Agency and Precarious Life: Reflections on the relevance of Butler’s scholarship to feminist activism in the Latin American context

Vanessa Rubilar/SOPA Images/LightRocket via Gretty Images

Chilean women protesting, while they are wearing green scarves in women’s rights mobilisations spread in Latin America and elsewhere. These scarves are a resistance symbol.

Carla Quiroz


In May 2022, the Gender Politics Reading Group launched its Deep Dive series, led by Dr Rebecca Hewer, and supported by GENDER.ED and CRITIQUE. This seven-session series followed a specially curated reading list by Professor Moya Lloyd (University of Essex) and offered the opportunity to reflect on what makes Judith Butler’s work relevant today. As a doctoral researcher from Latin America, I reflect, in this blog, on two concepts discussed during the Deep Dive: Agency and Precarious Life. I do so in the context of the fight for reproductive rights in the region, especially with the emergence of “the green wave”, a mass movement that has spread rapidly across the world.

Essentialist ideas about agency— that is, the capacity for change— overlook structural conditions, posing an imaginary separation between agency and social structures. Such ideas have been criticized as being unidimensional and acontextual (Tatli and O¨zbilgin, 2009). Butler’s ideas about agency offer an important contrast.

Butler’s crucial explanation about agency is intrinsically linked to their theory of gender as a performative act. This means that identity is constituted performatively by the very “expressions” that are said to be its results (Butler, 1990, p. 25). Their scholarship offers an insight into the role that culture plays in the construction of agency, arguing that ‘anatomy’, ‘sex’ and ‘gender’ are not without cultural framing. “The very attribution of femininity to female bodies as if it were a natural or necessary property takes place within a normative framework in which the assignment of femininity to femaleness is one mechanism for the production of gender itself” (Butler, 2004a, p. 10).

Taking these ideas into consideration demands that we interrogate in the context of Latin America how agency is shaped by the structural and cultural conditions specific to it, in particular, how churches are regarded as the most trusted institutions in the region.

The political influence of the Catholic Church is still a reality in most of the countries of this region. In contrast to the assumption of detachment from religious influences and the legal system in Western Europe, religious influences have remained in legislation related to family, kinship, and sexual reproduction in Latin America. This means that the subversion pushed by the feminist movement has limits to what it can achieve and women’s agency continues to remain restricted (Vaggione, 2018, p. 17).

This leads me to wonder: If the subject is constituted by discourse but is not determined by it, as Butler notes (1990), what kind of subversive practices are needed in order to achieve our reproductive rights in the Latin American context? Subversive practices by feminist activists have been at play in this context, including in public spaces. But have they really been enough to displace the established social norms? The Catholic Church and the fast-growing Evangelical Church, both of which claim that life begins at conception and highlight the importance of morality, have their own subjectivation process. To what extent have feminist social movements succeeded in displacing these institutions’ conservative values through their discourse? These are questions that I attempt to tackle in my doctoral research.

I also find relevant in my research another concept, that of “precarious life”, which was discussed during the Deep Dive. Precarious Life: The Powers of Mourning and Violence (2004b) was written by Butler in response to reactions after the attacks of September 11, 2001, in the United States. Their response attempts to question the reckless use of binary thinking in public arenas, political action, and ethical considerations. In their book, they encourage the reader to consider who counts as human, whose voice is likely to be audible, and whose arguments are tolerable.

This line of thought, as examined during the Deep Dive, inspired me to reassess and apply such critiques of binary thinking to my own knowledge of the feminist social movement in Latin America and beyond. I believe we need to consider the question of whose lives count as lives, and what makes for a grievable life for those engaged in feminist activism globally. Is the life of women in the global South of lesser value than that of women in the global North? Is the life of a woman valued less than a foetus? These questions have become urgent to address given the overturning of Roe V. Wade in the US, and its ripple effects on feminist activism and reproductive justice movements in Latin America and elsewhere in the global South.

These are just some of my initial thoughts and questions pertaining to the relevance of Butler’s concept of ‘precarious life’. I am sure that I will have more to share as I progress with my doctoral research in the coming years.


Butler, J. (1990). Gender Trouble: Feminism and the Subversion of Identity. New York: Routledge.

Butler, J. (2004a). Precarious Life: The Powers of Mourning and Violence. New York: Verso.

Butler, J. (2004b). Undoing Gender. New York: Routledge.

Tatli, Ahu, and Mustafa O¨ zbilgin. (2009). “Understanding Diversity Managers’ Role in Organizational Change: Towards a Conceptual Framework.” Canadian Journal of Administrative Sciences 26 (3): 244–258.

Totenberg, N. and S. Mccammon (2022) “Supreme Court overturns Roe v Wade, ending right to abortion upheld for decades”. National Public Radio, June 24.

Vaggione, Juan Pablo (2018). Sexuality, Law and Religion in Latin America: Framework in tension. Vol. 8, no. 1, 14-31. doi: 10.18352/rg.10246.


This is the third in the series of blog posts inspired by the Judith Butler ‘Deep Dive’ organised by the University of Edinburgh’s Gender Politics Reading Group.


Author’s Bio

Carla Quiroz is a Ph.D. researcher in Sociology. Her work explores the process of political mobilisation, particularly in the context of the Chilean feminist movement. Carla has a keen interest in gender studies, social movements, and politics in Latin America.