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These women endured extreme hardships in order to fulfill their roles. They often had to live in almost starvation level circumstances, since most of the food had to be given to the battle ready individuals. Often they would toil for hours to find food, dig roots, and other methods to see the fruits of their labor be provided the fighting men. They endured the malnutrition as well as miserable living conditions in order to provide sustenance for the group. Many times they even endured childbearing under inhospitable surroundings (Soto, 44). As nurses, they healed the wounded and endured the contamination of dangerous diseases as well as nursed back to health many of the fallen men during the Revolution. Many of them suffered severe infections and diseases as a result of contact with the sick, many primary records reveal that anywhere from ten to twenty percent of the soldaderas contracted serious illnesses and death from providing care for the wounded and ill (Macias, 121). Ultimately "no army of the revolution fought without women but each organized female participation in a distinct manner" (Resendez, 527). The end result was that the soldaderas endured harsh living conditions in order to carry out their roles for the betterment of the Mexican populist movement.
Soldaderas were not the exclusive domain of the Mexican Revolutionary forces, they were also employed by the Federal army. Women who joined the federal army did so as a response to the great need for their services, and also to accompany their husbands who were often held in bondage for several years under the "volunteer system" of the federal military program (Resendez, 531). Thee camp followers of the Federal army lived a much easier life than those who engaged on the populist side. They were also tasked to supply food and other services to the lower ranks of soldiers, and while they shared the hardships and misfortunes endured on the field, they also had access to more resources as a result of the funding provided by the Federal government. The wives of the federal soldiers chose this life rather than to be left alone for long periods during the dangerous times when kidnappings and rapes commonly occurred. The distinctive lifestyle of the camp followers led to many cultural forces and constant friction as well. There was no sense of real "motivation and unity" among the Federal army soldaderas. Since many of them came because of the opportunity to earn wages as a result of their service, they became very competitive to service higher ranking officers in order to curry favor and gain certain advantages. A certain competition developed among women to "provide a complete food basket with a tablecloth, decorative plates and a vase of flowers for officers and those in the line of command" (Resendes, 530). Other tasks that these camp followers had to engage in were to the care of children as well as the maintenance of the army supplies. The camp followers, like their revolutionary counterparts, also carried out military related activity such as spying on the enemy and smuggling arms from the United States. The Federal army created an entire culture around social group around their military units, many times entire families moved together and the army had as many followers as soldiers. From a military perspective this meant both severe advantages and disadvantages, they were forced to feed more people as well as decrease their mobility, but they also gained more workers and hands to help maintain the upkeep of the army allowing all of the fighting men to focus on the battle.
Women who became part of the soldaderas of the Northern Revolutionary armies led a substantially different life. They also came to be part of the Mexican Revolutionary movement through diverting channels. The Villistas and the Carrancistas both had very strong contingents of Soldaderas. One American journalist described how "three hundred soldaderas were left behind by the Federales after the disastrous battle of Paredon in May 1913" (Whitaker, npg). These women were quickly assimilated into the Villistas army and set up new households with Villa's bachelors. Within three years of the beginning of the Revolution, the northern rebels were especially effective in gathering and utilizing the soldaderas. They were able to rely on them completely for all foraging, cooking, and camping services as well as finding invaluable members of the battle plan through espionage and smuggling. The bravery and courage of the Soldaderas, many of whom cared for both the Federales and Revolutionary wounded, was remembered by Pancho Villa, who recorded in his diary of the respect he held for the women camp followers (Macias, 72).
The contributions of the Soldaderas were not an illusionary need, nor were it something that the Revolutionary cause could have done without. The early Maderistas and Orozquistas of the Mexican Revolutionary movement did not bring camp followers into the battlefield because of their decreased mobility as a result of their protection and general inability to keep pace with troop momentum (NOTATION). However, this lack of Soldaderas caused severe logistical problems when wounded soldiers were left uncared for and the obtaining of food and ammunitions had to be undertaken by battle wary soldiers. For these armies, provisional support units were only made up of a few women and some men, to provide nursing food and other necessary services. These armies soon realized that having Soldaderas were essential to the success of the entire military movement. The vitality of Soldaderas to the revolutionary movement can be surmised through the military strategies of the Federal army. The "whole strategy to stamp out rebels were often directed against the women" (NOTATION). The Federal army realized that soldaderas served as the essential supply chain for the Revolutionary movement, and as the slowest and most vulnerable part of the rebels, they were easy to target.
The role of the camp follower Soldaderas were vital to the cause of the Revolutionary movement, however an equally effective sector were the "female soldiers" (Soto). The much smaller group of female soldiers had a very different role than the larger group of Soldaderas. Female soldiers were vital to the establishment of a strong feminist perspective because they in effect fought alongside men on the battlefield. In many cases, they virtually gave up their identities as women to become combatants. Their bravery in the field contributed to their general acceptance in society as more equitable members of Mexican society.
Gustavo Casasola noted that women were able to join the Revolutionary movements as Soldados rasos, or privates. In some rare cases, those who proved themselves in battle were made officers and leaders of men. The difficulty for the "women soldiers" was that they were denied the identity of womanhood. They "needed to masculinize themselves completely; both inwardly and outwardly: dress like man and act like a man; go on horseback, like the rest, be able to endure long marches and, at the hour of combat, prove with weapon in hand that she was no a soldadara, but a soldier" (Macias, 73). These women took on a distinctive role within the military forces of the Revolution, they abandoned traditional gender roles. The need for soldiers during the war allowed these women the freedom to discard former restrictions against them and the later intellectual feminist movement used these women soldiers as the models upon which to build their feminist doctrine.
The role of female soldiers varied greatly from army to army. In some rebel forces they played a prominent role, as much as thirty percent of the army was made up of women. However, other revolutionary forces such as the Maderistas and Orozquistas did not generally depend upon Soldaderas during battle. They had a limited number of female soldiers who joined their ranks during their campaign, however they did not actively encourage or recruit women. The reasons for why these women decided to become soldiers instead of joining the ranks of the camp followers were political and social in nature. Many times, women who had suffered rape or had their husbands, sons or relatives killed by the Federal army joined the cause as soldiers for their political convictions. These women soldiers were often the fiercest, in one account, a squad of Federal soldiers showed up at a family house looking for rebels. While searching the house an officer tried to rape Angela Oso's sister, and the result as that both the officer and the sister were killed. Both Angela and her father fled to the mountains and joined the revolutionary army. Fifteen-year-old Angela "decided to put on men's clothes and follow her father to the sierra" (Resendez, 529). Within these northern armies that did not have a strong female soldier contingent, no clear division of labor existed between men and women, this level of equality was extremely attractive on an idealism level for women who wanted to join the revolutionary campaign. In…[continue]
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