Gender Politics in Central American Socialist Insurgencies: Focos Stealing the Feminist Flag?

HIST 500-008  Militaries & Society in L A: Dr. Liz Hutchison  Timothy Sipp  12/11/10

Gender Politics in Central American Insurgencies: Focos Stealing the Feminist Flag?

Why did so many women and girls join the Sandinista National Liberation Front, FSLN, in Nicaragua and the Farabundo Marti Liberation Front, FMLN, in El Salvador throughout the 1970’s and 1980’s? Were women’s rights and interests furthered by their involvement in revolutionary struggles? Or did the revolutionary struggles serve to politicize women across class divisions and provide them the tools and opportunities to realize the structural inequalities between genders and the need for a collective feminist consciousness in the post-revolutionary periods to achieve the desired practical and strategic goals of revolutionary feminism? What are the goals of “revolutionary feminism”?

Maxine Molyneux’s seminal 1985 Feminist Studies journal article entitled Mobilization without Emancipation? Women’s Interests, the State, and Revolution in Nicaragua makes the distinction between “Women’s Interests”, “Strategic Gender Interests”, and “Practical Gender Interests.” According to Molyneux, the term “women’s interests” oversimplifies a complex and sometimes contradictory set of issues depending on a particular woman’s self-identification within ethnic/cultural constructs and placement within the class structure of the state in question.[1]    

Molyneux, a sociology professor and director of the Institute for the Study of the Americas at the University of London, suggests that instead of lumping all women together for ease of analysis that, “we need to specify how the various categories of women might be affected differently, and act differently on account of their social positioning and their chosen identities.”[2]  She continues to say that although there may be some commonality that we must beware of engendering and perpetuating a “false homogeneity” and proffers the differentiation of Strategic Gender Interests and Practical Gender Interests instead.[3]   

Molyneux states that strategic gender interests are derived from external analyses of women’s systematic subordination to men and possible positive alternatives. These interests may include: “the abolition of the sexual division of labor, the alleviation of the burden of domestic labor and childcare, the removal of institutionalized forms of discrimination, the attainment of political equality, the establishment of freedom of choice over childbearing, and the adoption of adequate measures against male violence and control over women.”[4] Practical gender interests are realized by the actual women in question in their individual circumstances and not as some abstract grouping by gender, but instead are products of “immediate perceived need.”[5]

The need to make the distinction between ideological concerns and daily necessities is appreciated and appropriate. According to Molyneux, due to the sexual division of labor, women find themselves “primarily responsible for their household’s daily welfare, [therefore], women have a special interest in domestic provision and public welfare.”[6] A reasonable conclusion of this argument is that if /when a government fails to provide economic opportunities that facilitate the function of women as single-mother, head of household providers that they are the first people to voice their protests and question a government’s legitimacy. This conclusion indicates an intrinsic aspect of class importance and not solely a gender-specific concern as the poorer people in a society are impacted by resource scarcity before the upper classes.[7]  

Throughout Central American Socialist revolutions the presence of female combatants was prolific. Not only were women working in support functions, ranging from cooking and cleaning to smuggling weapons and guerillas, but they were also fighting and dying beside their male comrades both in the mountains and in the city streets.[8] The revolutions in Nicaragua and El Salvador and the literature discussed in this paper on those socialist revolutions and gender politics provide a multi-faceted view of the complex relationship between social revolution through military force and the rise of a collective feminist consciousness. The questions of why and how so many women from different social classes became mobilized in these class struggles is an interesting example of the politicizing, revolutionizing and institutionalizing of existing gender roles to fight for something, in these cases freedom from oppressive dictatorships and the promise of a socialist democracy with gender equality.[9]

Political scientist and chair of Latin American Studies at Knox College, Dr. Karen Kampwirth, argues in her 2002 book, Women and Guerilla Movements that a combination of existing social networks including families, student organizations and Catholic youth groups, served as channels for communication, organization and politicization. Kampwirth focuses on the recruitment patterns of the “midprestige” or typical female guerilla, and by guerilla I am referring to all revolutionary activists, in order to understand how most women came to participate in these political/military conflicts. These pre-existing networks partially paved the way for political activist organizations to coalesce and eventually form the larger insurgencies in both countries under the guise of student organizations, Catholic youth groups, trade unions and self-help groups. According to Kampwirth, girls and women already participating in one or more of these networks were more likely to join the FSLN.[10]

