Since the founding of the Mexican republic, women have been politically engaged in their respective communities. The creation of a modern nation-state during the last decades of the 19th century and first half of the 20th century marked an increase in women’s formal and informal political participation in the country. During the Mexican Revolution of 1910 and particularly in the post-revolutionary period, Mexican women took a much more active role in engaging the state, formed political alliances and organizations, pressed for labor and political rights, and worked collectively and individually to secure suffrage. Women have been part of an array of political parties and have played a key role in the slow and uneven process of democratization in Mexico. In and outside the bounds of formal political parties, and in the greater sphere of electoral politics, women participated in multiple ways in the post-1953 period. Even during the years when women lacked the right to vote, they were engaged politically in the local, regional, national, and international spheres. They did so by participating in all political parties, and participated in voting drives, actively promoted issues that concerned them, and pushed for gender equity in the greater electoral process. Despite lacking suffrage, women in Mexico were engaged citizens in the broadest sense of the word.
By the eve of the 21st century, women had served in almost all municipal, state, and government positions and had also competed for the highest office in the land. Yet the limits in electoral reform legislation, unequal and uneven economic development, gender and sexual violence, and continued distrust of the nation’s political system, as well as widespread insecurity caused by a violent drug war that was being strengthened by the influx of US weapons, remained major challenges to women’s continued participation on the country’s long road to democratization.
Chin Chun Chan premiered at the Teatro Principal in Mexico City on April 9, 1904, to an enthusiastic audience. The first Mexican zarzuela written by José F. Elizondo and Rafael Medina with music by Luis G. Jordá initiated a new current in Mexican lyric theater that moved away from the Spanish zarzuelas and the operas popular during the Porfiriato: the teatro de revistas, or revistas. With the subtitle of “A Chinese Conflict in One Act and Three Scenes,” Chin Chun Chan is a story about mistaken identity in which a fed-up man attempts to escape his jealous partner by disguising himself as a Chinese dignitary at a grand hotel in Mexico City. Chin Chun Chan was a significant move away from Spanish productions, attempting to create a local entertainment that could be defined as Mexican through popular characters, dialogues, music, and colloquialisms. This formula set the stage for later revistas particularly during the armed struggle of the Revolution (1910–1920). Through a closer examination of the music numbers and the dialogue, Chin Chun Chan offers new readings on the position of ethnicity, nationalism, and sexuality during this contemporary period of political and social instability and initiates an important period in Mexican theatrical history.
One of the leading figures who pioneered and promoted changes toward modernity in Mexico City was Laura Méndez de Cuenca. Laura dared to transgress the traditional Catholic norms of her time. She was a teacher, a leader of a feminist movement, and an avant-garde writer. Above all, she dared to live a modern life. But, what was a modern life? Méndez chose an audacious path in order to live a modern life, a life of hard work, determination, and freedom––a freedom for which she paid a high price.
Sueann Caulfield and Cristiana Schettini
Over the past forty years, increasing attention to gender and sexuality in Brazilian historiography has given us a nuanced understanding of diverse ways in which women and men in Brazil’s past experienced patriarchy, racism, and other forms of oppression. As gender historians have shed light on how racialized and patriarchal gender and sexual roles have been reconstituted in different historical contexts, empirical studies in the field of social history have focused primarily on the historical agency of women, particularly non-elite women, who lived within or pushed against the confines of prescribed gender roles. Pioneering histories of sexual minorities have accompanied this trajectory since the 1980s, although this subfield has grown more slowly.
