Women And Mexico
By Bill Dean
Coatlicue — Let’s start at the beginning. There is a sculpture of Coatlicue, the “Mother of the Gods,” in Mexico City’s Museum of Anthropology. She wears a skirt covered with serpents and has claws for feet. According to ancient mythology, Coatlicue was sweeping the temple floor one windy day when a ball of feathers fell from her broom and impregnated her. This alibi did not sit well with a daughter who thought her mother may have left something out of the story. So to squelch a family scandal, the daughter persuaded her siblings (there were said to be 400) to kill their pregnant mother.
There are several versions of what happened next. One is that the plot failed. The baby was born. It was a boy! Whoops - this was no baby - he was a full grown warrior intent on killing his siblings. His name was Huitzilopochtli. After slaying many siblings, Huitzilopochtli went on to become the God of War and then he appeared in the sky as the Sun. Now you know why many folks in Mexico believe that men are more powerful than women. And you also know why nobody believes this story. But there stories of Mexican women that most people do believe. Here are some.
Lady Sak K’uk’ — Most everyone has heard about the ancient civilizations of Mexico and their pyramids, but few people know about Lady Sak K’uk.’ She was the reigning queen of Palenque who in 615 CE turned the Crown over to her son, Pakal, when Pakal was only 12 years old. She is said to have run the empire behind the scene until Pakal became much older. She must have done a good job because Pakal went on to become “Pakal the Great.” What we learn from Lady Sak K’uk’ is that the “ancient civilizations” had strong and powerful women.
Malinche — Fast forward to the early 1500’s and Cortés’s lady friend, the beautiful Malinche. She was one of 20 maidens a group of Mayan Indians gave to the Conquistadors, betting the Conquistadors would rather have maidens than other treasures. But there was a glitch - the Pope forbade Spaniards from getting too cozy with non-Christians. The Conquistadors were devastated. Certainly there must be a way around such a foolish decree. Of course there was - baptize the maidens first.
Malinche was duly baptized. She was smart and could speak two native languages (Mayan and Nahuatl), and she was quick to learn Spanish. She acted as an interpreter to persuade the enemies of the Aztecs to fight on the side of the Conquistadors. History, of course, tells us that the Aztecs were no match for the Conquistadors. The Conquistadors vanquished the Aztecs, ransacked their magnificent city of Tenochtitlan, and turned it into the capital of New Spain.
Some folks think that Malinche betrayed her own people. Maybe so. But she was one big reason Spain conquered the natives, ushering in Mexico’s colonial period (1521-1821).
Women in the Colonial Years — These were not good years for women. Marriages were usually arranged by the girl’s father. Once married, the wife’s place was in the home -and that place was a distant second place. By law a wife had to obey her husband and had to give up most rights to property. A husband could beat his wife for minor indiscretions and could kill her for taking a lover (provided the husband meted out the same punishment to the lover, too).
A rigid code of propriety applied to women - but not to men. Double standard? Not for the many who believed that indecency was less offensive in a man than in a woman. Queen Isabella did nothing to repress that notion when in 1538 she approved the construction of “a street of merry woman” - by any other name, a bordello.
So what was an unhappy wife back then to do? Small wonder angry women turned to witchcraft to hex their husbands and their paramours. Witches concocted potions of bath water and ground hummingbird parts to lure the opposite sex. Who could blame a bored wife for not giving witchcraft a try? Answer: The Catholic Church—in the eyes of the Church there was plenty wrong about going into league with the Devil. Witchcraft put false gods before the real God. The First Commandment could not be clearer “… have no other gods before Me.” So, in 1571 the Holy Office of the Inquisition was established in Mexico and witches were put on trial and (most often) sentenced to long sessions in the confessional booth.
Juana Inés de la Cruz — This was the world that Juana Ines was born into in the year 1651. Books were off limits to girls so she hid in her grandfather’s library to read and master Greek, Latin, and the Aztec language, Nahuatl. Juana then entered a convent to devote her life to studying and writing. She went on to become a prolific writer of poems, plays, books, and letters, leaving a treasure trove for future feminists. In her defining work, La Respuesta, she argued that the Bible was authority for strong - educated women. She also had a folksy side; she wrote: “One can perfectly well philosophize while cooking supper.” The Church, however, determined that she was defying Saint Paul’s message to the Corinthians - “Let your women keep silence in the churches.” Never mind that in Timothy 2:11 the Bible says “Let a woman learn.” But Juana had gone over the brink - at least the Archbishop thought she had. The Church threatened censure and she was forced to put down her pen.
The turn of the 20th Century — As Mexico turned from an agrarian to an industrialized economy the woman’s place shifted from the home to textile and tobacco factories, stores and offices. Trade schools for women emerged. Women argued for equal pay, the right to vote, the eight-hour day and other “equality” issues. The movement was underway. Then came Mexico’s Revolution (1910-1920) in which fearless women (“Las Soldaderas”) smuggled guns and ammunition under their skirts and blew up bridges.
Women made their point. According to one source* by 2008 women constituted 38% of the workforce; illiteracy among women dropped to under 4 %; 92% of girls between 6 and 14 attended school; 28% of the legislative deputies were women; 95% of women of reproductive age knew something of contraception; 78% could expect to give birth in a hospital.
Of course, women’s causes have a long way to go. A few examples: In 2008 the Mexico Supreme Court let stand Mexico City’s law to allow abortions on request to any woman less than 12 weeks pregnant, but many of Mexico’s 31 states have constitutional “right to life” provisions and laws that can land a woman in jail. The “morning after pill” has been ruled constitutional but that has not deterred vigorous efforts to rein in its use. So the Mexican woman remains in a quandary — a particularly hard place to be in this very Catholic country.
The movement is much the same the world over as women everywhere await edicts from law makers and signals from religious leaders. In the end, both will yield to public opinion. In the meantime, the cause goes on.
*End Note/credit --Heather Dashner Monk, Mexican Women-Then and Now, Solidarity, http://www.solidarity-us.org/node/3035
(Ed. Note: Bill Dean is the author of the celebrated book Mexico: Journey of a Nation over a Rough and Rambling Road.)