Rachel Elfenbein analyzes gender, labor and politics in book talk

Jaime Fields, A&E Reporter

On Wednesday, Feb. 12, Whitman College played host to a unique event: Rachel Elfenbein, a Walla Walla local, came to give a talk and open up discussion on her new book, “Engendering Revolution: Women, Unpaid Labor, and Maternalism in Bolivarian Venezuela.” The book discusses the struggle to get women’s labor constitutionally recognized and how that also opened women up to political appropriation.

In 2011, Elfenbein moved to Venezuela to research Article 88 of the Venezuelan constitution, the article that recognizes work at home as economically significant work. She spent around a year and half there, researching and interviewing various people. In 2013, the author moved back to the U.S. to work as a domestic violence counselor. In her opening remarks, she mentioned her experience in the U.S. to show that the issues of women’s unpaid labor is not just an issue in other countries, but here as well. The author used her life experience and research to write her new book, and she presented much of her research at the book launch at Whitman.

“From a historical perspective, Elfenbein noted that the significant value of women’s domestic work – raising children, cleaning, cooking, etc. – has almost never been recognized; for this reason, the Madres del Barrio organization is extremely significant,” said junior Jack Fleming. The Madres del Barrio is an organization started by Venezuelan president Hugo Chavez that gives women working in the home small amounts of money, in an effort to recognize their work and give them more freedom. However, politicians also tried to use this organization to their own advantage.”

The talk received an overall positive response from the audience, and Elfenbein was pleased with the turnout.

“I like to see when Whitman can be that kind of community thing,” Elfenbein said. “I think [events like this are] really important because Whitman can provide that space to broach important social issues and… dialogue around them.”

Eunice Blavascunas, an assistant professor of anthropology and environmental studies at Whitman noted the importance of Elfebein’s perspective.

“It was an important opportunity to hear a novel voice on Venezuela,” Blavascunas said. “Mostly we hear news about the economic crisis in Venezuela or about crackdowns on dissent, but it is rare to get intelligent analyses on women who supported Hugo Chavez’s reforms yet lost out on the promises of the Bolivarian revolution. The event offered a way to see how feminist organizing can achieve a policy goal, but then also showed us how male dominant governments, even those committed to gender reform, can mismanage equality in a way that further burdens poor women.”

Many attendees thought that Elfenbein’s perspective was valuable. Senior Jonathan Falk noted that he would love more events like this at Whitman.

“It’s really important especially to recognize that we have people in our community who are not technically affiliated with Whitman who still have really important work … people who are experts on things that live in the community,” Falk said, noting that he would “love to see more of them brought into Whitman so we can break down that barrier between the college and Walla Walla. I think that’s important.”

Thomas Harris, a senior at Whitman, agreed that the talk was eye-opening.

“I think that events like this book launch are important because they’re also opportunities for many of us to broaden our horizons and learn from experts in topics that we might not otherwise encounter,” Harris said.

The question-and-answer session at the end was not just important to Harris – Colette Marie, an administrative assistant in the Academic Resource Center (ARC), said there was a moment during the session that she was disturbed and upset by.

“A man got up and said he had a question but he didn’t really. He asked what he could do to help, and then he proceeded to explain the ways in which he thought he was helping, and I think unintentionally made comments that I found very insensitive, and I don’t think distressing is too hard of a word. He talked as though the oppression of women and poor women exists only in Latin America,” Marie said. 

The man, according to Marie, made other comments in the same vein, talking about Costa Rica as though it is the same as Venezuela and speaking as though sexism was not something that could affect him.

“Whether it was meant to be hurtful or not, it was,” Marie said. 

However, the discussion did not end on a negative note.

“My hope came when Marian, the woman that I was sitting next to, who is a student presenting … in the Power and Privilege Symposium, spoke up and said there aren’t poor women just in Latin America, there are women here; there aren’t women who are victims of violence just in Latin America, there are women here; and there are women all over the United States who are doing work that isn’t paid for… I don’t know that you need to go to Venezuela or Costa Rica to help them out, you need to start here,” Marie said..

“His points were reconfirming the stereotypes we should all put an end to regarding women in [Latin America],” first-year Marian Sandoval Lemus added. “As a Latina, having experienced similar misconceptions, I decided I had to step in and take the space to stop these incidents and situations from happening–space that belonged to a Latina woman to speak up.”

“What started out feeling very distressing actually turned into a very hopeful moment for me and very inspiring when Marian spoke up,” Marie said. “The younger generation has a lot to offer in so many ways.”

Elfenbein’s book highlights the complexities of a variety of factors, including gender and politics, that are not always discussed together, and many hope that discussions this book has sparked will continue to happen throughout the rest of the campus.