Revolutionary Women in Postrevolutionary Mexico / Edition 1

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Revolutionary Women in Postrevolutionary Mexico is an empirically rich history of women’s political organizing during a critical stage of regime consolidation. Rebutting the image of Mexican women as conservative and antirevolutionary, Jocelyn Olcott shows women activists challenging prevailing beliefs about the masculine foundations of citizenship. Piecing together material from national and regional archives, popular journalism, and oral histories, Olcott examines how women inhabited the conventionally manly role of citizen by weaving together its quotidian and formal traditions, drawing strategies from local political struggles and competing gender ideologies.

Olcott demonstrates an extraordinary grasp of the complexity of postrevolutionary Mexican politics, exploring the goals and outcomes of women’s organizing in Mexico City and the port city of Acapulco as well as in three rural locations: the southeastern state of Yucatán, the central state of Michoacán, and the northern region of the Comarca Lagunera. Combining the strengths of national and regional approaches, this comparative perspective sets in relief the specificities of citizenship as a lived experience.

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Editorial Reviews

From the Publisher
“Jocelyn Olcott’s book combines impressive original research, lucid exposition, and keen insight. Three valuable case studies offer broad comparative analysis informed by telling details, examples, and anecdotes. Above all, the book successfully blends innovative women’s history with big, old, unresolved questions about popular mobilization, state-building, and the rise and fall of Cardenismo.”—Alan Knight, author of The Mexican Revolution

“This book is extraordinarily important as a work of feminist political history. It’s a breathtakingly ambitious tour of Mexican women’s movements and feminist politics that will stand as a model for future histories of Latin American feminism and state formation.”—Heidi Tinsman, author of Partners in Conflict: The Politics of Gender, Sexuality, and Labor in the Chilean Agrarian Reform, 1950–1973

From the Publisher

“Jocelyn Olcott’s book combines impressive original research, lucid exposition, and keen insight. Three valuable case studies offer broad comparative analysis informed by telling details, examples, and anecdotes. Above all, the book successfully blends innovative women’s history with big, old, unresolved questions about popular mobilization, state-building, and the rise and fall of Cardenismo.”—Alan Knight, author of The Mexican Revolution

“This book is extraordinarily important as a work of feminist political history. It’s a breathtakingly ambitious tour of Mexican women’s movements and feminist politics that will stand as a model for future histories of Latin American feminism and state formation.”—Heidi Tinsman, author of Partners in Conflict: The Politics of Gender, Sexuality, and Labor in the Chilean Agrarian Reform, 1950–1973

Ann S. Blum

“This book is a valuable addition to the growing literature gendering Mexico's revolution. Its depth and theoretical grounding raise important comparisons for scholars of history and politics throughout the Americas.”
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Product Details

  • ISBN-13: 9780822336655
  • Publisher: Duke University Press Books
  • Publication date: 1/28/2006
  • Series: Next Wave: New Directions in Women's Studies Series
  • Edition description: New Edition
  • Edition number: 1
  • Pages: 352
  • Product dimensions: 6.10 (w) x 8.80 (h) x 1.70 (d)

Meet the Author

Jocelyn Olcott is the Andrew W. Mellon Assistant Professor of History at Duke University.

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Read an Excerpt




Copyright © 2005 Duke University Press
All right reserved.

ISBN: 978-0-8223-3653-2

Chapter One

"A Right to Struggle": Revolutionary Citizenship and the Birth of Mexican Feminism * * *

The guns of the Mexican revolution had not yet fallen silent when women activists began agitating for expanded rights in the wake of the conflict. Indeed, women issued demands for expanded social, economic, and political rights almost immediately after Porfirio Díaz fled Mexico City. The upheaval allowed society's "extras"-most notably, peasants, wage laborers, indigenous groups, and women-to land speaking parts in Mexico's political theater. In the years following the revolution's armed phase, women's activism pursued a trajectory similar to that of the revolution itself. The revolutionary leadership traced a loosely dialectical arc from the reformist Francisco Madero period to the more radical Zapatista/Villista period to the synthetic Constitutionalists, who bore the imprint of both antecedents. Similarly, the burgeoning women's movement had an ebb and flow both distinctly its own and inevitably informed by concomitant developments in postrevolutionary politics. A small but vocal and dynamic women's movement developedamong liberal reformers and expanded to include more women from a broader spectrum of Mexican society, generating political tensions analogous to those within the revolutionary leadership. Women's organizing also paralleled the revolution geographically, shifting from localized and specific mobilizations to a national movement that endeavored to represent women from throughout the republic.

