valdes Collection, Museo de la Memoria y los Derechos Humanos, Santiago, Chile. (My translation).
3. Photo, “Figura Humana,” ND, CLMMDH 135-01-01, Teresa Valdez Collection, Museo de la Memoria y los Derechos Humanos, Santiago, Chile. (My translation).
4. Photo, “MANIFESTACIÓN POR EL “NO”, POBLACIÓN LA BANDERA, PLEBISCITO 1988” Sept. 1988, VS0001163, Colección Digital, Vicaría de La Solidaridad, Santiago, Chile. (My translation).
5. Pamphlet, “No más muertes ni violencia”, ND, CLMMDH 262-06-08, Lidia Baltra Collection, Museo de la Memoria y los Derechos Humanos, Santiago, Chile. (My translation)
6. Mary Louise Pratt, “Overwriting Pinochet: Undoing the Culture of Fear in Chile,” Modern Language Quarterly 57, no. 2 (June 1996), 1.
7. Pratt, 1.
8. Paul H. Lewis, “The ‘Gender Gap’ in Chile,” Journal of Latin American Studies 36, no. 4 (November 2004): 726, https://doi.org/10.1017/S0022216X04008144.
9. “Chile ha ganado,” Solidaridad, October 15-27, 1988, 6. (My translation).
10. “Chile ha ganado,” 8. (My translation).
11. “Testimonio: Alicia Blake” 30+: Con Futuro, Con Todos, http://30mas.cl/testimonio-alicia-blake. (My translation).
12. Baldez, 171.
13. Baldez, 175
14. David E. Hojman, “YES or NO to Pinochet: Television in the 1988 Chilean Plebiscite,” Studies in Latin American Popular Culture 11 (January 1992): 171.
15. Arturo C. Navarro, La Campaña Del NO Vista Por Sus Creadores (Ensayos), (CIS, 1988), 114. (My translation).
16. Hojman, 171.
17. “Defectos y virtudes de los primeros programas de Sí y del No en TV,” La Segunda, September 6, 1988, http://30mas.cl/defectos-y-virtudes-de-los-primeros-programas-de-la-franja (My translation).
18. Poster, “NO”, 1988, Iconografía, Antonio Bascuñan Collection, Biblioteca Digital of the Museo de la Memoria y los Derechos Humanos, Santiago, Chile.
19. Poster, “Las mujeres chilenas dicen SI”, 1988, Iconografía, Antonio Bascuñan Collection. (My translation).
20. Poster, “Chile comienza en tu familia,” 1988, Iconografía, Antonio Bascuñan Collection. (My translation).
21. “Resumen de testimonios ciudadanos de la Franja del SI y del NO,” September 19, 1988, http://30mas.cl/franja-29-de-diciembre-testimonios-ciudadanos. (My translation).
22. Resumen de testimonios ciudadanos de la Franja del SI y del NO,” September 19, 1988. (My translation).
23. Photograph, “Y qué ocurre hoy?, 1988,” Archivo Fotográfico y Digital, PF-0042-b, Biblioteca Nacional de Chile, Santiago, Chile. (My translation).
24. Afiche, “Gracias! a las FF.AA., 1983-1988,” Archivo Fotográfico y Digital, PF-0338, Biblioteca Nacional de Chile, Santiago, Chile. (My translation)
25. Matchbox, “Caja de fósforos Si”, 1988, CLMMDH 1080-24-01, Padenas Zuniga Enrique Collection, Museo de la Memoria y los Derechos Humanos, Santiago, Chile. (My translation).
26. “Franja del SI y del NO- Capítulo 14,” September 18, 1988. http://30mas.cl/franja-18-de-septiembre. (My translation).
27. “Franja del SI y del NO- Capítulo 14”. (My translation).
28. Pamphlet, “Chile dice vota defiende el NO,” 1988, CLMMDH 1801-3-01, Dorothea Schilke Collection, Museo de la Memoria y los Derechos Humanos, Santiago, Chile. (My translation, emphasis original).
29. Pamphlet, “Por eso votaremos NO,” 1988, Archivo Fotográfico y Digital, PF-0309-b, Biblioteca Nacional de Chile, Santiago, Chile. (My translation, emphasis original).