A Mosaic of Women’s Lives in Mexico

Linda S Stevenson. Women and Politics around the World: A Comparative History and Survey. Editor: Joyce Gelb & Marian Lief Palley. Volume 2: Country Profiles. Santa Barbara, CA: ABC-CLIO, 2009.

Women’s lives in 21st-century Mexico are akin to a beautiful, yet tragic mosaic. One part boasts splendid, bright, new colors, which might represent the political and social progress that some women experience, particularly in civil society organizations and more open political parties and institutions. However, a second, larger part of the mosaic presents more muted colors, symbolizing sentiments of stagnation and disillusion, particularly of women of the lower classes. Nonetheless, this well-worn cloth also represents a strength born of resilience, also a significant feature of women’s experiences in Mexico. In the third and largest part of the mosaic, darker colors, including grays and browns, represent the ongoing struggle, often for survival, of most women, interwoven with shades of black, for the suffering, grief, and death that are part of many women’s lives. This essay presents an introductory selection of the textual mosaic of the ever-changing “colors” in an attempt to represent women from across the spectrum of Mexican society and politics, beginning with several gendered legacies from Mexico’s colonial past and moving on to its recent and ongoing democratization and struggles for gender equality and women’s rights.

Gender roles in Mexico are in a highly dynamic state; the social-political context generally gives the appearance of stability, but the reality may be otherwise. The numbers of opportunities for girls and women, particularly in the areas of education and the workforce, have increased greatly. National statistics reveal that gender equality in education has been attained at the elementary level and is not far from equal at the secondary level, although girls still trail boys in school completion by a few percentage points (INEGI 2006). As of the 1990s, more than 70 percent of the people live in urban areas, and fertility rates have declined from 6 children per woman in the early 1970s to 2.37 (World Factbook, 2008 est.). Concurrently, the proportion of women in the workforce has increased from 17 percent in 1970 to 35 percent in the late 1990s (INEGI 2001). Subsequently, women are playing more visible and important roles in political parties and the government. This includes more women running as candidates and winning elections, as well as the creation of new political institutions that were designed specifically to promote gender equality. These are some of the bright colors in the Mexican mosaic.

However, on the negative side, reflective of the dimmer and dark colors of the mosaic, violence is increasing in the country and has various manifestations in feminized forms. The contentious presidential elections of July 2, 2006, left the country in one of its most politically polarized moments since the revolution of 1910. In some states and in some cases the government has used hard-line, military responses to regain social control. The likes of this have not been seen in the nation since the Partido Revolucionario Institucional (PRI, Institutional Revolutionary Party) government gave orders to the Mexican army to massacre a large group of peaceful protesters in 1968 (Reygadas 2007). Although most Mexicans are not inclined in this direction, a willingness to use violence to get demands met when other methods continually fail or are inadequate, is not unprecedented (Soriano 2006). At the same time, crime and control by drug cartels, especially in towns along the U.S.-Mexican border, are also on the rise, and it is often unclear whether violent crimes are political or not (Payan 2006). For example, more than 400 young women have been brutally murdered in the border town of Ciudad Juárez since 1994. Despite the efforts of a number of Mexican and international human rights and women’s groups, and even pressure from the U.S. government, investigations have been inadequate and mismanaged. Only one successful sentence was issued by the Mexican courts, and it was a dubious one at that (Wright 2006). The term “femicide” has evolved out of this outrageous series of murders, and it is indicative of the larger problem of the Mexican state’s inability to force the justice system to work fairly, especially for women. This is also a glimpse of one of the parts lagging behind in Mexico’s otherwise steady progress toward “democratic consolidation” (Camp 2007; Crandall 2005).