 Kampwirth utilizes a feminist approach to the central question of why there were so many female revolutionaries and demonstrates through dozens of participant interviews over several years that a variety of factors drove women of varying ages, levels of familial responsibility, education level and economic means from both urban and rural areas to join the rebellions. The reasons repeated for individual mobilization stemmed from political, structural, ideological and personal circumstances and perceived needs, but none of the deciding factors was a sense of feminism.[11]

Kampwirth defines the structural changes to society that led to increased female recruitment to revolution in terms of “land concentration, increasing insecurity for rural poor (due to economic globalization and population growth).”[12] There was a mass migration of men looking for employment opportunities that often resulted in the abandonment of their families. This exacerbated an already intense social dynamic in difficult economic times. Many families became dependent on the matriarch to become the sole bread-winner and care-giver. This additional stress on the family unit was soon to displace even more of the population as children were sent to live with other relatives or out into the world to fend for themselves because of severely limited economic opportunities due to the gender division of labor in rural areas. This forced female migration to the cities and jungles broke many of the traditional social bonds that previously prevented wider communication and organization.[13]

Ideological and organizational changes in both the Catholic Church and the socialist movements were of great importance in female mobilization in Nicaragua and El Salvador. The result of Vatican II in 1968 was Liberation Theology, which served to provide a faith-based impetus for social justice that put the onus of responsibility on everyone, including men, women and children.[14] This facilitated the “growth of religious and secular self-help groups.”[15] Another major factor contributing to the recruitment of women was abandonment of the male-only oriented ‘Foco’ strategy of the Cuban Revolution. The foco strategy depends on highly trained small guerilla bands, male dominated, that perform “hit and run” military operations against the state government. This is analogous to Mao’s first stage in revolutionary warfare. The second stage of Maoist insurgency strategy involves mass mobilization for a popular insurrection in support of the armed resistance.[16] The FSLN, and in turn the FMLN, adopted a more Maoist Popular People’s Resistance Army of attrition for survival of the socialist revolution.[17] The FSLN switched from a military to a political-military strategy that required co-opting causes to reinforce their ranks. This included female fighters, up to 30% of them as armed combatants in addition to espionage and other support roles.[18] Though women played very important roles in the Cuban Revolution they were not as highly placed or widely regarded as equal contributors in the Marxist-Leninist struggle against Batista’s dictatorship as were the female revolutionaries of Nicaragua and El Salvador.[19]

The political factors that contributed to female mobilization consisted, according to Kampwirth, of the increasingly brutal repression of any group seen as a threat to the existing regimes. This state-sponsored repression backfired and drove increasing amounts women into more radical groups and activities for self-defense.[20]

Kampwirth’s final contributing factor for increased female revolutionary activism is found within each person. The personal reasons for political and revolutionary activism differ between individuals, but often it was the experience of the personal loss of loved ones or the threat of harm to oneself. Kampwirth’s research agrees with Margaret Randall’s unique participant interviews in Sandino’s Daughters, Testimonies of Nicaraguan Women in Struggle that “family traditions of resistance” as well as membership in pre-existing social networks provided channels for education, incubation for political organization and outlets for social activism.[21] The recruitment of women into the FSLN had distinct patterns as Kampwirth establishes. “… the women who tied their fates to the Sandinista coalition were nearly always young: fairly free from familial duties, and fairly oblivious to the serious risks that participation in the Sandinista coalition entailed.”[22] Most of these women were of urban origins, or migrants to urban areas, and more educated than their male counterparts. These two facts demonstrate how the breaking of traditional gender-roles in conjunction with educational and organizational opportunities leads to more active female participation in socio-political struggles.[23] The question remains; were women better off because of their sacrifices; did they achieve feminist emancipation?

