Feminists of the Right and Left
Before the Revolution: Women’s Rights and Right-Wing Politics in Nicaragua, 1821-1979
By Victoria González-Rivera
University Park: Pennsylvania State University Press, 2011, 224 pp., $64.95, hardcover
Reviewed by Florence E. Babb
At the time of the victory of the Nicaraguan revolution in 1979, Victoria González-Rivera was living in the country as the ten-year-old daughter of a Nicaraguan physician and an American activist and academic. Four years later, she moved with her mother to the United States, where she continued her schooling through graduate studies in history. Doctoral research took her back to her country of birth in the mid-1990s, to begin work on a subject that would open a new window on Central American women’s history: the feminist precursors to contemporary Nicaragua’s women’s movements. Nicaraguan women, she notes in Before the Revolution, began clamoring for suffrage as early as the nineteenth century—and the women who allied with the Somoza family dictatorship through much of the twentieth century continued to push for women’s rights. Her subject was improbable for two reasons: it was commonly believed that the women’s movement and feminism emerged in Nicaragua only in the 1970s, with the Sandinista revolution; and few scholars wished to be identified as having a serious interest in women’s gains during a period of cruel and authoritarian right-wing rule.
González-Rivera’s biography is significant because she lived through a momentous time in Nicaraguan history, yet is young enough not to be implicated in the fraught politics of that period. Her age was certainly an advantage when she conducted more than fifty interviews between 1994 and 2009 with Somocistas (Somoza supporters) and anti-Somocistas. The Somocista women at the center of her study, in their sixties to eighties when she spoke to them, assumed that she was either sympathetic to Somocismo or at least neutral. Indeed, González-Rivera shows ample respect for these women and their lives, and she offers a well-balanced, fair-minded historian’s account based on the fascinating stories she collected.
If González-Rivera’s age was an asset, her identity as a Nicaraguan American was occasionally a liability, since some who recalled Nicaragua’s occupation by US Marines during the early twentieth century, as well as later political and cultural interventions by the giant to the north, viewed her interest in feminist history as coming from her gringa experience. She shares with readers her extraordinary efforts to explain her often-misunderstood project: even her father, an anti-Somocista, could not understand why she chose to write about the country’s notorious right wing. Despite such resistance, Before the Revolution is remarkably successful in replacing the previous narrative of Nicaraguan feminism’s beginnings with, as she describes it, “a radically different, revisionist version of Nicaraguan women’s history.” The book’s tone is intimate and inclusive: González-Rivera clarifies terms and explains her research methods, making her work accessible to students as well as to scholars.
In six concise chapters, González-Rivera weaves a nuanced and well-told narrative and argument. She identifies four periods of women’s movement activity in Nicaragua: a first wave of independent women who called for voting rights; a Somocista Nationalist Liberal Party (PLN) cross-class women’s movement; a Sandinista National Liberation Front (FSLN) mass women’s movement; and second-wave, autonomous feminism. The book focuses on the first two, which until now have received almost no attention; it mentions only briefly the more often studied post-Sandinista movements and gestures toward a possible fifth current, made up of neo-Somocistas. This broad conception of women’s movements advances discussion in productive new directions. To my mind, it usefully distinguishes between the two waves of independent feminism and the partisan politics of both Right and Left.
González-Rivera draws insightful contrasts among the various women’s movements. For example, she shows that whereas the Sandinista women’s movement emphasized women as mothers of combatants who played only supporting roles in the revolutionary society, the earlier Somocista women’s movement did not place mothers at the moral center of family life but rather encouraged women to enter the modernizing society’s workforce. González-Rivera demonstrates that the clientelistic Somozas provided women with jobs as well as goods and services in exchange for their political support—especially after women finally got the vote in 1955. She offers useful comparisons with other nations regarding the attention right-wing parties paid to motherhood, revealing that the distinctive approach of the Somozas appealed to women seeking to improve their educational and employment opportunities. Given Nicaragua’s high proportion of female-headed households, this support for women’s advancement had a significant impact and accounts for the support women gave to the dictatorship.
Nicaragua has had a history of tyrannical rule, whether by US occupation, Somoza dictatorship, or Sandinista hegemony. This political context may account in part for the prominent role of charismatic or coercive individuals who have gained control even when they have acted against the collective interest. For example, González-Rivera gives central attention to the middle-class educator and activist Josefa Toledo de Aguerri, who during the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries “did not just lead Nicaraguan feminists; she was considered their ‘benevolent dictator.’” Toledo de Aguerri’s powerful leadership style may have delayed the emergence of other first-wave feminists as leaders, although she was highly regarded, and the organizations and journals she founded brought Nicaraguan activists into communication with feminists around the globe.
