Yucatán, with its vibrant history of separatist movements, indigenous struggles, and machine politics, has long captured the imagination of Mexicanist historians. In part because Mérida hosted the First Feminist Congress in 1916, feminist historians of twentieth-century Mexico (myself included) have been especially drawn to Yucatecan history. Feminist historians also have a particular advantage because the Yucatán state archive remains under the talented direction of Piedad Peniche Rivero, who shares our intellectual passions. Control over the archive, as any Foucaultian knows, structures knowledge production and, in this case, feminist history is richer for it. Stephanie Smith offers an excellent example of the scholarship we generate with the benefit of such resources.
Smith draws largely on legal records from both civil and military courts to demonstrate the ways that the revolutionary governments of Salvador Alvarado (1915-1918) and Felipe Carrillo Puerto (1922-1924) retained many of the patriarchal assumptions of the ancien régime and the Catholic Church. As a result, despite the radical reforms that took place in Yucatán, particularly under the leadership of Elvia Carrillo Puerto—Felipe's sister and the feminist-in-chief during his administration—gains such as women's political rights, easy divorce laws, and a sympathetic judiciary were quickly reversed after Felipe Carrillo Puerto's assassination and Elvia's daring escape. [End Page 401]
Through engaging and often poignant narratives drawn from these court cases, we gain important insights about these two revolutionary governments, in addition to noting the relentless reinscription of patriarchy. Most notably, the military government under Alvarado arguably benefited women more than the more explicitly feminist policies under Carrillo Puerto. As Smith shows, the military tribunals exhibited stronger sympathies for women's grievances about abandonment, seduction, and rape. The more rationalized, technocratic Carrillo Puerto government relied less on women's word than on supposed medical evidence of coercion, offering studied judgments about plaintiffs' hymens and whether their jagged edges indicated a consensual or forced "deflowering." Similarly, whereas Alvarado took a relatively tolerant and paternalist view of Yucatán's sex trade, Carrillo Puerto's modernizing public health campaigns targeted prostitutes more directly, putting them at the mercy of state agents. (One also wonders if the difference did not stem from Alvarado's recognition that military personnel frequented the Mérida brothels.)
In the end, Smith argues, "despite the volume and variety of the governors' liberal laws, most of them failed to challenge entrenched notions of patriarchal privilege and instead left women without equal rights or status" (p. 178). While the "myth of the revolutionary governors' feminist advances" can offer a "paradigm for potential and political promise" (p. 179), Smith alliteratively notes that we should dispense with the notion that these decrees from above achieved any lasting political, social, or cultural change.
Smith's book would work well in an undergraduate course on Mexican history or women's history, in part because the stories that animate it are so captivating. She occasionally lets her courtroom narratives run away with her—there are quite a few "fateful days," and the plaintiffs generally appear more heroic than human—but these stories keep readers turning the pages and allow the author to drive home her argument in ways that few will forget. The book's thematic organization may confuse some students due to the doubling back of chronology, returning to the Porfiriato with every chapter and running back through the revolutionary period. The structure serves Smith's argument well, however, since it allows her to demonstrate in an array of examples—the judicial system, Church-State relations, divorce laws, and the regulation of prostitution—how the revolutionary government retreated from its promises to women.
In short, Gender and the Mexican Revolution makes an important contribution to the emergent field of Mexican feminist history—the growing number of studies examining Mexico's complex and peculiar feminist movements as well as the impact of feminist ideas. Scholars of Mexican history, women and gender, and legal studies will learn much from this very readable book. [End Page 402]
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