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Did Women Benefit From The Mexican Revolution History Essay

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Published: Mon, 5 Dec 2016

The Mexican Revolution of 1910 saw the end of the authoritarian dictatorship of Porfirio Díaz, who had controlled Mexico for 32 years. During the years proceeding 1910 up until 1917, the country was in complete political turmoil and constantly on the verge of an outright civil war. In 1917 the Constitution was drawn up which promised the working class rights, the peasantry land and education reform, and a Church separation from the state. Although Mexico as a country experienced great change following the Revolution, women were still treated as inferior citizens and were marginalised and excluded in society and politics, as male domination remained. Whilst greater education opportunities opened up to women, at the same time, that which they were taught reinforced women’s subordination and inferiority to men, thus limiting actual progression. Women were removed from labour and instead encouraged to return home, back to traditional ideals of feminine domesticity.

The Secretaría de Educacíon Pública (Ministry of Education/SEP), created in 1921 under the direction of President Obrégon, made radical changes in the attitudes towards women encouraging more equality and the education of women who previously had no access to it. Women were thought to be of crucial importance to family life and thus the future progression of the country. However, despite the SEP’s seemingly progressive attitude towards women, their campaign for literacy and schools was, as Vaughan asserts, never meant ‘to alter women’s subordinate role in the family, economy, and polity.’ [1] While women were educated and included in state policy, women were still seen as inferior to men. Vocational education which was encouraged by the SEP, focused on how to support your husband and how to make your home more beneficial to the future of your children, instilling in them good habits and discipline. Vocational schools also taught women skills which enabled them to make and sell items and services from the comfort and safety of their homes. However this domestic industry was used to encourage women to leave the workplace, or for those women who were not previously part of the workforce, it encouraged them to supplement their husband’s income. Domestic industries were not meant in any way to liberate women. The promotion of domestic industry also hindered women of working-class backgrounds, as it did little to supplement the lost income faced after they were removed from the factories. Although women essentially remained in the same inferior position, they did make some substantial gains and as opportunities were opened, women were able to aspire to more for the first time.

To understand the spaces opened to women after the Revolution, it is important to examine the significance of educational opportunities for women not only to learn, but also to teach. Education was at the forefront of all the gains women subsequently made, because it gave them a legitimate and crucial position in the progression of the state. Education for women was seen as imperative so that they could raise their children well and ultimately ensure the future of Mexican workers. Job opportunities in education also greatly opened up to women, and many rose to the challenge of becoming teachers and head teachers in urban and rural areas. This is thus why this essay focuses on the significance of Mexico’s revolutionary education and whether it was the Revolution’s education which opened spaces, or whether women forced the spaces open with their education. While limited in some areas, opportunities to learn, to socialise with other women, to be responsible for the education of whole communities, to be in sole charge of schools, all prompted women to want more equality and rights. Missionary teachers who went to the countryside to teach peasants began directly influencing the workers, informing them of their revolutionary rights as citizens and organising them against unjust landowners and local elite. Whilst the Revolution itself did not open much space for women in society or politics, the revolutionary education women were given did inspire many women to create spaces for themselves. The Revolution’s education did not directly benefit women in the same way it benefited men, but women benefited indirectly from it and were gradually able to progress away from old Porfirian traditionalism. Mitchell succinctly asserts the Revolution ‘not only challenged and changed the roles women played in their society but it also permitted women in turn to impact the course of revolutionary change.’ [2] 