During the Somoza period, both middle- and working-class women participated in what González-Rivera calls “intimate reciprocity” with the populist and clientelistic government leadership, benefitting both from personal favors and collective rights. González-Rivera devotes a full chapter to the infamous and legendary Nicolasa Sevilla. “‘La Nicolasa,’” writes González-Rivera, “symbolized the unrestrained manifestation of working-class women’s political passion.” The tactics she employed in fighting anti-Somocistas were so outrageous that she terrorized even the Liberal Party, and came to symbolize for its opponents “the evils of dictatorship.” Like other working-class women who were political activists, she was sexually stigmatized, although ironically, as González-Rivera notes, “today she is the only woman men are ever compared to in Nicaraguan politics.”
González-Rivera is generally careful throughout the text to note the extent of her research and the topics her book cannot include given its scope. She informs readers, for example, that she does not deal much with religion or with the injustices of the Somoza dictatorship. Nor does she shed much light on racial differences, specifically the history of women on Nicaragua’s Atlantic Coast, where the Afro-Nicaraguan and indigenous populations are concentrated, and where, interestingly, women won the right to vote as early as 1894.
Therefore, it’s surprising that in the chapter “Sex and Somocismo”—in which González-Rivera presents important new material on sexual politics, state-sponsored rape, prostitution, and maternalism—she says almost nothing of homosexual culture during the time of the Somoza family’s rule. This is particularly disappointing in light of a widely held view that at least one Somoza family member was accepted as gay and that, depending on one’s political perspective, the pre-Sandinista period was marked by sexual deviance or, more positively, that it was a time of considerable tolerance of homosexuality. Perhaps for this reason, as González-Rivera writes, “the Liberal Party had generally emphasized women’s political and economic participation, de-emphasized women’s roles as mothers and wives, and stayed silent on abortion and homosexuality.” In her only other brief reference to lesbian or gay identity, she notes in an earlier chapter that Somocista supporters branded feminists “dykes [marimachas].” Once the Sandinistas were in power, they cracked down on homosexuality as a perversion stemming from the Somoza era, until pressure at home and internationally softened their stance. An exploration of early gay and lesbian history in Nicaragua would have enhanced Before the Revolution. Alternatively, it would have been desirable to know the author’s rationale for limiting discussion to heteronormative sexuality.
Sexual culture, as González-Rivera’s work shows, has long been a lightning rod for political differences in Nicaragua. Feminist theorists and analysts, notably Sofia Montenegro, have contributed significantly to the discussion of the ways that sex, gender, and power have been mutually constituted in Nicaraguan society. Since 1998, when Nicaraguan President Daniel Ortega was accused by his adoptive stepdaughter Zoilamérica Narváez of years of rape and sexual abuse, and since his targeting of feminist groups following his 2006 reelection, Ortega’s leadership has been compared by some to the Somoza dictatorship. Along with other dissident members of the Left, feminists are now viewed by the government as an affront and challenge to the FSLN, and President Ortega has recently colluded with conservative and right-wing political and religious interests, aligning himself with supporters of traditional family values.
Sixteen photographs enliven this book. They appear all together in a section in the middle of the book, and I would have liked to have been aware of them earlier, as they showcase the individuals and groups of women discussed throughout. However, this and my other quibbles detract little from this impressive work. I understand that Before the Revolution will soon be available in paperback so that it may be adopted in courses on Latin American history, gender, and politics. González-Rivera has given us a foundational work that reveals the deep roots and diversity of women’s movements and feminism in Nicaragua, and provides a nuanced view of the gender politics of the three Somoza men who held power for 43 years. She points out how her work departs from that of others and generously points the way toward future scholarship on the contradictory and ambivalent participation of women who have embraced the politics of the Right as well as the Left in Latin America. The Nicaraguan case offers much food for thought, as the nation has in the last century experienced a dramatic turn from dictatorship to revolution. How we understand this past will enable us to better appreciate the current struggles of these and other women to draw on their history and build their future.
González-Rivera concludes with a particularly apt and provocative claim: “Undoubtedly, the study of Somocista women complicates one of the primary goals of both feminist activism and women’s history, which is to give women a voice.” She provides us with a wealth of fascinating material to challenge our notions of who has a right to be heard and which women’s history will be remembered, in Nicaragua and beyond.
Florence E. Babb is the Vada Allen Yeomans Professor of Women’s Studies at the University of Florida, where she is also on the graduate faculty in Anthropology and Latin American Studies. Her recent books include After Revolution: Mapping Gender and Cultural Politics in Neoliberal Nicaragua (2001) and The Tourism Encounter: Fashioning Latin American Nations and Histories (2011). At present she is on sabbatical doing research and writing on Andean Peru for a book that reexamines debates on gender and indigenous identity since the 1970s.