The following blog post was a joint effort by Christina Turiano, Jeffrey Helm, and the Hispanic Division of the Library of Congress.
March was Women’s History Month; but as Luis de Góngora y Argote would put it, “Fortune yields goods that are not yet writ: when whistles flutes, when flutes whistles.” The serendipitous act of such a rare find as this can only be welcomed–even if it be late. (However, yesterday was Cinco de Mayo.) Besides, it is never too late to celebrate laudable acts.
This blog post owes its creation to a few people. First of all, Barbara Tenenbaum: Barbara is in charge of the Mexican Revolution website, on which I currently work as an Intern, and the specialist in Mexican culture in the Hispanic Division and curator of the Jay I. Kislak Collection in the Rare Book and Special Collections Division here at the Library of Congress. I have been working with the project since January and learned so much about the different contributions of women during the years of turmoil between 1910 and 1920 when Mexico was in a nearly constant state of civil war. I would also like to thank Francisco Macías, Leadership Development Program Fellow at the Hispanic Division, who encouraged and invited me to contribute this post. Last, I wish to thank the innovative men and women of Yucatán, Mexico who, in 1916, held the First Feminist Congress as a vehicle for addressing feminist issues in the midst of a violent revolution.
The First Feminist Congress of Mexico
In January 1916, under the governance of Salvador Alvarado, the Primer Congreso Feminista was held in Méridia, Yucatán, Mexico. This assembly of feminists was the first of its kind in Mexico and the second such meeting ever held in Latin America. (The first congress was held in Argentina in1910.) Señora Consuelo Zavala y Castillo, a well-respected private school teacher in Yucatán, was tasked with arranging the event as she was head of the organization committee. In researching this historic event, I was able to locate the official announcement of its commencement, which was published in the official gazette, Diario Oficial, of the state of Yucatán.
The congress attracted 620 delegates to Mérida, Yucatán. With both men and women in attendance, the legislators attempted to address issues of women’s rights. The majority of the women who attended were school teachers; many of whom were able to attend only because Governor Alvarado provided them with train tickets, leave time, and pesos.
Still, there were many challenges. One of the challenges, prior to these proceedings, included gaining support from educated men; the reactions from the male delegates during the assembly were also disheartening. From the many topics discussed at the conference several facts regarding feminism in Mexico were revealed. In Yucatán, in particular, Zavala y Castillo was blindsided by the degree of antifeminist sentiment that quickly became apparent. Hermila Galindo put forth a radical reform proposal for the legislators to consider. When “La Mujer en el Porvenir” (Woman in the Future) was read, the audience’s reaction to her support of sex education, divorce, and secularity was quite dynamic: it ranged from approval to complete shock.
Galindo also argued in favor of education reform. According to prominent feminists, like Galindo, Mexican women would never be able to take advantage of their independence without proper education. Once women were provided with an education they would be empowered to appreciate the truth that existed in the world. Under the laws which existed prior to 1917–following “old Roman ideas” on marriage, which Venustiano Carranza details in the preamble to the Law on Domestic Relations–many women grew up thinking of themselves like children placed in the care of a guardian. As such, their condition as a spouse was that of a subordinate to the head of household; and, in this context of lingering Roman ideals, it would make sense that many saw their sole purpose to be “for the procreation and the rearing of offspring.”
However, significant gains were made by women in the post-congress atmosphere. One of the major results of the First Feminist Congress was the emergence of President Carranza’s “Law on Family Affairs (Domestic Relations),” in 1917. The law offered many rights to married women that they had not previously had. Additionally, the new law provided for paternity suits and the recognition of illegitimate children. According to G. Sofía Villa de Buentello, prior to this new law, the Civil Code only provided for maternity investigations but forbade paternity investigations (p. 107). (This stems from the fact that women would give up their children at birth to shield themselves from public “opprobrium“–as stated by Villa de Buentello. That is, women who bore children out of wedlock were at risk of being shamed and ostracized. So, orphans wishing to know their birth mothers were allowed this recourse under the law.)
In the last session of the congress, the delegates submitted a proposal to modify the Yucatán Constitution to allow women’s suffrage. The proposal was put together at the last minute and unanimously approved by the delegates, but Governor Alvarado had hoped for a clearer statement on voting rights for women.
In response, Alvarado called for a national congress to be held in November 1916. However, when the second congress was held in December of 1916, less than half of the women returned; and the congress could not obtain enough votes to provide significant political support for suffrage. The failure of this congress could possibly be attributed to the widespread corruption of the political system during the Revolution and the fact that moderate leader Zavala y Castillo was absent from the proceedings.
For those of you interested in doing more research on Mexico’s First Feminist Congress and women’s contributions, here are a few sources:
- Galindo, Hermila, Un presidenciable
- Gutiérrez de Mendoza, Juana B., ¡Por la tierra y por la raza!
- Instituto Nacional de Estudios Históricos de la Revolución Mexicana, Las Mujeres en la Revolución Mexicana : 1884-1920
- Macías, Anna, Against All Odds: The Feminist Movement in Mexico to 1940
- Olcott, Jocelyn, Revolutionary Women in Postrevolutionary Mexico
- O’Shaughnessy, Edith, A Diplomat’s Wife in Mexico
- Salas, Elizabeth, Soldaderas in the Mexican Military
- Smith, Stephanie J., Gender and the Mexican Revolution: Yucatán Women and the Reality of Patriarchy
- Villa de Buentello, G. Sofía, La mujer y la ley: pequeña parte tomada de la obra en preparación titulada “La esclava se levanta!” Estudio importantísimo para la mujer que desee su emancipación y para el hombre amante del bien y la justicia.
- Villegas de Magnón, Leonor, The Rebel