Education before the Revolution left much to be desired. Ernest Gruening estimates that during the Porfiriato between 80 and 85 percent of the population were illiterate. [3] He asserts that during the Porfiriato ‘education for the masses was held to be no more desirable than education for the slaves in the American South before the Civil War.’ [4] Even up until 1920 the school system was inadequate, unsubstantial and available to a limited number of people. George Sanchez states that schools during this time ‘were glaring example of hidebound formalism and of indifference to the needs of the masses of the people.’ [5] Schools which existed in the cities were underequipped and only open to a selective number of children. In some areas of the countryside, schools were almost unheard of. There was also a substantial difference in level of literacy among both genders. While men consistently dominated jobs in politics, economics, and religion where literacy was essential, women were primarily excluded and remained in the domestic sphere where literacy was of little importance. [6] Women’s job was to perfect domestic skills which would ultimately help her become a better house wife and mother. The Revolution brought a change in the Mexican government’s approach to education. Gruening asserts that it was a mix of ‘new ideas of nationalism, new appreciations of the native race-in short, the ferment of a Mexican patriotism.’ [7] It was this radical change that paved the way for women to be actively included in education.

One of the most ‘innovative areas of activity’, Vaughan asserts, ‘was rural education’. [8] Stephanie Mitchell states that revolutionaries were determined to ‘transform’ rural areas; ‘partly out of a genuine desire to aid the peasantry, and partly to consolidate a rural base of popular support.’ [9] The SEP were determined to set up schools in rural areas to educate the masses of ignorant peasantry, hoping in turn, this would create a more stable, developed state. Vaughan asserts that the SEP set up schools in the anticipation that it ‘would nationalise and modernise’ the peasantry and the SEP hoped in time the peasantry would transform into ‘patriotic, scientifically informed commercial producers.’ [10] Between the years 1921 and 1940, the SEP came to control over 12,500 rural primary schools, and by 1940, Vaughan estimates, 70 percent of children aged between 6 and 10 were attending primary schools. [11] 

In 1923 the SEP set up “Cultural Missions” in which women were recruited from all over the country to travel to the countryside. These women in turn recruited local teachers and attempted to enthuse communities about education. The only stipulation for potential teachers in the countryside was that they needed to know how to read and write, far less than those teaching in the cities. [12] The newly recruited teachers were taught pedagogy, the study of teaching, along with agriculture, crafts, sports, and hygiene. [13] Education was seen as an important tool by the revolutionary government, in what Stephanie Mitchell describes as a ‘vehicle to spread its vision of the social revolution…[to] children,’ who would ultimately become the future of Mexico. It was thus charged as critically important that the children were well educated and good mannered so that they could positively continue the country on its democratic path. [14] Smith comments that women were regarded by many as ‘temperamentally and uniquely well suited’ to the role of teachers and principals, and had unique abilities to negotiate between the state and rural communities. [15] Women were also to report any injustices or abuses that they witnessed, being the Revolution’s only ‘representatives in the field’. [16] Sanchez goes as far as to claim the Cultural Missions ‘symbolise the change from feudalism to socialism, from exploitation to cooperation, from slavery to freedom’. [17] 

The Cultural Missions were of importance to women because they were distinctively recognised as uniquely able, opening up space for women to take part in the construction of a new revolutionary state. The Cultural Missions were a crucial stepping stone in uniting the state because previously many areas of the countryside were somewhat remote and cut off from the central government, and women acted as friendly negotiators. Many women dedicated their lives to helping the government educate the peasantry. This responsibility many women had, not only emotionally empowered women, but legitimately gave them a platform from which to seek greater opportunities from the government.

Originally many rural communities rejected the idea of federal schooling and many refused to send their child to school, deliberately risking harsh penalties. [18] There was a substantial clash between the cultures of the peasantry and modern ideas of the government. The SEP’s prejudices against rural communities also negatively impacted state-community relations. Vaughan comments that the SEP often passed off local customs and idiotic and backward, and often did not taking the time to understand their superstitious rituals. Superstitions such as the refusal to wash clothes because it was thought it would make their children ill, and the giving of pulque (a low alcoholic drink) to children when there was no water available, passed off by the SEP but were understood by women because they themselves were from similar situations and could draw upon their own experiences. [19] However women were also sometimes critical of the indigenous women. Smith comments that the revolutionary teachers realised the women’s biggest enemy was themselves; it was the ‘ignorant woman who refused to send her children to the revolutionary schools, even while telling her children that tomorrow they will guide their country’s destiny’ who was at blame for their ‘dismal’ circumstances. [20] These clashes of cultures and prejudices limited the government’s progression in many rural areas. Their dismissal of customs reinforced the discrimination against and rejection of peasant heritage and identity.