Examining the Past to Explain the Present: Historical Overview

An important place to start in a gendered view of Mexican history is the arrival of the most prominent of the Spanish conquistadores—Hernán Cortés—to Mexico in 1519. His exploration was driven by his and others’ interests in controlling territory for the Crown and themselves and entailed the direct or indirect responsibility for the deaths of millions of indigenous peoples and later Africans as well. They died of European diseases and by the Spaniards’ use of force, including widespread rape and pillage tactics. As such, this form of gender relations is a key factor in defining not only what some people refer to as a new race—the mestizos, people of mixed European and indigenous descent—but also a legacy of machismo, or male dominance, that has pervaded the society ever since. Embedded in this historical period also is the figure of La Malinche, or Cortes’s own indigenous mistress, who translated for him and, as many see it, betrayed the Indian peoples of Mexico by helping Cortes with the conquest. Consequently, her name became synonymous with “traitor” and is the source of the belief, a mix between myth and stereotype, that women in Mexico are untrustworthy when left to their own devices, and thus, top-down patriarchy is necessary and justified to preserve control in the home and society at large.

With the Spanish conquest also came the imposition of the Catholic religion in Mexico. With regard to a gendered look at the history, one of the notable legacies is the feminine compliment to machismo, known to many as marianismo. This gender ideology demarcates an ideal of femininity, based in part on the roles imposed on women from the idea that reproduction and motherhood should be their primary and/or only roles. However, beyond biological differences that play a part in defining this gender convention, this ideal type is also related to the Catholic representation of the Virgin Mary—la Virgen Maria. Not only do many believe Maria was a selfless mother completely dedicated to her family, but she was also “pure” until she gave birth, never “dirtied” by a man, or sexual relations. This impossible ideal is socialized into girls from an early age, and traditionally deviation from it can have high costs relative to honor, or that of her husband, father, or family in general. This set of ideologies blurs the boundaries of what is socially versus legally acceptable with regard to domestic violence or rape, as the dominant culture and Mexican civil codes prescribe very different responses.

Counterbalancing the gender ideologies that evolved from and predominated in the colonial and postindependence periods, women’s participation in the Mexican Revolution of 1910 against the dictator Porfírio Díaz created a new set of realities and mythology of idealized female identities. The women who accompanied men in the revolution became widely known as “Adelitas,” after one of the heroines of the fight, but eventually in reference to the courageous women who fought on the frontlines. This provided a redeeming stereotype to those of La Malinche, from the conquest, and Maria, the submissive mother figure.

Díaz fled the revolution in 1911, but the fighting persisted for some time between diverse factions vying for the reins of power. As peace was brokered and discussion of a constitutional convention gained momentum, advocates of gender equality—including men and women who had fought in the trenches of the revolution, along with men and women from the elite classes and liberal opposition families—came together for the Feminist Congress of Yucatán in 1916. This meeting brought the demand for women’s suffrage to the forefront for the first time (Ramos Escandón 1998, 91).

In the postrevolutionary period, women’s civil society associations dedicated to women’s political participation began to form across the country. Two important ones were the Consejo Feminista Mexicano (Mexican Feminist Council) and the Mexican section of the Pan-American League for the Advancement of Women. Some members of the Mexican leadership were influenced by their feminist counterparts in the United States, particularly when women’s suffrage was attained in 1920. Paralleling the progress in the United States, the first female candidates made it onto the ballots, and some were elected to office at state and local levels in the 1920s. However, Mexican suffragettes’ multiple attempts for broader, national level change were thwarted during this decade.

The election of President Lázaro Cárdenas in 1934, a more progressive leader than his predecessors, brought a new set of political opportunities with his six-year term. In 1935, the Frente Unico Pro Derechos de la Mujer (FUPDM, United Front for Women’s Rights) formed as a broad organization that promoted a broad-based program of reform and democratization, with the primary demand of an equal right to vote for women. Although President Cárdenas sent several legislative proposals to Congress to approve women’s suffrage between 1937 and 1939, the bills never became law. In 1939, when Cárdenas was preparing to try to cede power to the candidate of his Partido Nacional Revolucionario (National Revolutionary Party, the predecessor to the PRI) in a hotly contested election, the sentiment of the party was that approving women’s suffrage could favor conservative forces in the country, as women were more tied to and swayed by the Catholic Church. Thus, this idea trumped the momentum of the FUPDM and other women’s movement groups, and no further actions were taken at that time. It took two more presidential periods—another 12 years—for those in power to finally grant women voting rights in 1953 (Ramos Escandón 1998, 98-101).