The answer appears to be yes and no. Moreover, in her 2004 book entitled, Feminism and the Legacy of Revolution, Kampwirth maintains that the omission in general of feminist issues of equality in revolutionary and immediately post-revolutionary movements is multi-faceted: 1) typically, male leadership have internalized sexist norms from prior socialization; 2) Marxist movements have wrongly assumed that class transformation would automatically elevate women to an equality with men in the revolutionary society; 3) The Liberation Theology of the Catholic church, though contributing to the mobilization of women was distinctly anti-feminist on the issues of sexual equality and reproductive rights; 4) the Somoza dictatorship had paid occasional lip service to “feminism” without acting on any of the core issues of empowerment to achieve legitimization, thus the leaders of the Sandinista revolutionary government weren’t actively opposed to feminist ideals, but tended to dismiss gender equality as an agenda second to the overthrow of the old regime; 5) as the Contras fought back, the FSLN leadership had to maintain its political support base, which was not overwhelmingly upset at the slow pace of gender reform as feminism was often incorrectly associated with the women of the middle-class.[24]

Kampwirth’s methodology of multiple interviews over several years is structurally sound and her arguments are based on sensible interpretations of the patterns she observed throughout her case study research. The overarching message of her work is that class revolutions do rely heavily upon female participation as does a society during peace, but that women’s equal rights aren’t usually in the foreground of revolutionary importance during times of conflict. It is after the violence has subsided and these activist and in many cases militant women more fully realize their disenfranchisement and organize around gender-specific issues.[25]

Julie Shayne, a political science professor at Emory University suggests an additional, structural analysis of revolutionary feminism requiring five conditions for the successful sustainment of a progressive movement towards egalitarianism. The first condition is the presence of women who through participation in revolution have experienced “gender-bending” by assuming non-traditional gender roles in the course of armed conflict. Secondly, Shayne states that the women in question must have been politicized and thus acquired political organization and communication skills essential to directing social change. Third, Shayne argues, “is a sociopolitical cleavage in the post-revolutionary period, which provides the organizational and ideological space for mobilization. Sociologists call this space a political opportunity structure (Tarrow 1994).”[26] Fourth, Shayne asserts that the perceived needs and desires of women and their resultant choices to stay organized after armed struggle must be present, e.g. “their revolution isn’t over yet.”[27] This factor may be a product of sexist treatment during the struggle or the result of “unmet practical needs.”[28] Regardless of the interests being of a practical or a strategic nature, as discussed by Maxine Molyneux in her 1985 Feminist Studies journal article, Mobilization without Emancipation, this realization that gender-specific goals haven’t been addressed in concert with organized discourse about the issues leads to the fifth and final component of female empowerment, a collective feminist consciousness.[29]

The counterrevolutionary pressures of the Contras in Nicaragua placed the Sandinista government in the position of having to choose between what were determined to be the primary strategic interests of the socialist revolution and the secondary strategic goals of gender equality in the new society. Gender–specific strategic concerns were lost in the fray. But that is not to say that great leaps forward were not made in the empowerment of women via the opening of economic opportunities to sustain political organization around gender-specific issues, both practical and strategic. According to Margaret Randall, despite the Contras counterrevolution, the Sandinista revolutionary government “produced a successful literacy campaign, institutionalized follow-up education programs, reduced unemployment, brought down infant mortality and lengthened life expectancy, wiped out a number of epidemic diseases and pushed the standard of living way up for most Nicaraguans.”[30] However, Randall and Shayne take the socialist revolutions to task for eventually abandoning gender-specific strategic interests and “failing” women for the sake of a patriarchal system regardless of its ideological branding. Randall’s and Shayne’s approaches differ greatly but arrive at similar conclusions: that because feminist interests weren’t explicitly included in the re-structuring of the new socio-economic dynamics the newly forming institutionalized power structures would continue to systematically subordinate women to men. According to Kampwirth, “Revolutionary men in Central America defined their projects as encompassing women’s emancipation (though they consistently prioritized class concerns over gender concerns)…”[31] Randall is a revolutionary literary figure who lived among those she wrote about, whereas Shayne is an academic who conducted a vast amount of research in a short period of time after the conflicts were resolved raising questions of methodological integrity.

