Academic journal article Frontiers - A Journal of Women's Studies

Mexicanas En Guerra: World War II and the Discourse of Mexican Female Identity

Academic journal article Frontiers - A Journal of Women's Studies

Mexicanas En Guerra: World War II and the Discourse of Mexican Female Identity

Article excerpt

"Why do women shave?" asked Aura Rostand, a conservative commentator, whose columns appeared regularly on the women's pages of the illustrated weekly Hoy magazine in April 1946. (1) As she provided beauty-related advice combined with political and social commentary, she pondered what purpose it served for women to fret over the arch in their eyebrows and to "polish their bodies like armor." (2) She offered her own perspective on why women should maintain their beauty. Referring to makeup, perfume, and jewelry as artillery, Rostand argued that "modern" women had an obligation to maintain their beauty, not for purposes of vanity, but instead as a weapon of social advancement. Her perspective on social advancement was quite different from the arguments being made in the 1940s by Mexican feminist activists, who were campaigning for political and economic equality. Rostand argued, "Instead of fighting for political rights such as the vote, women should fight for the exclusive right of beauty ... .[Think] how easily women could manipulate the masculine vote if they all truly devoted themselves to beauty through cosmetics and perfume." In other words, Rostand argued that a woman should "shave" and primp so that she could more easily persuade men to vote the way she wanted them to vote.

In this paper I examine the active discourse about the changing imagery of women in Mexico in the 1940s. (3) This dialogue took place through the mass media, especially newspapers, where advertisements and commentary framed concepts of identity in the context of World War II for an audience that was primarily middle class. But other messages circulated to a larger audience as U.S. and Mexican propagandists used images of Mexicanas and other women around the world to communicate specific information about the war. Through a process that was both national and transnational, this propaganda drew on existing gendered concepts such as motherhood, beauty, and feminism to promote specific messages about the war. Those messages helped to shape and reshape identity by reinforcing traditional feminine roles some of the time and, at other times, by injecting influences that were perceived as modern.

I argue that the various discourses about Mexican femininity worked to make sense of social and economic adjustments brought about by World War II and to promote the interest of specific individuals and groups during a time of considerable change. Government leaders, advertisers, feminist activists, and conservative social critics all participated in these discourses in an attempt to foster Mexicana identity related to gender and nation that would support their varied agendas. Government propagandists, for example, emphasized a Mexicana identity based on various constructions of motherhood and modernity as a way to win support for government wartime policies. Advertisers incorporated the war itself into identity constructions based on female beauty, while female activists and conservative social commentators promoted competing visions of femininity and the home. This is a topic that has garnered relatively little scholarly attention in the bourgeoning field of gender studies in Mexican history, but it is a significant matter for a number of reasons. First, it provides another lens through which to examine the 1940s as a transitional period for Mexico as the nation dealt with the profound transformations created by the wartime environment. This was a time that laid an important foundation for discourses surrounding identity, modernity, and gender that would continue for the rest of the twentieth century. Second, an examination of the imagery of "la Mexicana" during World War II illustrates the ways in which gendered discourses in a time of crisis could be molded and shaped in various ways--even by competing interests--to promote a particular agenda.

The debates that emerged in postrevolutionary Mexico surrounding the role of women in society and the nation's own deliberations of national identity are visible in Aura Rostand's arguments. …

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