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By Darien Cavanaugh, War Is Boring
This story originally appeared on March 26, 2017.
The myth of women serving only in auxiliary capacities or holding down the home front during times of conflict has always been highly questionable. History has shown time and again that women have actively participated in combat, to varying degrees in different cultures, for thousands of years.
The last century saw women fighting for the Republic in the Spanish Civil War, in the Russian Army during World War I and World War II, with the Viet Cong and North Vietnamese Army in the Vietnam War, among Fidel Castro and Che Guevara’s band of rebels in the Cuban Revolution and in numerous other conflicts.
If those conflicts undermine the traditional narrative of women in warfare, then the Nicaraguan Revolution completely turned gender stereotypes on their head.
Women joined the ranks of the Sandinista National Liberation Front in far greater numbers than they had in any other rebel movement, arguably more so than in any other conflict in modern history until that point, and they served in all capacities.
Yet their role in the revolution is still often overlooked, even though they helped change the cultural landscape of Nicaragua, giving rise to a feminist movement that ultimately shaped gender politics throughout Central America — while even influencing the Contras, the Sandinistas’ enemy.
Like many developing nations, Nicaragua has suffered a violent history full of colonial conquest, genocide, slavery, uprisings and dictatorships. As Katherine Isbester notes in Still Fighting: The Nicaraguan Women’s Movement, 1977–2000, Nicaragua endured a coup d’etat, two U.S. invasions, two guerrilla insurgencies, a brutal dynastic dictatorship, a successful revolution and a failed counter-revolution in the 2oth century alone.
Amidst this backdrop of war and repression, patriarchal traditions often left women with little opportunity for social mobility. Isbester uses the story of Leonor Arguella de Huper, who was born into an oligarchical family in Managua in 1922 and lived through the regimes of Anastasio Somoza García and his two sons, as an illustration of what life was like for Nicaragua’s women before the revolution.
“Since we were not supposed to think, we were not granted the privilege of knowing anything,” Arguella de Huper recalled.
“A woman was supposed to stay at home and be the kept woman of her husband (because they were never companions of friends, a lover maybe, but that was it). Women were objects … [They] didn’t even know about how their husbands earned money, much less about politics. And as long as the husband was not a drunkard … the women would put up with it. Marriage was forever.”
For women in lower economic classes, particularly the peasant farmers who lived in rural villages, life was even more difficult and offered fewer opportunities. Illiteracy was rampant among Nicaraguans of all classes, but particularly among the poor in general and women in particular, who were discouraged from seeking an education.
In 1961, Carlos Fonseca Amador, Silvio Mayorga and Tomás Borge Martínez formed the the National Liberation Front, the predecessor to the Sandinista National Liberation Front, known by its Spanish acronym FSLN. The FSLN was named after Augusto Sandino, who launched a revolution with some 200 guerrillas against the U.S.-backed government of conservative president Adolfo Díaz in 1927.
Sandinista fighters during the burial of Abel Guadalupe Moreno in June 1979.
via Dora Maria Tellez/Flickr
Sandino and his rebels set up base in the Segovia Mountains and quickly gained support among the peasant population, leading to several victories against government forces.
As Sandino and other rebel forces grew more powerful, the government funneled more money into Nicaraguan National Guard, a combination military and police force, tasked with fighting the rebels. Once the National Guard seemed capable of handling the job, a U.S. Marine force that had been in Nicaragua to support the government withdrew in 1932 and left the National Guard to suppress the insurgency on its own.
President Juan Bautista Sacasa later instructed Gen. Anastasio Garcia Somoza to negotiate a peace deal with Sandino and the rebels. After a meeting with the rebel leadership in 1934, Somoza had Sandino and the officers who attended the meeting with him summarily executed.
Two years later, in 1936, Somoza forced Sacasa to resign and won an “election” in December of that year under highly suspicious circumstances in which Somoza supposedly earned more than 100,o00 votes while his rival earned less than 200. The Somoza family would rule the country for the next three and a half decades until the Sandinistas gained power in 1979.
To be sure, things were already beginning to change for women prior to the Sandinista revolution. Nicaraguan women were finally given the franchise in 1955, and increased industrialization under the Somoza regime led to higher literacy rates and employment in professional positions for women.
However, this was occurring under an oppressive regime that systematically employed torture, mass arrests, arbitrary detentions, executions and disappearances against political rivals and anyone merely suspected of dissent, including women.
The move towards women’s liberation accelerated as the Sandinistas rose to power, but even the rebels were slow to change at first. By 1967, there was still only one woman, Gladys Baez, among the ranks of Sandinista fighters. Women were supporting the revolution in other ways of course, but Baez was the only female combatant at the time.
Somoza’s forces captured and tortured Baez that year, which might have ended up saving her life. After her release, she went into hiding to nurse her wounds when almost the entire military wing of the FSLN, including Silvio Mayorga, were routed and killed at the battle of Pancasán.
Sandinista fighters during the 1979 Leon offensive.
via Dora Maria Tellez/Flickr
The defeat set the Sandinista movement back several years and caused its leaders to reconsider their strategy. They shifted their focus to gaining broader popular support before launching major military offenses again. They also began to more actively recruit women and encourage them to assume military and leadership positions.
