Many historians attribute the emergence of Mexican feminism to the Mexican Revolution, a civil war that claimed hundreds of thousands of lives. It was a tumultuous time in history — or herstory if you will — 100 years ago, when the country was embroiled in the Western hemisphere´s most violent conflict. Among the many fallen soldiers were the adelitas, México´s brave women soldiers, or soldaderas, who fought with guns strapped to their bodies and bandoliers across their chests.
Although the idea of women serving in combat was a radical one for most Mexicans at the time, many women freely chose to take up arms, either in support of the federal army or the revolutionary forces bent on removing México´s dictator, Porfirio Díaz, from power. This hard-fought war, which started in 1910, took a full decade to win — or los, depending on which side you were on — and occurred at a time when the country would lose at least half a million of its citizens over a 10 year period to war, the Spanish Flu, starvation and firing squads.
During the war, women assisted male soldiers by cooking, organizing battle camps and tending the wounded. They also carried heavy equipment between battle sites and cared for children. Others, perhaps the fiercest women among them, joined the battles with rifles while riding skillfully on horseback, and took part in violent attacks. Some of the Adelitas both cooked and killed. Could be the first known multitasking.
The best were promoted to positions of some authority and experienced a sense of liberation and accomplishment like never before. Over time, and through the experiences of a brutal war, some of the soldaderas became formidable, tough fighters; some as tough as Pedro Herrera. Have you heard of him?
Pedro was known as a fearless soldier, skillful on the battlefield and with a wild temper to boot. Pedro rose to the rank of captain and later to coronel and served as a member of Venustiano, Carranza´s revolutionary force. After Pedro established himself as a successful soldier, however, he decided that it was time to reveal his true identity. Pedro was actually Petra, one of the women soldiers who had disguised herself so she could fight alongside the men! Carranza accepted her and gave Petra Herrera an all-woman regiment to command. Petra would go on to lead other Adelitas to many battlefield victories.
In 1913, the New York Times published an article titled, “Women fight on both sides,” in which it referred to 500 soldaderas as “expert with both knife and rifle.” In 1914, the El Paso Morning Star reported that another fierce woman warrior named Maria Quinteras de Mares, also known as La Coronela, “led many desperate charges and her followers have come to believe she is endowed with supernatural powers.”
McNair scholar Delia Fernández, writing for Grand Valley State College, states, “Women´s participation and contributions in the revolution were a liberating experience, and their sacrifice was rewarded with equality. The soldaderas newly found freedom led some women to reject the societal norms imposed on them.” Uh oh. Too bad he doesn’t elaborate on that.
Fernández says fighting in the war helped women advance their positions in a patriarchal society in which men were accustomed to controlling all aspects of a woman´s life. The soldiers also received payment for their military services, which provided even greater personal freedom.
By the 1950s, the image of the Adelita had been misrepresented by popular media. Classic Mexican movies, love songs and uninformed men with good fish stories created the persona of Adelita as a beautiful, sexy, carefree, loyal, licentious lady who could fight next to oversexed macho men and be easily seduced. For many of these men, she was the perfect woman.
In reality, the Adelitas were real women who worked hard, fought, sweat and got dirty like every other soldier; strong women who faced the pain and suffering of war and the real threat of death. They were mothers, daughters, sisters and spouses who died violently on the battle fields fighting for their cause.
By the time the war ended and Porfirio Díaz was driven from power, many of the women soldiers — bolstered by a new sense of self-confidence and an expanded view of the world — had become the new agents for change so desperately needed in an unfair and archaic society.
“Feminism, gender equality, and women´s liberation” probably did not exist in México at the start of the 20th century, but there is a clear sign of their emergence in the era of Las Adelitas de la Revolución Mexicana.