Early feminist organizing-from the 1916 First Feminist Congress in Yucatán to the 1931 proposal to grant women suffrage rights-coincided with broader efforts to define revolutionary citizenship, linking it in particular with "productive" labor and military service. Women activists struggled among themselves and with political leaders over how women should define a space within this gendered notion of citizenship. Should they strive to create a place for the citizen-mother, or should they highlight women's service as soldiers and laborers? Two important developments informed these debates. First, the outbreak of religious violence in the center-west-the 1926-29 antigovernment Cristero Rebellion-heightened policymakers' concerns about women's presumed "fanaticism." Second, the Communist Party, formed in 1919, stepped up its organizing among women but rarely acknowledged gendered experiences of inequality, instead mobilizing women as workers or peasants. By the early 1930s, a national women's movement had developed that, while still fragmented and contentious, increasingly linked its strategies to these masculinized conceptions of revolutionary citizenship, abandoning early efforts to address gender-specific issues of women's sexuality, birth control, and unpaid reproductive labor. Revolutionary citizenship, it seemed, demanded "neutrality" of both locality and identity, requiring women to cast their agendas as benefiting patria and revolution rather than community, family, or themselves.

Imagining Community: The 1916 First Feminist Congress

The 1916 First Feminist Congress, gathering more than seven hundred women in Mérida, Yucatán, to debate political rights, gender roles, education, and prostitution, exemplified many of the tensions that characterized postrevolutionary women's activism and popular organizing more generally. The congress occurred in a city noted for its regional orientation and historic animosity toward Mexico City's centralizing efforts, but it relied on the sponsorship of Salvador Alvarado (1915-18), the socialist governor imposed by the Constitutionalists. Strategic and programmatic discussions sparked heated disputes about the meanings and duties of womanhood, the advisability of cooperating with men's organizations, and women's appropriate roles in political life. Despite egalitarian rhetoric, the congress remained under the control of relatively privileged, urban women-including a preponderance of schoolteachers, since registration required a primary-school education-who claimed to speak for the subaltern majority. And, in a strategy developed more fully by the 1930s, Alvarado sought both to mobilize and to direct women through congresses and women's leagues.

The very fact of holding an explicitly "feminist" congress carved out a new space within the Constitutionalist project, which had emerged as the dominant force within Mexico's civil war. The feminist community remained ill-defined and divided-no unified "feminist perspective" grew out of the proceedings-but the congress's official sponsorship legitimated a political feminism that moved beyond individual commentary on juridical and social inequalities, instead making collective, public interventions to redefine women's roles. The congress, although contentious, directed from above, and limited in its aims, launched a transition among women activists from commentary to activism, participating in Mexico's emergent political culture of organizing.

Alvarado dictated the congress's principal themes and objectives, adopting a "revolutionary" approach to women's issues, but it remained a revolution not only "from without" but also from above. The agenda, revealing its socialist-materialist roots, stressed the importance of labor experience and a strong state in "transforming" and "manumitting" women. The congress galvanized public debate, leading the newspaper La Voz de la Revolución to conduct a survey about the congress and its impact. Many respondents, apparently handpicked by Yucatán's Department of Public Education, underscored the modernizing influences of "the progress of science," "the tendency toward improvement and liberty," the "fruits of the Revolution," and "a great step on the road toward social progress." The survey also inquired why women remained "a factor of consumption and not of production in society." Of eight respondents, the three women described women's "lack of preparation to earn their daily bread" and "inability to support [themselves] or to produce anything useful for society." Two of the five men, meanwhile, took issue with the question's premise. Pointing to women's child rearing, management of household budgets, and performance of "conjugal duties," they argued that it was "unjust to say that women are only good for spending money" and that "in general, the Yucatecan woman, especially the married woman, honorably fulfills the social law of labor." This reasoning highlights an important revolutionary legacy, especially in socialist Yucatán: the "social law of labor" held that labor-above property or literacy or status-made one a rights-bearing citizen. In this context, the matter of whether women's household labor constituted consumption or production took on new import.

