The Kitchens of the Revolution: Women in Militant Organization

The examples of Nicaragua and El Salvador

One of the main characteristics of revolutionary movements from the French Revolution on was the topic of women liberation. Each and every one of them offered in its program a sympathetic account of the submission of women under the current regime, and a sometimes detailed plan which in different eras included the right to vote, equal salary for equal work, abortion rights, the right to own property, freedom from violence and abuse from their husbands and fathers, prohibition of slavery or prostitution, equal representation, access to higher education, and more. Revolutionary movements that claimed to represent the poor, the exploited, the downtrodden of their country or the world, envisioned a coalition of workers, peasants, the intelligentsia, and women. Accordingly, women of all classes flocked to these organizations, attracted by the promise of a better world. Doing it was in itself an act of rebellion and courage, as the price they paid was dear: ostracism in their own society and harsh treatment if caught. But danger did not stop revolutionary women, as they were attracted to a promise of total equality. But were women also part of the leadership in revolutionary organizations? How were these treated inside their groups? Were they free from sexist behavior, sexual harassment, and demeanor from their male revolutionary counterparts? What was the attitude of militant men toward militant women, beyond the face of solidarity and admiration shown to the public?

An assortment of available sources leads to the conclusion that in the majority of cases, militant organizations mimicked in their internal structure the society which they were agitating to change. In consequence, few women climbed to the leadership, almost never in larger proportions that outside, and even those who led faced a different treatment from their fellows because they were women.

For women, achieving a position of leadership like that of Gladys Marin, who was until her recent death the General Secretary of the Communist Party of Chile, was the exception, not the rule.  As for Fidel Castro’s Cuba, it considered itself the heaven for militant women, the place were women achieved true equality and are represented in equal (or, why not? majority) numbers in government positions. But in fact, the only really powerful woman there is Vilma Espín, who since 1960 is the President for Life of the Federación de Mujeres Cubanas. No doubt she achieved her first line position because she is the wife of number 2 in the Cuban hierarchy: Raul Castro, Fidel’s brother and the minister of Defense.[1]

The concept of “First Lady”, a remnant of feudal aristocracy, conferred a degree of prestige, rights and power given to the wife of the ruler. But it is not an empowering position for women. On the contrary, it’s only a token of the subordination and a proof of the failure of women in achieving meaningful roles in  society. But there were and still are “First Ladies” in countries that called themselves Marxist, socialist, or communist. By erecting the position, those in real power dispensed themselves from the need to address a real representation of women. Thus, we had in the 80’s Raisa Gorbachev in the late Soviet Union as a First Lady with rich furs and luxury. We had Jiang Quing, the legendary wife of Mao Tse Tung and member of the powerful Gang of Four. And even in the time of the great Lenin, the most important woman in the regime was his wife Krupskaia, who was promptly relegated aside with the advent of Stalinism in 1927. From the late 30’s on, the Soviet regimes had women just as second class parliament members, ministers of Culture or presidents of the National Women’s’ League. As for parliamentary representation, they all adopted a practice of Western parties by gracefully shielding for women a few positions in election lists.

An exception: Rosa Luxembourg, leader of the revolutionary Spartacist League which led a brief soviet revolution in Germany  in 1918 and was assassinated. She was the undisputed leader of this Communist party together with Karl Liebknecht and had to confront other social democrat leaders because she was a woman, a Jew, a Polish and disabled.

These events happened more than eighty years ago. Since then, the idea of woman rights became accepted, even a part of mainstream politics. Was there a change in the militant movement vying for power? Of the most recent revolutionary cycles, those in Nicaragua and El Salvador were well documented. Nicaragua had one of the best known cases of woman participation in revolutionary movements is the MSLN –Movimiento Sandinista de Liberación Nacional- that after decades of struggle expelled in 1979 dictator Anastasio Somoza. Unlike other organizations where women could be no more than messengers in the military ranks, in Nicaragua they actually fought. In the conditions of guerrilla fighting in the mountains, there was apparently not much room for sexual conflicts. Fighter Ana Julia Guido, of peasant extraction and interviewed in 1980 by Margaret Randall, asserts that

“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”.[2]

Marlene Chavarria Ruis, better known by her war name Yaosca, confirms that in her own interview by saying that “…some say they spoiled me [in the mountain] because I was the only woman, but that’s not true. They treated me the same as everyone else.”[3] In yet another interview the director of the new Military School under the Sandinistas expresses his hope that in the future women will be able to be trained together with men. Right now, he says, there are new “comrades” who never fought alongside women, and “still tend to see them as women”.[4]

But things were different at the top of the organization. The same year, Dora María Téllez, one of the military chiefs, said to Randall:

