The women of the ‘68 student movement in Mexico


Ciudad Universitaria, site of the UNAM campus, main library. Photograph via Wikimedia Commons

by Lulú Barrera and Daphne Beltran

The masculine narrative of history has insisted on downplaying the role of women in the student movement of ’68, although there is research that takes account of the machismo that prevailed within the movement. Gender inequality was evident in the allocation of the care roles, that fell to women and in cooking and cleaning the shared spaces which also fell to women. But testimonies gathered by Luchadores, through interviews with militants, show a greater level of diversity in the tasks women carried out. The participation of women in the student movement helped them develop organisational knowledge that would from part of the emergence of the feminist movement that was just about to explode.

According to Gabriela Cano, the 1968 student movement was the prelude to the flourishing second wave of Mexican feminism. Ana Lau Jaiven arrived in Mexico in 1970 and formed the first feminist groups: Women in Solidarity Action (MAS, 1971), National Women’s Movement (MNM, 1973), Women’s Liberation Movement (MLM, 1974), The Revolt Collective (1975), Mexican Feminist Movement (MFM, 1976), Women’s Collective (1976) and Feminist Struggle (1978).

Studying and wearing a miniskirt, the first revolution within families

The first authoritarian barrier that women had to face was the patriarchal hierarchy within their families: going to university study was for many women the first revolution.

Although by the end of the 19th century some women succeeded in entering institutions such as the National School of Medicine and the National School of Jurisprudence such as Matilde Montoya and María Asunción Sandoval Zarco, it was not until the sixties that women’s entrance into universities notably increased, although significant gaps still persist.

Concepción Santillán had to confront the beliefs of her father to become a nurse. She witnessed the Massacre of Tlatelolco, from the gynaecology area of this hospital.

‘Our parents wouldn’t allow us to study, we were restricted in what we could do. You could go to school, you could become a secretary, you could become an accountant – you had to be something. But university – no. My father said to me ‘you know you cannot go to the university’ But my sister and I, we insisted we could. I was not afraid. It was freedom”.

Being a university student not only meant going to classrooms and learning, but it also enabled access to a revolutionary setting, that allowed women to meet exchange ideas, questions, ways of thinking which sometimes included fashion.

Consuelo Valle, who now lives in Puebla, was a student at UNAM and, she and her brothers were active in this movement. Her story was not normal in that her mother was an intellectual who studied the ideas of Lázaro Cádenas and she encouraged her independence and revendicated the rights of peasants and workers. However, she remembers that it was not like this for other students.

“I had classmates who had to stand up to their family, they overcame fear, and challenge the direction they were told to take. They wore miniskirts. Imagine! […] a young woman, a citizen, had to confront the totalitarian system that we were living in at the time and on top of that had to face a patriarchal society. The political and emotional burden of the young women of 68 was twofold, so their participation is admirable.”

Although Consuelo didn’t face discrimination within her family, the same cannot be said within her university setting. For her, the 68 movement started a struggle for the dignity of university women:

“I remember very well professors from the Faculty of Sciences who asked me, why I was there, and told me that I was here just to find a husband. Many of us, because we were already empowered, complained and told them this was not acceptable at the end of class. Maybe we would get married but fundamentally we were there to study and our willingness to confront created an environment, at least in this generation, that pushed women to become empowered.

The students of the ’68 became nurses, teachers and journalists, challenged gender stereotypes and y proposed structural changes, embodied in everyday battles, transforming traditional and restrictive practices on sexuality, body and power. For Consuelo, wearing a miniskirt, asking for permission to get home late from family, having meetings with friends who she was previously forbidden to see, was one battle won:

“At that time, there were already families who very gladly allowed their daughters to have friends regardless of whether they were rowdy or not, hippies or not, revolutionaries, miniskirt wearers. We would meet in their houses, making small changes that would allow us to reflect.

Ester Alfaro is 70 years old today and lives in Chihuahua. She was a student between 1967-197. For her, studying at UNAM involved opposing her more privileged family’s expectations. She combined political militancy, as a brigasdista distributing the movement’s propaganda with a job as an aide to the Olympic committee. Her father prevented her from going to the October 2nd demonstration in the Plaza de las Tres Culturas:

“The Olympics were getting closer and the movement was getting more and more heated. I heard about the assembly in Tlatelolco on the first of October, I was going to go, I was determined, but my father stood at the door and wouldn’t let me pass.”

For her, the ’68 movement turned her into a different woman, one without fear, who choose to leave a situation as a family caregiver to instead face life alone:

“I definitely became a different woman, from leaving the protection of my parents, the convent school to confronting myself, everything, my parents. I started to leave my social circle, I learnt to appreciate myself for what I was.”

Painstaking work, the brigadistas

Although the most emblematic stories about the ’68 have focused on the role of the leading men of the movement in charge of the leadership, the making of the movement required grassroots everyday organisation, which started from building new political practices, other types of relationships and dissemination and communication strategies in which women were directly involved.

This was the case for Consuelo Valle, who participated in a student group called the Nuevo Grupo (New Group) who were in involved in the writing and distribution of a newspaper called La Hormiga. Ester Alfaro was in a similar situation. S he told us: “I never spke from the platform, but when they told to me to distribute material, I did it will all my soul”.