Women in Mexican Politics: From the Streets and the Voting Booths to the Congress

Key developments in women’s political participation and representation came slowly after suffrage. Several reasons explaining this time lag include the steady, but slow increase in girls and women attaining higher levels of education, coupled with the entrenched nature of Mexican gender ideologies that tend to disempower women. The Mexican government has made significant investments in education over the past four decades, and INEGI data indicate that girls and women are fast approaching parity with their counterparts at most levels in the 21st century (INEGI 2006). Concurrently, since the 1970s, feminist ideologies have made their way into public and political discourse and have paved the way for challenges to traditional patriarchal structures at many levels. What this means in literal terms for women’s political leadership is that it renders obsolete the age-old logic that there are not enough educated women available to allow full and equal integration into the system. Ample candidate pools of educated women are now ready for legislative positions. The issue now depends on the will of parties—still dominated by men—to agree that selecting and electing female candidates can be to their benefit. It also shows that although many Mexican women may not like the term “feminist,” increasing numbers identify with key elements of the issues feminists moved into the mainstream—for example, expectations for equal treatment and pay in the workplace—which is very different from the standards that were on the books and/or in practice 30 or 40 years ago. This is not to say that discrimination does not exist, but at least there is a broader public consciousness about how gender equality could or should be. Table 1 shows the percentages of women elected as deputies and senators in the Mexican National Congress between 1970 and 2006.

An overall trend in Table 1 is the gradual increase in the number of women in Mexico’s Congress. However, there are three notable exceptions to this trend—in 1991, 2000, and 2006—the explanation of which provides a basic introduction to the complex relationship between democratization and gender equality specific to the Mexican experience. The 1991 election was a midterm congressional election after the highly contentious, fraud-ridden 1988 elections, where it is widely agreed that the PRI basically stole the elections from a center-left candidate, Cuaúhtemoc Cárdenas (son of the aforementioned Lázaro Cárdenas), who had defected from the PRI to form a new coalition. So in the 1991 midterm congressional elections some Mexican feminists say the PRI was “pulling out all the stops,” using all of its devious electoral devices to try to regain as much power as it could in Congress and to “punish” the leftists for the humiliating loss or near-loss in 1988. Many of these candidates who were targeted were new female leaders who had arisen out of movements for change in the 1980s (Stevenson 1998). Hence, the number of female deputies and senators declined in that year. But women candidates rebounded in 1994 and then had a banner year in 1997, with their highest percentages and numbers up until that time. One of the primary reasons so many women were elected in 1997 was that the electoral reforms passed in 1996 allowed citizens of Mexico City to elect their mayor for the first time (previously this post was appointed by the president). With a strong PRD base in the city, the leader from the 1988 leftist groundswell, Cárdenas, won the position in a landslide, and many women candidates rode into Congress on his coattails.

Table 1. Percentages and Numbers* of Female Deputies and Senators in Mexico, 1970-2006
Year 1970 1973 1976 1979 1982 1985 1988 1991 1994 1997 2000 2003 2006
Sources: Stevenson (2005); Peña (2006).
*Both percentages and numbers are included because the total numbers of deputies and senators have changed several times as electoral reforms have been implemented over the past 30 years. For example, between 1979 and 1982 and between 1994 and 1997, it is notable that the percentage did not increase substantially, but the numbers did. This is because of increases in the total number of deputies in the Chamber of Deputies as well as the beginning of the split system in Mexico between single-member districts and legislative seats selected by proportional representation.
% Female Deputies 7.3 8.2 11.2 9 11.3 10.8 12.2 8 13.8 17 15.6 23.2 22.8
No. of Female Deputies 13 19 21 32 42 42 59 44 70 87 78 116 114
% Female Senators 3.3 3.3 6.3 6.3 12.5 12.5 18.8 3.1 12.5 15.7 13.3 18.8 17.2
No. of Female Senators 2 2 5 5 6 6 10 4 16 19 17 24 22

