Gender and the Mexican Revolution


Gender and the Mexican Revolution: Yucatán Women and the Realities of Patriarchy
Stephanie J. Smith
2009, University of North Carolina Press
257 pages

IT WAS MARX AND ENGELS who first noted that legal equality is a necessary, but not a sufficient, precondition for the full emancipation of women and identified the origins of patriarchy. In The Origin of the Family, for example, Engels traced a transition to male dominance from a condition in which matriarchs held sway on the basis of a change in the nature of the main type of property held by families (from agrarian property to cattle). Stephanie Smith’s fascinating account of how the revolution-era governors of Yucatán worshipped at a socialist altar and professed radical women’s rights – yet ended up reinforcing their inferior status and excluding them from fully equal participation – coincides dramatically with such foundational observations. The socialist governors Salvador Alvarado (1915-18) and Felipe Carillo Puerto (1922-24) enacted progressive laws designed to improve women’s status in a number of areas – from education to labour – yet reverted consistently to a traditional, apron-strings approach to a woman’s place that allowed men to get on with the superior task of public service. Smith’s study of women’s agency – how ordinary women, including those of Mayan descent, tried to use the new legislation to challenge their condition – provides insights that are relevant to understanding the limited gains of women under subsequent revolutionary regimes such as in Cuba and Nicaragua. Moreover, Smith juxtaposes alongside the overarching traditional role of patriarchy in stunting the extension of female emancipation new forms of gender subordination anchored in the modernist, scientific assumptions of the revolutionary process itself. Using as case studies the legal claims brought by a diverse selection of women who tried to use the legal system to their advantage, she demonstrates the enduring ability of patriarchs advocating socialist principles to prioritise their vision of social revolution over any change in the female condition. It is an old story, but one told here with great insight and eloquence that lays bare the pervasive nature of patriarchy in Mexico’s overall colour-class hierarchy. – GJ

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