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Women in History - More than Just Heroines

 IPS 28 May 2019

(Originally published: 09/2009) Latin America is a continent steeped in revolutionary mythology, a land famous for producing some of history’s most famous activists. Though within this history there is the distinct absent of more than a handful of distinguished revolutionary female figures. Humberto Márquez attempts to restore the Latina matriarch to her rightful place.  - Humberto Márquez


Caracas, Venezuela -  Juana Azurduy or Manuela Sáenz, Bartolina Sisa or Gertrudis Bocanegra, Luisa Cáceres or Policarpa Salavarrieta - these heroines attest to the participation of women in the struggle for Latin America's independence from Spain, a revolutionary movement that began two centuries ago this year.

But at the same time, their celebration embodies the shroud that political and historical accounts have thrown over the countless unnamed women who fought or suffered in the quarter-century long process spanning from 1809 to 1824, like in so many other periods of history.

On Jul. 14, Argentine president Cristina Fernández granted Lieutenant Colonel Juana Azurduy (1780-1862) a posthumous promotion to the rank of general. Azurduy lost five of her six children while she fought for the independence of Upper Peru, present-day Bolivia, which at the end of the colonial period was part of the Viceroyalty of the Río de la Plata and under the direction of Buenos Aires.

Two years earlier, Ecuadorian president Rafael Correa had also granted a posthumous promotion to general to another revolutionary woman, Manuela Sáenz (1797-1856), who is known in history as the "immortal love" of Simón Bolívar (1783-1830) and who held the rank of colonel in the liberation army.

Correa's promotion was granted as part of the commemoration of the anniversary of the 1822 Battle of Pichincha, in which the Quito-born heroine fought.

"That's not history, it's politics," Inés Quintero, assistant director of the Venezuelan Academy of History, told IPS. "The role of women in the movement for independence is not vindicated by granting a title to an individual woman. That makes no sense, because history is not about settling scores," she argued.

Instead, the researcher said, "as women's issues pay off in terms of the visibility that women are demanding, there are certain icons - these heroines - that are incorporated as part of the rhetoric, to give the impression that something is being done about the situation of women."

For Sara Beatriz Guardia, of the Peruvian Centre for Studies on Women in the History of Latin America, "a change in rhetoric can be observed, which is prompted by the importance that the study of the role of women in history has gained in recent decades." The trend fits right in with the series of "bicentennial cycle" celebrations that began this year evoking the first revolutionary uprisings, which occurred in 1809 in Quito and La Paz. The celebrations will continue over the coming years with the commemoration of the declarations and battles of Spanish America's campaigns for independence.

This process, and the bloody confrontations that marked it, was ushered in by early movements in the late 18th century, some of which had an undeniable female involvement and their fair share of heroines, which official historiography in some cases highlights and in others obscures.

One example of these early female independence fighters is Micaela Bastidas (1745-1781), wife of Túpac Amaru II (José Gabriel Condorcanqui, 1738-1781), who fought beside him in the great rebellion he led in Peru in 1780. When the uprising was stifled, they were both executed on the same day, along with the lesser-known Tomasa Condemayta, captain of the women's battalion, which had defeated the Spanish troops in several battles.

Another is Bartolina Sisa (1753-1782), Aymara heroine and wife of Túpac Katarí (Julián Apaza, 1750-1781), a rebel leader who mobilised 40,000 Indians against the Spanish crown in Upper Peru in the early 1780s.

Sisa led troops into battle and exhibited skills as a strategist when the Aymara foces laid siege to the cities of Sorata and La Paz. When the movement was defeated, Sisa was savagely tortured and finally hung.

"Later, the Creoles (white European descendants) gained the independence that was vital for them to further their interests, and the uprisings that had been led by Indians were played down and forgotten, even though they had shaken the foundations of the colonial system," Guardia notes in her essay "Las mujeres y la recuperación de la historia" (Women and the Recovery of History).

Moreover, "the participation of these women was erased, as if their gender - even though they gave their lives for their people - somehow made their actions less meaningful and less important than those of the heroes of our history, who were all male," the Peruvian researcher added.

The participation of many women also stood out once the Creole wars for independence broke out. Women like Manuela Cañizares (1769-1815), who hosted the meeting in which the Quito revolutionaries issued the first "cry for freedom" in 1809, or María Ignacia Rodríguez (1765-1817), who supported the patriots in Mexico.