Table 1. Percentages and Numbers* of Female Deputies and Senators in Mexico, 1970-2006
The next decline in the number of women elected to the Congress was in 2000, when the right-leaning PAN candidate, Vicente Fox, won with a large crossover vote from the left to oust the PRI. To some this was not surprising, as in the past the left-leaning parties have had the most female leaders and the right won the election. But as this was a watershed year for democracy in Mexico, with the hegemonic PRI finally ousted from the highest post in the nation, many feminists and women’s rights activists were taken aback by the decline in women’s representation at such a crucial juncture. This can be explained in part because of the increasing competitiveness of the elections in general, so the parties wanted to run their most experienced leaders as candidates, and although there are increasing numbers of women, there are far more and generally more experienced male candidates in the parties. But as feminists of that period noted, it would take close to 150 years for there to be an equally qualified number of female and male candidates, and women leaders are not willing to wait any longer.

Thus, the possibility of electoral quotas for women, at least temporarily, to overcome the history of sociocultural difference and discrimination, gained momentum in the new Congress that took power for the 2000 to 2003 session. Although the details of this policy proposal and its passage are beyond the scope of this essay (Baldez 2004), the short story is that a bill mandating gender quotas was passed into law in 2002. The law mandates that political parties at all levels of politics have to have no more than 70 percent of one gender in their single-member district races and on their proportional representation candidate lists. Hence, the implementation of the quota law for the first time explains the significant jump in the numbers and percentages in the 2003 elections. However, as can be seen in Table 1, the percentages of women winning legislative seats declined slightly in the elections of 2006, in part because once again, in the more hotly contested presidential year electoral race of 2006, with tougher competition, parties were not so inclined to run female candidates. Likewise, the right-leaning PAN ultimately won the presidency and a majority in the Congress. This also reflects an ongoing bias among voters toward male candidates (Camp 2007). Baldez’s work (2007) has also shown that the parties used loopholes in the 2002 law and the Federal Electoral Institute did not force the parties to toe the line in meeting the quotas.

During this same period, in which the quota law and other legal advances were made (see Stevenson 2000), two new highly important political spaces were created in both the legislative and executive branches. The Mexican Congress established a permanent congressional commission on gender equality in 1997-2000. This endeavor was spearheaded by the efforts of women’s rights advocates from all parties, with pressure and support from civil society organizations on the outside. This is an indicator not only of the exceptional work of feminist leaders—now able to work from the inside of a key political institution—but also of a broader shift whereby male and female political leaders finally affirmed the importance of women’s issues.

At the executive level, the Programa Nacional de la Mujer (National Women’s Program)—a governmental body begun in the early 1990s—changed from being a temporary program to a permanent agency: the Instituto Nacional de las Mujeres (National Women’s Institute). Debates continue about the pros and cons of the new institution. Feminists who work mostly outside Mexico’s political institutions argue that the state has once again suppressed feminists’ demands by “buying off” some of the leadership by giving them a weak institution. The institution’s mandate has the limited purposes of gathering gendered data and producing reports and policy proposals, but it is not intended to be a space from which to directly pressure the government for more gender equality or women’s rights. Some other feminist leaders—often the so-called “femocrats” who have taken jobs or consulting work from the institution—might agree with the extra-institutional feminists’ critique, but see the permanent establishment of the institution as a very important step in feminists integrating their vision and demands within the state (Teresa Inchaústegui, pers. comm., July 2001).

For women in the upper echelons of politics, the changes since the 1988 elections have been significant for advancing gender equality within and across Mexico’s primary political institutions. Mexico’s evolving party system and institutions are maturing and becoming more fair, free, and equitable. However, this does not mean gender equality has been achieved in these areas—far from it. What about the rest of Mexico, those not in the “political class”? Approximately half of all Mexican citizens live below the poverty line, and nearly a sixth of the population are immigrants to the United States. To contrast the “top” with the “bottom” with regard to Mexico’s social hierarchy, the next section provides a glimpse of the immense challenges and measured progress of indigenous women in the rural and more remote areas of Mexico.

