By Diana Suet and Raquel Macias
Soldaderas, coronelas, Adelitas, female soldiers, camp followers. They were the women on the battlefields of the Mexican Revolution: strong-hearted, courageous and loyal to the cause.
Prior to the Revolution, the Mexican Civil Code of 1884 had imposed many restrictions on women. The code granted a single woman almost the same rights as males, except she had to reside with her parents until the age of 30.
On the other hand, a married woman had no rights; she could not divorce, vote, draw up a contract, dispose or administer her personal property, make decisions about the education of her children or engage in lawsuits. Married women could not even tutor anyone, except their husbands; therefore, female school teachers who enjoyed their work did not marry.
Image caption: Soldaderas posed for the camera. Courtesy of Bob Wade and Adair Margo Gallery
Author Shirlene Soto writes that even before these laws, women lived in the shadow of their husbands, dedicated to family life and church. Tradition kept Mexican women from gaining any degree of equality. When the Mexican Revolution began in 1910, the role of many changed and the door for equality opened.
As the revolution took its course, women were needed and recruited in all parts of Mexico by both federal and rebel armies. Historian Elizabeth Salas tells us that unlike the federal army, the revolutionaries enlisted women voluntarily, and they came from rich and poor, educated and uneducated backgrounds. Their reasons for joining the war varied. Salas says that some women joined their husbands to care for them, while others enlisted to avenge the death or a husband or other relative.
Salas tells us the story of Angela Jimenez, who at 15 witnessed her sister's attempted rape by a soldier. Her sister grabbed the officer's gun and killed him and then killed herself. Jimenez joined her father in the army, promising herself to kill the federales. Jimenez became a spy, soldier and explosives expert.
Some women had no choice but to become soldaderas when soldiers raped and kidnapped them from their homes and villages. Salas cites a 1913 edition of The Mexican Herald that says entire villages were left without women because soldiers had carried them off.
According to Julia Tunon Pablos, the revolution provided women with the possibility of altering their social status. Many women wanted to join in hopes of being paid for their domestic and military services. However, if they were related to or accompanied soldiers, they did not receive pay for their work.
One of the main jobs of the soldaderas was to provide soldiers with food. They often had to search for food, which Gabriela Cano describes as a dangerous task in times of scarcity and violence. In their desperation to gather food, the soldaderas at times looted homes, stores and fields, leaving villages without essentials for survival.
Soldaderas washed and mended the soldier's clothes and cared for the wounded. In addition, they buried the dead and scavenged battle sites for all useful objects. Besides performing these domestic duties for their husbands and lovers, soldaderas also became messengers, spies, arms and munitions runners, seamstresses, secretaries and journalists. Cano says as spies, the women passed military information, arms and supplies in their clothes or food baskets.
Although the responsibilities of the soldaderas often surpassed those of the men, the women enjoyed few comforts. When they traveled by train, the women and children rode outside or on top. Soldaderas carried the provisions, cooking equipment and guns during the vast miles of foot travel. When the troops had access to horses, the men rode them.
Salas tells us that soldiers described the soldadera as "combining her traditional roles as mother, war goddess, warrior, tribal defender, sexual companion and domestic servant within the context of the army life." Even when pregnant, the women traveled with the troops, gave birth, rested a short while and then caught up with the forces that had moved forward. They moved with their children on their backs.
In other phases of their life, they were equal, however. In serious fights among themselves, they might kill their rivals. When they were punished within the military ranks, they were also treated equally. According to Salas, Pancho Villa executed one of the soldaderas in his army for accidentally killing one of his male soldiers, but she died with "military honors." Villa also executed a group of 80 or 90 enemy soldaderas and their children when one dared to shoot at him.
Revolutionaries like Emiliano Zapata admired them, while others thought them a nuisance, including Villa. He limited the role women played in his army by not allowing them on the battlefield. An El Paso Times article reported, "General Villa several times attempted to compel the women to leave the trenches and on numerous occasions had them escorted back of the firing line to places of safety but when the rebel chief's attention was called to some other direction, they hurried to the front and continued their firing."
Yet even when confronted with animosity from their own side, the soldaderas overcame all obstacles. Often disguised as men, many of them were dynamic warriors. Some soldaderas formed their own rebel groups and even commanded men. Petra Herrera became an officer or "coronela," commanding 200 men, according to a report in The Mexican Herald on January 7, 1914.
Salas tells us that Herrera, along with 400 other women, took part in the second battle of Torreón as part of Villa's vanguard. A villista by the name of Cosme Mendoza said, "Herrera was the one who took Torreón on May 30,1914."
After the Mexican Revolution, the work of the soldaderas seemed to have been forgotten and the romantic portrait of the "Adelita" became legend. Pablos tells us that the legend began with a corrido, or folk song that referred to a girl named Adelita who was madly in love with her sergeant and thus followed the troops. Several versions of this corrido exist. Soldaderas were later given the name from her character, and the term "Adelitas" epitomized all soldaderas and courageous women of that time.
The revolution brought about many corridos that depicted the attitude people had toward the soldaderas. Salas states, "Women's roles were distorted and they were seen as prostitutes, self- abnegating patriots or Amazons subdued by male romantic prowess." Those views blinded people from a real understanding of these women.
The women in the revolution were heroines. Pablos reminds us that women's participation took many forms. Soldaderas were not simply followers; they were military strategists and political thinkers. The soldaderas were not given their due until the 1960's when the Chicano movement took place. Chicanas looked back to the revolution for inspiration and models; in the soldaderas, they found ancestors who valiantly fought for their rights and beliefs.
The soldaderas influenced and continue to influence women's struggle for equality. Through their self-sacrifice, courage and suffering, Mexican women today have gained their basic rights. However, many must still secure the food supply, not resting until everyone is fed. And while they may not be fighting a traditional war, they still must brave the dangers that await them when they leave their homes to work. The soldadera still lives.