Palma Guillen: Mexico's First Female Ambassador and the International Image of Mexico's Post-Revolutionary Gender Policy

By Huck, James D., Jr. | MACLAS Latin American Essays, March 1999 | Go to article overview

Palma Guillen: Mexico's First Female Ambassador and the International Image of Mexico's Post-Revolutionary Gender Policy


Huck, James D., Jr., MACLAS Latin American Essays


In 1935, the Mexican government of Lazaro Cardenas appointed Palma Guillen as Mexico's first female diplomat at the rank of Ambassador. Scholars of the women's movement in Mexico often point to this appointment as both a significant moment in the history of the women's movement in the country as well as an indicator of the Mexican government's progressive stance in the area of women's rights. With the express purpose of shedding more light on the significance of this event, this article explores the context of Palma Guillen's appointment as Ambassador, her career in the Mexican Foreign Relations Secretariat, and her own thoughts on women's issues.

The role of women in the immediate post-Revolutionary political and social order of Mexico has captured the imaginations of a number of scholars.(1) Whether the Mexican Revolution was a boon to the feminist movement in Mexico is still in doubt, however. For instance, noting as an example the well-documented participation of Mexican women in the armed struggle of the Revolution and in the concurrent move towards the creation of a new constitutional order, students of the women's movement in Mexico usually concede that the opportunities for female participation in Mexico's post-Revolutionary political and social structure were undoubtedly broadened by the progressive, socialist, and egalitarian ideology that evolved out of and in conjunction with the Revolutionary impulse itself.(2)

If nothing more, the opportunities for substantive female participation in post-Revolutionary politics were much greater when compared to pre-Revolutionary times. Indeed, unlike any other prior period in Mexican history, women were able to participate as equals with men in various state and local governing bodies. An example is the real progress made on behalf of women's rights in the case studies of the feminist movement in Yucatan state from 1915-1924. During this time numerous feminist congresses convened, first under the guidance of General Salvador Alvarado, an avowed socialist and military governor of the Yucatan from 1915 to 1918, then a short time later under the leadership of another socialist, Felipe Carillo Puerte, constitutional governor of the state from 1922 to 1924.(3)

However, equal participation with men in national politics was more difficult to achieve. Women were excluded from political participation by being denied until 1953 the right to vote in national elections or to hold national political office. One of the glaring failures of the Mexican revolution was its comparative (and intentional) neglect of women's rights even in this most basic and fundamental way. Without possessing the right to vote and to be voted for at the highest levels of power in the Mexican political system, so the argument goes, how could the rights of Mexican women in other aspects of public life be guaranteed or even spoken for, in spite of the active recruitment and organization of women into civic and political groups that agitated for women's rights on other fronts?(4) In fact, Sandra McGee Deutsch has argued convincingly that the emerging feminist debate in post-Revolutionary Mexico seemed to be, at the more profound theoretical level, more an expression of the desire of male leaders to re-emphasize gender traditions in the context of a crumbling social order by directing the feminist movement from above than an expression of a genuine movement to alter the traditionally gendered patriarchal power structure.(5) Jean Franco has labeled this process "revolutionary messianism," which "transformed mere human beings into supermen and constituted a discourse that associated virility with social transformation in a way that marginalized women at the very moment when they were, supposedly, liberated."(6)

Although Deutsch points out that the contradictions within the feminist dialogue of the revolution and the restructuring of gendered politics tend to question the real achievements of the feminist movement in the early post-Revolutionary period, she does not explore the Cardenas era, which others have claimed to be one of the more fruitful periods for the women's movement at the national political level. …

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