Mexican Studies/Estudios Mexicanos‘s current issue features a thematic section on the bicentennial of Mexican independence, which highlights the contribution of political actors generally ignored in official tributes to heroic figures. Specifically, the issue includes articles that examine the participation of indigenous and Afro-descendant populations as well as women. In this blog we invited Dr. Silvia Arrom to comment on the current state of independence studies focused on women. While not a contributor to the thematic section, her remarks complement the article by historian John Tutino which touches on the participation of women in independence and the undermining of patriarchy.

Every Mexican schoolchild knows about Leona Vicario, La Benemerita Madre de la Patria, and Josefa Ortíz de Domínguez, La Corregidora. In this bicentennial year of Mexican independence, both heroines are widely celebrated. And they function as symbols to represent La Mujer, as if including a couple of famous women in civic commemorations is sufficient to represent all women. But it isn’t. In fact, the focus on just a handful of heroines distorts the history of the period because it ignores most of the women who participated in the independence movement.  

The women enshrined in the Pantheon of Heroes were upper-class, white, well-educated, and lived in large cosmopolitan cities—a reflection of the old prejudices that these are the people who make history. Yet most of the women who joined the fray were from the popular classes, represented Mexico’s many ethnic groups, and often lived in the provinces. They made myriad contributions to the struggle, everything from spying and manufacturing munitions to smuggling money, messages, and supplies under full skirts. 

One group that deserves special recognition are the women who “seduced” the troops, which meant that they convinced soldiers to change sides. For example, Carmen Camacho invited royalist soldiers for a drink and encouraged them to join the rebels by promising them a parcel of land in independent Mexico. She was executed in December 1811, one of forty women in the Infidencias section of the AGN who were punished for recruiting soldiers to their cause. There were undoubtedly many more who were never caught, for several government officials declared that these women were “one of the greatest evils we have had from the beginning of this war” because of “the power of the beautiful sex on the hearts of men.” Their activities were not merely supplementary to the more important role of men, but rather complementary because, as Janet Kentner reminds us, they did what “could not have been done as well, or even at all, by their male counterparts.”  

That was also the case with another group of women who are largely overlooked: the soldaderas (though that term was not used at the time) who joined the troops, often with children in tow. Their role was not marginal but instead essential, for they fed and clothed the soldiers and nursed the sick and injured. They were probably the largest group of women who participated in the independence movement. Indeed, fragmentary evidence suggests that they comprised one third of the insurgents in any given battalion. I believe that without them independence could not have been achieved, because men who are weak from hunger, thirst, or illness cannot fight.

Why aren’t these women recognized in Mexico’s official history?

In part because most were lower class. Also, because women’s traditional work—in the home as well as on the battlefield—is not valorized as much as it deserves. Yet no society can function without it, and particularly the armies of the independence era. Although it is widely assumed that only men make war, that was not the case in the nineteenth century, before the professionalization of the armed forces.

I suspect that another reason for the soldaderas’ absence from historical chronicles is that their presence among the troops was so ubiquitous and considered so normal that it didn’t merit attention—except when they did something unusual, especially if it what was men do. For example, María Fermina Rivera sometimes picked up a dead man’s weapon and fought “like a veteran soldier;” and Albino García’s wife rode like a man, sable in hand, and led his soldiers into battle. Although these two followed their husbands, others went to war on their own. For example, María Luisa Gamba, alias la Fernandita, donned men’s clothes to fight; and María Manuela Molina, la Barragana, led a corps of seventy Indians so effectively that the Junta de Zitácuaro granted her the rank of captain. And there were many more.

Several of these women appeared in José Joaquín Fernández de Lizardi’s 1825 almanac, the Calendario . . . dedicado a las señoritas. Indeed, “The Mexican Thinker”fully recognized their services to the nation by labelling them “citizens.” Yet shortly thereafter, when Carlos María de Bustamante and Lucas Alamán wrote their histories of the revolution, these fighters disappeared and the only women they named were Leona Vicario and La Corregidora. Their chronicles did occasionally mention “the women of the soldiers,” but only as an anonymous group – and so infrequently that readers can be forgiven for concluding that the independence wars were a masculine project. In short, the soldaderas were rendered invisible by the sexism, classism, and racism of the famous historians.

Have historians tried to restore their stories?

There have been several attempts to expand our view of women in the independence movement. As early as 1910, Genaro García included a hundred women in his monumental collection of historical documents. Afterwards additional insurgent women were discovered, especially in regional archives. In the past decade some scholars presented a more complete history of female participation, but their articles have remained in the academy without changing the prevalent narratives of Mexican history.

A few historians have recently tried to bring the famous heroines down from their pedestals and portray them as real people rather than archetypes. Still, by claiming that Leona Vicario and La Corregidora were exceptional women and ahead of their time, these studies reinforce the stereotypes of how restricted female lives were before the wars—stereotypes that historians of colonial women have challenged many times. The moment was undoubtedly exceptional, and both women and men stepped outside of their peacetime roles. But the Heroínas de Bronce were far from exceptional when compared with the many other brave women who made equally valuable contributions to building the nation. That is another way that the mantles of the Great Heroines hide the majority of women who have yet to take their rightful place in Mexico’s historical memory.    

Read MSEM’s special thematic section, “Bicentennial of Mexican Independence: New Perspectives” for free online for a limited time.