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  • Women in War: The Micro-Processes of Mobilization in El Salvador by Jocelyn Viterna
  • David Smilde
Women in War: The Micro-Processes of Mobilization in El Salvador By Jocelyn Viterna Oxford University Press. 2013. 304 pp. $24.95 paperback

In Women in War, Jocelyn Viterna looks at a paradox regarding women participants in El Salvador’s civil war. While female participation in guerrilla groups is often considered a “gender-bending” path to greater female public sphere participation in post-conflict contexts, Viterna’s careful observations show that the results of twelve years of civil war were less impressive than might be imagined: “Women guerrillas were less likely than their non-guerrilla counterparts to be community leaders or to hold gender-equitable beliefs. They have similar rates of partnership and numbers of children. Nearly all of them continue to live highly traditional lives dominated by care work for their family. How could FMLN participation not have been empowering for women?” (204).

Viterna develops a micro-structural, identity-based theory of mobilization to understand this paradox. She shows that one of the FMLN’s most important mobilization tools was to portray women and children as victims of the Salvadoran armed forces and the FMLN as their defenders. Such narratives not only generated “moral shocks” that made the FMLN into the good guys, they also undermined views of the guerrillas as a threat to the traditional gender order. FMLN leaders also used attractive young females as recruiters since their femininity generated sympathy among the population and shamed young men into mobilizing. But of course, these narratives and forms of participation never challenged the existing gender hierarchy and ended up reinforcing it.

At a more micro level, Viterna shows that those women who participated in the most gender-bending combat roles actually enjoyed fewer educational, economic, and political opportunities after the war than those who did not have combat roles. Those who fared best were the women who had become organizers in refugee camps and served important brokerage roles in the postwar process of repopulation; and the women who were guerrilla leaders, well connected to FMLN commanders in the demobilization process. These were the two groups of women in the right position to become community leaders in the peace process. Some of those in gender-bending combat roles effectively found themselves in a [End Page 1] sort of structural limbo in which their demobilization and privatization were a symbolic part of the transition to peace. Many of them came to actively reject community involvement and adopt traditional gendered caregiving roles.

This type of counterintuitive exploration of the ironies that mark social life is, of course, the classic contribution of careful sociological argument. It makes an important point for overly sanguine assumptions about the automatic multiplier effects of movements. Social movement participation does not automatically generate a virtuous cycle of civic participation. It can just as easily produce resentment, distrust, and atomization. Only carefully tracing the new relational and ideological contexts created by participation can help us determine the effects of participation. Viterna’s book excels in painstakingly tracing these conduits, providing a model for future research on the effects of social movement mobilization.

I do have a couple of small complaints. I would have liked to see some more attention to her sample of non-combatants, which gets only a paragraph in the chapter on mobilization. Viterna understandably focuses on those who mobilized, but more a detailed paired comparison with those who did not could have been used to draw out and highlight the experiences of the former.

And I would have liked more depth in the striking section in which Viterna challenges existing accounts that suggest that guerrilla camps were rife with sexual harassment and rape. She marshals interview data in which men and women describe a quite different environment in which women’s bodies were respected, albeit for largely patriarchal reasons. Some readers might question the accuracy of such recollections, suggesting they are simply post hoc narratives trying to create a history rather than give a factual recollection of it.

However, it is important to remember that these respondents are many years off from their actual participation and most of...


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