Women in Mexican Politics: From Los Altos to Los Bajos (From the Highlands to the Lowlands)

By the measures of the capital city, the Congress, new political institutions for women, fresh female and feminist leadership, and recent legislation and institutions, the bright colors of the Mexican women’s mosaic are quite radiant. However, the lives of indigenous women tell a very different story. They represent some of the darker colors, yet the strongest and most resilient fabric, of this textual mosaic. Indigenous Mexican women experience the worst living conditions in the nation, and many suffer from multiple levels of violence. Table 2 provides a comparative overview of some of the most basic socioeconomic conditions.

The striking contrast between the statistics for the state of Chiapas shown in Table 2 can be explained by a combination of centuries-old patterns of racism against Indians and the isolationism of some Indian peoples. Also, in this remote, rural part of the country, resources are overstretched and underdeveloped. Nonetheless, the 2005 data reveal that great effort has been made to electrify nearly all of the state of Chiapas, an additional 16.5 percent of residents of Chiapas obtained sewer systems, and nearly 5 percent more gained running water in their homes. Much of this change has come in light of the attention Chiapas has received since the Zapatista uprising in 1994. Since then, indigenous women in Chiapas, as well as other places in Mexico, are being seen, heard, and translated across cultures—within Mexico and internationally—as never before (Speed et al. 2006).

Conditions Nation of Mexico 1990 (%) Nation of Mexico 2005 (%) State of Chiapas 1990 (%) State of Chiapas 2005 (%) Indigenous Township in Chiapas, San Pedro Chenalho, 1990* (%)
Source: INEGI 1990 figures as cited in Eber and Kovic (2003, 36); INEGI (2006).
*Data for 2005 were not available from INEGI at this level.
Households without sewage system 25.0 15.2 43.0 26.5 92.0
Households without electricity 6.7 3.4 21.4 6.4 78.1
Households without running water 14.4 12.2 33.2 28.9 56.5
Illiteracy among women aged 15 years or older 3.0 9.6 32.0 26.1 62.5

Table 2. Socioeconomic Conditions in Mexico, Chiapas, and San Pedro Chenalho
In the years leading up to 1992, which marks the 500-year commemoration of the arrival of Christopher Columbus in the Americas, groups representing indigenous peoples around the country, and all over the Americas, met, raised awareness of their needs, built new connections and coalitions, and crafted new policy agendas. In Mexico, after multiple marches, meetings, and protests in 1992, the government responses were minimal; often the government simply offered more social programs in some limited areas. Not willing to accept government handouts any longer when the request had been for structural social change, some of the indigenous groups lent their support to those who were opting to revolt to try to make change—the Ejercito Zapatista para la Liberación Nacional (Zapatista Army for National Liberation, or EZLN). One result of the EZLN uprising was the immediate and ongoing militarization of the state of Chiapas and, increasingly, other parts of southern Mexico (Collier 1999). This led to some massacres of indigenous peoples. In 1997, in the village of Acteal, for example, 45 women, men, and children were killed in their church by pro-government paramilitaries. This was largely interpreted as an attempt to divide the indigenous supporters of the EZLN by showing them the weakness of the revolutionary group to defend its constituents. However, for some of the Tzotzil Maya women of Acteal and other surrounding villages, their response to the repression was not to submit, but rather to be emboldened to take on the military directly. Some even organized themselves in patrols to protect their men and communities and to chase away the military. Although this was the exception more than the rule, the empowering effects caused ripples throughout this group and beyond:

The indigenous women’s acts of resistance to military occupation give voice to their experience of the triple oppression of racism, classism and gender inequality, and of the violence and fear of counterinsurgency that is part of their daily lives. Most important, they also tell us of the women’s agency as political actors in a context where their agency has so often been erased. Despite the many words that were used against them, these women’s acts of resistance speak louder than the official discourses intended to silence them. (Speed 2003)

Although the term “difficult” is an understatement in describing the lives of most indigenous women in Mexico, especially those living in militarized zones, examples such as the Tzotzil women confronting the military reveal that out of these conditions have arisen new forms of women’s political participation and gendered power. Relative to the political demands of the EZLN and a broader coalition of indigenous groups, the National Congress passed the Law for Cultural and Indigenous Rights in 2002. However, with the conservative dominance of the PAN in power in the presidency, and the PAN/PRI coalition in Congress at that time, the law is not as strong as many advocates had hoped it would be (Speed et al. 2006). However, as with the feminists and the new Instituto Nacional de las Mujeres, although imperfect, the law breaks new ground for indigenous peoples in the legislative arena and may lead to greater gains when used in conjunction with ongoing pressure from civil society and other political institutions (Stevenson 2005).

