Gendering the Borderlands: Women, Vice, and Feminists Movements in the U.S-Mexico Borderlands

Endorsed by IEHS, LAWCHA, SHGAPE, WASM, and the Western History Association

Saturday, April 1, 2023, 10:30 AM - 12:00 PM

Type: Paper Session

Tags: Borderlands; Labor and Working-Class; Women's History


At the turn of the twentieth century, the U.S.-Mexico borderlands became the epicenter of moralizing campaigns that targeted working women in the borderlands. For example, the 1914 Red Light Abatement Reform that prohibited prostitution in the United States was specially reinforced in the border states of California, Arizona, and Texas. At the same time, marriage restrictions in Mexico limited women’s participation in education and prohibited married women from filing for a divorce. Historians Vicki Ruiz and Linda Gordon’s pioneering work highlight the importance of examining how working women used gendered strategies to counter state restrictions that targeted poor and working women in the borderlands. This panel will contribute to this research by examining the life experiences of working women who sought social and economic opportunities/justice in the borderlands. Sonia Hernandez will examine the anarcho-syndicalism and the magonista-PLM movement in Texas and in Tamaulipas, Mexico in the early twentieth century by looking at the lives of border women like Asención Paz de Morantes and Reynalda González Parra, who by using the language of radical motherhood and nationalism reinforced ideas of labor, citizenship, and justice along the U.S.-Mexico border. Casey Christensen Gwin, examines how Progressive reform and declining economic opportunities for “working” women in the United States pushed many American women into the underworld economy of vice in Baja California. She will explore both migration of white prostitutes into the lucrative system of regulated sex commerce in Mexico, as well as the lives of American female narcotic traffickers who brought illicit goods across the U.S.-Mexico line. Veronica Castillo-Munoz will focus on the activism of border women like Hermila Galindo who led a feminist movement in Mexico for equal labor rights, suffrage, and the right to divorce in Mexico. This movement was largely supported by women living in the borderlands. Together these three papers will bring to light a different perspective of the U.S.-Mexico borderlands that is often centered around masculinity and patriarchy.

Papers Presented

“La Mujer Moderna:” Women’s Movement and Activism in the U.S.-Mexico Borderlands

In 1914, Hermila Galindo mobilized women in Mexico to advocate for equal rights, especially around the issues of labor and marriage. Two years later in 1916, when political representatives met to draft the new Mexican Constitution, she advocated for fair labor practices and sufrage for women. “The nation and the world are dependent upon your labors gentlemen Deputies, and I have great hopes for this new code… in order that the woman [women] who had not been excluded from the active part of the Revolution would not be excluded from the political part… from which will help the advancement of the fatherland,” said Galindo using a nationalistic language. This paper will examine the role of women like Hermila Galindo, who led a feminist movement in Mexico for equal labor rights, suffrage, and the right to divorce in Mexico. I argue that women’s political activism was key for the incorporation of Article 123 in the Mexican Constitution of 1917. Article 123 was one of the most progessive articles of the new Constitution that included protections for working women, such as childbirth benefits, and an eight-hour workday. This movement was primarily supported by transborder movements in the U.S.-Mexico borderlands.

Presented By
Veronica Castillo-Muñoz, UC Santa Barbara

“Anarcho-feminists, magonistas, and radical motherhood in the greater US-Mexican Borderlands, 1904-1915”

This presentation is part of a larger project on women engaged in magonismo and anarcho-syndicalism during the early 20th century. Border women including Reynalda González Parra and Asención Paz de Morantes became involved with anarcho-syndicalism and the magonista-PLM movement. Both turned to ideas about motherhood echoing early state-endorsed calls for women to claim their maternal privilege as a way to prove their citizenship to the nation-state. Yet, González Parra turned to a radical motherhood in the Tamaulipas labor movement that gestured toward its potential to serve the community itself. Others, like Paz de Morantes employed the language of a nascent Mexican nationalism, while in Texas, in her attempts to minimize the radical nature of her engagement as a magonista. Whether turning to the language of radical motherhood or nationalism (or both), their rhetoric and actions were frequently informed by their own ideas about race, citizenship, gender, class, and larger visions about justice.

Presented By
Sonia Hernandez, Texas A&M University

American "Adventuresses:"Smuggling and Prostitution in the Borderlands (1910-1929)

This paper examines American women in the underground economies of Baja California between the years 1910-1929. As progressive reform and the criminalization of prostitution pushed women out of California in the early twentieth century, the establishment of regulated prostitution in northern Mexico attracted such exiles to the towns of Tijuana and Mexicali. Many found opportunities for economic and social advancement not available to them in the United States as Mexico’s system of regulated prostitution recognized their rights as “workers.” Many of those women also participated in networks of narcotics trafficking, and leveraged their gender as means of evading the U.S. legal system. Their untold stories reflect the agency and mobility among working class women that has been missing borderlands historiography.

Presented By
Casey Christensen Gwin, Palomar College

Session Participants

Chair and Commentator: Margie Brown-Coronel, CSU Fullerton
Margie Brown-Coronel is associate professor of History at California State University, Fullerton. She received her BA in History from the University of California, Berkeley (1999) and her PhD also in History from the University of California, Irvine (2011). Her area of focus is the intersection of Public History and Latina History. She has directed several public history projects including an exhibition titled Taking A Stand: Legacies of Latina Activism in Southern California installed at the Heritage Museum of Orange County in Santa Ana and Voces de Liberación: Latinas and Politics in Southern California installed at the Salz-Pollak Library Atrium Gallery at CSU Fullerton in 2017. Her research on nineteenth century Californianas and their families is featured in the Smithsonian’s National Museum of American History’s exhibition “Many Voices, One Nation” and she is author of “Intimacy and Family in the California Borderlands: the letters of Josefa del Valle Forster, 1876-1896” recently published in the Pacific Historical Review. Her teaching focuses on training students to deploy humanities content and historical thinking to publicly engaged audiences while addressing issues of diversity and equity of representation in cultural institutions. Her Public History courses teach students the applicable skills in writing for public audiences, curation, interpretive planning, and resource management while centering narratives and research epistemologies of underrepresented communities. Dr. Brown-Coronel is also heavily invested in student mentoring through her participation in the Mellon-Mays Undergraduate Fellowship Program and the Sally Casanova/CSU Predoctoral Program.

Presenter: Veronica Castillo-Muñoz, UC Santa Barbara
Verónica Castillo-Muñoz is an Associate Professor in the Department of History at the University of California, Santa Barbara. She is an interdisciplinary scholar with training in Gender history Latin American history and U.S. history. She has written widely on the intersections between gender, family migration, and the U.S.-Mexico borderlands. Castillo- Muñoz is the author of the book, The Other California: Land Identity and Politics on the Mexican Borderlands, published by the University of California Press (2017). She is currently working on her new book project, Women and Revolution: A Tale of Violence and Deception Across the U.S.-Mexico Borderlands

Presenter: Casey Christensen Gwin, Palomar College
Catherine Christensen Gwin is an Associate Professor of History at Palomar College in San Diego, California. She is the author of “Mujeres Públicas: American Prostitutes in Baja California, 1910-1930,” and is currently working on her manuscript about the role of American women in the development of the U.S.-Mexico border.

Presenter: Sonia Hernandez, Texas A&M University
Sonia Hernandez is an associate professor of history at the University of Texas A&M. She received her Ph.D. in Latin American History from the University of Houston, her recent publications include Working Women into the Borderlands and contributed a chapter for the book, War Along the Border.