Demanding a Voice, Enduring Silence: Lessons from a Brazilian Women’s Movement

Vania Zamboni and Ivone Bonês (photograph by Jeffrey W. Rubin)

When my daughter and I first arrived in southern Brazil in 2002 to study a rural women’s movement, we stepped into the middle of a grand arc of social change. Across the vast country, ordinary Brazilians were waging a grassroots battle against hunger, poverty, and violence. In the 1980s, they pressed a military dictatorship to accept democracy. In 2002, they elected a progressive union leader to the presidency. And in 2010, Brazilians chose Dilma Rousseff, a woman and former leftist guerrilla, as president.

From the beginning of this transformation, the activists in the rural women’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 legislatures and the national government in Brasilia and daily freedoms that could be won only in local communities and at home.

As we conducted our research, Emma and I came to understand that this battle went beyond standing up to the police or facing multinational corporations head on. Hearing rural women’s stories, we saw how fighting to change the world and to live your life differently is fraught with internal conflict and loneliness, nostalgia and shame. We would learn 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.

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 is so difficult that after years of struggle, you have to look hard to identify what you’ve achieved, though you know it’s there.

Ivone and Vania, whose story Emma chronicles here, describe what this felt like from the inside.

-Jeffrey W. Rubin


Ivone Bonês and Vania Zamboni met leading women’s movement protests, taking over government buildings to secure legal rights and insisting on women’s autonomy on public streets and in private homes. In 1994, they moved in together, making an alternative vision a reality in their own lives. Seven years later, they moved to a red-and-white house in Ibiraiaras, and Ivone’s sister Gessi and Gessi’s husband, Didi, built their own house in Ivone and Vania’s front yard.

Gessi and Didi’s daughter, Natália, who was three when I first met her and thirteen when I last visited, runs back and forth between the two houses to collect ingredients for shared meals, and her brother, Davi, is as comfortable in his aunts’ house as in his own. This alternative household arrangement—more typical of Northampton, Massachusetts, where I grew up, than a Catholic town in southern Brazil—is built on two decades of courage and audacity. It comes out of a generation of young female leaders who refused to settle for limited lives and instead started a women’s movement, showing the world and showing themselves the possibility of new possibilities. And it rests on two lesbian women who have learned to trade the right to speak about themselves for the right to live as they choose.

Ivone, Vania, and other movement leaders insisted that to engage rural women in a project to change the world, each woman needed to see herself as a citizen with rights, and she needed a place to speak about herself. They worked to facilitate open conversations in rural homes and at movement meetings. The first time I saw Vania, she was standing in a church basement in jeans and a women’s movement t-shirt, surrounded by a circle of women and leading everyone in song. I was twelve years old, visiting a women’s movement gathering with my family, and it was clear to me that I had stumbled into a place where real change was being made. As night fell and the flow of trucks on the dirt road outside the church in Santa Lucia slowed, I watched the women prepare a communal meal and then throw squares of paper inscribed with hopes for their families into a bowl of fire.

The stories I heard when Dad and I returned to Ibiraiaras three years later got beyond what the movement achieved and showed me what it took to get there, painting a picture not only of what the movement is now, but also of what it might have become. Over the years, I came to know a quieter but equally dedicated side of Ivone and Vania, a side their neighbors in Ibiraiaras and their comrades in the movement refused to acknowledge.

I asked Ivone and Vania if they would talk to me about their relationship not knowing how they would respond. Though Porto Alegre, the capital of their state, has one of the most active gay rights movements in the world, the urban movement has yet to extend to rural areas. Although Ivone’s and Vania’s names were almost always mentioned in the same sentence—“Ivone and Vania will be here soon,” or, to Gessi’s children, “go ask your aunts if you can stay at their house tonight”—I would never have known they were partners, and not sisters or friends, if my family hadn’t stayed in their house on my first trip to Ibiraiaras in 2002. They were never physically affectionate in public, and in the months I spent at women’s movement meetings, community barbecues, and Gessi’s kitchen table with the two families, I never heard Ivone and Vania’s relationship mentioned in any explicit way.