Engendering Mexico’s Economy

For roughly two-thirds of the women in Mexico, social roles and educational deficits continue to keep them working in the home and in their communities, not in formal workplaces with wages, salaries, or benefits. Most working women in Mexico—be they in Mexico proper or what some scholars are now calling “greater Mexico” to the north (in the United States)—work in the informal sector. Many women work part-time or to the degree necessary to make ends meet, while also managing almost all the care of their families and households. Choices made by women in this regard are partially explained by the appeal of traditional gender roles—but as in many societies, this “ideal” is often mediated by class and race. Upper-class, lighter-skinned women in Mexico are generally the ones who really have a choice as to whether to stay home or work. Mestiza middle-class and working-class women may have such choices in good times, but this varies with the ups and downs of Mexico’s economy—and in the last three decades “la crisis” has become an everyday term. Darker-skinned, poor women, including indigenous women, generally do not have the choice to work or stay home, but their choice is rather what kind of work to pursue, and wherein the local community, nearby city, larger regional hubs, Mexico City, the U.S.-Mexican border area, or the United States. For most Mexican families, the traditional gender conventions of women exclusively staying at home and men going to work—and earning enough to provide for the family—are outmoded.

As the number of women in formal and informal workplaces has increased in the past 20 years, what is most clear about the income women generate now is that it is essential for the well-being of their families, communities, and the nation. Although Mexican women from many sectors of society have worked for generations, the major economic factor that began the transformation of gendered labor relations was Mexico’s financial crash in 1982. For the two to three decades before the 1980s, Mexico’s economy had prospered from a protective mix of government-owned industries and a moderate degree of openness to foreign investment. However, the crash marked the beginning of Mexico’s rapid shift from a protected, state-controlled, closed economy to a neoliberal, open economy where state industries were privatized in great quantities and control of many resources and industries increasingly passed to foreigners. As part of Mexico’s neoliberalization of its economy, it negotiated the North American Free Trade Agreement (NAFTA) with the United States and Canada in the late 1980s and 1990s, which went into effect in 1994. What this meant for Mexican workers was more of the rapid and massive shifts from a high number of steady, state-subsidized jobs with benefits to “flexible,” low-paying jobs with few or no benefits. The model of the export processing zones on the U.S.-Mexican border, which used to actively seek female employees, expanded to other border cities, as well as to new cities in the interior. By 2002, nearly one-fifth of all maquiladoras were in the interior. Although wages are still low by U.S. standards, within Mexico, the maquiladora wages are comparable to the wages for other decent industrial jobs, and as such, the gender breakdown is much closer to parity than in the 1960s-1980s (Gereffi and Martínez 2005, 138-140).

Meanwhile, the nation and people of Mexico could not survive without remittances from migrant laborers in the United States. Millions of in-country Mexicans are dependent for their survival on the remittances Mexicans in the United States send back to their families and communities. Although exact data are impossible to obtain, estimates for remittances sent back to Mexico in 2006 were about US$20 billion (Fennel 2006). Thus, the Mexican government is also dependent on these remittances—as they now account for the second-largest source of revenue in the country, after oil. Before the 9/11 terrorist attacks in the United States in 2001, many more Mexican men made up the migrant population and would generally return to Mexico every year or so. But since 9/11, the increase of security measures on the border has forced more crossings into dangerous terrain (the Arizona desert), and the risks and costs of crossing have increased. So, in order for families to stay together, an increasing number of women and children are both legally and illegally migrating with male family members (Payan 2006; Donato and Patterson 2004). Although migrant women may not have a direct influence on gender issues in Mexican politics while they are “alla” (over there, that is, in the United States), their mixing of Mexican and U.S. cultures represents changing colors and styles that are woven in the mosaic. This is especially important for children whose transnational lifestyles can be full of hope and opportunities and/or great despair and frustration. Similar to some of the more dynamic parts of the mosaic just mentioned, women’s innovation and participation in Mexican civil society also represents an area in which there has been much growth and change.