Missionary teachers also clashed with the government when they continually attempted to inform workers of their revolutionary rights, and organised them against their landowners. [21] Smith asserts that ‘while revolutionary rhetoric promised to free workers from the bonds of slavery, workers were needed to continue to produce the henequen which fuelled the economy’. The government therefore conceded that they could not allow the workers to protest and realised the potentially detrimental effect women could have on the economy if they continued to organise workers. Women were therefore cautioned and explicitly told to inform the government of any injustices and by no means to initiate or participate in conflicts between rural workers and landowners. [22] Women found that although the government wanted their help to reach out to remote communities and help secure a popular support base, women’s activities themselves were somewhat restricted and curtailed.

Smith asserts that the government ‘sought to use their labour while limiting their independence and activism.’ [23] In other words, though the government opened space for women to have a crucial role in the revolutionary advancement of the country, women themselves did not have the freedom in their jobs they were promised. Whilst they were given some space, the space which they were given was very limited. Although the government tried to prevent women from organising workers, many continued to defy the government with their revolutionary spirit. Smith asserts that both the government and landowners found women to be ‘threatening to the stability of the countryside’. [24] Women were not automatically given unlimited spaces in which to help the peasantry in the countryside, however they forced the government to take notice of them, and to recognise their revolutionary potential.

Women found that despite some revolutionary advances in attitude towards women, they were still generally restricted to their traditional boundaries and found it hard to push beyond these, especially when professionally advancing. Smith talks about a woman named María González Palma who was a well qualified teacher in Yucatán from 1904 to 1916. In 1918 she applied to the Yucatán Congress to be permitted a space on a pharmaceutical course insisting that; ‘”one of the high ideals of the Revolution [was] to open new horizons to the women of Mexico to procure their emancipation…”‘. However unfortunately the Congress declined her request citing that she was not qualified enough and that her experience as a teacher was not sufficient. [25] While the government was supposedly “committed” to progression of the rights of women, they were reluctant to open professional spaces for them. Although women were trusted to be teachers of the future generations of Mexico, they were still unable to benefit from the same opportunities that were available to men.

General Alvarado, governor of the state of Yucatán from 1915-1918, is often seen as one of the first great believers in women’s equality and rights. Anna Macías comments that Yucatán was more progressive than other areas of Mexico because of its close links with foreign influences due to the massive exportation of henequen. She goes on to assert that ‘Alvarado developed more radical programs in every area of life,’ [26] especially programmes which championed women’s rights. He very much believed women were at the centre of ensuring the future of the Revolution, within the family structure. Smith accounts that Alvarado believed that ‘an illiterate wife could not discuss her husband’s ambitions or triumphs…he would [therefore] have every right to look elsewhere for his happiness’. [27] Whilst Alvarado remained considerably traditionalist in his views of a women’s place, he did recognise the need to educate women. Alvarado also believed an illiterate, uneducated mother would also negatively impact the future of her children; instilling in them bad habits of self discipline, organisation and management.

Smith quotes Alvarado as writing; “only moral and intellectual preparation will place the woman at the level of the man with whom she has to live.” [28] Alvarado believed women needed to be prepared and taught before equality between sexes could occur, believing liberation could only occur through education. Vaughan asserts that Alvarado ‘sought to free women from domestic cloistering through education, job opportunities and civic mobilisation.’ [29] He believed that opportunities should be opened to women once they were educated and sufficiently prepared. While women were only privy to limited spaces during and immediately after the Revolution, the education opportunities given to women during the revolutionary years were crucial in their later benefits and success. Women could not hope to occupy spaces within society and politics without formal education which would legitimately aid them.