“Women participated in our Revolution, not in the kitchens but as combatants. In the political leadership. This gives us a very different experience. Of course they played other roles during the war and acquired tremendous moral authority, so that any man –even in intimate relationships- had to respect them. A man would be hard put to lift a hand to hit or mistreat a woman combatant”. [5]

Women then could even become comandantes[6] there. But few women were in actual command of troops. Mónica Baltodano, who is still today one of the leaders of what remains, politically, of the Sandinistas, also was interviewed by Randall 26 years ago. She came to the FSLN from a Christian social movement and described the attitude toward women in the revolutionary organization:

“The problem of male chauvinism was evident among comrades in the FER and FSLN. Some men harbored distinctly sexist attitudes toward women. They believed that women were for domestic tasks alone and that we shouldn’t go beyond being messengers… Some comrades were open to dealing with sexism while others remained closed. Some said women were no good in the mountains, that they were only good ‘for screwing’, that they created conflicts, sexual conflicts”[7]

This comes from an unconditional member of the party, and refers, not to ignorant peasants, but to the elite in a militant socialist group. Baltodano lived in “safe houses” as member of the underground. Even there, under tangible and present danger, women were discriminated: “If you were living in a safe house in the North you knew you had to help with the sweeping, the cooking and the dishes –if you were a woman”.[8] This comandante acknowledges that she “was lucky” to share the command of the troops with two men who “had the mentalities of the new man”. The fact that she was a prestigious fighter also avoided more acts of sexism toward her. But even this did not help her when she commanded the decisive attack on the headquarters of the National Guard and the chief of that unit came out to surrender. The officer, a colonel, refused to surrender to a woman. But, at the end he had no choice. Baltodano confirms the account in this interview.[9]

Another interviewee in Randall’s book, Nora Astorga, a militant of MSLN of middle class origin, a lawyer and a mother, is an intelligent and prepared human being. She commands the intricacies of Marxism as good as anybody else. But Astorga went into history just because in 1978, while she worked for a real estate corporation, she was assigned to sexually seduce General Pérez Vega, a notorious murderer and torturer from the National Guard, to go to her apartment, where he was later executed. From Mata Hari to Astorga, women were confined to this role, accepting a mask of submission and sexual inferiority.

But the most compelling evidence against equality for women in the Sandinista movement came years after that government held democratic elections (1990) and lost to Violeta Chamorro, who was just the widow of an opposition newspaper publisher killed by Somoza. Sandinista president Daniel Ortega had to relinquish his post. Only then, Zoilamérica Narváez, his adoptive daughter, then 34, confronted her fears and accused him of sexually abusing her since she was 11 years of age.[10] Her detailed testimony has the seal of total truth. And yet, after 10 years of legal struggle, the government, with the approval of the Supreme Court, refused even investigating the allegation. Narváez herself was discredited. The fact that after the testimony Daniel Ortega is still, today, in 2006, the leader of the FSLN is enough to betray the sexist and machista real nature of the organization. Even more telling is an “open letter” by no other than our author Margaret Randall, who is a known revolutionary activist, where she confesses that the affair (denied by Ortega), was true and known over the years:

Lo sabíamos y mantuvimos silencio por nuestro deseo de apoyar a la revolución sandinista, por temor, y nuestra percepción de que esta es la historia de Zoilamérica, para ser contada o no por ella. Estoy avergonzada de nuestro silencio, pero tal vez el tiempo y lugar no permitieron otra alternativa.[11]

Another discrediting testimony includes Tomás Borge, the only surviving founding member of the FSLN and second in command in the organization, the same one who acknowledged in a speech for the anniversary of the national women’s organization, that: “We know of compañeros who are revolutionary in the street, at work, everywhere, but feudal lords with knives at home”. Borge is also known for sexist behavior, as Carmelita, an ex comandante, says in an interview:

“Look, I could admire comandante Borge because his rhetoric is so beautiful, but it is clear that he himself is like he describes. In the street he recognizes the struggle of women, but at home he acts like the others”.[12]

Today, Nicaragua is the poorest country in the Hemisphere after Haiti and one of the poorest in the world. The position held by women is so low that a man has to advocate for them: Patrick Welsh, vice-president of the Asociación de Hombres contra la Violencia en Nicaragua. In an interview, he explains that the leaders of the FSLN renounced their own interest as women instead of fighting for the rights of women.

“Women with creative and stimulant ideas didn’t have a space and remained silent and frustrated so to not damage the revolution and their own organization…. Women waited for the approval of the party instead of assuming… the defense of the women’s demands.”[13]

Clearly, these women didn’t see that by promoting the rights of women, they would have really defended the revolution, now defeated.

