We tend to praise Villa and Zapata as the real heroes of the Mexican Revolution. However, without the soldaderas, the outcome of the war would've been totally different.
“Popular entre la tropa era Adelita,
(Popular among the troop was Adelita,)
la mujer que el Sargento idolatraba,
(the woman that the sergeant idolized,)
y además de ser valiente era bonita
(and besides being pretty she was brave)
que hasta el mismo Coronel la respetaba.”
(that even the Colonel respected her.)
If you’ve been to Mexico or you're planning on visiting, you’ll probably hear these lines at some point of your trip. They belong to a very popular kind of folk song, best known as “corridos,” that narrate events or stories from the Revolution years. Though no one has ever actually found out who this Adelita was (there are some theories that claim she was one of Pancho Villa’s mistresses), the name has become a synonym of “soldadera” or the thousands of women who fought or were part of the different Revolution armies. Wearing their long skirts and traditional embroidered blouses, with two cartridge belts across their chest, long braids, and rifles on hand, the image of the soldaderas has become ingrained in Mexican history. But who were these women really and how did they help win the Revolution?
For starters, we must clarify that the name soldadera or Adelita is used to name all women who went with the troops during the almost ten years that the Revolution lasted, regardless of the role they had. The most common role these women had was fighting along with the men, but their numbers were actually kind of low. The reasons why so many women (it’s estimated that around 900,000 died, so it’s believed that more than a million took part in this war) joined the war efforts are varied, and in most cases, brutal.
Women in those days were considered to be second-class citizens, mere objects at men’s disposal. The few who dared go against gender norms of the time actually had to dress like men and disguise their identities to rise up in the military hierarchy. Most of these women belonged to the middle and upper classes and had very strong political interests to change the course of the country and gain more freedoms. Still, there were some women who ended up leading the troops without changing their identity. These generally achieved their ranks when their husbands or brothers died in battle, and they were able to take their place on the battlefield. Once they had gotten inside the troop, they had to work twice as hard to earn the men's respect and demonstrate their leading abilities. But then again, there were very few of these cases.
About ninety percent of the female population of the different revolutionary armies were meant to take care of the men. That means, they had to set up the camps, cook, keep the place clean, and please their men after the battle. They were basically their servants, and had to be willing to please the soldiers. The ones who wanted to do a bit more for the movement would set up improvised hospitals to treat the wounded. Others were also spies and smuggled weapons, ammo, and food, mainly in the North, since they could cross the border without raising suspicion. However, for most women, this was a hellish experience. Horses were for men who fought, so women had to walk long distances while carrying their stuff, not to mention that in the most difficult moments of the Revolution, when food was scarce, it was given to men to keep them strong for battle. So, if conditions were that deplorable, why were their numbers so high?
There were many reasons, as we mentioned before, that led these women to join the revolutionary forces, besides actually believing this was something worth fighting and risking their lives for. The first one has nothing to do with their own free will. Thousands of women all over the country were kidnapped to work for the male soldiers of the troops of their region, while others were kidnaped and raped by their enemies to make a statement. These stories were all over the news, but most of the targets were illiterate women without access to newspapers. Most of the time, it was too late when the troops reached their villages, and if they couldn't hide somewhere fast enough, they endured a terrible fate.
Fear also pushed thousands of women to join the war. They knew that it would be best to be around their family to protect them, rather than being taken by strangers who would torture them. So, when a man decided to join one side of the war, they generally arrived with all their family tagging along. Generally, (except for the federal army, who forced men to enlist) men would join the different divisions because they believed in the goals these were fighting for. They aimed for freedom and justice for the lower class, who were living in the worst conditions, even in a kind of slavery. Many of these women who decided to accompany their families were willing to do their best to achieve these goals, and even when they weren’t able to fight, their role was crucial for the survival of the troops.
Revenge was also a huge motivation for many women. There are tons and tons of tales about women who swore revenge for the murder of their family and decided to join the troops to topple the vicious and treacherous government of Victoriano Huerta (he killed Francisco I. Madero, the man who started the Revolution, and the one Villa, Zapata, Aragón, and Carranza were fighting against -at least at the beginning). Along with the ones who decided to dress like men to join the war, these were probably the most badass of them all and the ones who actually embraced the Adelita or Soldadera image.
Without women, the Mexican Revolution would’ve lasted longer and would’ve had a different outcome. The image of the Adelita is well-known all over the country, but the different roles (hellish or legendary) of women in this particularly violent episode in Mexican history, are widely unknown. No matter what was reason they had to take part in the conflict, there’s no doubt that these were really some of the bravest characters in history, who lived in a particularly difficult moment. We shouldn’t remember the soldaderas for their beauty and flirtatious personality, as the song emphasizes. Instead, we should remember them for their brave spirit in enduring and changing the course of history.
If you want to know more about the Mexican Revolution, don’t miss these: