The Mexican Revolution and the United States in the Collections of the Library of Congress
Viewpoints on Women in the Revolution
Women were instrumental in the Revolution to achieve progress with fairness. They fought alongside their men and also provided some of the comforts of home to the soldiers, including food, clean clothes, and sexual services. Although women were clearly part of the Revolution, they did not benefit as much from it as did the working class in the cities for example.
Soldaderas and the Mexican Revolution
Women fought on the battlefield during the Mexican Revolution. Soldaderas or female soldiers, with rebel or federal forces, fought either by choice or coercion. Soldadera comes from the word soldada, or soldier’s pay. The men gave their wages to women to pay for food, meal preparation, clothes cleaning, and other services. Soldaderas often did many things besides domestic chores. Some women willingly followed soldiers, believing it safer than remaining where they were. Most were unmarried and without children and could move freely. When the troops took a place, they often seized guns, horses, and women, some of whom became soldaderas.
During the Revolution, soldaderas were so important that leaders among the Zapatistas included coronelas (female colonels) in their lists of troops with the coronels (their male counterparts). When the Secretary of War, Ángel García Peña tried to keep soldaderas from fighting, federal leaders warned of revolts among the troops. Yet, Villa believed soldaderas slowed troop progress. Villa let them march because he needed more troops and the men wanted soldaderas. After Villista forces lost the battle of Horcasitas, Chihuahua in 1917, Villa angrily massacred a group of 90 women in the city of Camargo.
Friedrich Katz’s account of the massacre explains that the wife of a man Villa’s forces had killed attacked Villa, whose troops shot the rest of the women they had abducted on the spot. Elizabeth Salas says a rival hiding in a crowd of soldaderas supposedly shot at Villa, who ordered all 90 of them to be killed when the shooter failed to come forward. Both accounts tell of an infant who survived the episode. Katz says the child’s image, covered in its mother’s blood, figured in Villa’s decline. Nevertheless, Villa honored courageous women for their service.
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Valentina Ramírez and the Corrido “La Valentina”
Valentina Ramírez, a soldadera who inspired the Carrancista corrido (ballad) “La Valentina,” fought at the side of General Ramón F. Iturbide. The song does not mention her combat role because the government did not want to acknowledge female participation in the Revolution. She received much less money than the men she fought beside and was impoverished for the rest of her life. The barriers to equality came down only in wartime, and then for only a very short time.
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“La Adelita” and the Emergence of the Revolutionary Adelita
Although “La Adelita” was a very well-known Villista corrido (ballad) of the Mexican Revolution, no one really knows who Adelita was. There are many tales; one depicts her as Villa’s mistress, another as a fearless soldadera from Ciudad Juárez. The word “Adelita” would come to mean “soldadera,” although the song itself concentrates on her beauty and emotions.
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Popular Opinion of Soldaderas after the Revolution
The general population quickly lost its respect for female members of the military and camp followers. During the fighting, soldaderas were controversial. Before Mexico redesigned its military after the Revolution, it was obvious that soldaderas did not always just include wives and family members. The new government reemphasized that soldaderas only fulfilled domestic roles during battle; tasks that they would have performed in their own homes had they not been following the troops. By reducing the actual importance of the soldaderas and eliminating the idea that many of them had fought, the government could reduce the already insignificant amount of aid awarded to female veterans. Carranza offered a small amount of money only to female relatives of male soldiers who had died in battle. Through his refusal to offer pensions to female veterans, Carranza essentially ignored that women played a major role in combat.
The Library of Congress’ Motion Picture, Broadcasting and Recorded Sound Division holds the Lawrence Seffens Collection of video recordings, which contain a number of reels taken during and about the Mexican Revolution. The video here is a clip from the 14th reel and shows Soldaderas following their men on the march to Veracruz.
"Soldaderas." 1 January, 1915. Unidentified Seffens Number 14, Mavis 18227. Motion Picture, Broadcasting and Recorded Sound Division, Library of Congress
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General Salvador Alvarado, Governor Felipe Carrillo Puerto, and Feminism in Yucatan
Carranza appointed Salvador Alvarado military governor of Yucatan in 1915. Alvarado instituted a minimum wage for all, closed brothels, made medical services available to prostitutes, and expanded universal educational opportunities. He encouraged women to serve in local government jobs, treated women as adults and believed they should have the same opportunities as men. Alvarado also tried to eliminate religious education in public schools. Nevertheless, he named Consuelo Zavala y Castillo, a believer in such schooling, to head the first Feminist Congress in 1916.
Felipe Carrillo Puerto was born into a mestizo family in Motul in 1874, and always felt comfortable with rural workers. He became governor of Yucatan in 1922, decreed many socialist policies to help women and agricultural laborers. He fostered education, and gave women the right to divorce their spouses without their consent or awareness. Yet Carrillo Puerto remained a firm believer in gender roles. His ideas for greater education and more independence for women were designed to improve their lives at home. In 1924 he and twelve others were assassinated.
Thanks to Alvarado and Carrillo Puerto, Yucatan became the ideological center of the emerging feminist movement during the Mexican Revolution and into the 1920s. The Yucatan peninsula was close to the U.S., which it had tried to join on three separate occasions. It had access to European ideas as well, since its capital Mérida was less than thirty miles from Yucatan’s main port, Progreso. The First Feminist Congress was held in Mérida even if most liberal women were uncomfortable with the idea of divorce and sex education. The center of feminist activity moved from Yucatan to Mexico City in the 1920s, following the deaths of Carrillo Puerto (3 January 1924) and Alvarado (10 June 1924).
Photo of Salvador Alvarado from Angels of the Mexican Situation from Mexican Viewpoints (Mexico, 1914). F1234 .A58
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The First Feminist Congress
In 1916, the first feminist congress of 620 delegates met in Mérida, Yucatan, organized by Consuela Zavala y Castillo, a private school teacher. Most attendees were school teachers, who went because Governor Alvarado gave them train tickets, leave time, and funds.
When Hermila Galindo’s radical “La Mujer en el Porvenir” (“Woman in the Future”) was read, many delegates were shocked to hear her advocacy of sex education, divorce, and anti-clericalism. At its last session, delegates proposed that women have the right to vote. By the second Congress, at the end of 1916, fewer than half of the delegates returned and there was not enough support to demand the vote.
Yet, thanks in part to the Congress, President Carranza issued the Law of Family and Relations the following year. The Law gave married women new rights and allowed for paternity suits, previously forbidden, and the recognition of illegitimate children.
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