In the 2006 film Bandidas, Penélope Cruz and Selma Hayak’s characters, with their waist-cinching corsets, plunging V-neck blouses, cowboy hats and revolvers, are the stereotypical epitome of what a Latinx woman — specifically Mexican women — are supposed to be: sexy and dangerous. This contradicting characterization of strong Latinx women has become the norm in Hollywood, but the imagery was inspired by something entirely different: Las Soldaderas, the female soldiers who made the Mexican Revolution possible.
In November 1910, Mexico was plunged into a near decade-long war that pitted the federal government, run by dictator Porfirio Díaz Mori, against thousands of revolutionaries from varying factions. The Revolution was all-encompassing; everyone was expected to join the cause, and those who didn’t were forced to flee the country.
For the revolutionaries, the war was an opportunity to overthrow the outdated class system put in place by the Spanish elite. These revolutionaries saw it as a time for Mexico to reward the people who worked the land, not the other way around: a war for the mestizos; a war for the indigenous; and a war for the poor. But neither side could have endured for nearly 10 years without the dedication of Las Soldaderas.
Although not much is known about the demographics of Las Soldaderas, it is believed that a majority of these female soldiers were in their late teens and early twenties, and involved women of various ethnicities, including Afro-Mexicans and people of Spanish descent. As outlined in a 2009 scholarly article by Delia Fernández, now an assistant professor of history and core faculty in Chicano Latino studies at Michigan State University, women like Señora María Sánchez, Señora Pimental, and Petra Herrera — who fought as “Pedro” — showed that women could hold their own amid a bloody civil war. These soldiers fought on all sides, with many elite women joining the federales ranks and others joining different revolutionary leaders, like Emiliano Zapata, Pancho Villa, and Venustiano Carranza.
According to Fernández’s research, the term “soldadera” has been used since the Spanish Conquest to describe women who aided the Spanish armies in various ways. In a dominant patriarchal society with heavy Catholic influence, Mexico’s women were expected to follow traditional gender roles. But the dawn of the Revolution provided an opportunity for women to free themselves of society’s expectations and take control of their own lives. Becoming a soldier in the Revolution allowed these women a chance to break away from perceived gender roles and make their own money.
While some of the soldiers fought in combat alongside men, others used their traditional gender roles for their benefit.
“As much as the [women in combat] were stepping out of a gender role, a lot of these women also went because of their gender role, as wife, as sister, as the person who does the work necessary for any of the Revolution to happen,” Fernández, tells Teen Vogue. “It’s not this really well orchestrated and processional military, [so] there is no way for these [revolutionary soldiers] to eat. If it were not for the women to perform the duty that they have always performed, they would have starved.”
Yet the legacy of Las Soldaderas has been almost entirely redefined and retold through a primarily male perspective. It was even happening during the Revolution: Men would write songs about Las Soldaderas, emphasizing their femininity and overt sexuality, in order to diminish their military contributions and accomplishments, according to Fernández’s research. Their image was structured around these male-written corridos. Iconography surrounding Las Soldaderas often featured women dressed in low-cut, skin-tight outfits with ammunition-filled bandolier slung over their chests a la Cruz and Hayak’s Hollywood depictions. These depictions of Las Soldaderas would come to be known as Las Adelitas, named after the famed ballad La Adelita, which described an unknown soldadera who was as pretty as she was brave. Soon, the scandalous depictions of Las Adelitas would become synonymous with the worldwide image of Las Soldaderas.
But Las Soldaderas weren’t fighting for their country in brassieres — they were women often dressed like their male counterparts, in battle-ready trousers and long-sleeved shirts, with bullets strapped across their chest and guns holstered around their waists, although some did wear floor-length skirts. Under the leadership of Petra Herrera, perhaps the most well-known soldadera, a brigade of nearly 400 women aided revolutionary leader Pancho Villa, who wasn’t particularly fond of female soldiers, in his effort to take the city of Torreón from the federales. Others acted as spies across the country, nursed the wounded on both sides of the war, and even used their gender to escape from prison.
“It was hard for people to reconcile: ‘How do we remember these courageous women who were fighting in this war, but we also still continue to treat them badly?’ And one way to negate their contributions is to say, ‘Oh, these sex objects were there as well. These people are very nice to look at, and if you put a gun on them it makes them sexy and dangerous at the same time,’” Fernández says. “[This] really negates the ideas of the toughness, the mestizo toughness, the physical toughness that the women brought with them and their contributions.”
While these women were transforming early 20th-century Mexico, under Díaz’s reign, women were restricted in almost all other aspects of life. During this time, women weren’t considered citizens, as established by the Mexican Constitution of 1857, which meant they weren’t able to vote and had no say over the political future of their country. Without citizenship, women were forced to rely on male figures in their lives to take care of them. Other Mexican laws at the time further reduced the freedoms women had to shape their own lives, making the Revolution perhaps the only way for these women to take control of their futures and move toward equality.
Las Soldaderas dedication to the armies on both sides of the war presumably had an impact on not just the Revolution’s outcome, but on the future of Mexican politics. After their efforts, the Constitution of 1917 finally defined a Mexican citizen as someone born or naturalized in the country, which meant women were officially given more rights, though those changes didn’t have wide-reaching impact.
“The 1917 Constitution did not dramatically change women’s roles in post Revolution society,” Fernández says. “There were not many enforcement mechanisms to ensure that, in practice, women had more rights even if the law said they were supposed to have more.”
Despite their years of service and various contributions, at the conclusion of the war, Fernández says that many of the soldaderas were expected to go back to their designated pre-Revolution roles as caregivers and homemakers, adding that the fight for women’s rights continued well after 1917.
A hundred years post-Revolution, Las Soldaderas’ history is often overlooked or forgotten entirely. In the place of the valiant women who helped eliminate an elitist hierarchy in the country was the sultry image of Las Adelitas. But instead of allowing this imagery of a female soldier to limit Las Soldaderas’ power, some Mexican and Mexican-American women have come to embrace the imagery as a feminist symbol. In fact, during the Chicanx Movement in the 1970s, an all-female Mexican-American civil rights group named themselves after the powerful rebels, embracing the seductive and equally heroic symbolism of La Adelita herself.
Today, Las Soldaderas’ contributions to the Revolution are finally being recognized for what they were: an integral part of creating Mexico’s future and forging a path toward equality among men and women, throughout the country.