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Sex in Revolution: Gender, Politics and Power in Modern Mexico.

Sex in Revolution: Gender, Politics and Power in Modern Mexico, edited by Jocelyn Olcott, Mary Kay Vaughn, and Gabriela Cano, with a foreword by Carlos Monsivais. Durham, North Carolina, Duke University Press, 2006. x, 320 pp. $79.95 US (cloth), $22.95 US (paper).

The Mexican Revolution is one of the defining moments in Latin American--and world--history, "the first social revolution of the twentieth century" (p. 21). Emerging from a bourgeois revolt against political corruption and repression, the revolution brought peasants, workers, and the middle classes together in a political project that destroyed,the oligarchic state and pursed a radical nationalist agenda which sought economic self-determination, land reform, worker's rights, the separation of Church and state, and a more racially inclusive sense of national identity. However, the gender dynamics of the revolution were, until very recently, largely neglected. The imagery of the revolution is profoundly male: the flamboyantly mustachioed Emiliano Zapata and Pancho Villa; men on horseback storming the countryside; the macho politics of economic nationalism and brinksmanship with the United States. Women were thus typically rendered, and even as they were slowly written into historical accounts from the 1980s, it was in ways that complemented this male-centred narrative, typified by the focus on the soldaderas, who faithfully followed their menfolk across the battlefields, cooking for them, washing their clothes, and tending to them when injured. Women were still always secondary, on the margins, and recognition of them did not change the broader way in which the revolution was imagined. This groundbreaking collection of essays marks a fundamental break from this tradition and shatters the conventional revolutionary narrative, showing both the importance of women's participation at every layer of the revolution, and the way in which gender mediated revolutionary realities.

Certainly, Sex in Revolution explores an impressively wide array of themes, including transgender soldiers, bobbed hair as a contested symbol of revolutionary modernity, the cinematographic treatment of indigenous women, divorce and state formation, adoption and the welfare system, and women's involvement in post-revolutionary labour organization and political activism. The volume is divided into four sections that focus respectively on the embodying of revolutionary culture, the reshaping of the domestic sphere, gender and labour organizing, and women and revolutionary politics. It begins with a foreword by the critic Carlo's Monsivais, who provides an overview of the role of women in the Mexican Revolution, with a particular focus on their representation in art, film, and literature: a useful foundation for readers less familiar with the topic. Mary Kay Vaughn's masterful introduction emphasizes the revolution as a gendered process, underlining the conflict between patriarchy, machismo, and the unleashing of women's activism, and drawing attention to the struggles this presented for the women caught in the intellectual crossfire. There is also an engaging epilogue in the same vein by Temma Kaplan, one of the leading authorities on the theoretical relationship between gender and revolution, which fits the Mexican case into this broader literature. While most of the essays focus on the period 1915-50, there is a final chapter by anthropologist Lynn Stephen which seeks to bring the themes addressed up to the present by looking at the political activism of peasant women between 1980-2000, the period of the final decline of the revolution as a state-centred political project in the lace of the rise of neo-liberalism and radical indigenous resistance.

While all of the contributions are extremely solid and offer much insight, the first section stands out for presenting particularly original perspectives. The issue of the embodiment of gender has become a standard category of analysis within feminist studies, but historians of gender in Latin America have been slower to work with the concept, making the essays in the first section feel especially fresh. Gabriela Cano's chapter focuses on the fascinating life of Amelio Robles, who in the revolutionary military struggle shrugged off her existence as a young rural woman and became accepted as a male colonel. "Strategic transvestitism," by which women dressed as men to attain military leadership or protect themselves from sexual violence, was not uncommon, but Robles continued to maintain his masculine status after the military conflict ended, sustaining romantic relationships with women and defending his honour with a pistol if anyone referred to him in feminine terms. Cano examines the cultural strategies Robles used to construct a masculine body image and social identity, emphasizing his exaggerated virility and propensity to violence as marking him out as male. She also contrasts the general acceptance of Robles's adopted male status (to the point where his medical records referred to him as a male and he was decorated by the government as a veterano not veterana) with the opprobrium generated by male homosexuals within the revolutionary movement who challenged gender norms in somewhat similar ways. While male homosexuality was rejected because of its equation with effeminacy--the antithesis of revolutionary patriotism--Robles enjoyed tolerance because his transgendering literally embodied the masculine values exalted by the civil war.

The Robles case-study is effectively counterpoised by Anne Rubenstein's chapter on the war on "Las Pelonas"--women with bobbed hair--in Mexico City in the summer of 1924. The style was embraced by a certain sector of progressive upper-middle-class women in the capital as a bodily indicator of their modernity, following the international fashions of the day. Rubenstein demonstrates convincingly how the hairstyle was linked to a new ideal about women's bodies and physicality, which many Mexican men challenged as corruptive of racial and national purity. It was argued that women who followed these fashions were rejecting their national heritage, or, as Rubenstein memorably phrases it, "trying to resign from la raza cosmica" (p. 62). Intellectual opposition gave way to physical violence in the summer of 1924 when girls sporting the style on university campuses were attacked with scissors and had their heads publicly shaved. Rubenstein convincingly interprets this in terms of the threat young university women posed to the young male elite, and their efforts to fit the pelonas back into a subordinate position within the new reality. Yet, the women were ultimately able to turn this debate into a victory of self-determination, using stateled discourses of hygiene and athleticism to link themselves and their hairstyles firmly to the revolutionary project of modernity. Just as in the case of Amelio Robles we see how conflicting revolutionary gender ideals were played out over women's bodies.

The rest of the collection is also exceptionally strong. The contributors to part two demonstrate that although women's roles as wives and mothers remained the primary focus of state gender ideology, state policy in areas such as divorce, adoption, and education allowed some women to attain an agency and self-determination that they had previously lacked, freeing themselves from unhappy marriages, adopting children when single, and taking up careers in teaching and school administration. The final two sections of the book demonstrate conclusively that although the revolution denied women the vote until 1953, they played an important and active role in both national and regional politics. Women formed all-female unions, developed their own norms of respectability and honour, and created an authentic, alternative working-class women's culture. Even where women resisted the revolution and mobilized for conservative ends, their political participation subverted the pre-revolutionary social order, and created sometimes unexpected changes in women's status in the home, church, workplace, and street.

The volume confirms the findings of studies of revolutions in other parts of the world which have shown the profound intersection of revolution and gender. In Mexico, as in Russia and China later in the century, women were central to the transformation of social and political relations, and their bodies became symbols of that change. Equally, fear of chaos and the dissolution of social order led to the effort to reorder traditional domestic relations, yet women resisted and contested these efforts and struggled continuously for their own agency.

This is a truly superlative volume which will be required reading for anyone interested in Mexican history or the intersections of gender and revolution. Sex and Revolution transforms our understanding of the Mexican Revolution, underlining in the process the indispensability of gender as a category of political analysis. The book has much to offer both the generalist and specialist, and is accessible enough for undergraduates. Every single chapter is of exceptionally high quality, and this is a valuable contribution that will set the standard for work in this field.

Nicola Foote

Florida Gulf Coast University
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Author:Foote, Nicola
Publication:Canadian Journal of History
Article Type:Book review
Date:Dec 22, 2008
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