The brigadas according to Mariano Gigena were “hundreds of fast paced cogs (which) moved the heavy machinery of the movement. […] They collected money, painted, distributed, approached workers to open up dialogue with them, held rallies for thousands of people and almost always ended up running away from the soldiers. They would call for demonstrations in trucks, trolleybuses, markets, department stores.

In many ways the women brigadistas were innovators. And this was where daily decisions were made. They wove new types of relationships and they also linked the student movement to beyond the university.

For Nacha Rodríguez, an emblematic figure of the student movement and survivor of the October 2nd massacre, an important moment within the movement was when a group of women demanded to be given tasks other than providing food to the leadership and male members or to guard the inside of schools.

“We went to the public squares, to the markets, wherever we could….the truth is that we attracted people and began to tell them what was happening in the movement. The press had sold out and there was no one to report about what was going on, so instead we got on the buses and explained to people what was happening, it was a way to expand the movement but also to ask for the support of people.”

The brigadistas produced posters, flyers, leaflets, stencils, screen printing and expressed their voice and the political vision of the movement visually, they translated political language of 68 and made it more accessible, and they reflected the demands of the student movement.

Leonor Rodríguez was a nursing student at the National School of Nursing and Obstetrics (ENEO), she joined the movement and was part of the fighting committee of her faculty. Her testimony also shows that women brigades were also ideologues of the movement.

My colleague Bertha Isabel Arévalo Rivas was the developer, she wrote the flyer, that had to be distributed, and I typed it up and copied it using the mimeograph in school, which fortunately the director had allowed us to use. And so, we took copies and copies, cut them and then went out to the trucks to distribute them. We were carrying jars, like piggybanks so that people might donate and help us. And so we walked throughout those days, getting on the trucks and getting off (…) I remember that one day my friend Berta was talking outside the school with a microphone and (she said) let’s get together, and so on, with a lot of momentum.”

The Sexual Revolution

In 1960 women in Mexico would have an average of 6.5 children. That year Envoid, the first contraceptive pill, was made available in the United States and only one year later more than one million women were using it there.

The debate about the pill quickly reached popular magazines, according to Karina Feitti. in July 1966 the magazine “Claudia” (which advertised itself as a magazine for modern women) addressed the debate on the pill for first time. In 1968 it was confirmed that the pill was readily available in almost all pharmacies and dispensaries, except in those that depended on the catholic church. Even so, 1969 a survey published by this magazine, with 5,000 people in seven cities in the country revealed that the pill was being used as a contraceptive by 9%.

In ’68 Magdalena de la Isla Montoya was a worker at one of the first family planning clinic in the country, Pro-Salud Maternal A.C., which had begun offering contraception services ten years earlier in Mexico. It was founded by Edris Rice-Wray, an American doctor who was part leading contraceptive research teams in the United States, and based his practice in Puerto Rico and Mexico.

As a provider of health services in the clinic, Madgalena contributed to the first institutionalized efforts to support the autonomy and sexual freedom of women in the country. The clinic, which was once closed by the government because of rumours about alleged abortions, offered services to women who tried to abort using herbs, tablets, probes or drugs, which caused them to haemorrhage. Three hundred women were admitted in the clinic having tried to abort pregnancies in this way.

In 1976 the clinic treated more than a thousand women by offering contraceptives such as the IUD, oral contraception, the injection or sterilization. Magdalena, along with her colleagues Isabel Serrano and Lourdes Sánchez, also played a supportive role against student repression in 1968, taking medication to the San Carlos Academy for injured students: “It was very dangerous, everything happened in the center and it was full of police, but we saw the whole society reacting, young people, children, adults, pregnant women and it was impossible to ignore it, particularly when we were so close to it”. Her work in the clinic also empirically helped the emerging scientific knowledge about contraception at the time, her practice went beyond what could be found in scientific journals such as Contraception, and Studies in Family Planning.

For Consuelo Valle, member of the student movement, “I was influenced by the easy access to the contraceptive pill, it helped us a lot. But it was later than 68, at that point many of us could get pregnant, so we were very careful, and then we learnt that pregnancy was not necessary consequence of a relationship, but this was later, between 70 and 75.”

For Nacha Rodríguez, leaving Taxco to study in Mexico City allowed her to escape from family expectations about sexuality that tied her to the idea of getting married, “getting married in white” and virginity, at a time when there were no organisations to help women decide on their own bodies:

“It was up to us to make a change, the miniskirt, the pill, the opening up of discussions about sexual issues that previously, to a certain extent, was considered abhorrent. We began to understand that we could be free: how could we be demanding freedom and rights if we were all tied down by taboos? For me and for many of my friends it was very difficult to cross those barriers, but we succeeded.”

According to Marta Lamas in 1972 the movement Women in Solidarity Action raised for the first time the issue of the need for a change in legislation that would allow for termination of pregnancies. They faced opposition from leftist men, who accused them being them of being “agents of Yankee imperialism.” However ,two years later, in 1974, amendments were made to the General Population Act which legalised family planning services and changed article 4 of the constitution, which allows women to decide in a free, responsible and informed manner about the number of children they have.

In a despotic society, that rejected the changes that young women and men were demanding, in the home and in society, the women of 68 challenged historical authoritarianism in three different areas: over their body, the street and the university.

Their participation in the student movement was the prelude to the feminist movement of the 1970s, the cultural revolutions that radically changed the recognition of women’s human rights in the country.

Piece originally published at Open Democracy under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial 4.0 International licence.