By Jan Chaiken and Marcia Chaiken
Mexican women attained the right to vote much later than their counterparts in the US and Canada. Women in Mexico were granted both the right to vote in national elections and the right to run for national office in 1953. For most readers from the US, the 19th.amendment to the constitution (ratified in 1920), which prohibited discrimination by sex in the right to vote in federal and state elections, must seem like ancient history. But many of our Mexican friends clearly remember the first time the women in their families could vote in national elections.
We asked a close friend what was her reaction and the reaction of her mother when the vote was given to women in Mexico. She said “it was not a cause for celebration, but more like the culmination of a long pent-up demand in Mexico for women’s rights. It seemed like it should have happened years before, especially because of women’s victories elsewhere around the world, and because women had been participating in various ways in Mexico even before the final constitutional change.”
Many women in Mexico still associate the abrogation of women’s participation in communal decisions with the Spanish conquest. Along with the introduction of then- modern weapons of warfare and diseases for which native Mexicans had no immunity, the conquistadores introduced patriarchal governmental systems that were truly foreign to matriarchal cultures that thrived in Mexico prior to 1492.
Women were not only denied governmental participation but also education. Sor Juana Ines de la Cruz, who called for the education of women in the late 17th century, was an exception and today stands as a model for feminists in Mexico. Although well-educated women were initially condemned and their writings suppressed, a century later it was not unusual for some women to be found attending college.
The Mexican Revolution that ended in 1910 greatly enhanced the participation of women in civil affairs. In addition to “traditional” roles such as making clothes and providing nursing care, women served in parts of the military and were engaged in espionage and strategic planning. One of the women taking a visible lead in supporting the revolution was Hermila Galindo. She became a strong supporter of
Venustiano Carranza and was influential in helping make him the first president of the newly formed Mexican Republic. Galindo was offered and accepted a position in the government and in this role organized a national convention in 1916, which took place in the State of Yucatán. The convention had the purpose of discussing and setting out an agenda for improving the lives and rights of Mexican women.
The 1917 Constitution, which provided strong labor protection laws, specifically included rights for women in provisions for protection in the work place and equal pay for equal work. However, although the constitution included universal suffrage, a political battle was waged over the interpretation of the wording of the suffrage provision. In the male-dominated legislatures the view prevailed that it referred to universal male suffrage. The argument about the language of the constitution was clearly political; it was obvious that women given the vote would overwhelmingly support the party of Carranza in future elections.
An interesting side issue, was that the Catholic Church supported women’s suffrage, even to the extent of priests giving sermons telling their members to vote in favor of candidates who would advance women’s rights. Sometimes there were parades out the church door right to the polling places on election day. But one of the main purposes of the Mexican Revolution had been to secularize the government and eliminate the previous influence of the Church. So the women’s suffrage issue was painted as suspicious by the politicians who presented this view.
The contentious arguments about whether the constitution already provided for women’s suffrage made clear that there was no actual legal impediment for states to allow for various levels of women’s participation in political life. Gradually women were elected to local public office in various states in Mexico, and women formed labor unions and other political action groups that supported particular (male) candidates. Support for these movements greatly increased in Mexico after the ratification of the 19th amendment to the US constitution, and highly visible attempts to grant women the vote took place in Mexico during the 1920’s.
In 1922, a strong supporter of women’s rights was briefly governor of the state of Yucatán. Women there were granted the right to vote in regional and congressional elections and had a contingent in the state legislature. These rights were nullified after the assassination of Yucatán’s governor.
In 1924 the Pan American Association for the Advancement of Women met in Mexico City, and twenty governors of Mexican states attended in support of the platform. But even though it was a national election year, there was no progress at the national level. The winning candidate was fiercely anti-clerical and therefore, since suffrage was equated with the Church’s position, anti-women’s vote.
The next year, 1925, the state of San Luis Potosí allowed the acclaimed feminist, Elvía Carrillo Puerto to run for national office. The rationale was that, although women did not have the right to vote, there was no prohibition on women standing for national office. She was actually elected to Congress. However the national Congress had complete authority to certify who had been elected . When the new Congress certified its membership, the name of the elected Elvia Carrillo Puerto was not included. She accepted her defeat gracefully but with great resolve for future change.
When Lazaro Cárdenas became a candidate for the presidential election of 1934, he had no history of support for women’s rights. But his advisors persuaded him that his best path to victory was to become a champion of women’s rights. His party’s platform included ringing endorsements of women’s suffrage. Remarkably this effort was derailed after his election by distant turmoil in Europe – the destruction of the Spanish Republic immediately after women had first voted in Spain. The sobering effect of this experience, followed by warfare in Europe, changed the focus in Mexico. Although Cárdenas did follow through and did propose a constitutional amendment which was ratified by a majority of states, the electoral balance had shifted by 1940, and the final actions of incorporating the amendment did not occur. Many at the time were unclear about what had happened, legally speaking, to the amendment, but after the next president took office, no doubt to the dismay of Mexico’s feminists, it was effectively dead.
It was not until 1951 and the nomination of Ruiz Cortines as the presidential candidate of PRI that the inclusion of suffrage was once again part of the party platform. Coincidentally, in 1952 the United Nations enacted a mandate for all member countries to give women the right to vote and to run for political office. Finally, in 1953, the Constitution of Mexico was amended to provide the right for women to vote and stand for election. No wonder the women who remember that day think of it as the culmination of a long and arduous journey that had had majority support for years.