Galindo de Topete, Hermila (1896–1954)

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Galindo de Topete, Hermila (1896–1954)

Mexican revolutionary and feminist who was the leading woman supporter of the Constitutionalist forces led by Venustiano Carranza. Name variations: Hermila Galindo Acosta de Topete. Born Hermila Galindo Acosta in Ciudad Lerdo, Durango, Mexico, on May 29, 1896; died in Mexico City on August 19, 1954; daughter of Rosario Galindo and Hermila Acosta de Galindo; married Manuel de Topete; children: two daughters.

Although Mexico became free of Spanish rule in 1821, the nation's first century of independence brought considerably more turmoil than progress to the great majority of its citizens. After the possibility of a restoration of European rule ended in 1867 with the execution of the illfated Emperor Maximilian and the hospitalization of Empress Carlota , Mexico enjoyed a brief period of relative stability under the administration of President Benito Juárez. Chaos ensued after the death of Juárez in 1872, but order was restored in 1876 when Porfirio Diaz (1830–1915) seized the reins of power. Ruling his country with an iron fist until he was forced to resign in 1911, Diaz profoundly transformed Mexico. Extensive railroad and telegraph networks were built, harbors modernized, a stable currency introduced, and public debts paid. But the masses rarely benefitted from these reforms, which created an environment in which the traditional landowning elite as well as foreign investors could amass immense wealth that was essentially free of taxation.

The condition of Mexico's peasants, most of whom were of Indian descent, was one of extreme poverty and exploitation when the Diaz regime began, and it never improved throughout his long rule. Illiteracy, estimated at 75% in the mid-1870s, had actually increased to about 80% by 1910. At the start of the 20th century, the majority of the Mexican rural population found itself trapped in dismal conditions. Reactionary legislation pushed farmers off communal lands, reducing them to a state of peonage or virtual serfdom. By 1910, an astonishing 96.9% of the rural heads of families owned no real property. Those who protested were imprisoned or, more often, murdered by local landlords and pliant officials. The banner of agrarian revolt was raised in 1910 by Francisco Madero, who succeeded Diaz in 1911 but proved to be an inept president and was assassinated in February 1913. Madero's successor, Victoriano Huerta, revealed himself to be no better in leadership skills, and the country sank into a state of civil war that raged until 1917 when Venustiano Carranza (1859–1920) emerged as the country's strong man.

Surface turmoil in Mexico often masked basic social conditions and attitudes that had changed very little over the centuries. Traditional patriarchal attitudes placed women in subordinate roles both within the family and in society at large. As noted by American observer Edith O'Shaughnessy : "How can a nation advance when the greater part of the women pass their lives grinding corn, making tortillas, and bearing children? There is no time or strength left to sketch in the merest outline of home-making, let alone a personal life or any of the rudiments of citizenship." Attempting to transform this bleak picture, a small but vocal group of Mexican feminists began to appear on the scene as early as the 1890s. Despite its essential social conservatism, the Diaz regime's economic modernization programs led to modest but real advances for a small but growing minority of Mexican women. The immense obstacles facing them, both then and in later decades, included the traditional machismo attitudes, hostility from the Roman Catholic church hierarchy, ridicule by the press, indifference on the part of government, as well as tactical and ideological differences among the feminist activists themselves. Nevertheless, between 1888 and 1904 women began to be registered as students in the capital's schools of commerce, law, and medicine, and thousands of other women were already economically independent as schoolteachers, government employees, and sales employees in the private sector.

Hermila Galindo was born into a middle-class family in the city of Lerdo, Durango State, in 1896. After she lost her mother at an early age, Hermila was raised by her father and paternal aunt, Angela. While attending schools both locally as well as in Chihuahua and Torreón, she mastered not only typing and stenography but studied English as well. It was her father's plan to send Hermila to the United States to study chemistry, but his death crushed these hopes and she was compelled by economic necessity to terminate her studies and start work in order to support herself and her aunt. Galindo's political involvement began essentially by chance in 1909 in Torreón, while she was still a student. A lawyer, Francisco Martinez Ortiz, made an anti-Diaz speech, which Hermila transcribed. When the mayor learned of the speech, he demanded that all copies be turned in to prevent its publication, but Galindo retained her own copy of the text. Later that year, at a local celebration in honor of the universally beloved Benito Juárez, his son Benito Juárez Maza, a critic of the Porfirio Diaz regime, learned that a copy of the Martinez speech was still in existence. Juarez Maza requested it from Galindo and made copies that quickly received wide distribution in a political atmosphere that was increasingly hostile to Diaz.

