Journalist, commentator, foreign affairs expert and full-time feminist, Robert Somynne writes about the amazing women of the Mexican Revolution, their struggle against the patriarchy, their rise amongst the Zapatistas and how their legacy was hushed up. 

A rifle strapped to her back, gunpowder and sweat on her palms, the sweat of the cartridge with bandoliers  strapped across  her  chest.  She  wears  a  flowing  skirt,  an open revelatory blouse and a  carefree expression  on  her  face.

This picture has been painted and mass produced on t-shirts, calendars, cigarette boxes, TV advertisements, movies, folks songs and art in Mexico and beyond. The Soldadera were the women  soldiers who  fought in  the  Mexican  Revolution  of  1911 to 1920. Mexico at this is time, as it still is the world over, was a patriarchal  society which constrained  women  and  limited  their  liberties in almost all aspects.

Women’s duties were, according to the mantra of the day, first owed to their families with the awesome power of the Catholic Church stifling any chance of equality with  men. The women who joined the revolution as soldaderas left behind these responsibilities as obligatory chains and by feat of arms made the case for equality with men. In the process images of rugged rifled revolution and sensuality overturned notions of what was decent and suitable.

Motivations to join the armed struggle were also motivated by class and ethnic diversity. Most soldaderas came from the so-called lower rungs of society.  Some were  the  indigenous or  mestiza, women of  mixed  indigenous  and  Spanish  ancestry, daughters  of  peasant farmers  or  merchants.

These women fought on the battlefield during the Mexican Revolution with revolutionary rebel or federal forces. The word soldadera comes from “soldada”, or in English – soldier’s pay. This was originally because of male troops giving their wages to women to pay for food, clothes cleaning, and other services. But as the conflict raged many of these women would act beyond the domestic by seizing guns and horses when male forces made advances.

In fact, during the Revolution, soldaderas were considered so vital that leaders among the Zapatistas included coronelas (female colonels), an advance which made it inconceivable to send the women home as some wanted. Secretary of War, Ángel García Peña attempted to strip the women of their arms many male federal leaders warned that insubordination would break out among the troops.

After the revolution, worried that women’s liberation would disturb and fundamentally alter the agricultural and class system, the fighting role of the soldaderas was reduced and warped. The brave, strong woman with a cartridge belt cocooning her shell was transformed into the promiscuous harlot. According to the generals of the time, neither women or whore were suitable for fighting in an established nation. This new image was the “La  Adelita”, an image which forced women either to be pure and submissive or “sexually flagrant” and military ineffective.

Under no circumstances were women allowed to be sexual in charge of their bodies, arms and the project of liberation and nation building. Women’s bodies were too revolutionary for revolutionary Mexico.

Then came betrayal, with the new government stating that soldaderas had only fulfilled domestic roles during battle; tasks that they would have performed in their own homes had they not been following the troops. This ignored the many battles of hard fighting that women had taken part in, scouting missions and missions of espionage.

Whether because of cost cutting or good old fashioned misogyny, (the two not being mutually exclusive), the new Mexican government had betrayed its most effective aid. This would have a great impact of women’s economic progress and societal development in the nation.

But the general population were also at fault. They quickly lost their respect for female members of the military and logistical camp supporters. During the fighting, soldaderas were controversial. Before Mexico redesigned its military after the Revolution, it was obvious that soldaderas did not always include wives and family members. They were effective fighters too.

Yet by reducing the factual 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 and re-establish male Catholic dominance.The government would go on to offer only a small amount of money and only to female relatives of male soldiers who had died in battle. Its refusal to offer pensions to female veterans, meant the role women played in combat was ignored.

The soldaderas’ image although twisted, remained a delicious embarrassment to Mexico for over a century. Socialists, liberals, anarchists and feminists would deploy the sexual power and martial prestige of the Soldaderas to great political and cultural effect.

In 2011, Puerto Rican artist Yasmin Hernandez finished her much acclaimed mural in East Harlem called “Soldaderas.” The mural, part of a planned grassroots regeneration of the New York neighbourhood, was inspired by Frida Khalo’s “Las dos Fridas” a painting that shows Kahlo holding hands with Puerto Rican poet Julia de Burgos.

Hernandez, a woman who is an example of latina excellence in art and life, said the mural is “a statement on the vitality of the changing neighborhood” and of “sisterly solidarity and passionately dedication to liberty”.

What have the soldaderas to teach us? To be shameless in your existence and to strive to overturn every limitation we encounter either cultural or political. But above all to be vigilant that women’s rights and efforts are not erased or sacrificed after a revolutionary fight.

Images by Agustín Víctor Casasola & Miguel Casasola, source.

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