Shayne asserts that, “Indeed, women revolutionaries did not identify their gendered practical demands as such until the post-revolutionary periods, when new social movements emerged that were organized explicitly around identity.”[32] Did this example of Nicaraguan post-revolutionary anti-feminism forewarn the women of the FMLN in El Salvador against both the danger of a lack of collective consciousness and political will as well as the potential for the revolution to easily forget the female patria chicas in favor of a distinctly male-dominated, la patria? Shayne certainly expresses this possibility as she recognizes the failure of the FMLN to maintain support from women during the course of the civil war, weakening the revolution and possibly paving the way for a mandatory political solution to the civil war since popular uprising was increasingly unlikely due to the splintering of the FMLN into sub-interest groups.[33]

Todd Greentree, a professor of International Relations and Security Studies at the University of New Mexico and former Senior State Department Foreign Service Officer, stationed in Central America during these civil wars, discusses a different perspective of the nature of insurgencies, their root causes and their more frequent political resolutions instead of decisive military victories.  Greentree approaches the topic of the Marxist-Leninist revolutions in Nicaragua and El Salvador from the perspective of U.S. national security interests in its hemisphere of influence at the height of the Cold War in his 2008 book “Crossroads of Intervention: Insurgency and Counterinsurgency Lessons from Central America”. Greentree’s conclusions are decidedly different than those I have already discussed, but point to similar patterns of political repression and economic scarcity fomenting dissent that aggregates due to socialization and politicization into organized mobilization to implement institutional social change along ideological lines up to and including the use of military force. Although he is not explicitly feminist in his views, his analysis of irregular warfare indicates that leadership can never forget about half the population during a civil war or revolution and that grievances must be addressed to prevent further unrest and violence. Greentree’s primary conclusion is that civil wars/revolutions rarely result in a decisive military victory, but are more often resolved through political discourse and compromise. Greentree also warns of the greatest downfall of any government or movement, political incompetence and the loss of legitimacy.[34]

Shayne explicitly indicts the FMLN for losing the support of women by marginalizing even their practical gender concerns. “The logic that followed was that including women’s practical demands would be divisive to the larger, national movement. In reality the opposite proved true.”[35] Among the major differences between the experiences of the women of the FSLN and the FMLN was the loss of many of the socio-political equalities gained during the revolution in Nicaragua that the women of El Salvador fought to maintain and expand upon after the conflict was resolved through diplomacy instead of a “decisive” military victory as in Nicaragua. That is not to say that these feminisms were the direct result of revolutionary struggles, but rather that the effects of organization and education about inequalities and possible opportunities empowered women to invest in their own revolution of non-militant feminism after the violence of the armed conflicts subsided.  

Was the political resolution of the El Salvadoran conflict a facilitator that maintained feminist concerns as essential to the social change the FMLN guerillas desired? Did this diplomatic ending to years of civil war structurally empower women to stay at the forefront of ongoing social developments that their sisters in arms, Sandino’s Daughters, in Nicaragua lacked because of the military-political victory that ended that revolution? Was the diplomacy of the FMLN more informed by evolving feminist ideals than that of the FSLN? Or was the fact of military victory, though the FSLN had a high percentage of female combatants, admittedly not many of high rank, so male-politic dominated that the calls to address socio-political and economic gender equality fell on the selectively deaf ears of the Ortega brothers and their Cuban patrons?[36]

The following are several questions that could inspire some interdisciplinary research tasked with shedding an unbiased light on the structures and patterns of interaction between people of different genders, social classes and religious beliefs: Was the splintered, politically heterogeneous past of the FMLN insurgent organization beneficial to the inclusion of feminist principles of equality even though the revolution failed? Was the vastly male dominated and homogeneous political core of the Cuban sponsored Ortega brother’s FSLN partially responsible for the political disenfranchisement of women in the post-revolutionary government of Nicaragua? Was the FSLN an example of focos strategically stealing the feminist flag instead of realizing the value of gender equality in society and nation building? Or were the Sandinistas uniquely placed in modern history as a springboard for creating a sustainable collective feminist consciousness that continues to struggle globally for local gains that, as a revolutionary government was overtaken by external pressures and internal inconsistencies. Is there a democracy more willing to immediately address women’s practical needs and seriously consider the structural changes necessary to more fully incorporate strategic feminist concerns and if so, what does it look like?


