Women in Latin American critical geographies
This post is part of our series on Recent Publications. If you would like to introduce, discuss and promote any recent work, contact the editors of the blog at email@example.com
I take advantage of this blog, and the great kindness of its editors, to discuss my latest paper “Parrhesia and female leadership: radical women in Brazilian geography against dictatorship and academic conservatism”, in Gender Place and Culture, a Journal of Feminist Geography, 2021, addressing two matters that arose at different steps of its writing and publishing. The first is on positionality and self-reflectivity, the second on ethics in peer-reviewing and assessing scholarly works.
The “bearded trap”, and the need for self-reflection
Intended as just a step in a longer journey, this paper corresponds to a duty that I consider as ethical and political rather than only scholarly. I started to acknowledge this duty during my doctoral and postdoctoral works on early anarchist geographers Reclus, Kropotkin and friends, when I felt that there was something wrong in presenting always portraits of bearded people in my PowerPoints at each conference. Digging a bit more in the archives, it was not difficult to see how historiography, including radical historiography, has hidden a lot of different voices in these stories, especially female ones. Yet, these forgotten female voices were numerous and extremely relevant to the intersection between geography and anarchism, pushing me to publish papers and chapters on matters such as Léodile Champseix, Louise Michel and the Paris Commune’s female fighters; Charlotte Wilson, Nannie Dryhurst and the Freedom journal; Octavie Coudreau and “lady travellers”; Maria Luisa Berneri and geographical imaginations; Luce Fabbri and the South-American transfers of anarchist geographies—and later, works of another (although very different) fan of early anarchist geographers, Anne Buttimer.
Starting a new research line on Latin American (and especially Brazilian) early critical and radical geographies, I was confronted with the need to avoid this “bearded trap”. While several works were recently dedicated to figures such as Milton Santos, Josué de Castro and Manuel Correia de Andrade to name just a few, the very construction of these geographers’ archives parallels the sanctification of some “great men” in critical geography. Conversely, others did not obtain the same visibility for political, racial or gender reasons, despite numerous recent contributions show the outstanding roles that women are currently playing in Latin American scholarship and conferences, fostering critical, radical and decolonial views in association with feminist approaches in various and plural ways.
From my favourite place for doing empirical work, that is the archive, and basing my theoretical framework on a notion that I like very much, that is “parrhesia” intended as prickliness and outspokenness, I started to investigate female roles in early Brazilian critical geographies since the time of the military dictatorship. As numerous protagonists of that period are still in activity, I had the occasion to make some interviews, first limited to a sample of scholars from the USP (Universidade de São Paulo). This work shows the importance of early female leadership in publishing and conferencing in Brazilian geography, and the different challenges that the presence of “great men” imposed to its protagonists. This included the risk of being overshadowed while collaborating with the most famous figures like Santos, but also explicit claims for a primacy in establishing USP critical geography, coming from women who respected these leading men but were not afraid of challenging them. It was the case with some members of the so-called “Lefebvre Group” a reading group that was established in 1976 at the USP and was mostly composed by women who became leading scholars in matters such as critical urban geography, whose oral and written recollections are among the sources that I address in my paper.
This work stimulated further reflections on the complexity of positionalities, which include my own position as a researcher. During an interview, one of my interviewees, who could have the same age as my mother, inquired if I perform domestic duties in my household being a man, and seemed somehow reassured when I responded that in my home clear rules are agreed about sharing duties such as cooking and cleaning. It is worth noting that, while I am in the position that is classically deemed the most “privileged”, that is a white academic man, I rarely felt to be in a so central position in relation to the academy, given my family working-class origin and my story as an academic outsider who came to university after doing non-academic jobs and addressing social matters as an activist. Additionally, my experiences as an academic migrant in several countries taught me that you can be the object of unpleasant (I would say racist or xenophobic) remarks for your accent or attitudes also when you are white, male, academic and six-feet tall. For those who will have enough patience to read my paper, the idea of complex positionalities is also suggested by some of the experiences discussed there.
Ethics and pluralism in peer-reviewing
My experience in publishing this paper is also associated with matters on pluralism in peer-reviewing and research assessment. My text was reviewed by four anonymous referees, and in the three rounds of revisions that it undertook, something occurred that I had never experienced in my (long) publishing history. In all of these three rounds, the same referee took a lot of time to write very long reports, all aimed at “shooting down” my paper in an insisting and destructive mood such as I had never seen, despite the fact that all other referees had endorsed my revisions, with a haughty tone that I would consider arrogant even if applied to an undergraduate’s assignment.
Trying to deal constructively with the remarks of someone who argues that everything you do is wrong is an interesting exercise, and for some aspects it was even useful. Yet, I had to raise ethical matters with the journal’s editors (whom I acknowledge again for their help and kindness) when it became clear that, even after 10 further rounds of revisions, this referee would have continued to find new reasons to oppose my paper’s publication at every point. This ethical issues included (among much more stuff) unpleasant remarks on one of my interviewees, explicit identification of the author through the pronoun “his” despite the fact that the peer-reviewing process was double-blind, and the use of inaccurate information to attack my arguments on allegedly “factual” grounds, wrong data that, after an online investigation, appeared to have been picked by the referee from a Wikipedia page replete with such inaccuracies. What struck me was the contrast between this way of transforming anything in a weapon to hit an “enemy”, and the idea of peer-review as pluralism and mutual aid, convincingly discussed by some colleagues in Fennia.
It is worth noting that overlooking such ethical issues could be even more detrimental for scholars in early career stages or in a more precarious position than mine. Being an established academic and having already my record of publications in this kind of journals, I could grant myself the “luxury” of deciding to fight this battle as a matter of principle, whatever it took in terms of time and energy to revise and to respond boldly, point by point, at each new round of revisions. Conversely, someone writing from a “weaker” academic position might have felt intimidated and given up raising issues with editors and referees or addressing these matters publicly as I am doing, maybe fearing some academic retaliation. Thus, this is a relevant matter which deserves some discussion, especially in the LAG-UK, whose members are mostly in early stages of their career.
Finally, although I suspect that the true reason of this behaviour was a claim for some “right of ownership” over a scholarly field, the key assumption of this anonymous referee was that my methodology, my theoretical and political framework, my empirical materials and my conclusions had to be mandatorily and exactly what the referee assigned, otherwise my work had to be thrown in the bin without appeal. This is exactly the point from which I would argue for the need for methodological, epistemic and political pluralism in the field of critical, radical and feminist geographies, and even more in scholarship addressing an incredibly diverse field of studies like Latin America/Abya-Yala. There, we work on translating notions and words between different worlds, which should coexist, according to the Zapatistas and to the scholars of the Pluriverse. Please let’s avoid impoverishing all that with academic dogmatisms or petty jealousies.
At the end of this blog, I realise that I did not write a lot on my paper, but I thought that it was better to stimulate some curiosity for my text rather than to merely summarise it.
 Springer, S., Houssay-Holzschuch, M, Villegas, C., Gahman, L. (2017). Say ‘Yes!’ to peer review: Open Access publishing and the need for mutual aid in academia. Fennia 195 (2), 185–188.