Gessi defied her father and started a women’s movement when she was seventeen years old. Fifteen years later, Gessi’s movement had transformed the lives of women across the region, successfully challenging laws that had once seemed unchangeable. Then the landscape changed: in a moment of political opening across Brazil, the mayor of Gessi’s town asked her to run the health department. The offer to run the health department caught her off guard. Fifteen years spent protesting outside city hall hadn’t prepared her to be invited inside.
At first, Gessi’s government colleagues asked what someone who had spent her life mobilizing outside official buildings was doing inside one. “You have no education,” they told her. “You only know how to protest and make trouble, so what are you doing here?”
Even after she had opened a twenty-four hour emergency room, trained a team of community health workers, and organized buses to bring doctors to the most rural parts of town, Gessi wondered if her younger self would have been disappointed, or if the passion she brought to her new job and its possibilities would have made the seventeen-year-old who started a women’s movement proud.
Meetings and mobilizations and laws change people, but some parts of families can only be changed from within. Mônica Marchesini makes almost everything her family eats except sugar, salt, and coffee. The farm where she lives with her husband and their four children is five kilometers from the center of Ibiraiaras, and they don’t own a car. Monica is faced each day with what she is fighting for. The contrast between the world she envisions at women’s movement meetings and the enduring inequalities in her home is what makes activism most painful for Monica, and what keeps her committed to the movement over time.
When Gessi and Ivone started the movement in 1986, they didn’t want women to leave their farms and their families behind. More than winning any single legal right, they wanted—they still want—to change the texture of daily life in ways that endure over time. That kind of change can’t be made by leaders alone. By sticking with their families and with the movement, women like Mônica move the movement forward, bringing the activism of leaders like Gessi and Ivone into paradox-laden homes.
Vania Zamboni and Ivone Bonês
In a deeply patriarchal and religious part of Brazil, the nation with the world’s largest Roman Catholic population, two women live together in the center of town and have never been hurt or forced to move. Ivone Bonês and Vania Zambone met leading women’s movement protests, taking over government buildings to secure legal rights and insisting on equality in public spaces and private homes. Ivone traces the courage that allowed them to move in together to their experience as activists.
But they paid an unexpected price. Every time Ivone and Vania tried to bring up their relationship or the topic of homosexuality in their town, they were met with silence. The same happened in the women’s movement, the very space that claimed to welcome women’s experiences. The open and equal world the movement envisioned—the world in which women could explore alternative visions and speak about themselves—remained closed to two of the women who helped create it.
For more on Ivone and Vania’s story, read the chapter excerpt published in Dissent Magazine.