The Mexican Revolution rose out of a struggle for civil liberties and land and would eventually topple the dictatorship of Porfirio Díaz and begin a new age for Mexico. The war, which started in 1910, was, at its core, one of the first social revolutions and women—as well as men—were driven to fight. For many women, the conflict also offered a moment to break from traditional female roles.
“Women saw it as a way to get out of oppressive circumstances,” says William Beezley, a history professor at the University of Arizona.
Women were searching for an opportunity to better their lives, Beezley explains, and were able to take part because the forces fighting within the civil war were unstructured and decentralized. The more organized the army, the smaller the role of women in battle.
Some soldaderas, as women in the Mexican Revolution became known, played traditional roles as nurses or wives, others took up arms. Perhaps the least visible soldaderas were the women who assumed male identities to fight—not because societal restrictions explicitly forced them to but because of personal choice.
“It might’ve been easier in the mind of some women,” says Beezley about the decision of some to take on male disguise, “but each woman chose for herself.”
The majority of soldaderas were women who traveled with their husbands or other male family members to provide domestic help as the men fought.
“There were no commissaries for the troops, so women often followed their men,” says Gilbert Joseph, a history professor at Yale University. “They’d sustain them through the struggle by cooking, keeping them company at night around the campfire. They were nurses, lovers and camp followers.”
Perhaps the best known soldaderas were those revolutionary fighters who, dressed in a long peasant skirt, large straw hat and cross-bullet belt, showed as much valor as any man. As Joseph says, “These images are very much etched into the popular consciousness.”
The soldaderas who donned male clothing and took male names often did so to protect themselves from sexual violence and high-ranking officials who resented women warriors or saw them as freaks, says Pablo Piccato, a professor of Latin American history at Columbia University. In fact, the famous general Pancho Villa fell into this category, ordering the execution of 90 soldaderas.
Two of the most famous soldaderas, Angela Jimenez, who fought as Angel Jimenez, and Petra Herrera, known as Pedro, resumed their female identities once the war was over. Another, Amelio Robles (born Amelia), continued to live his life as a man, a path he forged during the war, until his death.
Amelio Robles earned respect with machismo
Jimenez, whose true identity was known by many of the men around her, built a reputation for threatening anyone who tried to seduce her. Herrera committed to the lie a little more, telling fellow soldiers that she shaved at dawn before others woke up. She eventually earned recognition for her intelligence, valor and skill for destroying bridges.
It’s believed that Robles was actually one of the first transgender figures in Latin American history, and the only documented case of a gender transition during a revolution in this part of the world. To appear physically male, Robles deliberately chose shirts with large chest pockets, common in rural areas, and assumed the mannerisms common among men at the time.
As a man, Robles was recognized as a veteran of the Mexican Revolution by the Ministry of War and was arguably the most respected soldadera because of the “machismo” he displayed. He stood out for his aggression, drinking, womanizing and skills with guns and horses. Without the bonds he built with fellow guerilla fighters during the war, he likely wouldn’t have been able to maintain his male identity after leaving battle.
Often, soldaderas, living as both men and women, ascended the ranks to lead as many as dozens of male troops, Robles included. The women who achieved officer status were known as coronelas, and some were even informally called generalas, Piccato says.
A delayed recognition for soldaderas
The contribution of women during the Mexican Revolution was undeniable, but at the war’s end, most had to resume their traditional roles as wives and mothers.
“It’s uncommon to see women in combat, especially leading troops, but you have to put them in context,” Piccato says. “It’s not like it was a feminist movement. This didn’t advance the situation of women at large.”
Mexican culture only started to recognize women for their revolutionary efforts in the latter half of the 20th century, when women started to become more politically active and exert more influence outside the home, Beezley says. At that point, women started taking inspiration from the female revolutionaries who came before them.
“Soldaderas challenged ideas about masculine honor,” Piccato says. “They proved that women could fight, that women could be courageous. In a way by, simply by being a coronella you were criticizing the patriarchy.”