Rising above Their Role: Women and the War of Independence

By Deborah Van Hoewyk

Mexico is macho, right? Machismo is matched with Marianismo (courtesy of the Catholic Church, every woman represents the pure and nurturing Mary), right? Except for the Tehuanas of the Isthmus, women take a back seat in Mexico, right?

Actually, not so much. The seeds of Mexican feminism were sown by women who fought—literally—in the country’s revolutions: The War of Independence (1810-21) and, a century later, the Mexican Revolution (1910-20).

Fighting for Independence

The War for Independence happened at a time when records of what women were doing were in short supply, but they were there. They were there in secret societies that read and discussed Enlightenment texts—which had already contributed to the American (1775-83) and French (1789-99) Revolutions. They were there withdrawing money from their banks, dying on the battlefield, serving as spies and nurses. The tendency towards revolution and freedom was engendered by the oppressive systems of colonial racism, and took advantage of confusion in Spain brought on by Napoleon’s rather misbegotten “Peninsula War” (1807-14), in which France tried unsuccessfully to take over the Iberian Peninsula.

As Mexico moved towards war, women from all levels of society used the circumstances of political and social unrest to emerge from their traditional role of household managers and actively join the fray. Here’s a look at some of these “heroines of independence.”

Perhaps the best known is Josepha Ortiz de Domínguez. Born in 1768 in what is now Morelia, Michoacán, Josefa Ortiz was orphaned very young and brought up by her older sister, María Sotero. María saw to it that Josefa was well educated, sending her to the Real Colegio de San Ignacio de Loyola Vizcaínas, opened in 1767 to provide secondary education to orphaned girls and widows (it is now Mexico’s only continuously operating colonial institution, and has gone co-ed). Josefa started there in 1789, and two years later was introduced to José Miguel Domínguez Alemán, a lawyer and widower who often visited the school. Twelve years Josefa’s senior, he married her later that year. In 1802, José Miguel was appointed magistrate (corregidor) of Queretaro, where they moved and settled down; eventually, they had 14 children. Josefa and José Miguel moved in high circles in Queretaro, and she, apparently no shrinking violet, became known as “La corregidora.”

Social and professional life in New Spain was organized in a sistema de castas, a hierarchical system designed to rank people by purity of race. At the top were the European Spaniards, at the bottom were the indigenous people native to Mexico, and the intervening levels were characterized by degree of mestizaje, or mixed-race identity that resulted from intermarriage between Europeans and native peoples. After the European Spaniards (Peninsulares) came those born in Mexico but of European parentage— criollos—Josefa and José Miguel fell in this group. A Spanish priest assigned your casta at birth, which pre-determined your social and economic future, right down to the amount of taxes you paid.

Doña Josefa was known for her opposition to the casta system, with strong sympathies for those on the lower rungs of the ladder. She identified herself as “Mexican,” not Spanish, and fought for indigenous rights.

Josefa had been drawn into the local movement that had been secretly discussing Enlightenment ideas of revolution (such discussions were prohibited by the Catholic church); she convinced her husband of the importance of these ideas, and started holding meetings at their home—Father Miguel Hidalgo was among the revolutionaries, and they planned to start the rebellion on December 8, 1810. However, the colonial government received news of the revolution on September 13th, and asked the Corregidor—José Miguel—to conduct a house-to-house search to find the leaders. He locked Josefa in her room to prevent her exposure and apprehension, but she was one step ahead of him and had arranged a signal to the co-conspirators to let them know they were in danger of arrest. Hidalgo and the other leaders escaped to the town of Dolores, about 50 miles as the crow flies to the northwest. At midnight between September 15th and 16th, Hidalgo issued the “grito de Dolores” (the cry of Dolores) that announced the fight for independence.

Eventually, both Josefa and her husband spent time in prison for their roles in the revolution, Josefa in a couple of monasteries. She was released in 1817, after being required to swear she would not work to support the revolution. After the war, Mexico adopted an imperial form of government rather than a Republic, an outcome Josefa did not approve of; she turned down an offer to serve as a lady-in-waiting to the Empress, as well as a “woman of honor” award bestowed by the Empress. In her later life, she was involved with other radical movements to reshape Mexico into a more egalitarian state. She died in Mexico City in 1829 at the age of 55.

Another “heroine of independence”, was Gertrudis Bocanegra Mendoza, also from Michoacán and a reader of Enlightenment authors, served as a courier among rebel forces. Her husband and oldest son died in battle. Gertrudis Bocanegra was captured, tortured, and executed in 1817 in Pátzcuaro; apparently she harangued her executioners before they shot her to death. She was 52.

Leona Vicario Fernández de San Salvador, known as Leona Vicario (1789-1842), supported the war both tactically and financially. Living in Mexico City, she belonged to a secret society called Las Guadeloupes, which devoted itself to espionage—she and others managed to steal documents straight from the colonial viceroy’s office, and pass them to the insurgents. Leona was also one of Mexico’s first female journalists and an outspoken feminist.

Another native of Michoacán, María Luisa Martínez de García Rojas (1780-1817), served as a spy. Her messages were discovered by authorities and she was arrested and fined several times. The last time she went to jail, Martínez could not pay the fine, which had been raised, and she was executed. Facing the marksmen, she is reported to have said, “I have the right to do what I can for my country, because I am a Mexican woman. I do not think I have committed any crime, I have only done my duty. ”

Manuela Medina (1780-1822), a full-blooded indigena from Texcoco, served as a soldier for independence, fighting with the activist priest José María Morelos with the rank of Captain. She led her troops through seven battles against Spanish forces; her last battle was just before the end of the war, in 1821, where she was seriously wounded. Her injuries eventually killed her the next year. A second soldier-heroine, María Fermina Rivera, followed her husband into combat with Vicente Guerrero. She was killed at Chichihualco, Guerrero, in 1821.

Fighting for Rights

A century later, women also supported, fought, and died in the Mexican Revolution (1910-20), a war waged to rid the country of a thirty-year-old dictatorship and establish a constitutional republic that recognized the rights of Mexico’s indigenous populations. While it was truly a national revolution, with significant historic sites across the country, the first shot was fired by a woman. Should you be in Puebla, be sure to visit the house of Carmen Serdán, which is now the Regional Museum of the Mexican Revolution. The guides will be happy to point out the bullet holes, not to mention a shattered mirror, as they tell the tale of how Carmen fired the shot heard round the hemisphere.

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