Gertrudis Bocanegra (1765-1817) organised a network of Mexican insurgents. When she was captured by the Spanish, she refused to betray the patriots even under torture. In the end, she was executed by the Royalists, as the forces loyal to the Spanish crown were known.

Women of this period pushed their fathers, sons, brothers, husbands or boyfriends to embrace the cause of independence. Like the Chilean Javiera Carrera (1781-1862), who although an adversary of national hero Bernardo O'Higgins, was part of the patriot movement.

Or the Nueva Granada (Colombia) native Policarpa Salavarrieta, a great underground independence fighter, who was shot to death by a firing squad in Bogotá in 1817, along with her boyfriend, Alejo Sabaraín.

Venezuela's most famous heroine is Luisa Cáceres (1799-1866), wife of General Juan Bautista Arismendi, who the Spanish tried to break by imprisoning the young Cáceres under atrocious conditions, while she was pregnant. She miscarried and was held prisoner for two years, from 1814 to 1816, before she was finally banished.

Many women were outstanding soldiers, like Azurduy, who fought in guerrilla warfare and participated in major battles, including the battles of Ayohuma (1813), Potosí and La Laguna (both in 1816), where she was injured and saw her husband, Manuel Padilla, die as he tried to rescue her.

Sáenz fought in the battle of Pichincha, which paved the way for Bolívar's troops to march into Peru. She accompanied Bolívar in his campaigns and political efforts, and after preventing an attempt on his life by opponents in Bogotá in 1828, she began to be known as "the liberator's liberator."

But many more women participated throughout the entire war, providing support in the rear, in logistics, and as soldiers. As the late Venezuelan historian Vinicio Romero told this reporter in an earlier interview, in the 1821 battle of Carabobo, dozens of women were thought to have died on both sides of the battlefield.

Women had a significant participation in the troops in Mexico, and in the Colombian army (which covered the territory of present-day Colombia, Ecuador, Panama and Venezuela). In the Andean sub-region, indigenous communities, including women, were incorporated into the war efforts.

Thousands of indigenous women followed the trail of Argentine General Juan Álvarez de Arenales (1770-1831), José de San Martín's (1778-1850) deputy, during the 1819-1820 campaign in the Peruvian Andes.

History that ignores women

Even popular literature reflects the pivotal role that women have played in wars throughout history. "There's hardly been a war in which women did not participate," Swedish journalist and novelist Stieg Larsson (1954-2004) wrote as a foreword for the last novel in his "Millennium" trilogy, "The Girl Who Kicked the Hornet's Nest", published posthumously this year.

As an example, the best-selling author mentioned that in the U.S. Civil War (1861-1865), there were an estimated 600 women soldiers, who dressed up as men to fight. In a remark that could very well apply to the revolutionary wars of Spanish America, Larsson noted that history books have always had a hard time talking about women who don't respect the boundary that separates the sexes, and at no other time is this boundary so sharply delineated as when a war breaks out or weapons are involved.

Which is why, for Quintero, "understanding the process is not about identifying exceptions and highlighting the heroines, but about understanding that throughout history the way the various actors are involved is conditioned by their situation at the time of each historical event."

"Going beyond heroines or exceptions will enable an understanding of the true role women played. For example, the fact that armies admitted the need to incorporate women into their ranks, while the political constitutions that followed their independence efforts, in contrast, denied women any participation in decision-making," Quintero said.

To give women their rightful place in history, it is necessary to grasp that "women fought, but they also fled, hid, suffered, planted, cared for their homes, families and farms, loved, raised their children, lost their husbands, and fought on the opposite side - like the forgotten royalists did," she said.

Quintero is the author of a historical biography of Simón Bolivar's sister, María Antonia Bolívar, a supporter of the Spanish crown.

According to Guardia, "the prevailing trend in historical studies disregards the space of everyday life as an object of study, and in doing so it also disregards women, whose predominant sphere of action has been that space. Nonetheless, everyday life is at the heart of historical events."

For Quintero, "When a distance is established between ordinary people and exceptional beings, as in the case of Sáenz, the real role of women is not vindicated by history, only the role of heroines is, from the perspective of the patriotic code of those who create the discourse.

"But that doesn't change the view of women's role in history, it makes no difference in women's lives or in the problems that affect today's women," she concluded.

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