“Su Majestad, La Mujer”: Women’s Participation in Mexico’s Anti-Alcohol Campaigns, 1910-1940

We here at Points are very excited to present the second installment of guest blogger Gretchen Pierce’s three-part series on the cultural of alcohol in early twentieth-century Mexico (part one may be found here). Gretchen is an Assistant Professor of History at Shippensburg University in Pennsylvania. The work in this piece comes from Dr. Pierce’s extensive research in the Archivo General de la Nación, Archivo Histórico del Estado de Sonora, Archivo Histórico de la Secretaría de Educación Pública, Archivo Histórico de la Secretaría de Salubridad y Asistencia, and the Biblioteca Miguel Lerdo de Tejada.

Supporters of the Revolution have long celebrated the role of women in shaping modern Mexican culture, as Sylvia Ji’s image, inspired by Las Adelitas de Azatlan, suggests.

In April 1930, Luis G. Franco, chief of the Mexican government’s Comité Nacional de Lucha contra el Alcoholismo (CNLCA, the National Committee of Struggle Against Alcoholism), gave a radio speech aimed specifically at women.  Addressing them as “su majestad” (“her majesty”), Franco beseeched females to play a role in the nascent anti-alcohol campaign of the Mexican Revolution, which began in 1910 and would continue until 1940.  According to Franco and the CNLCA, alcohol had destroyed the home, as drunken men physically abused their families and neglected their monetary responsibilities.  In this and other radio programs, pamphlets, and miscellaneous propaganda, reformers urged women to participate in the anti-alcohol campaign, believing women to be the primary victims of the country’s problem drinkers. In turn, many females responded enthusiastically to anti-alcohol campaigns, and in doing so, contributed to the larger state-building project of the Mexican Revolution.  Ironically, though, they faced many challenges in their battle to promote sobriety, thanks often to the leaders who they were supposed to be assisting.

Although there were some exceptions to the rule, Mexican temperance advocates in the period from 1910-1940 believed that the group most prone to alcohol abuse was working-class men.  This stereotype can be seen in a drawing from a pamphlet used to advertise a national anti-alcohol conference in October 1936.  At the bottom of this picture – which I will refer to as “Figure 1” – sits a goblet, presumably filled with an intoxicant.  Its noxious fumes snake upwards and wreak havoc upon the surrounding people: a man appearing to be in a drunken stupor (while the shadowy figure of death looms above him), another one who has passed out, and a third, knife-wielding one, who has been driven to crime.  The class and ethnicity of the men can be determined from the clothes they are wearing.  The figures in the top center and to the left (the passed out one and the criminal, respectively) wear overalls commonly associated with urban laborers, and the figure at the bottom center (the one in a daze) wears the white cotton shirt typically sported by peasants.

Figure 1: Anti-Alcohol Pamphlet Illustration, 1936.

According to government officials and members of the CNLCA, men composed the bulk of problem drinkers and women disproportionately suffered the consequences.  On the right side of the image is a sad-looking woman holding a sickly baby.  If she was married to any of the men in the image, she would have a number of things to worry about.  Drinkers, like the man holding the knife, supposedly engaged in high rates of crime, both on the streets and in the home.  Even if she were not being abused directly, she might have to worry about her husband being thrown in jail and having to pay his bail.  Should her husband avoid jail time, he still might be too besotted to work on a regular basis, limiting her ability to feed her child.  This child may have had a mental or physical ailment passed on to it by its alcoholic father (or so reformers at the time believed).  All of these problems stemmed from men’s abuse of intoxicating beverages. 

Temperance advocates, holding this gendered view of alcohol abuse, solicited women to assist them in the nation’s anti-alcohol campaigns.  In fact, participants at the conference in 1936 agreed that the CNLCA ought to be targeting mothers first and foremost in their educational materials.  There were a number of ways that the group wanted women to participate in the movement.  They should not drink while pregnant and should never give their children the mildly alcoholic, fermented beverage pulque, even though it was a common custom to do so.  They could also use their powers of persuasion to convince their male relatives to stop imbibing.  Furthermore, they should be encouraged to join or form temperance leagues that would work with teachers in promoting sobriety and petition officials to close down bars in their neighborhoods.  Figure 1 depicts a woman doing exactly what the CNLCA advocated.  At the top center, this dignified, sober figure uplifts the fallen man.