A few nodal themes help to explain transformations in gender relations during each of the major periods of Brazil’s social and political history. Under the empire (1822–1889), honor is the entryway for analysis of gender and sexuality. Gendered standards of honor were critical tools used to mark class and racial boundaries, and to traverse them. Historians of the imperial period also stress the centrality of gender to the social, cultural, and economic networks built by members of various occupational, familial, and kinship groups. During the First Republic (1889–1930), the focus shifts to state vigilance and social control, together with debates over modernization of sexual and gender norms, particularly regarding urban space and prostitution. In the Vargas era (1930–1945), patriarchy and racialized sexuality formed the core of intellectual constructions of the nation’s history and identity, at the same time that homosexuality and women’s and worker’s rights generated intense debate. A new emphasis on domesticity emerged in the context of developmentalism in the 1950s, helping to spur a reaction in the form of the counterculture and sexual revolution of the 1960s and 1970s. The dictatorship (1964–1985) went to great lengths to suppress challenges to gender and sexual norms as part of its broader strategy to demobilize society and repress oppositional political movements. These challenges reemerged in the 1970s, when feminists and sexual minorities gained much greater visibility within a new wave of social movements.
The 1988 constitution articulated these movements’ aspirations for social justice and equality through its foundational principal of human dignity. Significant legal changes followed over subsequent decades, including recognition of equal labor rights for domestic and sex workers, affirmative-action policies, and the legalization of same-sex marriage, in 2011. Despite notable setbacks, the momentum toward gender and sexual equality at the start of the 21st century was remarkable. This momentum was halted by the political coup that ousted the first woman president in 2016. The anti-feminist mood that accompanied the impeachment process underscored an overarching theme that runs through the historiography of gender and sexuality in Brazil: the centrality of gender to the major legal and political shifts that mark the nation’s history.
This research project investigates women’s involvement in the struggles to achieve political independence in Spanish America and Brazil during the first half of the 19th century. The project is hosted at the University of Nottingham, Department of Spanish, Portuguese, and Latin American Studies, School of Cultures, Languages, and Area Studies; it was funded by the University of Nottingham and the UK Arts and Humanities Research Council (AHRC) between 2001 and 2014. The online searchable database was a core output of the first of these AHRC-funded projects (2001–2006): “Gendering Latin American Independence: Women’s Political Culture and the Textual Construction of Gender 1790–1850.” It was enhanced in stages with an AHRC Pilot Dissemination Award (2006–2007) and Follow-on Funding (2012) for the crowd-sourcing project “Women and Independence in Latin America: A New Multimedia Community–Contributed, Community-Driven Online Resource” in collaboration with the Horizon Digital Economy Institute, University of Nottingham.
The aim of the follow-on-funding awards was to stimulate widespread public debate, preferably in collaboration with partners (national and international). This was of particular importance with respect to the involvement of Latin American women in the independence wars against Spain and Portugal, an aspect of women’s history that had been much neglected. Since 2006, a lively public debate has emerged about women’s involvement in the wars of independence, especially in Latin America. The debate has focused on women’s exclusion from mainstream nationalist historiography and their problematic position in postindependence politics and public culture. The unprecedented surge of interest in women’s history and the founding discourses of the Spanish American republics has been triggered by the bicentenary celebrations of Spanish American political independence, which began in 2010 and will continue into the 2020s, and the recent rise to political prominence of women in Latin America (women presidents in Brazil, Costa Rica, Chile, and Argentina).
The research project of 2001–2006 focused more specifically on the constructions of gender categories in the culture of the independence period and the impact of war and conflict on women’s lives, social relationships, and cultural production. The research emphasized the significance of women in the independence process and explored the reasons for their subsequent exclusion from political culture until recently. Independence was examined in terms of gender: (a) the study of women’s political culture, (b) women’s activities and writings, and (c) the textual construction of gender in political discourse. Questions were posed: Did the wars of independence change traditional ways of thinking about women, and change women’s views of themselves? How was the category “woman” produced historically and politically in Spanish America at the time? In what ways were those identified as women constructed ambiguously as subjects and objects in political discourse? What were women’s responses to the republican discourse of individual rights that equated individuality with masculinity? Why, after political independence, were political rights still denied to over half the population according to the criterion of sexual difference?
