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Women that joined the Sandanista movement in the revolutionary Nicaragua essentially fought a double battle: to secure national freedom from the Somoza dictatorship, and to advance gender equality. Revolution gave them a unique opportunity to organize.
One of the remarkable aspects of the revolutionary process was the emergence of women as active participants and leaders. Many women, often despite objection from family members, joined the ranks of the Sandinistas as Women and the Armed Struggle in Nicaragua starting in 1967. This level of involvement of women as guerrillas is unprecedented in the history of independence struggles when compared to the American Revolution, the Soviet Union and other parts of Asia. Few have fully broken the bonds of tradition as Nicaraguan women had by taking up arms. Women made up approximately 30 percent of the revolutionary army and were further involved as organizers, supporters of communications, providers of their homes for their female comrades’ protection, and persuaders of their husbands to join the revolution.
Women were important to the success of the revolution in Nicaragua. Their voice, born out of a collective suffering, assisted in the fall of the Somoza regime. They helped to sustain the revolution out of intent to maintain their freedom and legitimise the goals of Augusto César Sandino for Nicaragua. She notes that women's conditions in Nicaragua were influenced positively through their efforts to bring about social equality but their participation and interests however, continued to play secondary roles to other concerns of the Sandinista government. A major change in gender relations was inherently limited due to the process being shaped by the values and priorities of the Sandinista government rather than by the main women's organization AMNLAE (Asociacion de Mujeres Nicaraguenses Luisa Amanda Espinosa) or the rising Feminist Ideology During the Sandinista Revolution, which resulted in the stunning victory of the opposition candidate Violeta Barrios de Chamorro, over the incumbent Daniel Ortega in the 1990 elections that ended the revolution.
Although the Sandinista government clearly did not provide instant emancipation for women, which has yet to happen anywhere or at any point in human history, these women were nevertheless empowered to challenge any attempts that would reduce them back to the domestic role. Chamorro's stereotypical portrayal of women reinforced rather than challenged the politics of gender equality in Nicaragua. Nicaraguan women are still concerned with escaping oppressive attitudes even from fellow devout male Communists.
The women in revolutionary Nicaragua played a significant and uncharacteristic role in the revolution as guerrillas in the armed forces, subsequently challenging their traditional roles as mothers and primary caregivers. Their initial entry point into the public sphere as guerrillas was a precursor to women's further involvement in more political revolutionary events and agendas. Women of all ages and socio-economic backgrounds joined both sides of the conflict as part of the Sandinista revolutionary forces, and as part of the counter-revolutionary forces.
Women joined the FSLN to challenge the Somoza regime for many reasons which in essence surrounded the issue of the political repression of Nicaraguan women and Nicaraguan youth in particular. The FSLN began integrating women into their guerrilla forces in 1967. Unlike other left-wing guerrilla groups in the region, the Sandinistas espoused progressive views on gender equality because they believed that winning women's support and participation in the revolution would only strengthen it and ensure greater success. This in turn led to women aligning with the Sandinistas and the additional support of young Sandinista women who wanted to revolt against the Somoza regime.
Women among the FSLN were encouraged to participate in every aspect of combatant and civilian life as equals to their male counterparts. Women had their own battalions which marched in rallies organized by the FSLN such as the one held in 1979 in the town of Carazo. Women were required to carry the same forty pound backpacks as the men had, and men were in turn required to engage in traditionally-female tasks such as food preparation. Although men heavily outnumbered women in the leadership positions within FSLN ranks, women *consisted of approximately 25 to 30 per cent of the members. This significant amount is unprecedented in the history of independence struggles.
Similarly, the National Guard also had women amongst its ranks, active as police officers as well as in the EEBBI, the Somoza regime's special forces. These women also saw combat actions against the guerrillas.
The new Sandinista woman was depicted in FSLN posters throughout the revolution as an idealized image of a guerrilla Sandinista smiling while nursing an infant and carrying a rifle over her shoulder. Luisa Amanda Espinoza, who was the first Sandinista woman to be killed in battle against the Somoza regime, was one of the revolutionary role models. Espinoza, before joining the ranks of the FSLN, was a poor urban woman who had left her abusive husband. Surviving many dangerous missions, she was killed after being betrayed by an informant. Her name was later incorporated to the Nicaraguan women's association, AMNLAE (Asociacion de Mujeres Nicaraguenses Luisa Amanda Espinosa) in commemoration of her role in the revolution. She presented a new feminine ideal, that of a childless, autonomous and, above all, a Sandinista woman. Sandinista women, largely supported by the major women's organization of the time, AMNLAE, fought to preserve the revolution and continue the fight for women's emancipation by maintaining the Feminist Ideology During the Sandinista Revolution.
Nicaraguan women as part of the counter-revolutionaries or Contras participated for many reasons. Many joined as part of a general native uprising by Amerindian people mistreated by the Sandinistas, others were former left-wing Sandinista supporters disaffected with the regime. By the 1980s, between seven and fifteen per cent of Nicaraguan Contra combatants were female. The participation of women in an armed conflict was a precedent setting on its own, but the fact the both left and right leaning women did so, makes the Nicaraguan cases particularly unique.
The women in Nicaragua during the Sandinista Revolution saw their way of life drastically change. The new woman was depicted in Sandinista National Liberation Front (FSLN) posters through the revolution; the idealized image of a guerrilla Sandinista smiling while nursing an infant and carrying a rifle over her shoulder. Once women became involved as guerrilla fighters in the overthrown of the Anastasio Somoza García regime, the issue of gender would never be the same as many women mobilized to assist the FSLN bring about the revolution.
Early in the revolution, the FSLN made the emancipation of women one of its top goals. With the assistance with their partner and the predominant women's organization AMNLAE (Asociacion de Mujeres Nicaraguenses Luisa Amanda Espinosa), the FSLN made significant progress towards this goal. Specifically, the Sandinistas prohibited the use of women as sex objects, promoted breast feeding and made legalized breaks for working women to do so, eliminated the distinction between children born in and out of wedlock, banned the former "family wage" that saw male heads of households receive the wage of his wife and children's labour, required that men and women shared the household duties including child care, and also established penalties to suppress prostitution. However, not all women were happy with these gains instead viewing them as merely extensions of women's traditional roles rather than something more progressive. The main issue for Nicaraguan feminists was that a radical change was necessary to shift the common social ideologies away from the ideals of sexism and machismo that only served to maintain gender inequality.
Nicaraguan feminists were not able to find a voice through AMNLAE, who they saw as more feminine than feminist, thus many feminists cut their ties with what they see as a right-wing organization and began advocating for gender equality on their own. This became increasing difficult during the Contra war when AMNLAE, the FSLN, and other independent women shifted their focus away from emancipating women and towards winning the war. Feminists believed that promoting the deconstruction of the problematic ideologies of sexism and machismo could in fact help the war efforts and simultaneously continue the revolutionary process. However, the reluctance for AMNLAE to explicitly pursue the anti-sexism agenda and the subsequent acceptance of more traditional roles for women and families by the FSLN was largely responsible for the outcome of the 1990 elections.
The ultimate defeat came in 1990 when Violeta Chamorro representing the United Nicaraguan Opposition (UNO), was elected into office thus ousting the FSLN from power. This was not only a defeat for the FSLN and revolutionaries but for the Nicaraguan feminists in particular. Because neither AMNLAE nor the FSLN explicitly challenged the sexist controversies, they subsequently fell to a much more traditional and conservative party led by a woman president fulfilling the typical gender-roles that Nicaraguan feminists felt that women desperately needed to dismantle during the revolution.