Cuban Revolution, Women in the

Part played by women in the Cuban Revolution. The role and position of women in Cuba has changed drastically for the better as a direct result of their participation in the Revolution in 1959. Earlier suffragist and feminist activity prepared women to organize and provide crucial support for the rebel forces throughout nearly a decade of insurrection. When Fidel Castro and Che Guevara returned from exile in what would be the beginning of their charge to victory, a surprising number of women joined the guerrilla troops in the Sierra Maestra. The persuasive powers of a few key women convinced Castro and Guevara that women could serve the revolution by bearing arms in addition to attending to the more domestic tasks of war. Although the ideological platform of the revolution already included the goal of eliminating racial, economic, and gender discrimination, the heroic efforts of the Mariana Grajales Brigade and women involved in espionage and grassroots organizing underscored the legitimacy of gender equality. During and since the revolution, fighting women such as Celia Sanchez and Haydee Santamana have been all but canonized, and Cuba’s leading actresses have positively portrayed guerrilla fighters in films such as Manuela. To the present, women have continued to serve in the police and the military both at home and in revolutionary efforts abroad, especially in Central America and Africa. Nevertheless, despite their historical and ongoing contributions to the success of the revolution, no women have been promoted to the highest government or military positions.

Over the course of history, Cuban women have faced the rigidly dividing and codifying gender and sex roles in Hispanic society. In the years between independence (1898) and the revolution, feminist groups and activists made many strides in the battle for equality, but for the most part, woman’s place was still assumed to be in the home. The most accepted symbol for a strong woman was still that of the self-sacrificing mother, like the historical icon Mariana Grajales, who heroically surrendered her sons to die fighting for Cuban independence (Smith and Padula 1996, 11). The Club Fe-menino, founded in 1917, organized Cuba’s first National Women’s Congress in 1923, where women with higher socioeconomic status debated a wide range of topics including employment, sexuality, and the vote. In the late twenties and early thirties, women attended the university in Havana, became involved in labor unions, and joined the Communist Party. In the 1940s, Fulgencio Batista sponsored a new constitution that instituted some political changes favorable to women. Feminist initiatives seemed to have reached a plateau by the early fifties, however, and Batista’s 1952 military coup brought a more conservative agenda, the tightening of controls, and a ubiquitous military presence.

When Fidel Castro began to challenge Batista’s administration, women from the middle and upper classes utilized their skills in organizing, writing, and networking to support his efforts. They were joined by women from all stations, who, according to Margaret Randall, made the difference in Fidel Castro’s revolutionary drive. She asserts that thousands were "selling war bonds and producing rebel uniforms, taking part in propaganda work, participating in action and sabotage units in the cities, transporting arms, and fighting in the mountains" (Randall 1981, 22). Female support for Fidel Castro’s July 26 Movement was originally culled from the Women’s Marti Civic Front, headed by feminist activist Carmen Castro Porta. The Revolutionary Women’s Union (UFR), organized in 1959 by communist activists Elena Gil, Clementina Serra, and Rosario Fernandez, began an extensive campaign of door-to-door recruitment and fundraising (Smith and Padula 1996, 34).

According to Che Guevara, women would constitute a necessary part of the revolutionary corps. He writes that women are capable of doing virtually every task that a man can do, including bearing arms and firing upon the enemy if need be, and that due to perceptions of female fragility, women could serve especially well in espionage and transmission of messages, supplies, and even arms. Nonetheless, the Argentine guerrilla ends his famous essay extolling the particularly "feminine" virtues that will also benefit the revolution, including women’s ability to sew, cook palatable meals, and compassionately care for the wounded or despairing soldier (Guevara 1972, 131-33). In this way the Cuban women were thrust into a double duty role that resembles the contradictory and difficult expectations of women in any modern and developed nation.

Women Cuban rebel soldiers wave on arrival in Havana, Cuba, 1959.

Women Cuban rebel soldiers wave on arrival in Havana, Cuba, 1959.

As point of fact, it was Celia Sanchez and Melba Hernandez who ultimately changed Fidel Castro’s opinion about allowing women into the offensive ranks of the guerrillas, and later the national military (Smith and Padula 1996, 24). Sanchez and Hernandez took part in Fidel’s abortive attack on the Moncada Barracks in 1953. They kept the home fires burning during their leader’s exile and then, along with numerous other women, rejoined him in the mountains on his return. Hernandez formed the Mariana Grajales Brigade, the first all-women platoon, who found themselves the subjects of great adulation after the triumph of the revolution. As Guevara had envisioned, women worked and fought alongside their male comrades, guaranteeing their place in the evolving hierarchy of the revolution.

Fighting as guerrillas, women had proved their efficacy in battle, a sure influence on Cuba’s current armed forces, which contains thousands of women at varying levels of command. Although women do not participate in the draft, both voluntary service and enlistment into any branch of the service are options. Women have been key in numerous campaigns, both on the island and in foreign operations in Angola, Ethiopia, and Nicaragua. Not surprisingly, the principal women who have maintained political power over the last five decades were also key players in the insurrection (Randall 1981, 22).

On a less optimistic note, studies instigated by the Federation of Cuban Women (FMC) suggest that decades after the Cuban Revolution, the original objectives in terms of gender equality have not yet been realized. The suicides of revolutionary heroines Celia Sanchez and Hay-dee Santamarfa were a blow to the image of women’s progress on the island, as are statistics on women’s involvement at the highest levels of policy making and government.

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