International Women’s Day, Mexican Style

By Deborah Van Hoewyk

Over the years, the March issue of the The Eye has observed International Women’s Day (March 8) with articles on the famous, the fierce, the creative, the entrepreneurial – and the murdered – women of Mexico.

Mexican women have been world-class artists, actors, writers and photographers; they fought in their two national revolutions and have played key roles in the Zapatista movement. They are businesswomen and entrepreneurs; they occasionally give men a run for their money in corruption.

Politically speaking, Mexico has just become a leader in gender equity: by law, half the Congress must be women (The U.S. Senate is 24% women, and the House of Representatives is about 28%; in Canada, the Senate recently reached 50% women, but only briefly, while the House of Commons is 34% women.)

International Women’s Day is a worldwide celebration of what has been achieved in terms of women’s social, economic, cultural, and political equity; IWD works to raise awareness of what remains to be done. It emerged early in the 20th century – from labor struggles in the U.S. and Europe, from suffrage struggles in Russia, and in Mexico, from the Revolution of 1910-20. Although the U.S. labor movement celebrated National Women’s Day in 1909, the first International Women’s Day was observed in Europe in 1911. With the second-wave women’s movement of the 1960s, recognition by the U.N. in 1975, and official U.N. designation of March 8 as the date in 1977, IWD became a mainstream, but largely unofficial, holiday throughout the world.

International Women’s Day in Mexico

In Mexico, IWD was first celebrated in the 1930s in Mexico City. Mexican feminism began to emerge in the late 19th century, aimed mostly at achieving education for women; these efforts bore fruit before, during, and after the Revolution, as schoolteachers started entering the workforce. (The right to divorce came during the Revolution, in 1914.) Feminist magazines began appearing in the decades surrounding the Revolution as well, but they did not focus on broad social, economic, and political rights of full citizenship; rather, they promoted the emancipación of women within traditional social structures – they should broaden their intellectual and cultural horizons, and the importance their roles as wife and mother should be recognized.

With the support of progressive forces, including the Communist Party of Mexico, the Frente Único pro Derechos de la Mujer (The United Front for the Rights of Women – Frida Kahlo was one of the leaders), focused directly on national suffrage (there had been local progress on voting rights in the Yucatán and San Luis Potosí). Although the United Front was very active in the late 1930s, women did not win the national right to vote until 1953.

Until recently, there has been little research on mid-century Mexican feminism, but if we look carefully at a 1960 Mexican poster commemorating International Women’s Day and the 50th anniversary of the Mexican Revolution, we can get a picture of just what the emancipation of women meant Mexico.

First, the poster shows the involvement of women in larger revolutionary struggles. The central figure, bearing a torch, is backed by the Cuban flag and has the number 26 emblazoned on her shirt – “26” was the symbol of Castro’s campaign to overthrow the Cuban dictator Fulgencio Batista (the effort began July 26, 1953). On the right of the poster appear Asian women – the Chinese Revolution that brought that Communist Party and Mao Zedong to power concluded on October 1, 1949. To the left appear three Mexican women, who arguably represent, from front to back, women of direct Spanish descent, mestizos (Spanish and indigenous descent), and indigenous. A Mexican girl releases a dove, symbol of peace, to the flock in the sky. Nonetheless, the idea that women have participated in national revolutions is not the same as promoting a major revolution for the rights of women.

Second, and what is perhaps most interesting – and complicated – is the slogan across the bottom of the poster: LA EMANCIPACION DE LA MUJER ES LA OBRA DE LA MUJER MISMA (The emancipation of women is the work of the woman herself). “Emancipation” is a fraught word, saying more about the condition women want to escape – it reeks of restraint and control, if not slavery. And to say it is women themselves who must do the work of emancipation passes the buck on the long history of Church-influenced social structures and laws, much less the culture of machismo (literally, maleness) that have led to the need for emancipation.

International Women’s Day 2020

The Mexican feminist movement grew, as it did all around the world, during the 1960s through the 1980s. In the 1990s, however, the phenomenon of femicide in Mexico surfaced in Ciudad Juárez, Chihuahua, where hundreds of women went missing, only to be found dead. Evaluations of interventions to quell the violence have shown they have had little effect, due to lackluster implementation or the country’s culture of impunity that favors men.

