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Women in Mexico

Women in Mexico
A Past Unveiled
Translated by Alan Hynds

This work examines the role of Mexican women from pre-Cortés to the 1980s.

Teresa Lozano Long Institute of Latin American Studies, <br>University of Texas at Austin
January 1999
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160 pages | 6 x 9 | 16 b&w photos |

Throughout Mexico's history, women have been subjected to a dual standard: exalted in myth, they remain subordinated in their social role by their biology. But this dualism is not so much a battle between the sexes as the product of a social system. The injustices of this system have led Mexican women to conclude that they deserve a better world, one worth struggling for.


Published originally in Spanish as Mujeres en México: Una historia olvidada, this work examines the role of Mexican women from pre-Cortés to the 1980s, addressing the interplay between myth and history and the gap between theory and practice. Pointing to such varied prototypes as the Virgin of Guadalupe, La Malinche, and Sor Juana, Tuñón contrasts what these women represent with more realistic but less-exalted counterparts such as Josefa Ortiz de Domínguez, La Güera Rodríguez, and Juana Belén Gutiérrez de Mendoza. She also discusses the identity transformation by which indigenous women come to see themselves as Mexicanas, and analyzes such issues as women's economic dislocation in the labor force, education, and self-image.



In challenging the illusion that historians have created of women in Mexico's history, Tuñón hopes to recover feminism—with its strengths and weaknesses, its vision of the world that is both intellectual and full of feeling. By examining the social world of Mexico, she also hopes to determine those situations that cause oppression, exploitation, and marginalization of women.


  • Preface
  • Introduction: Women in Mexico: Between the Mirror and the Mirage
  • 1. Women in the Mexica World: The Dilemma: Eternal Goddesses or Mortal Women?
  • 2. Women in New Spain: The End of One World and the Shaping of Another
  • 3. Mexican Women in the Nineteenth Century: Idols of Bronze or Inspiration of the Home?
  • 4. Peace in Porfirian Times: In the Maelstrom of "Progress"
  • 5. From Revolution to Stability
  • 6. From "Development" to Crisis
  • Conclusion: The Temptation to Exist
  • Notes
  • References
  • Index

Julia Tuñón Pablos teaches at the Dirección de Estudios Históricos of the Instituto Nacional de Antropología e Historia in Mexico City. Alan Hynds is a professional translator living in Mérida, Yucatán.


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To ask ourselves questions about the role of women in Mexico's history implies that we are aware of many gaps in our knowledge. We know that women have been present, that they are a historical subject, and that their absence from historical sources does not imply their absence from the process through which the country has been built. The problem is how to fill these gaps. Inevitably, we will recall Virginia Woolf's description of her search for English women writers on the library shelves: "Women have served all these centuries as looking-glasses possessing the magic and delicious power of reflecting the figure of man at twice its natural size.... [given that] mirrors are essential to all violent and heroic action" (1957, 35-36).


Here Woolf suggests a possible answer to some of the questions asked today by those of us who look for women in history: the role of women has been distorted by the looking-glass, that is, by historiography. Their image has been distorted like a figure in a carnival mirror, making their struggles, their realities, and their life conceptions appear similar to those of the people who hold power, and it has inspired the traditional books about the muse of history, Clio. Women have been removed from the past, and only those who serve as the backdrop for a male personality (as mothers, wives, or lovers) have been exalted; on other occasions, they have been made into figures who imitate heroes, kings, or soldiers— extras in a historiography that has focused on politics, war, and prominent public events. In this manner, women—understood as a specific social group—have been closed off from the recognition that would be given them by a looking-glass that reflected a true image of themselves, that gave them a sustaining memory of common action and a possible project for the future.


The historical model of women that has been offered is a mirage telling us what they "should be." It alienates women from their realities and options. The concept of the feminine has been associated with "nature''; hence, the virtues characteristic of their gender border on the zoological: emotion, instinct, intuition. The "natural" appears as if it were etemal; by contrast, social things, things that are eminently human, are subject to change: through thought, through the making of culture, through creating. Thus, history has been considered intrinsically male. Women, like nature, are admired yet feared, sublimated yet despised. Human spheres have been dichotomized and stereotypes have been imposed: the ideal is for men and women to cease to be potentially complete persons and to limit their activities to the capacities that have been assigned to their genders; this dichotomization has crippled both genders. Women are not merely biology, just as men are not solely reason. Historiography needs to explode this myth, archetype, stereotype, mirage that robs both men and women of their possibilities—and that robs women of their humanness, of the possibility to change and grow. As a collective subject, women need a mirror that will retum to them the possibility of being and acting. Historiography can attempt to give them a memory. This is the reason for making the effort.