Lucha libre, or professional wrestling, has become a staple of urban Mexican culture over the course of the 20th century. In the past twenty years, it has gained international acclaim for its distinctive style and culture. Best known for the masks that luchadores often wear, lucha libre has become a distinctly national rendition of an imported product. Along with Japan and the United States, Mexico is one of the most influential nations in the world of professional wrestling. The sport allows fans to root for técnicos, rudos, and exóticos and it provides theater that upends societal norms in Mexico. Banned from performing on television by Federal District authorities from the 1950s to the early 1990s, wrestlers like El Santo and Blue Demon took to the silver screen to film “Mexploitation” horror and science fiction films. Although the sport has become an urban tradition, it reflects the cosmopolitan nature of working-class urban culture as well as the influence of Mexican culture on other nations.
In the first half of the 20th century, Uruguay was a relatively educated, democratic, and politically progressive South American country, and women there used old and new media for professional and political ends. Radical, Catholic, and liberal feminist women all utilized print media to promote their views and build support for their respective causes in publications aimed at both female and general audiences. Anarchist feminist María Collazo, for example, edited an important publication, La Batalla, from 1915 to approximately 1927. By the late 1920s, radio was an emerging mass medium, and women activists, journalists, and others sought to make their voices heard, literally and figuratively, on its airwaves. Starting in 1935, those airwaves included Radio Femenina, the first all-woman format radio station in the Western Hemisphere. One of the voices heard on Radio Femenina was Dra. Paulina Luisi, Uruguay’s leading feminist activist, who became a powerful voice of both the Socialist Party and the politics of the Popular Front in the late 1930s and early 1940s.
The 1960s in Argentina was a time convulsed by profound social, cultural, and political changes. Reflecting on the effect these processes had on the everyday, conceived as the spaces and routines involved in the reproduction of life that vary according to social class, generation, and gender, provides a valuable perspective for studying historical phenomena. It gives substance to and evidences the social nature of personal experience. Through that prism, the study of everyday life will be the gateway to understanding the turbulence produced by cultural effervescence, growing consumerism, the expansion of the media, the problems triggered by economic instability and escalating inflation, and the ruptures caused by political and social radicalization and the rise of repressive violence.
In the 1850s, Juana Catarina Romero, known popularly as Juana Cata, peddled her cigarettes on the streets of Tehuantepec in the state of Oaxaca, Mexico, an activity that enabled her to serve as a spy for the liberals under the command of Captain Porfirio Díaz during the War of the Reform (1858–1860). By 1890, Romero (1837–1915) had emerged as an international merchant, sugar cane producer and refiner, philanthropist, and “modernizing” cacica of the city of Tehuantepec. As powerful women rarely receive credit for their achievements, popular myth attributes her success to the men in her life, a supposed youthful love affair with Díaz or a later lover, Colonel Remigio Toledo. In contrast, a study of her career helps to shed light on how women could attain and exercise power in the 19th century and the ways in which they participated in the construction of the nation-state and a capitalist economy. Her trajectory shows that when allied with these forces of modernization, women could take on a more public role in society. It also reveals that it is through the lens of local and regional history that women’s contributions and accomplishments, so often erased in national histories, can be made visible.
Inés Pérez and Elizabeth Hutchison
The regulation of labor relations and social rights substantially changed workers’ lives over the course of the 20th century. Domestic service, however, was only poorly and belatedly protected under labor law, and its incorporation proceeded in a slow, ambiguous, and nonlinear manner. The specific ways in which domestic service regulation emerged in Chile and Argentina, respectively, offer insight into this process and also present some important contrasts, despite the nations’ geographic proximity. In Chile, although the rights recognized for household workers were limited, the Labor Code of 1931 included an article on domestic service. In Argentina, the first comprehensive regulation for this sector was a special statute sanctioned by decree in 1956. In both cases, the “special” nature of such regulation was attributed to the place of domestic service in family life. As domestic labor was reconceptualized through legislative reform in each country, household workers gradually came to enjoy some, but not all, of the rights guaranteed to other workers.