The 2019 Protests to Politics conference opened with a focus on local advocacy, allowing community partners and researchers to engage in practical and beneficial dialog on social movements, local activism, and promoting democratic practices.
Published November 11, 2021
Title: Power and Possibility in Women's Social Movements—From Protest to Politics 2019 Conference in Retrospect
Feature article by Laura Wirth, Assistant Director, The Baldy Center for Law and Social Policy
Keywords: Global Gender Studies, Women, Gender, Democracy, Social Movements, Protests, Politics, Election Law, Redistricting, gender law and society, social justice and social change
Gwynn Thomas, Associate Professor and Chair in UB’s Global Gender and Sexuality Studies, organized the powerful and timely 2019 conference, From Protest to Politics: Women's Movements and Strengthening Democracies. The conference featured the work of scholars and activists from multiple disciplines within UB and the Buffalo community, and was co-sponsored by The Baldy Center among many other UB departments. Taking place at a highly significant moment, the conference recognized the importance of and capacity for women to mobilize in protecting and preserving their rights and more broadly, liberal democracy. Recently, The Baldy Center asked Thomas to reflect on the event and its impacts on her research and the work of others.
The conference links directly to Thomas’ longer-term work, supported in part by The Baldy Center. She received her first Baldy Center research grant in 2007, for her research project, “Assessing the Effects of a Woman President: Michelle Bachelet’s Legislative and Social Policy Agenda.” In the years since, a series of center research grants supported Thomas in developing her research on Michelle Bachelet’s presidency, her exploration of women’s political equality in Chile, and the social, political, and legal effects of a woman as president. After publishing her book, Contesting Legitimacy in Chile Familial Ideals, Citizenship, and Political Struggle, 1970–1990, Thomas embarked on Baldy Center-funded fieldwork in Chile and Costa Rica for her research project “When a Woman Leads: Regendering Political Power and Leadership in Latin America.” This culminated in the 2019 Protest to Politics conference.
The conference, From Protests to Politics, opened with a focus on local advocacy, allowing community partners and researchers to engage in practical and beneficial dialog on social movements, local activism, and promoting democratic practices. When asked about her decision to begin the conference in this way, Thomas shared, “I wanted to highlight local activism, because I take it seriously. One of the things I want to do as chair of Global Gender and Sexuality Studies is to reach out to the community. I have a very engaged faculty and a lot of our students are also very engaged. We also have this tradition that I wanted to reach back to, in terms of local activism, from the founding of Women's Studies in the late 60s and 70s. This activism is at the very heart of the start of UB’s Global Gender and Sexuality Studies department, and the conference marked a rather appropriate moment in time for this particular conversation.”
The timing of the conference felt empowering for attendees and participants, occurring immediately after the massive national women’s marches, where thousands gathered in protest of the Trump presidency. Thomas shared, “one of the things that I really took from the conference is the importance of not discounting everyday people's ability to become political activists - if you open the door, almost anyone has the ability to become a political activist. The importance of people becoming political activists in terms of improving democratic governance came out so clearly for me in that conference.”
Thomas continued, “Looking back, it was taking place before Black Lives Matter, but after the Women's March. The work that came out of the conference was so prescient, we were having a lot of conversations about what we're seeing, like the warning signs of what we saw later in the Trump presidency, in terms of a broader assault on democratic institutions and practices.”
"One of the things that I really took from the 2019 conference is the importance of not discounting everyday people's ability to become political activists - if you open the door, almost anyone has the ability to become a political activist. The importance of people becoming political activists in terms of improving democratic governance came out so clearly for me in that conference.”
The conference, From Protests to Politics, provided a uniquely synergistic opportunity for examining what can happen when groups of women band together in creative and successful ways. Participating scholars and activists talked about the global rise in authoritarian politics and the resulting concern over the future of liberal democracies at a time when women’s sheer resolve was being increasingly demonstrated in their capacity to pool collective strengths, mobilize, and ultimately impact change. Groundbreaking work like Thomas’ bridges disciplines and creates a critical forum for interdisciplinary partnerships in law and social policy.
The 2019 conference program also addressed national women’s rights efforts. Panelists discussed radical coalitions and new models of politics, trade unions, rural agricultural coops and the rust belt, women’s movements and democracy, and what is learned from a global perspective. Thomas shared with me that since the conference she’s been thinking a lot about of the type of mobilizing that was discussed by Laura Putman in the conference panel Progressive Women and the Democratic Renewal in Rust Belt and Rural America. Putnam was exploring grassroots political engagement in rural Pennsylvania. She was studying women running for lower-level offices and the powerful political shifts that could come from that effort.
The conference included examination of international women’s movements, which link to Thomas’ Baldy Center-funded research. Her fieldwork in Latin America, particularly in Chile, fuel her interests in women’s movements. Thomas explained her focus, “I've always felt it's important for us in the United States to pay attention to Latin America, because Latin American countries are like the United States, and we are like Latin America. We're similar in that we represent the majority of the presidential systems in the world, we have the same kind of basic structure. They also have histories of colonialism; they're dealing with issues of racial hierarchies; they are immigrant societies. We have a lot in common with Latin America, which means we could really learn from their experience. I think that's particularly true in what I see as this current struggle over liberal democracies and the rights of women and minorities. What I think that our conference did in its focus on women's movements was preview this larger struggle around the rise of a new type of authoritarian politics.”
Thomas currently is researching the powerful role that feminist movements are playing in Latin America to resist the rise of right-wing politics. The power of Latin America’s women’s movements can be seen in the recent liberalization of abortion laws in Chile and Mexico, and the legalization of abortion in Argentina. After a year of political protests demanding more social equality and fundamental changes to the neo-liberal economic system rooted in the policies of military dictator Augusto Pinochet, Chile is writing a new constitution through an elected constitutional assembly composed of 50-percent women – a first in world history.
Biography: Gwynn Thomas is an associate professor and Chair of the Department of Global Gender and Sexuality Studies at the University at Buffalo, State University of New York. Her first book, Contesting Legitimacy in Chile: Familial Ideals, Citizenship, and Political Struggle, 1970–1990 (2011), examines the mobilization of familial beliefs in Chilean political conflicts. Her published work on gender politics, women’s political leadership and participation, and feminist institutionalism appears in The Journal of Women, Politics and Policy, The International Feminist Journal of Politics, Gender & Politics, The Journal of Latin American Studies, and The Annals of the American Academy of Political and Social Science. She received the Elsa Chaney Award in 2007 from the Gender and Feminist Studies section of the Latin American Studies Association. She is currently working on projects examining the rise of women presidents in Latin America, institutional innovations promoting gender equality in Chile and Costa Rica, and electoral reforms and party change in Chile. Learn more.