A Revolution within a Revolution: The Motivations, Ambitions and Roles of Women in the Cuban Revolution 1953-1959
Dr. Erik Ching
May 4 2010
In the United State, the 1950’s is commonly referred to as the era of conformity. Prosperity of the post war years left people dazzled by new technology, commuting to the suburbs and settling into wholesale purchase of the American Dream. Women were donning aprons and pearls, the uniform of the perfect house wife while men were bowing to bosses, briefcase in hand, to fulfill their breadwinner duties. Just ninety miles south of the Florida coast, however there was a tremendously different kind of era underway. Thousands of Cubans took up arms against Dictator Fulgencio Batista, determined to see a successful revolution that would bring justice to the poor and rights to the oppressed. Women also joined the revolution by the hundreds, using their skirts to transport bombs, their pocket books to smuggle cash and their homes to hide guerrillas. Revolutionary women played an active and heroic role in the Cuban Revolution in the late 1950’s often risking everything in the name of justice. In this paper, I will utilize personal testimonies of women revolutionaries as well as scholarly commentary to explore the motivation, ambition and role of women in the Cuban Revolution from 1953-1959. Additionally, I will look at what Fidel Castro and the leadership of the July 26 Movement articulate to be women’s role in the revolution and consider how this contributes to women’s liberation. I conclude that women did not join the anti-Batista movement in spite of their femininity but instead were motivated to join the Revolution by reasons unique to their experience of pre-revolutionary Cuba as women in traditional gender roles. As such, the role they played in the revolution was consistent with traditional gender ideology and the jobs they did were most often ones of emotional and logistical support. Furthermore, the women revolutionaries did not see this revolution as being about women’s rights but rather about equal rights, a perspective encouraged and fostered by Castro and others of the vanguard.
A History of Activism
In order to understand women’s role and purpose in the revolution of 1959, we must first consider their revolutionary history which started long before Fidel Castro entered the picture. Vilma Espín, revolutionary activist and president of the Federation of Cuban Women, notes, “There is a tradition in Cuba of women being present, together with their people, in the struggle for liberation." One of the first female revolutionaries was a humble, black woman by the name of Mariana Grajales. She fought alongside José Martí and the other mambisas (female warriors) in the wars for independence from Spanish colonial power. Women activists, like most Cubans, drew great inspiration from the nationalist legacy and heroism of José Martí. His teachings provided the motivation to see a free and equal Cuba and indirectly planted the seeds for the women’s movement. In 1952, the Martí Women’s Civic Front was established to bring together all kinds of women from a variety of philosophical backgrounds in the anti-Batista movement. One woman, Aida Pelayo, noted that Martí was her greatest hero and the motivation for her activism that began shortly after the 1928 coup led by Machado. She also participated in the 1939 Women’s Congress where women came together to discuss women’s suffrage and equal pay for equal work.
In 1940, a constitution was adopted under Fulgencio Batista that included the right to vote for women as well as protections for laborers and limited acquisition of private property. When this constitution was not translated into practice, student movements, with many female participants, emerged across the country to protest holding burial ceremonies for the dead...
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