This question of women's "productive" role persisted through the 1920s and '30s, indicating not only modernist and socialist emphases on labor and productivity but also feminist concerns with women's traditional and emerging economic roles. Policymakers, activists, and public intellectuals recognized the issue's centrality within larger discussions about women's rights and Mexico's gender order. In a front-page newspaper interview, Consuelo Zavala, an organizer of the congress, dubbed herself a "feminist" and proclaimed, "I think that the modern woman has a right to struggle, to be strong, to learn how to support herself without assistance from men in the hard struggles of life." Although they challenge heteronormative assumptions of gender complementarity, such assertions reinscribed the notion that women required "assistance" from men but that men could countenance the "hard struggles of life" without women. In other words, women's reproductive labor remained invisible and dispensable within this formulation.

Much like subsequent women's congresses, the Mérida conference exposed rather than bridged the fault lines within this emergent feminist community. One of the congress's most notorious disputes exploded in response to an essay submitted by Hermila Galindo de Topete, personal secretary of the Constitutionalist leader Venustiano Carranza and an adamant women's suffrage advocate at the following year's constitutional congress. A leading activist and editor of a weekly feminist magazine, La Mujer Moderna, Galindo viewed the Constitutionalist cause as the surest avenue to women's emancipation, describing feminism as an effort "to awaken woman to be a useful influence in her Patria, her town, and herself, and to help consolidate the government, giving the world an example of dedication to a culture of civilization and human rights proclaimed and sustained by the most noble and most just of the revolutions in Mexico." She embodied a prominent national figure linking Yucatecan feminism and its congress to the consolidation of Constitutionalist power.

Galindo delivered more than a Constitutionalist allegiance, however; she interjected ideas about gender and sexuality that stood apart from revolutionary struggles over land and political succession. She shocked conference attendees with her statement that "the sexual instinct prevails in woman in such a way and with such irresistible resources that no hypocritical artifice can destroy, modify, or restrain it." A truly revolutionary society, therefore, would acknowledge and even embrace women's sexuality, offering universal education in human physiology and anatomy to enable girls and young women to avoid pregnancy. She also lambasted the sexual double standard that allowed men to proclaim their sexual conquests "with the majestic tone used by a revolutionary leader relating the capture of a plaza," while the women involved in these same encounters found themselves "relegated to disgrace, cut o from their futures, and dragged into desperation, misery, insanity, and suicide." Amid protests from the audience, Galindo's address described the growing number of women engaged in prostitution and asserted that men of "elastic conscience" could sit at the best tables and wear gentlemen's finery notwithstanding their "criminal and disgusting exploitation" of fallen women. More shameful still, foreigners "came to this land to make a real industry of the Mexican woman, taking advantage of her abnegation and ignorance."

Coming from Mexico City and passing through several levels of mediation, Galindo's ideas provoked a particularly hostile reception. She had not consulted any local congress organizers, and, since the organizing committee had not issued the invitation and "did not even know her," its members relegated the address to a time outside the official program, proposing later to drop it entirely. In the end, a male functionary from Yucatán's Department of Public Education read Galindo's essay aloud before the congress's official inauguration. Congress organizers demonstrated more concern about showcasing local leadership than the essay's contents, but the offending address precipitated disputes over whether it should appear in the congress's published proceedings.

Galindo's controversial ideas and Alvarado's hand in shaping the congress's agenda provided fodder for those who viewed feminism as an imported ideology contrary to Yucatecan regional identity. One congress organizer referred to an "invasion of modern feminism," and, although participants included native Yucatecas who remained prominent activists for the next quarter-century, the congress retained an imported flavor. However, Galindo's essay also validated women who welcomed her ideas. Another participant, Candelaria Ruz, ardently endorsed Galindo's address and accused the congress organizers of provoking protests and scheming to make them appear spontaneous. Ruz's intervention generated "strenuous applause among the students occupying the higher rows," indicating that the controversy had generational as well as regional expressions.