Greentree, Todd. 2008 Crossroads of Intervention: Insurgency and Counterinsurgency Lessons from Central America Connecticut: Praeger Security International

Kampwirth, Karen. 2002 Women & Guerilla Movements Pennsylvania: The Pennsylvania State University Press

Kampwirth, Karen. 2004 Feminism and the Legacy of Revolution Ohio: Center for International Studies at Ohio University

Loveman, Brian. 1999. For La Patria: Politics and the Armed Forces in Latin AmericaDelaware: Scholarly Resources Inc.

Molyneux, Maxine. 1985. “Mobilization without Emancipation? Women’s Interests, the State and Revolution in Nicaragua.” Feminist Studies. 11:2. (Summer): 227 – 254

Randall, Margaret. 1981/1995. Sandino’s Daughters: Testimonies of Nicaraguan Women in Struggle New Jersey: Rutgers University Press

Shayne, Julie D. 2004 The Revolution Question: Feminisms in El Salvador, Chile and Cuba New Jersey: Rutgers University Press

[1]Molyneux, Maxine. 1985. “Mobilization without Emancipation? Women’s Interests, the State and Revolution in Nicaragua.” Feminist Studies. 11:2. (Summer): 227 – 254, 230

[2] Molyneux 1985, 230

[3] Molyneux 1985, 232

[4] Molyneux 1985, 233

[5] Molyneux 1985, 233

[6] Molyneux 1985, 233

[7] Molyneux 1985, 233

[8] Randall, Margaret. 1981/1995. Sandino’s Daughters: Testimonies of Nicaraguan Women in Struggle New Jersey: Rutgers University Press; Molyneux 1985; Loveman, Brian. 1999. For La Patria: Politics and the Armed Forces in Latin America Delaware: Scholarly Resources Inc.; Kampwirth, Karen. 2002 Women & Guerilla Movements Pennsylvania: The Pennsylvania State University Press; Kampwirth, Karen. 2004 Feminism and the Legacy of Revolution Ohio: Center for International Studies at Ohio University; Shayne, Julie D. 2004 The Revolution Question: Feminisms in El Salvador, Chile and Cuba New Jersey: Rutgers University Press; Greentree, Todd. 2008 Crossroads of Intervention: Insurgency and Counterinsurgency Lessons from Central America Connecticut: Praeger Security International

[9] Randall 1981/1995; Molyneux 1985; Loveman 1999; Kampwirth 2002, 2004; Shayne 2004

[10] Kampwirth 2002, 6-9, 22-44

[11] Kampwirth 2002, 14

[12] Kampwirth 2002, 14

[13] Kampwirth 2002, 6-14

[14] Kampwirth 2002, 14,42

[15] Kampwirth 2002, 14

[16] Greentree 2008, 15-18

[17] Kampwirth 2002, 14

[18] Kampwirth 2002, 6-14

[19] Shayne 2004, 42-45

[20] Kampwirth 2002, 14

[21] Kampwirth, 2002; Randall, 1981/1995

[22] Kampwirth 2002, 43

[23] Kampwirth 2002, 41-43

[24] Kampwirth 2004, 43-45

[25] Kampwirth 2004, 44-46

[26] Shayne 2004, 10

[27] Shayne 2004, 10

[28] Shayne 2004, 10

[29] Shayne 2004, 10

[30] Randall 1981/1995, 1

[31] Kampwirth 2004, 177

[32] Shayne 2004, 163 

[33] Shayne 2004, 163

[34]  Greentree 2008, 157-165

[35] Shayne 2004, 163

[36] Randall 1981/1995; Kampwirth 2004; Shayne 2004; Greentree 2008

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