Even more noted is the lack of power for women in the revolutionary movements in El Salvador, where a coalition of leftist parties was on the verge of taking power by military means, after 12 years of fighting against a dictatorial regime, until a peace accord was achieved in 1992. According to a UN survey, in the main militant organization, Frente Farabundo Marti de Liberación Nacional (FMLN) up to 35% of the militants were women[14]; according to Luciak, in 1992, of 15,009 members of the FMLN that were demobilized, 4,492, or 29.9% were women.[15]

But in a recent interview, comandante Rebeca –real name Lorena Peña, today a member of Parliament– says that in her organization, she was the only real comandante. The other few women entitled with this name, “la compañera Ruth, la compañera Susana, la compañera Coralia”, were actually “capitanas” and were given the title post mortem after they were killed in battle. A “machista” thing, she says. “There was no recognition of the contribution by the women!” Peña was comandante of the central front, with almost 3,000 soldiers under her command. When she came back from giving birth to her second child, she was practically demoted and reassigned to the unimportant occidental front, with 60 soldiers. When she left there a year later, she had 700. She understands the source of this behavior of which she was a victim: “In this stage of the struggle the masculine values looked more revolutionary than those of women. This is sexism.”[16] In a different interview, Peña claims that the groups that ignited the Salvadorian revolution were 80% women.[17] A scholar, Eugenia Piza-López, makes it clear that “the machismo of the FMLN continued to express a lack of complete acceptance of women in leadership roles and an unwillingness to make gender issues a priority”.[18]

The Peace Accords signed in 1992 by the FMLN included the Agrarian Reform. To the dismay of its female members, the lands were given to the heads of households, i.e., to males. Even by the standards of the revolutionary organization, women were considered as part of the property.[19] Similarly, the reinsertion of the members to society in the Accords included professional training according to the prevailing ideas of what is suited for males and what for females. For men: in construction, metal works, machinists, merchants. For women: cosmetics and sawing.[20]

Time and time again, the vast majority of revolutionary movements throughout history failed to fulfill their ideology of women emancipation and full rights in their own file and ranks and especially, their leadership. Evidently, these groups exist inside the framework of existing class, race and gender divisions. While they promise improvements in the future, if and when they get hold on power, they reflect the same reality they vowed to destroy. For their female members, as for the members of their society, change is something possible only in the future.


[1] As for Fidel Castro himself, he is divorced. His ex wife family now lives in Miami and is represented in Congress by a niece, republican congressman Lincoln Díaz Balart.

[2] Randall, Margaret. Sandino’s Daughters. Testimonies of Nicaraguan Women in Struggle. Vancouver: New Star Books, 1981, 131

[3] Randall, 136.

[4] Randall, 139.

[5] Randall, Margaret. Sandino’s Daughter’s. Testimonies of Nicaraguan Women in Struggle. Vancouver: New Star Books, 1981, 56.

[6] The term comandantes is used here as was intended by the MSLN, to designate their utmost leaders. After the revolution the media and the groups themselves started inflation in the adjudication of the title. I know personally two of those “comandantes” who were just, one, a low rank political commissar, and the other a photojournalist.

[7] Randall, 66.

[8] Randall, 73.

[9] Randall, 77.

[10] The whole testimony can be found in http://www.sandino.org/zoila.htm.

[11] http://www.sandino.org/randal.htm. Accessed 2/15/06

[12] Galofré, Guillem. “Las Mujeres y el Sandinismo” In La Bugada, no 3, July 1999. http://www.pangea.org/safareig/ art04.htm, accessed 2/12/06.

[13] Interview published in América Económica,  http://www.americaeconomica.com/numeros4/349/ reportajes/machismonicaragua349.htm.  Accessed 2/15/06.

[14] Piza-López, Eugenia, “A Conference Report” in More than Victims: the Role of Women in Conflict Prevention. A Conference Report. Washington, D.C., Woodrow Wilson International Center for Scholars, 2002, 36. In: http://www.womenwagingpeace.net/content/articles/MoreThanVictims.pdf, accessed 3/2/2006.

[15] Luciak, I., “El Género y la Izquierda Revolucionaria: El Caso de El Salvador”. In María Luisa Tarrés (ed.), Género y Cultura en América Latina, México: El Colegio de México, 1998.

[16] Kohan, Néstor. Entrevista a la comandante Rebeca (Lorena Peña) de la dirección del FMLN de El Salvador. América Libre 2004. Vol. 1 No 23. http://www.nodo50.org/americalibre/novedades/kohan_181005.htm

[17] López, Choni & Isabel López. “Las mujeres hemos soportado una carga mayor en la guerra”. De Sur a Sur, Andalusia, Spain, No 11 March 1997.

[18] Piza-López, 39.

[19] For a complete view of El Salvador, from the point of view of writers contemporary to the revolution, see Dunkerley James, The Long War. Dictatorship and Revolution in El Salvador. London: Verso, 1982, and Montgomery, Tommie Sue, Revolution in El Salvador. Origins and Evolution, Boulder: Westview Press, 1982.

[20] Piza-López, 41..