The furor surrounding Galindo's essay highlights the instability of gender identities as the revolution contributed to the sense that dramatic social change was afoot. Congress organizers and participants all came from cabeceras (head towns) or from Mérida itself and included no identifiably indigenous women, fostering a discussion that excluded the majority of Yucatecas. Yet even with such narrow participation, disagreements abounded regarding the contents of "femininity," as women adopted elements of seemingly divergent gender ideologies. Mercedes Betancourt de Albertos chastised the students in the galleries for dismissing the importance of women's modesty but went on to argue that, in postrevolutionary Mexico, "the weak woman will disappear and the strong, heroic woman will appear, knowing how to struggle in life.... Woman should be woman, but this word should not indicate weakness but rather a poem of love, abnegation, labor, strength, and patriotism." The "impassioned" Ana María Espinosa, meanwhile, cautioned against tying women's rights and opportunities to motherhood, explaining that "not only mothers would play an important role in modern societies."

These competing constructions of femininity carried political as well as social consequences. Gesturing toward the links between "productive" labor and revolutionary citizenship, the Education Department's survey followed its question about why women remained consumers with one about whether they should vote in municipal elections, indicating that a victorious revolution and successful consolidation of the regime made women's suffrage possible. However, the coming debates over women's citizenship rights would turn this logic on its head. By the following year, it had become clear that lawmakers viewed women's suffrage not as a sign of the revolution's triumph but as a threat to its future.

Masculine Citizenship: The 1917 Constitutional Congress

As they would repeatedly over the coming decades, lawmakers danced carefully, if somewhat awkwardly, around the thorny question of women's suffrage. Participants in the 1917 Consitutional Congress remained divided between moderates, who favored Carranza's program of a strong presidency and electoral reforms, and radicals, who called for more sweeping changes in education policy, land reform, and labor law. However, this divide often blurred when debates ranged outside these three issues. If Galindo and the Yucatecan feminists saw room to destabilize gender codes, the constitutional deliberations would have disheartened them. Deploying the florid, metaphor-laden language of lawmakers, the constitution's authors convening in Querétaro invoked a monolithic femininity that signified physical, moral, and spiritual weakness. Participants warned each other not to "cry like a woman" or to "tremble like women." Deliberations about laws affecting women focused on protective measures such as whether to bar women and children from working overtime and night shifts, or whether the crimes of rape and seduction should merit the death penalty. Even halfhearted efforts to engage women's concerns provoked derision. When one lawmaker pointed out that "many women work at night," his comment met with snickers from his peers and references to prostitutes.

The Constitutional Congress came closest to deliberating women's citizenship status during discussions about the nationality of Mexican women who married foreigners. Concerns centered on the nationality of children born from such a union rather than the women's status, since the constitution would bar foreigners' sons from holding public office. Only Francisco Múgica, who would champion women's suffrage rights in the 1930s, questioned the provision's implications for women. Although "naturally subordinated" to men, who enjoyed greater representation before the law, he averred, "The woman would naturally have a more substantial part in children's formation than the man, and yet she has no right to pass down her nationality. This commits a great injustice, and we do not want this injustice in the Constitution because that is, señores, the reason we are reforming it."


Excerpted from REVOLUTIONARY WOMEN in POSTREVOLUTIONARY MEXICO by JOCELYN OLCOTT Copyright © 2005 by Duke University Press . Excerpted by permission.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
Excerpts are provided by Dial-A-Book Inc. solely for the personal use of visitors to this web site.

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Table of Contents


INTRODUCTION The Daughters of La Malinche: Gender and Revolutionary Citizenship....................1
ONE "A Right to Struggle": Revolutionary Citizenship and the Birth of Mexican Feminism....................27
TWO Laboratory of Cardenismo: Constructing Michoacán's Postrevolutionary Edifice....................60
THREE Educators and Organizers: Populating the National Women's Movement....................93
FOUR "All the Benefits of the Revolution": Labor and Citizenship in the Comarca Lagunera....................123
FIVE "Her Dignity as Woman and Her Sovereignty as Citizen": Claiming Revolutionary Citizenship....................159
SIX "All Are Avowed Socialists": Political Conflict and Women's Organizing in Yucatán....................201
CONCLUSIONS AND EPILOGUE The Death of Cardenismo....................232
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