President Emilio Portes Gil called on women as a singularly important moral force.

In order to convince women of the importance of joining them, political leaders and other temperance proponents provided a variety of motivations.  On a personal level, no woman would want to end up like the sad-looking one in Figure 1, and active participation in a temperance league might prevent that from happening. Politicians also stressed that women ought to think of their families.  When President Emilio Portes Gil launched the CNLCA in 1929, he exclaimed, “Women: for your husbands and your sons, for your brothers and for your fathers, combat alcoholism!” Finally, females should also note that they would be assisting the nation as a whole.  Above the heroine in Figure 1 stretches a banner with the CNLCA’s motto, reading, “Temperancia: Por la patria.  Por la raza.” (Temperance: for the fatherland. For the race).  Officials and other temperance crusaders often argued that alcohol abuse was leading to the degeneration of the nation.  By fighting to create a sober healthy, hard-working, and modern citizenry, women would be actively participating in the state-building project.  During the Mexican Revolution, when nationalism was at a high point and many got caught up in the excitement of social transformation, this reasoning surely had some appeal. Ultimately, thousands of women, from a variety of class backgrounds, participated in the anti-alcohol campaigns nationwide.

Middle-class teacher Ernestina M. Alvarado of Mexico City seems to have promoted sobriety long before the government began encouraging women to do so.  Between at least 1922 and 1930, Alvarado headed the Sociedad Femenil Mexicana de Temperancia (the Mexican Women’s Temperance Society). As the group’s president, she attended temperance meetings in the United States and Switzerland, organized smaller anti-alcohol leagues in Mexico City, and temporarily sat on the governing board of the CNLCA.  Lower-class women did not tend to work for the cause in general like Alvarado did, but rather, to deal with a particular issue in their lives.  In the mining community of Buenavista, Sonora, seventy-four wives, mothers, and sisters wrote to their governor in 1926.  They asked that a cantina be closed, for their male relatives were spending all of their money there, and there was not enough left over for food or blankets.  With winter approaching, they were afraid that their children would starve and freeze.  Although they contributed in different manners, women of a variety of backgrounds provided ready assistance to the bureaucrats of the CNLCA.

Figure 1 depicts a woman who appears to be successful in lifting up her fellow man, but this was not always the case.  Granted, at times, they did meet success.  The women of Buenavista were able to get their cantina closed.  However, another letter indicates that the establishment was operating again three years later and, in general, temperance advocates faced many frustrations in their work.  In some cases, they requested governmental funding that like-minded civic leaders could or would not provide them.  In other cases, some found that the officials who they were supposed to be assisting either ignored them or actively worked against them.  For instance, when the governor of Sonora would not respond to Susana Contreras and Victoria de Santa Cruz’s requests to close a drinking establishment in their neighborhood, leading them to write to the Mexican President for help.  Other leaders accepted bribes from bar owners, or operated illegal bars themselves.  The frustrations must have been enormous for these thwarted reformers.

The Revolution was not televised, but it did include women.

In whatever ways women fought to rid their communities of vice, whether they faced challenges or not, they all contributed to the larger state-building project occurring during the Mexican Revolution.  Political leaders called for a sober citizenry and many women worked diligently to help achieve this goal.  When some officials acted in an obstructionist manner, women complained about it.  By speaking out and actively protesting abuses, they helped to contribute to the shape of the new revolutionary nation.  Furthermore, they were astute in noticing that these leaders were not just roadblocks to this particular project, the anti-alcohol campaign, but that in impeding justice and circumventing the law, they were actually challenging the progress of the Revolution as a whole.  For instance, Tomasa Valenzuela and two other officers from the Liga Femenil de Lucha Social (Women’s League for Social Struggle) of Bacame, Sonora, wrote to the governing board of their agrarian cooperative in 1938.  They demanded several things, including a new school, potable water, and that the sale of all alcohol be curtailed.  Additionally, they expected that local authorities recognize the rights they believed the revolution had delivered to them. In other words, even if they did not succeed in completely expunging alcoholic beverages from the nation, women like Valenzuela, in fighting for temperance, still contributed significantly to both “la patria” and “la raza.”

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