In 1911, at age 15, Hermila Galindo moved to Mexico City. Already sensitive to political and social issues, she joined the "Abraham Gonzalez" Liberal Club, one of the many lively discussion groups that now took on a new life with the collapse of the Diaz system. By 1914, Mexico was a nation convulsed by civil war and chaos. Venustiano Carranza, one of the most powerful contenders for the presidency, had been politically active in Coahuila State during the Diaz epoch and quickly emerged as a major personality in the political coalition that opposed General Huerta. Described by Anita Brenner as "a cold-eyed, sensual, stubborn old patriot," Carranza had little of the idealist in him, but unalloyed idealism in the midst of revolution is probably a luxury successful leaders can ill afford. Carranza's attitudes on feminist issues were doubtless similar to his position regarding other political concerns, namely pragmatic, and determined by whatever tactical advantages he might derive from taking a particular stand.

In 1914, after President Huerta's resignation, Carranza entered Mexico City to celebrate the triumph of his Constitutionalist cause. Representing the "Abraham Gonzalez" Liberal Club, Hermila Galindo gave a speech in his honor, comparing him to the revered Benito Juárez. Evidently much impressed by her oratory, Carranza requested that she become his private secretary. She accepted his offer and as a result traveled throughout Mexico on behalf of his government during the next several years. Galindo organized revolutionary clubs in towns and villages in order to disseminate the message of Carranza's Constitutionalist ideology, which emphasized the dual imperatives of defending national sovereignty and bringing about social reform.

Although much of Galindo's energy went into propagandizing for the Constitutionalist forces in a bloody civil war, she did not neglect a specifically feminist agenda that she believed must constitute an important aspect of the Mexican revolution. The need for reforms in this area was staggering, as she pointed out when summing up the legal discriminations against women found in the Civil Code of 1884. At least on paper, this law granted to adult single women virtually the same rights as males. Married women, however, lost these rights and were defined as imbecilitas sexus ("an imbecile by reason of her sex"). Convinced that the gross inequities of laws then in force were self-evident, she pointed out how a wife "has no rights whatsoever in her home. [She is] excluded from participating in any public matter [and] she lacks legal personality to draw up any contract. She cannot dispose of her personal property, or even administer it, and she is legally disqualified to defend herself against her husband's mismanagement of her estate, even when he uses her fund for ends that are most ignoble and most offensive to her sensibilities. [A wife] lacks all authority over her children, and she has no right to intervene in their education.… She must, as a widow, consult persons designated by her husband before his death, otherwise she can lose her rights to her children."

In September 1915, along with Artemisa Sáenz Royo and several other feminists, Hermila Galindo founded and became editor of the periodical La Mujer Moderna (The Modern Woman). It would be published until 1919, having had the same brief lifespan as Mexico's first important feminist journal, La Mujer Mexicana, which appeared between 1904 and 1908. Along with her feminist activities, during these years Galindo continued to defend the Carranza administration and its Constitutionalist program. In September 1916, she went to Havana to explain why the Carranza agenda of nationalism and social reform was important not only for Mexico, but for a Latin America challenged daily by the unequal power and wealth of both the U.S. government and foreign private corporations.

Back in Mexico, Galindo increasingly concentrated her efforts on advancing a feminist agenda. Although she had to function in a political environment that was almost totally male-dominated, she refused to admit defeat. As Anna Macias notes, in Mexico "to be female is to be reticent, subordinate, and self-sacrificing. To be male is to be decisive, dominant, and courageous." Thus, to achieve feminist goals "a Mexican woman must act like a man." Although her outspokenness outraged the overwhelming majority of Mexican males and most of the country's conservative females as well, Hermila Galindo's intelligence and courage impressed a minority of revolutionary leaders. Among the politically powerful individuals she could count on for support were two revolutionary leaders in Yucatán State, Salvador Alvarado and Felipe Carillo Puerto.

It was in Yucatán that the Mexican revolution would reveal some of its most radical tendencies, in large measure because of the local economic inequalities. While a tiny group of families (la casta divina) enjoyed a monopoly of power and wealth, the indigenous Maya and Yaqui Indian population found itself virtually enslaved, perpetually condemned to working in the fields for subsistence wages while harvesting the sole export crop, henequen. Both Alvarado and Carillo advocated a nondoctrinaire form of Socialism which would more equitably distribute wealth as well as guarantee for all citizens a free education, greatly improved working conditions, and equal rights for women.

