When I brought my daughter to southern Brazil to study a women’s move-
ment, I knew we were stepping into the middle of a grand arc of social change.
Across the vast country, ordinary Brazilians waged a grassroots battle against
hunger, poverty, and violence. In the 1980s, they pressed a military dictator-
ship to accept democracy. In 2002, a nation that had become a laboratory for
democracy elected a progressive union leader to the presidency. And in 2010,
Brazilians chose Dilma Rousseff, a woman and former leftist guerrilla, as
From the beginning of this transformation, the activists in the rural wom-
en’s movement brought issues of gender equality and women’s rights into
public spaces. In their luta (struggle), they fought for two kinds of rights
simultaneously—big economic changes that needed to come from state legis-
latures and the national government in Brasilia, and daily freedoms that could
be won only in local communities and at home.
As we did research together, Emma and I came to understand that this
battle went beyond standing up to the police or facing multinational corpora-
tions head-on. Hearing rural women’s stories, we saw how ﬁghting to change
the world and to live your life differently is fraught on the inside with conflict
and loneliness, nostalgia and shame. We did not know going in how much it
cost individual women—and a women’s movement—to put into words the
exclusions they suffered and make them into public demands.
We also never imagined how much our relationship as father and daughter
would change as we saw ﬁrsthand the private pains and triumphs behind
Brazil’s political transformation. As we grappled to understand the women’s
enchantment with activism, Emma and I moved from being parent and child,
writing in one improvised voice, to working as colleagues, writing in our own
alternating voices chapter by chapter.
The women’s movement takes shape in big demonstrations, where lines
of farmwomen march forward in the face of armed police. It deepens in
movement-run pharmacies in the back rooms of houses and union halls,
where thick syrups and sweet-scented salves make space for conversation and
healing. The political way forward is rarely clear, and re-forming gender roles