Personal Occupations: Women's Responses to U.S. Military Occupations in Latin America
McPherson, Alan, The Historian
"THE WOMEN IN MY country have allowed themselves to be more imbued with the fatal consequences of the morbid and corrupt relations with the Yankee than the men," an anonymous Dominican author (most likely a man) claimed in 1921, in the midst of the occupation of his country by U.S. marines. (1) One might attribute the comment to a nationalist looking for someone to blame. Or perhaps to a man whose woman chose to love a marine instead of him. But, absent the vitriol, was it wrong? Did women under occupation have a different relationship with forces of occupation than did men?
The three longest Latin American occupations in U.S. history, those of Nicaragua (1912-1933), Haiti (1915-1934), and the Dominican Republic (1916-1924), are all well documented and may be good places to attempt to answer those questions. These were all hierarchical societies where class, race, and gender differences were discernible and meaningful. At the same time all three underwent similar processes of having their governments and, to a varying degree, other institutions taken over, or at least indirectly controlled, by the same foreign power. They therefore present the opportunity to analyze both differences and especially similarities in the ways women responded to occupation and how these responses were different from men's. To attempt these tasks, one must focus not only on women who openly opposed or supported occupation but on the vast majority of women who, ignored by outside observers, nevertheless struggled to adjust to foreigners wielding guns. Their voices are hard to hear, but they do exist, scattered in the three languages, five countries, and dozens of archives in which the research for this article took place.
A study of women during these occupations does, as the Dominican writer suggested above, uncover a different response from that of men, but rather than more "morbid and corrupt," I suggest that it was more personal and ambivalent. Women responded to these occupations in ways that reflected gendered aims, a consciousness of women's needs and grievances as distinct and worth pursuing. Those aims were less formally political than those of men but still political in the sense of fighting against power structures that harmed women. Latin American women's activities under U.S. occupations indicated what might be intuitive but rarely highlighted in the scholarship of gender and international relations: that women respond to occupations as women first and as nationalists second.
VICTIMS AND SYMBOLS
Historians have barely scratched the surface of women's resistance to U.S. occupations in Latin America, a neglect that allowed misconceptions born in the occupation era to survive. This is understandable since U.S. government and other archives concerned with occupations do not have collections or even boxes devoted to issues concerning women. At most, a scholar might find a folder on prostitution as a concern of marines, but often even that is subsumed under "public health" concerns. Because of this "invisibility" of women, only a few scholarly articles have discussed them under any of these three occupations, and only peripherally. (2) Major books on the occupations devoted attention to women but tended to provide anecdotes rather than comprehensive analysis. More commonly, given that the bulk of the evidence about these occupations comes from Navy and State Department archives, historians focusing on gender have emphasized not women's agency but rather imperial agency, the sexist imperial "gaze" of Yankee occupiers. Mary Renda's brilliant Taking Haiti, for instance, applies a cultural studies lens to masculinity and paternalism within U.S. imperialism rather than to the consciousness of women. (3) As a result, Renda's work unwittingly relegates women to the role of recipients of the occupations, as objects of primitivist desire, victims of rape and sexual harassment, or characters in pulp fiction. …