Hermila Galindo was not in attendance at Mexico's first feminist congress, held in the city of Mérida, Yucatán, in mid-January 1916 (the first feminist congress in Latin America had taken place in Buenos Aires, Argentina, in May 1910). The paper she sent to be read to the assembly, entitled "Woman in the Future," proved to be a bombshell. Refusing to pull any punches, her address took a strongly anticlerical line, declaring that the Roman Catholic Church remained a major obstacle to the achievement of feminist goals in Mexico. By continuing to be institutionally impervious to healthy new ideas and reforms, the church functioned as a significant impediment to social progress. In other parts of her paper, she called for full women's suffrage, the legalization of divorce, and an end to the culture of machismo. Most shocking of all the assertions or proposals found in Galindo's paper were her ideas on female sexuality. Many of the more conservative members of the audience were stunned by her insistence that all Mexican schoolgirls should attend compulsory classes in anatomy, hygiene, and physiology so as to comprehend and control all aspects of their bodies. At least one fundamental reason why sexual enlightenment was necessary, Galindo argued, was because women possessed a sex drive as strong as that of males. Although many in the audience vigorously applauded the absent Galindo's address, a number voiced their opposition, and one member of the audience thundered from her seat that the essay deserved to be destroyed.

Despite the mixed reception her ideas had received at Mérida's feminist congress, Galindo refused to be discouraged. Despite mounting evidence that little was being achieved in the way of substantive reforms, she continued to work for the Carranza administration. She spoke out in favor of a drastic revision of a Civil Code which virtually destroyed all women's rights when they entered into a state of matrimony. Galindo and other Mexican feminists successfully pressured President Carranza into issuing a new Law of Family Relations in 1917. Her arguments for women's educational equality, which she presented both in print and in speeches, emphasized that women were themselves partially to blame for their own lack of social progress. Only when they had abandoned the pervasive notion that the only proper role for the earth's females was to bear and raise children would women finally be able to liberate themselves from an ancient yoke of ignorance that had reduced them to beings "without consciousness and without aspirations."

In December 1916, 20-year-old Hermila Galindo was the most visible female presence at the Constitutional Congress held at Querétaro to hammer out a fundamental political document for the new Mexican state. Although she was as eloquent as ever before, Galindo and the handful of other women present at the various meetings were laughed at or ignored. Only the head of the government's bureau of educational affairs, Felix Palavicini, made an effort to seriously argue the case for women's suffrage. Although many politically active Mexican men were adamantly opposed to granting women the vote, it was not only male chauvinism or rude indifference that explained the stand they had taken. Many of the most progressive and radical delegates at Querétaro saw the issue in terms of the delicate political balance between liberal and conservative. If women were given the vote, they reasoned, many women who remained strongly under the influence of the ultra-conservative and anti-revolutionary Roman Catholic Church would respond to the church's call to vote for traditionalist candidates, and that would in fact negatively seal the fate of the revolution.

Again refusing to be discouraged, Galindo ran in 1917 for the seat of a deputy from Mexico City's fifth electoral district. Although she stated during the campaign that she had no hope of being elected, and merely desired to bring the cause of women's suffrage before the nation, she was in fact elected in a stunning upset. In due course, she appeared before the electoral college of Mexico's Chamber of Deputies in order to claim her seat. However, that body decided to refuse to seat her because of her gender. Had they voted otherwise, Hermila Galindo would have been the first woman to serve in the Mexican Chamber of Deputies.

Throughout these tumultuous years of modern Mexican history, Hermila Galindo was not only an agitator, propagandist and advocate for women's rights, but a highly productive journalist and editor as well. Besides her work for the journal La Mujer Moderna, she wrote five books on various topics linked to the Mexican revolution, as well as a biography of Venus-tiano Carranza. With the approach of presidential elections scheduled for 1920, she wrote a laudatory biography of one of the major candidates, General Pablo González. By this time, many Mexicans had become frustrated with a Carranza regime that had promised major social reforms but had delivered virtually nothing to the millions of poor and dispossessed workers and landless peasants. In early 1920, Generals Obregón and González signaled the start of a revolt against Carranza when it appeared that the upcoming election might be rigged. Carranza fled the capital, was defeated in battle, and was murdered in Puebla State on May 21, 1920.

The bloody demise of the Carranza regime marked the end of the first phase of Mexican feminism as well as the abrupt termination of Hermila Galindo's public career. Although she continued to write and publish, Galindo retired into private life at the ripe age of 24. In 1923, she married Manuel de Topete and eventually gave birth to two daughters. For a number of years, she and her family lived in the United States, but they decided to return to Mexico. Hermila Galindo de Topete died in Mexico City on August 19, 1954. Despite Galindo's early retirement, and the consequent loss to the cause of Mexican feminism of one of its most talented and persuasive personalities, the cause of women's rights was slowed down but never completely halted in the years after 1920. Mexico's women had to wait until 1958 before they received full political equality, and in de facto terms much progress remained to be achieved at the start of a new millennium.


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John Haag , Associate Professor of History, University of Georgia, Athens, Georgia

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Galindo de Topete, Hermila (1896–1954)

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