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Gabriela Cano and Lucia Rayas - History and Feminism in Mexico - Radical History Review 79 Radical History Review 79 (2001) 85-86

Forum: Reflections on Radical History

History and Feminism in Mexico

Gabriela Cano

The year 1979 was promising for new-wave feminism in Mexico. On March 8 of that year the National Front for the Liberation and Rights of Women (Frente Nacional por la Liberación y los Derechos de la Mujer--FNALIDM) was created; it gathered women's groups and leftist organizations around the topics of new feminism--autonomy of the body and the political aspect of personal life--joined in a radical Marxist discourse. Immersed in the voluntarism that characterized the left during those days, the FNALIDM was more oriented towards imagining the socialist feminist utopia than towards deepening its analysis of the complex and diverse reality of the present. Like other social utopias, the feminist socialist one searched for legitimacy in history. On the one hand, the FNALIDM reclaimed the heritage of international workers' struggles, symbolized by March 8, and, on the other, it declared itself heir of the Sole Front Pro-Women's Rights (Frente Unico Pro-Derechos de la Mujer--FUPDM), which during the 1930s, a decade of intense social mobilization in Mexico, struggled for women's suffrage and gathered many popular organizations around a program of social and economic demands of a Marxist nature.

That same year of 1979 I began my university studies of history at the National Autonomous University of Mexico, in an academic environment in which historical materialism, economic history, and the history of social movements enjoyed great popularity among students and some professors. Even when historicist positions had little prestige, they ended up being more influential in the long run. Historicism, heir of vitalistic philosophy, mistrusted the teleological sense of historical materialism while it insisted on the importance of historical interpretation and hermeneutics of documents considered complex cultural products.

My university studies and activities for the feminist movement remained unlinked until I learned about the work of the British History Workshop Movement, particularly that of Sheila Rowbotham, which showed me that the professional tools of history could be interwoven with my feminist interests. As a historian I could track the heritage of the feminist movement and contribute to building its legitimacy as a social movement of the left. My youth, professional inexperience, and voluntarism prevented me from imagining the complexity of such an endeavor.

In tune with the existing interest in my academic environment in the history of the workers' movement and social struggles, I chose for a thesis topic a teachers' strike that took place towards the end of the Mexican Revolution. I wanted to reconstruct the agency of the women teachers involved in the strike. They represented over 75 percent of the professors and had been, to borrow the title of Rowbotham's classic work, hidden from history.

I didn't succeed in my enterprise. I could only devote a few pages to describing [End Page 85] the discrimination these women teachers suffered at their jobs. Difficulties around sources and, above all, reconstruction and historical analysis turned out to be a greater challenge than I had previously foreseen.

When I first succeeded in documenting specific aspects of the history of feminism in Mexico in the twentieth century, my work was well received among feminist groups. But I still couldn't find a way to solve the methodological problems of women-centered historical research. New gender studies, particularly Joan Scott's celebrated article on gender in historical analyses, became a great inspiration for my work. Even when they did not solve the problems I faced, they opened up new avenues for critical thought.

At the onset of the 1990s, I was still interested in women teachers and their relationship with the feminist current during the first decades of the twentieth century, a topic I dwelt upon in my Ph.D. thesis, in which I got to the bottom of some aspects of the gendered cultural constructions that forged their social, professional, and political identities. I believe one can, through history, profitably meditate on matters that resist change, such as the persistent exclusion of women from political power and their equally lasting invisibility as intellectual producers.

Women's organizations frequently demand historical information that legitimizes their identity, the same way they did twenty years ago, when the new feminism emerged. Even if I understand that necessity, I don't believe the task of history is offering "background" that justifies current political identities. From my point of view, the main value of historical knowledge lies in the contribution it may offer towards a critical review of the present, one that avoids simple and schematic interpretations.

History may show that gender norms and conventions, among other human constructions, are complex and lasting, but also that they are flexible and can be, to some degree, susceptible to change. A recent project about a transsexual person during the Mexican Revolution allowed me to show the flexibility of gender in social and cultural contexts in which gender identities and their symbolization are usually considered fixed.

Unlike the history of great social movements and structural transformations that I used to admire twenty years ago, now I believe microhistory, à la Carlo Ginzburg and Natalie Zemon Davis, is a form of historical knowledge that may empower people as it demonstrates the importance of the possible changes within the immediate small universe of human beings. Emphasis on individuals and their possibilities for acting and transforming their internal and external world, expressed in a narrative, makes this kind of history a cultural expression that should enhance the construction of utopias and strengthen aspirations towards change.

Translated by Lucía Rayas

Gabriela Cano is professor of Mexican history at the Universidad Autonoma Metropolitana-Iztapalapa in Mexico City.