By 1926 the SEP had opened thirteen vocational schools in Mexico City, of which nine were exclusively for women, [30] and which taught over 13,000 women altogether. [31] Vocational education for men and women were distinctly different. The focus for men was on industrial and technological skills whilst the education for women was aimed more at domesticity and home economics. [32] Schell suggests vocational education came about because of old Porfirian prejudices that poor, working class and rural mothers, idly sat by and exposed their children to dangerous situations and potentially risked their health. Schell also believes that it was ‘social reformers and educators’ that sought to help the women with their ‘redemption’ by educating them. [33] The opening of these schools was also ‘to meet demands for education, improve living standards, promote national economic development, and link citizens to the state.’ [34] 

Vocational education was initiated to teach women how to properly take care of their children, the future generation of Mexico, as well as their husbands, the current generation of Mexico, and ensure that their homes properly catered to the well-being of their family unit. As well as educating women in basic areas such as hygiene and childcare, women were often taught ways to supplement their husband’s income with individual skills which enabled them to sell items or to sell their services. These skills included, among others; sewing, embroidery, and the making of hats, dresses, soap, artificial flowers, toys, shoes, and sweets. [35] These skills provided women with legitimate trades that they could incorporate into their domestic lives. Schell praises vocational schools as offering ‘Mexico City’s women a space to make their own revolution.’ [36] Though the government encouraged traditional domesticity, the education and socialisation of women increased expectations and demands for greater rights and equality.

Vocational education as a whole did benefit women and open new spaces previously unavailable; however its regressive approach also hindered and closed many spaces. There was a specific group of women who it was most detrimental to- working-class women. Dawn Keremitis estimates between 1900 and 1940 women’s participation in Mexican industry dropped from 76,542 to 34,041. [37] Vaughan comments that this decline was due to a variety of factors including the organisation of trade unions, who were not particularly interested in women workers; laws protecting and limiting women’s labour, which made it more expensive for employers to hire women; and especially education, vocational in particular, which confined skilled jobs to men and aimed at returning women to the domestic sphere. [38] Vaughan asserts that the women removed from the industrial sector suffered greatly; ‘Most working class women had to work. The Mexican Revolution did not help them to do so in a healthy and rewarding way.’ [39] The Revolution failed to provide sufficient opportunities to work for working-class families who relied on a duel income.

Although the government encouraged women to take up trivial production in their homes, it was not a substantial income for many. Whilst women’s participation in industry drastically declined, participation in domestic sectors increased between the years 1921 and 1930 from 4.7 million to 5.3 million. However, similarly to industry, the government was substantially insufficient at protecting women and their rights and they were often subjected to sexual harassment. [40] Vaughan goes on to comment that the government sought to legitimise women’s subordinate role within the family because it was necessary for ‘capital accumulation.’ Women’s inferior role in the family structure reinforced a capitalist orientated society as it presented a legitimate example of the superior and subordinate relationship, necessary in a capitalist regime. [41] The Revolution’s approach towards working-class women with their removal to the home in many respects closed spaces for women. Women who previously relied on a consistent income were now expected to survive without it for the good of traditional principals and the strengthening of family values which was of sour comfort.

The message vocational schools were sending out were often confusing; women could liberate themselves, but yet they must remain subordinate to men. Whilst preaching about independence and freedom, Gabriel Mistral herself, instructed girls that a woman’s only purpose on the earth was to become mothers, [42] thus reinforcing the idea that women were inferior to men. Vaughan criticises Gabriel Mistral as well, commenting that her ambiguous approach to women was hypocritical and while Gabriel was able to liberate herself, her teachings were ‘conductive to persistent abnegation, domesticity and withdrawal from public life’. [43] Women who relied on an income from their factory work were essentially expected to survive with the help of arts and crafts. Women were promised modernisation, yet they were dragged back to traditionalism. Although much of the education was aimed at returning women back into the home and reducing job opportunities in the industrial sector, vocational education as a whole did create new spaces and opportunities for women which were not available before. It is simply unfortunate that many had to suffer for these spaces which were often superficial and unrewarding.