There is one story—a success story—I could have told without ever talking to Ivone and Vania about their relationship. In a deeply patriarchal and religious part of Brazil, the nation with the world’s largest Roman Catholic population, two women live together in a red-and-white house in the center of town and have never been hurt or forced to move. There’s also a more nuanced story, of two women who each day live the paradox of exclusion in the face of tolerance, and silence in a space of speech.

I didn’t know if talking about homosexuality was taboo in Ibiraiaras or if Ivone and Vania’s relationship was so obvious as to make speech unnecessary. I got my answer at lunch one day in Gessi’s house, where the two families almost always ate, when my Dad mentioned that gay marriage had been legalized in our state of Massachusetts. The table of eight fell silent. Didi leaned his chair back. Gessi changed the subject. A few days later, Ivone and Vania asked my Dad and me to have dinner at their house, and they picked up the conversation that had fallen flat in Gessi’s kitchen.

Ivone and Vania first met while traveling to rural communities throughout the state, knocking on doors, sipping chimarão, and persuading women to join the movement. “We traveled around together,” Vania explained. “In the first community, Ivone and I stayed in the same house. We had to share a bed, that night and the next one. In the next community we stayed in different houses….At one meeting, we sat in a circle talking, and she was next to me. I remember she put her arm on my knee.” Vania bent her elbow and rested it on her knee. “Just like that. It was nothing and yet it was significant….The next night we were at the same house. She was in bed and I kind of jumped in…

“I think the relationship we created doesn’t have an explanation,” Vania went on. “You can’t say how it started, why it started….Why does this happen, that two women like each other, that two women live together? There’s psychology to explain some things, but the value of our relationship is the way we live and what happens between us.”

Ivone lifted her hand from her chin. Her hands flew along with her words a she spoke. When the relationship began, people told her, “It won’t work out. Where are you going to live together? You won’t survive. Society won’t permit you to live that way.”

Ivone and Vania defied their fathers and started a women’s movement while still in their teens. They traveled on buses to the capital of Brazil to protest in front of government buildings. When government officials wouldn’t talk to them, they took over capitol buildings, demanding rights for women in a notoriously religious and patriarchal country. They were not about to limit their lives to what society would permit.

Ivone traces the courage that allowed them to move in together to their experience in the women’s movement. “We always said that for us, the movement was an alternative way of being, a way to change our lives, to change how we behave, to free ourselves….So why couldn’t we create something different, why couldn’t we create a different life for ourselves?” Crafting an alternative lifestyle with Vania, Ivone added, and seeing that such a life was possible, kept her committed to the women’s movement even as many colleagues chose other paths.

But the open and equal world the movement envisioned—the world in which women could explore alternative visions and speak about themselves—remained closed to the two women who helped create it. Ivone and Vania shared a mattress the night the movement took over a government building and refused to leave until the governor agreed to negotiate with them, and the time the bus died on the way back from a mobilization in Brasilia and women tumbled out to sleep on the side of the road. Yet there was no space for them to speak about the central relationship in their lives, and any time they tried to bring up homosexuality in the women’s movement—in the very space that claimed to welcome women’s experiences—they were met with silence.

The open and equal world the movement envisioned—the world in which women could explore alternative visions and speak about themselves—remained closed to the two women who helped create it.

That silence silenced them. For years, Ivone and Vania suggested homosexuality as a topic for the movement newsletter, which was distributed to movement participants. Women were encouraged to submit topics, but Ivone and Vania’s suggestion never appeared. Vania said, “It felt like hiding, the way I didn’t say anything and people didn’t have the courage to ask.” Sometimes she tried to bring up the relationship with her family, with Gessi and two of Ivone’s other sisters, and later with her own nephew, who, Vania says, was the only one in either family to broach the subject himself. No one was angry or cold, Vania explained, “But it stopped there. A month, two months…it didn’t go on. I was going to have to insist again. But then I didn’t feel the desire to speak.” In the movement, speech about the relationship was cut off from the beginning. In Ivone’s and Vania’s families, when spaces of speech opened, they quickly shut down.