Women’s Roles and Power Through Mexican Civil Society

Women’s political organizing represents a diverse array of feminist, communist, left-leaning labor and conservative women’s groups, which increasingly cut across different classes and regions in Mexico and in immigrant communities in the United States. In the late 1960s and early 1970s in Mexico, especially in the capital city and other larger cities, feminist groups grew in numbers as they focused on issues of violence against women and reproductive health rights (Bedregal 1991). The United Nations First World Conference for Women, held in Mexico City in 1975, catalyzed feminist and women’s groups that were already working toward expanding ideas and actions for gender equality.

As these processes were transpiring with feminists and women leaders in the capital city—mostly middle- and upper-class women with a fair amount of political clout—working-class women were also experiencing the transformation of gender relations and their roles through the feminization of the workforce. Although most women workers then and now would not identify themselves as feminists, their growing awareness of labor rights—some gender specific, but most about rights for all workers—was fundamental in increasing awareness and forcing openness for the labor movement in Mexico (Hathaway 2000). The specific struggle by and for working women for their right to paid maternity leaves is highlighted in the adjoining box (also see Stevenson (2004) and Hertel (2006) for more in-depth accounts of this issue).

In the 1980s, women’s discontent with the economy and the PRI’s widespread corruption led to mobilization in urban areas and the launch of urban popular movements. The growth of these movements swelled in late 1985, after a disastrous earthquake destroyed many buildings and exacted a high number of deaths in Mexico City. The inept and highly corrupt response of the PRI/government, especially regarding the use of emergency funds, fueled opposition political movements. This in turn broadened the base of those who were demanding transparency and fairness in the political system and helped people see that it was time for change (Logan 1994). After nearly losing power in the 1988 elections, the PRI scrambled to try to recover its previous power. Even so, this led Mexico more deeply into its transition to democracy at many levels, including “democracy in the home as well as in the Congress,” as many women have called for over the years in the region.

Women and Labor Rights in Mexico

Like most countries around the world, the federal labor law of Mexico mandates that pregnant workers should be permitted six weeks of paid maternity leave. The United States is one of the few countries in the world where the law only provides for 12 weeks of unpaid leave (unless a woman can negotiate an exception privately with her company or institution). In 1994, when the North American Free Trade Agreement (NAFTA) went into effect between Mexico, the United States, and Canada, this difference in labor laws and the culture of transnational employer-employee relations was cause for serious conflict between many U.S.-owned companies and their pregnant employees. Because of the cultural differences and of course the potential loss of profits, many U.S. managers did not abide by the law. They went to great lengths to discreetly fire workers once it was obvious they were pregnant and/or illegally give female job applicants urine tests in a “physical” for employment, secretly testing them for pregnancy to decide if they would hire them.

With the passage of NAFTA, a new international venue for presenting transnational labor grievances was created by the NAFTA side agreement, the North American Agreement on Labor Cooperation. It created a new tri-national space, known as the National Administrative Office (NAO), for conflict resolution of such concerns by the three governments. With this new locus of transnational advocacy in mind, in 1996, a systematic study of gender discrimination against women workers seeking maternity leaves in the assembly plants in northern Mexico was coordinated by Human Rights Watch (1997). The results were brought to the attention of the companies, formalized into legal complaints, and then taken to the NAO for resolution. Women’s labor organizations, feminists, and human rights organizations formed an unprecedented transnational network to pressure the companies and governments to respect the law and women’s rights to work pregnant and to have paid maternity leave. Although the actual outcome of the NAO process did little to change the behavior of the accused companies at that moment, the convergence of activists set the stage for women workers to continue to organize not only for these rights but also for higher wages and improved working conditions, which have been successful in many instances (see Stevenson 2004; Hertel 2006; and Hathaway 2000 for a more complete introduction to this area of women’s lives and their organizing efforts).