Vocational education, whilst it was regressive and traditionalist, and put limitations put on women confining them to their homes, it also enabled women to contest gender roles. The socialisation of women and exposure to radical ideas greatly influenced women. The schools were also dominated by women; the students, the teachers, the principals, and the inspectors. [44] Because of women’s direct role in the administration and organisation of these schools, women were legitimately given a reason to believe they were as capable as men, thus empowering women. This empowerment boosted many women’s confidences and it provided evidence for women’s capacity in professional roles. The huge number of women participating in the organisation of schools contested traditional roles and was a break from the social norms. Women were finally given a just reason to be able to take part in the revolutionary state.

The freedom of vocational education also exposed women to radical ideas of modernity. Schell asserts that vocational education became the ‘midwife’ to the rebellious movement of the chica moderna, the “modern girl”. She asserts ‘foreign influences converged to open new physical and metaphorical spaces for women, thus shifting expectation about their social roles’. [45] Las Pelonas, was a trend which swept across the big cities of Mexico in 1924. [46] The trend was the equivalent to American “flapper girls” which dominated the screens of the silent cinema. [47] Foreign images of modern girls flooded Mexico and encouraged women to seek a new, modern appearance, breaking with traditional ideas of beauty and femininity. Women cut their hair into bobs, they wore loose fitting garments, they shortened their skirts and sought to have androgynous, athlete style physiques. [48] Despite many Mexican women not actually being actively involved in athlete activity, Anne Rubenstein asserts that ‘images of women in vigorous motion were omnipresent and influential’. [49] Significantly the Las Pelonas movement broke down class boundaries and it infiltrated the lives of not only unmarried women but married too, as it spanned across all age groups. The rebellion was a rejection of the “traditional”, in support of a new, modern appearance, style and way of life. Despite fierce opposition to the movement from men, the Las Pelonas continued to defy male condemnation and ensured themselves a victory against their male suppressors. The popularity of the trend illustrated the growing foreign influence and the impact of the media among women. While education socialised women, the adaptation and the reception of foreign ideas was instigated by the women themselves. Although women were pressured and sometimes violently threatened because of their attempt to rebel against society, the trend continued. The Revolution did not openly welcome this kind of social rebellion, but it inspired women to broaden their perspective. The space in which women were able to rebel against social norms and traditions opened because women pushed open boundaries.

It is a justifiable conclusion that the Revolution itself did not directly and deliberately benefit women. The traditional and regressive education aimed at women, reinforced women’s subordination and limited actual feminine progression. The progressive attitudes towards women, and the inclusion of women in education, were not consciously designed to progress women’s rights or liberation. Women were also professionally restricted, even if they were adequately qualified the same opportunities as men were not open to them. However the revolutionary rhetoric did open limited spaces for women in education which went on to pave the way for more spaces in society and politics. Women were trusted to teach rural communities and secure a support base for the government. Though the Revolution promised to allow the women freedom, women shortly found that this was a façade and when the workers were needed, their rights were ignored. Though the Revolution closed space for women in this respect, women themselves continue to defy the government and continued to help the workers in their demands for revolutionary change.

Women were recognised by the local landowners and by the state government as having substantial influence over the workers, and saw their potentially dramatic influence on the economy. In this respect while the revolution sought to limit the space they had opened to women, many women themselves were not content with this and continue to push beyond this. Alvarado was a vital figure in the progressive attitudes towards women. He saw education as a means of including women in society and politics. He believed that women deserved to benefit from the Revolution in similar ways once they were adequately educated which would formally aid them. The revolutionary vocational education while closing spaces for many also opened much more up. It modernised peasants, teaching them how to hygienically look after their children, how to improve their living standards, and encouraged women to take up small businesses within their homes. The domination of women in the set up and the administration of such schools also legitimately opened spaces for women, proving their professional capability. Vocational education and the socialisation of women also led to such movements as the Las Pelonas to rebel against traditional conformity to access new ideas of fashion and modernity.

Overall, while the Revolution sought to include women in education it did not deliberately facilita


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