Ivone and Vania had spoken about their relationship so rarely that sometimes it seemed as if they were telling each other their sides of the story by sharing it with me. After they described how they met, Vania said, “and so our relationship grew, with excitement and fear.”

“Fear?” Ivone looked up sharply.

“Ivone. Fear, you know.”

“Yes, it was hard sometimes in the beginning. But not anymore.”

“It is hard, still,” Vania broke in. “If something happens between Ivone and me, there’s no one to talk to.”

Ivone shrugged. “I’ve always had something in me that makes me do what I want. I’ve learned that it doesn’t matter what other people think, that you have to know what you are.” She went on to say that she and Vania know to make sure their curtains are always closed, that they would never hold hands in the street. I saw a more vulnerable side of this headstrong leader, this dedicated woman whose pain in the closed world forced upon her comes in part from her efforts to open the world for so many others.

When it comes to fighting for the change she wants to see in the world, Ivone’s way has never been one of silence. In 1998, when policemen prevented Ivone and other leaders of the women’s movement from entering the governor’s office building in Porto Alegre, she led a takeover of the building. More than a thousand women stormed inside and refused to leave until the governor negotiated with them about women’s health care. When three months passed and no steps had been taken to make available the health services to which women were legally entitled, Ivone returned to the capital. She instructed women to enter the building inconspicuously in pairs, gather in the bathroom, and then take over the hallways once again.

Now, in her kitchen, Ivone was telling me that in some parts of your life, you take what you can get. When women don’t have the right to maternity leave, you take over government buildings. But when the women’s movement you helped start refuses to talk about homosexuality, you talk about other things. The concessions become so familiar it’s almost possible to forget that not everyone lives this way, never able to say “my boyfriend,” “my partner,” “my wife,” “the person I love.”

In the movement and in their town, Ivone and Vania learned firsthand the pain that comes from silence. They didn’t want to damage a movement that protected other women from this pain by demanding a space in the movement for themselves.

They faced the limits of speech until they couldn’t face them anymore. In 2003, Ivone and Vania left the movement amid disagreements with other leaders about the couple’s work as paid movement organizers. Vania took a job as a truck driver, and Ivone began cleaning someone else’s home. They still lead gatherings of women in their town, but they no longer hold leadership positions in the movement.

“This is what I think about the story of our leaving the movement,” Ivone told me: “It was the place where we worked, and it was a place where there wasn’t space for us. I think that it’s a form of repression….that if the movement was what sustained you, the base from which you could speak, from which you could work, then you can’t have a larger debate, you can’t advance, if you don’t have space there. So you have to do something.”

When what you do—whether that’s working in the institutions, going back to school, or moving in with another woman—isn’t welcome, when the movement ceases to be the open space you’ve fought to create, it’s hard to stay. Strong leaders brought their dedication elsewhere or, like Ivone and Vania, left the movement not knowing where to direct their extraordinary enthusiasm and skill.

Former movement leaders continue to fight for women’s rights in union halls, government offices, university classrooms, and meetings of local women. What they lost was the possibility of continuing to collaborate, strengthening and making real their vision for women in Brazil, and the possibility of having for themselves the kind of open space they worked to create for others.


Jeffrey W. Rubin is Professor of Latin American History at Boston University and Research Associate at BU’s Institute on Culture, Religion, and World Affairs. He received a MacArthur Research and Writing Grant for his work on democracy and grassroots innovation in Brazil. Click here to read his past articles in Dissent.

Emma Sokoloff-Rubin is a reporter for Gotham Schools. She was a Howland Research Fellow in Buenos Aires in 2011-2012. This article is excerpted and adapted with permission from their book Sustaining Activism: A Brazilian Women’s Movement and a Father-Daughter Collaboration (© Duke University Press, 2013).