Thirty years later, with femicide and violence against women only growing, the slogans of the International Women’s Day marches of 2020 and 2021 said nothing about “emancipation.” Nor were the marches merely demonstrations, but serious, and violent, protests about femicide and gender-based violence.

On Saturday, February 8, 2020, Érick Francisco murdered his partner Ingrid Escamilla by stabbing her to death with a kitchen knife, then proceeding to skin and dismember her. This is femicide, which is far more prevalent in Mexico than the official statistics allow. For the murder of a woman to be considered a femicide, the woman must have experienced ongoing domestic, particularly sexual, abuse, and she must have been tortured or mutilated as part of the murder.

In 2018, Mexico registered 3,752 femicides, over 10 a day; in 2019, it was 3,825. Femicides surged 7.7% in the opening months of the pandemic. Feminists have called Mexico the “Femicide State” (Mexico Feminicidio) and cite a “culture of impunity” coming straight from the top.

In March 2020, there were over 26,000 calls to domestic violence hotlines. Mexico’s president, Andrés Manual López Obrador (AMLO) said 90% of them were fake. AMLO has also expressed impatience with feminist protests – they were just a distraction to make sure his airplane raffle failed; the March 8 demonstrations were the work of neoliberal opponents from the last regime “who want to see this government fail,” and “suddenly conservatives are dressing up as feminists” to attack him (reporting from The New York Times, May 31, 2020).

On International Women’s Day, Sunday, March 8, 2020, about 80,000 women took to the streets in Mexico City alone. Femicide and gender-based violence were the major themes: “Fight today so we don’t die tomorrow,” was accompanied by hundreds of posters of murdered women.

On Monday, March 9, the movement sponsored “A Day without Women,” a universal strike by women who stayed home from work (4o%, or 21 million, of Mexico’s women are in the formal workforce, countless more comprise the informal workforce) or did not leave their houses, in particular, they spent nothing to contribute to the economy. Major corporations (Walmart employs 108,000 women) gave women a paid day off to demonstrate.

International Women’s Day 2021

The National Palace – the seat of Mexico’s government and the home of the president – prepared for last year’s march with a barricade running all around the building. AMLO said it was to prevent “damage to historic buildings” (another barrier was erected around the national art museum, the Palacio de Bellas Artes), and to eliminate “provocations” that might be “infiltrated” by people seeking to use the women’s movement. AMLO himself, he said, is not a “male chauvinist” (reporting from BBC News, March 8, 2021).

On Monday, March 8, International Women’s Day saw a smaller number of protestors than in 2020, perhaps due to the pandemic, perhaps because there had been no ghastly femicides recently. Women, however, remained equally outraged. They were outraged by the barricade, which on Saturday night they had painted with a seemingly endless list – actually, 939 – of the names of murdered women.

They were also outraged by AMLO’s insensitivity to women’s issues, expressed this year in his steadfast support for Félix Salgado Macedonia, a candidate for governor of the state of Guerrero accused of rape by multiple women. According to AMLO, the accusations are “politically motivated,” and news-conference questions about Salgado brought a sharp “That’s enough!” (¡Ya Chole!). (Salgado’s daughter, Evelyn Salgado Pineda, is now governor of Guerrero.)

Protestors attacked the barricade with hammers, blowtorches, and their hands. Police threw flash-bang grenades and sprayed protestors with fire retardant; protestors sprayed well-shielded police with fire extinguishers. Injuries were reported by 62 police and 19 protestors.

While not all women in these protests agree that violence should be the tactic of choice, they also recognize that it seems to be the only way to focus attention on the issue of violence against themselves. Violence against women is the most basic way to keep women from achieving equality, and Mexico’s police have been “heavily implicated” in the crisis of violence against women. It should not be surprising that the “new” feminists of Mexico are younger women dedicated to supporting each other in the face of violence, using violent protest themselves when they consider it necessary.

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