How can we recover this historical subject within a social science discipline? How can we implement an approach that will allow us to recognize the specific actions that women carry out in the spheres that society has assigned to them? In what ways have new fields of action been opened up? Despite the research conducted on the topic, we have more questions than answers: questions that allude to the courses of action in and of themselves; to a particular chronology; to the interaction between class and gender, based on ethnic group, geographic area, the generation of the woman or women being studied; and questions that take into account women's relations with the male gender, with the men—also historical—who share a world with them.


This task entails myriad difficulties. To attempt to recover women from the archival wealth of the past is to assume from the start that women's existence was somehow recorded therein. But female actors have not always been included in archives. The information we do find has usually been filtered through criteria irrelevant to women's specificity.


Women's membership in the society to which they belong and their necessary assignment to one of the classes that make it up do not exclude them from being members of their society on the basis of their own gender situation, which both hinders and enriches studies on them. Consequently, we must retum to the past and look at it in a different light, and we must diversify our sources: we must examine novels, folk songs and ballads, diaries, various types of statistics, travel memoirs, collections of letters, visual representations, and historiography based on oral history. We must do so in a manner that allows us to recover that which is specific to women: their unique power and weakness, outside the sphere of traditional politics; the relationship between their real lives and the control exercised through laws; their vision of the world, in terms of both their mentality and their senses; their labor, in both production and reproduction, as well as in the double workday. This also entails specifying the situations that cause their oppression, exploitation, or marginalization, when such conditions exist. In sum, we must resort to any and all criteria that will explain women's particular development as members of Mexican society.


I am aware that women as an absolute category exist only in the myth that attempts to construct an ahistorical "etemal woman. " Even myths, however, portray a time, a concem, and a set of values and thus become testimonials for the social sciences. Throughout Mexico's history, women appear as the object of a twofold game: on the one hand, they are sublimated in myth; on the other, they participate in society as subjects subordinated by their biology.


A glance at the bibliography on women in Mexico points to the overwhelming significance of three historical figures: Malinche, the Virgin of Guadalupe, and Sor Juana Inés de la Cruz. All three have been made, each in her own manner, into gender archetypes because of the unique manner in which they took part in the nation's evolution. In them were deposited—absolutely and exclusively—traits that are normally commingled and confused and often contradict each other, so that these three archetypes became symbols disproportionate to their actual deeds: Malinche appears to monopolize sexuality; Sor Juana, the intellect; and Guadalupe, unselfish motherhood. The construction of these models makes the three personages a standard against which everyday women are compared: one can be as treacherous as Malinche, as sublime as the "Tenth Muse, " or can more or less approach the summum bonum, Guadalupe: How unselfish and long-suffering were the soldaderas (women soldiers), and how important was their presence in the Revolution? To what degree do real mothers reproduce these values? Other figures, inhabitants more of the earth than of myth, such as Josefa Ortiz de Domínguez or La "Güera" Rodriguez, occupy a second plane, and activists such as Juana Belén Gutiérrez de Mendoza have a role that is clearly negligible when not altogether disregarded. Perhaps this tendency—which is, moreover, shared by other societies—can be observed all the way back to the pre-Hispanic world, as far back as the imbalance represented in the social position of women vis-a-vis the goddesses who occupied the religious pantheon. Indeed, even though indigenous beliefs expressed a clearly patriarchal system, female deities possessed an obvious personality—the natural reflection of an agrarian society. Later on, during the shaping of the Mexican nation, new elements further complicated their position.


The purpose of this book is to propose a series of directions that— perhaps—will help locate the role of women in Mexico's history; open up research options; disseminate concerns. In sum, this book hopes to contribute a grain of sand to the painstaking but fascinating project of constructing a historical memory of women for Mexico.