In addition to social movements, another important indicator of the increasing openness of the Mexican political system and women’s increasingly sophisticated and diverse forms of organizing is that of the nongovernmental organizations (NGOs). In the 1980s, while urban working-class women were rallying mostly for their practical interests, that is, concrete demands for infrastructure, water, transportation, tortilla subsidies, and so on; in light of the economic crisis and the 1985 earthquake in Mexico City, middle- and upper-class women worked more consciously to bridge class differences. Although the movements declined, as movements will, many leaders sensed the increasing openness of the political moment, and multiple women’s and feminists’ organizations (sometimes within one organization, but more often separately) took up the more “strategic” demands of the movements and unified their demands on the government (Lamas et al. 1995). The combination of the explosion of women’s NGOs (Tarrés 1998), coupled with multiple civil society movements for democracy, as well as increasingly inclusive and competitive opposition political parties on the left and on the right (Bruhn 1997; Shirk 2004), provided multiple venues from which women worked for social change. Once again, the United Nations Fourth World Conference on Women, held in Beijing in 1995, led to strong policy recommendations for women, which came from an intense process of compromise and consensus building. After the United Nations event, and as electoral reforms and some gender-related laws began to be implemented in Mexico in the late 1990s, the flurry of NGO creation and propagation crested with the 1997 election. This is exceedingly important to understanding the ways in which women continue to work in politics in the 21st century. Many elite feminist and female leaders better understand and are integrated into political parties and institutions, but when their power declines or is limited by various obstacles, many reassume their civil society, organizational, or movement work. A few feminist groups continue to warn against being co-opted by the parties or the government and prefer to maintain an autonomous position in isolation from the rest of the world of gender-equality advocates. However, many feminist and women leaders in politics now accept the need and are accustomed to seeking to build coalitions that are multipartisan, cross-organizational, and, to a lesser degree, cross-class and multiethnic.

This does not mean these coalitions form on a regular basis, as many other factors are at play in each individual’s political and policy process capacities. For example, now that Mexico has a more proactive National Congress, party divisions often thwart female legislators’ abilities to build lasting cross-party coalitions with the objective of proposing and passing laws that forward long-lasting feminist demands. In a study of five areas of political and policy process and implementation (i.e., violence against women, decriminalization of abortion, affirmative action quotas, sexual harassment, and discrimination against pregnant workers) in Mexico between 1970 and 2000, analysis of more than 80 policy actions taken by multiple actors reveals that 60 of them—nearly 70 percent—were largely symbolic actions (Stevenson 2005). This means they were important in marking progress for women, but they were not strong enough to be fully implemented or enforced. However, the good news is that for 18 of these policy actions taken—20 percent—material gains were measurable for gender equality and women’s rights (Stevenson 2005).

This textual mosaic of women’s lives in Mexico shows that women’s roles are in great flux, and the potential for progress toward gender equality is as diverse as it is significant. Maya women standing up to the Mexican military to defend their families, land, and rights is a very new, yet increasing, phenomenon. Increasing numbers of organized women working in the manufacturing sector have forced powerful multinational corporations to follow Mexican labor law when the Mexican government refused to defend its own workers. Women of transnational families, although often wrought with grief at the extended separations from their partners and children and the many frustrations of being “migrants,” are part of a powerful culture shift in the United States, as well as serving as key contributors to the economic stability of Mexico with their remittances. Research and studies carried out by female academicians in the increasing number of women’s studies centers throughout Mexico are gaining credibility and interest from a variety of sectors, including the government. “Women in politics” in Mexico is increasingly understood as not only meaning women in the parties, legislature, and bureaucracies but also those with attachments to civil society organizations and movements. There are dark parts that must be acknowledged, appreciated, and remembered in the mosaic, but the structure is strong and the colors rich as the mosaic shifts and changes over time.