Things were still far from ideal for women among the Sandinistas, and the leadership was criticized by feminist authors at the time for harboring sexist sentiments, but the leadership was making moves towards equality.
“We are aware of compañeros that are revolutionaries in the street, in the workplace, in all parts, but are feudal lords of the gallows and the knife in the home,” Sandinista commander Tomás Borge wrote.
“Economic development on its own is not enough to achieve the liberation of women, and neither is the mere fact that women are organizing. There must be a struggle against the habits, traditions, and prejudices of men and women. We must launch a difficult and prolonged ideological struggle, a struggle equally undertaken by men and women.”
Ana Julia Guida joined the Sandinistas in 1973, when she was only 14 years old. In Sandino’s Daughters: Testimonies of Nicaraguan Women in the Struggle, she recalled that when she arrived at a Sandinista training school in the mountains, there was only one other woman, Monica Baltodano, present.
After training, Guida and eight or nine other recruits decided to form a guerrilla unit based in the mountains while the others they had trained with moved to organize supporters in villages, neighborhoods and universities.
“I was in the mountains for two and half years,” Guida wrote. “At first, I was the only woman. Later on, several more came. But it was never difficult being a woman there, not at all. The things that people gossip about when they think of women and men together in the guerrilla just aren’t true. There was never any lack of respect on the part of our male comrades. On the contrary, there was an incredible solidarity.”
Organizations such as the Luisa Amanda Espinosa Nicaraguan Women’s Association, or AMNLAE — named for the first woman to die fighting for the Sandinistas — bolstered efforts to recruit women into the rebel army. The group was established in 1977, initially as the Association of Women Concerned About National Crisis, and worked to advocate feminist causes within the Sandinista movement and Nicaraguan society.
Sandinista fighters in 1979. Photo via the Institute of Nicaraguan and Central American History
The efforts of the Sandinista leadership and AMNLAE to bring women into the movement may have took a while to get going, but they did eventually see results. According to Norma Stoltz Chinchilla, author of Our Utopias: Guatemalan Women of the 20th Century, women had become an exceptionally prominent force in the Sandinista movement by the time it took control of Nicaragua.
“Women participated massively in the Nicaraguan revolution in roles that many observes have argued were more varied and significant than in any other twentieth century revolution” Chinchilla wrote in a 1983 report on Nicaragua for USAID. “They were fully incorporated into the actual fighting forces of the Sandinista Liberation Front (FSLN), not only in transportation, communication and logistics but in combat and positions of command, something unprecedented in Latin American history.”
Chinchilla acknowledged women’s involvement in revolutions that occurred in Bolivia, Brazil, Cuba and Uruguay prior to the Sandinista movement, but she argued there had never been such large numbers of women “in such high responsibility, with men as well as women within their command” as there were in Nicaragua.
She concludes that by the time the Sandinistas came to power, and during the subsequent campaigns to fight off the Contras, up to 30 percent of Sandinista combatants were women.
In a North American Congress on Latin America report, Patricia Flynn echoes Chincilla’s 30 percent estimate and adds that in the battle for Leon, the Sandinista’s final offensive before Anastasio Somoza Debayle resigned and fled the capital of Managua, four of the seven officers leading the Sandinista assault were women.
There is some debate over the exact numbers. Karen Kampwirth argues in her essay “Women in the Armed Struggles in Nicaragua” that women accounted for only 6.6 percent of Sandinista combat deaths, suggesting there was indeed some measures taken to keep women out of combat situations.
Kampwirth isn’t clear, however, on whether or not those numbers reflect cumulative death counts, including those killed in battles prior to women entering the fighting force in significant numbers. In the early years of the revolution, only men were fighting — and dying. That would skew the overall totals for the war. A more accurate assessment would require a statistical breakdown by years.
Regardless of the exact numbers, it is obvious that women were more integral to the Nicaraguan Revolution than perhaps any conflict in recent history. Even contemporary U.S. media reports felt compelled to acknowledge, with some hint of surprise, the women among guerrilla ranks.
“Sandinista fighters, both men and women, jubilantly waved their pistols and carbines,” stated a contemporary Chicago Tribute account of the Sandinistas taking Leon.
Chinchilla and others have noted that the prevalence of women among Sandinista combat units set a new standard for revolutionary movements in the region, with later rebel forces in El Salvador and Guatemala — as well as the Zapatista movement in Mexico and the conservative Contras in Nicaragua and El Salvador — enlisting greater numbers of women than those seen in regional conflicts prior to the Nicaragua Revolution.
The Nicaraguan Revolution was one of the most successful — in practical if not philosophical terms — of the numerous uprisings that swept across Latin American in the second half the 20th century.
The Sandinista National Liberation Front overthrew a U.S.-supported dictator, beat back a U.S.-funded counter-revolution, implemented political and economic reforms and maintained power through democratic elections for many of the years since the revolution.
However, the government of Sandinista president Daniel Ortega has been marred by corruption, and Nicaragua’s recent history has been shaped by Ortega’s family members and confidantes exerting a deepening control over the country’s institutions, media and major industries.
But if the numbers and testimonials are any indicator, the Sandinistas might not have been able to achieve power at all if they hadn’t let women serve as equals — or at least something close to it — on the front lines.