Confronting My White Feminism

Today was a busy day! One of my favorite things that we did was a visit to the Sisterhood of Good Death. The Sisterhood began long ago with leadership that was entirely female. It was made up of white man's nannies, who were able to interact with both slave masters and ordinary slaves, and who were often respected Candomblé leaders among followers of their religion. These women quietly fought for freedom and basic human rights for slaves right under their masters' noses. They were able to do so successfully because as they were women, they were deemed less of a threat than male organizations that were squashed upon conception; they were largely overlooked by white colonists and slave owners in Brazil.

In Brazil, unlike in the United States, slaves and freed persons were allowed to save up money and purchase slaves themselves. The women of the Sisterhood were able to rent their skills in their free time and save money to buy their own freedom and, after that, the freedom of fellow slaves. This type of slow purchasing of individual freedom was a relatively common tactic of Brazilian abolitionist organizations. In an article on Manumission and Ethnicity in Urban Slavery, author Meiko Nishida writes, " these societies not only helped pay for the slave's self-purchase but also filed criminal lawsuits against slave owners who mistreated their slaves" (Nishida 384). In this way the Sisterhood of Good Death (although not yet called by that name) became a human rights fighter and, since it was entirely organized by women, became what one of our speakers referred to as "one of the first Afro-feminist movements" in Brazil. My imagination immediately latched onto that phrase, one of the first women's movements!

Today the Sisterhood of Good Death (named after the death of slavery in 1888) is alive and well, although not quite as large as it once was. There are several qualifications that must be met for a budding sister. She must be 40 years old or older, she must be a member of a Candomblé temple, she must have a charity acknowledged by the group, and she must complete a three-year term of observation. When we arrived at the church, we were met by a wonderful elderly member of the Sisterhood and the organization's accountant. Listening to them speak, along with translations from our guide Simone, was like listening to three friends all tell the same story at once. I was fascinated by the group's past, loving the idea of these women heroes of Brazilian abolition.

It has to be understood that I am coming to this class with the doe-eyed fascination of a young white American feminist. To me, feminism is complete equality. It is equal wages for all gender identities. It is strong female characters in movies as well as vulnerable men. It is leadership that falls equally to the hands of both men and women. While listening to the speakers, I forgot that the Sisterhood isn't exactly about the things that I am looking for in my enthusiastic white feminism. The work of the Sisterhood is about basic human rights.

I wanted to know how the past of the Sisterhood had impacted modern women's movements in Brazil. I imagined scores of women protesting in the streets to fight over-sexualization and unattainable beauty standards in the media, and powerful campaigns to help elect Brazil's former president Dilma Rouseff. When I asked about it, though, the members of the Sisterhood were quiet for a moment then told me that the secret strength of the Sisterhood's anti-slavery work was that they were easily overlooked by their Portuguese masters for being women. I thought perhaps that the meaning of my question had been bungled in translation. However, after speaking with Professor dos Santos about it later and looking back at some of the readings, I realized that my perceptions were conceived tinted by the lens of my young life in the United States. I misjudged the distance between the shackles of housewives who would be slandered and destitute without their husbands and the literal iron shackles of slavery and it's legacy.

I took a look back at our textbook by Alfred P. Montero for answers. In modern day Brazil, there are a plethora of women's movements and NGOs serving in poor neighborhoods and fighting for policy reform as it adheres to education, family planning, affordable housing, and sanitation. Many middle-class church groups are also fighting for these things. On the bus through the countryside near Salvador, our guide told us of the many landless peasants who are paid by the kilo for sugar cane that they harvest. She said, "they have no rights. They have their freedom but nothing else". In the modern women's movements of Brazil, I do see the legacy of the Sisterhood of Good Death. I see a fight for basic human rights.

According to Montero, "women have made significant strides in the workforce [as Brazil] ranks second only to the US in the percentage of women in top management positions [and] the salaries of women have improved and are now growing at a faster rate than those of men" (Montero 106). So perhaps my beloved modern feminism is showing its head after all. However, as it is, the legacy and continued leadership of the members of the Sisterhood of Good Death is a powerful and a beautiful one. I was moved by their reverence for tradition, the strong community illustrated in their festivals, and their devotion to both religion and social work.

I say, let the fight continue! Middle-class white feminists, like myself, will not have strong legs to stand on unless we all stand together. 

  • Montero, Alfred P. Brazilian Politics. Polity Press: Cambridge. 2005. Print.
  • Nishida, Mieko. "Manumission and Ethnicity in Urban Slavery: Salvador, Brazil, 1808- 1888." The Hispanic Historical Review, vol 7, no 3. Duke University Press. August, 1993. Web.
The group at Irmandade da Boa Morte
The founder of Irmandade da Boa Morte
Our tour guide and a leader of the Sisterhood