Cover image for Before the Revolution: Women's Rights and Right-Wing Politics in Nicaragua, 1821–1979 By Victoria González-Rivera

Before the Revolution

Women's Rights and Right-Wing Politics in Nicaragua, 1821–1979

Victoria González-Rivera


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ISBN: 978-0-271-04871-0

256 pages
6" × 9"
16 b&w illustrations

Before the Revolution

Women's Rights and Right-Wing Politics in Nicaragua, 1821–1979

Victoria González-Rivera

“This book is a pioneering study of the development of a vibrant feminist movement in Nicaragua during the early twentieth century, as well as of the role of a later generation of women who gave conditional support to the Somoza regime in exchange for suffrage and increased political, educational, and economic opportunities. It also offers an original analysis of sexual politics under the dictatorship and the forging of resilient right-wing clientelistic identities and traditions.”


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Those who survived the brutal dictatorship of the Somoza family have tended to portray the rise of the women’s movement and feminist activism as part of the overall story of the anti-Somoza resistance. But this depiction of heroic struggle obscures a much more complicated history. As Victoria González-Rivera reveals in this book, some Nicaraguan women expressed early interest in eliminating the tyranny of male domination, and this interest grew into full-fledged campaigns for female suffrage and access to education by the 1880s. By the 1920s a feminist movement had emerged among urban, middle-class women, and it lasted for two more decades until it was eclipsed in the 1950s by a nonfeminist movement of mainly Catholic, urban, middle-class and working-class women who supported the liberal, populist, patron-clientelistic regime of the Somozas in return for the right to vote and various economic, educational, and political opportunities. Counterintuitively, it was actually the Somozas who encouraged women's participation in the public sphere (as long as they remained loyal Somocistas). Their opponents, the Sandinistas and Conservatives, often appealed to women through their maternal identity. What emerges from this fine-grained analysis is a picture of a much more complex political landscape than that portrayed by the simplifying myths of current Nicaraguan historiography, and we can now see why and how the Somoza dictatorship did not endure by dint of fear and compulsion alone.
“This book is a pioneering study of the development of a vibrant feminist movement in Nicaragua during the early twentieth century, as well as of the role of a later generation of women who gave conditional support to the Somoza regime in exchange for suffrage and increased political, educational, and economic opportunities. It also offers an original analysis of sexual politics under the dictatorship and the forging of resilient right-wing clientelistic identities and traditions.”
“Victoria González-Rivera has written a very important book. By uncovering the hidden history of first-wave feminism and the Somocista women's movement in Nicaragua, she has forced us to rethink how we understand both Nicaraguan politics and women's history in general. Her book is engagingly written and jargon free, so it should be very appealing to both students and scholars.”
“[Before the Revolution: Women's Rights and Right-Wing Politics in Nicaragua] is accessible, interesting and full of compelling questions.”
Before the Revolution is remarkably successful in replacing the previous narrative of Nicaraguan feminism’s beginnings with, as [González-Rivera] describes it, ‘a radically different revisionist version of Nicaraguan women’s history.’ The book’s tone is intimate and inclusive: González-Rivera clarifies terms and explains her research methods, making her work accessible to students as well as scholars.”
“While the dominant narrative about the role of women in Nicaraguan politics has traditionally centered on their participation in the 1979 Sandinista revolution, Before the Revolution succeeds in providing a much richer understanding of the history of feminism and women’s political participation in Nicaragua, as well as the role of women in right-wing politics more broadly.”
Before the Revolution makes a valuable contribution to the study of Nicaraguan political culture that is useful for Central Americanists across disciplines. With its well-crafted narrative style and accessible language, the text is equally engaging for students, researchers, and experts in the field.”

Victoria González-Rivera is Assistant Professor of Chicana and Chicano Studies at San Diego State University. She is the co-editor, with Karen Kampwirth, of Radical Women in Latin America: Left and Right (Penn State, 2001).


List of Illustrations



List of Abbreviations


1 Feminism Before Somoza

2 From Feminism to Partisan Suffragist Politics

3 The Aftermath of Women’s Suffrage

4 Somocista Women’s Lives

5 The Activism and Legacy of Nicolasa Sevilla

6 Sex and Somocismo


Appendix A: UMA Founding Members

Appendix B: Central Women’s Committee Members


Selected Bibliography



In 1979, Nicaraguans overwhelmingly supported the overthrow of the repressive and corrupt Somoza family, who—backed by the United States—had been in power for forty-three years. Nicaraguans’ support for the leftist Sandinista guerrillas who toppled the dictatorship, however, waned over the course of a prolonged counterrevolutionary war waged against the Sandinistas throughout the 1980s. In 1990, the U.S.–backed anti-Sandinista candidate, Violeta Barrios de Chamorro, won the presidential election. The Sandinistas, who had come to power through violent means, relinquished power peacefully after their defeat at the polls.

The Sandinista revolution lasted only eleven years. Nonetheless, it radically altered Nicaragua’s political and cultural landscape. After 1979, revolutionaries proclaimed that Somocismo was dead, and everyone agreed that a new era of Nicaraguan political history had begun. Yet Somocismo proved to be more resilient than its enemies had thought, a fact that has complicated Nicaraguan politics enormously.

In a 2006 political survey of 490 Nicaraguans in the colonial city of Granada, 64 percent proclaimed that they would support an authoritarian government “if it resolved the country’s economic problems.”1 And more than half (54 percent) believed that the Somocista years (1943–79) were the best Nicaragua had ever experienced.2 These results were startling and unexpected, particularly for Sandinistas who had wholeheartedly believed that, indeed, Somocismo was truly dead. Somocistas found the results less surprising.

The authors of the Granada study concluded that, over the course of almost three decades since the Sandinista National Liberation Front (FSLN) ousted the right-wing dictator Anastasio Somoza Debayle, Somocismo had been “transformed into a positive historical point of reference” and that the undemocratic Somoza years had been “whitewashed” in the Nicaraguan imaginary.3 They reasoned that economics factored into this shift. The study stressed the impact of financial difficulties on Nicaraguans’ political choices, given the nation’s status as the second poorest country in the Western Hemisphere, after only Haiti.4 And it suggested that the economic development of the 1950s and 1960s, and the increase in the standard of living that accompanied it, looked good to many when compared to the war of the 1980s and the corruption, partisanship, and economic misery that have enveloped Nicaragua since 1990.5

It is important to note that those respondents who spoke favorably of the Somozas often began their statements with “I’ve heard that . . . ,” “My parents say that . . . ,” and “According to my mom. . . .”6 In other words, many did not live through the Somoza years as adults but were nonetheless molded by their elders’ memories, which in turn were shaped by recent events. The study’s authors urged readers not to become prisoners of this whitewashed Somocista past, forged in the depths of economic anguish. Instead, they suggested that Nicaraguans look past the bleakness of the present with renewed hope to the future.

I agree that the ongoing economic crisis in Nicaragua has helped to whitewash Somocismo. On the other hand, Somocismo is quite complex, and it is important not to dismiss or underestimate Nicaraguans’ embrace of right-wing politics. Before the Revolution seeks to shed light on the Somoza years and on the decades that preceded them so that we may gain a more nuanced understanding of Nicaraguan history, one not necessarily based on the political and economic desperation of the present. It also seeks to provide historical contextualization for yet another finding of the Granada study, that, despite Nicaragua’s high electoral participation rates in presidential elections (higher than the world average since 1967; 73.5 percent in 2006), 58 percent of those surveyed who said they were not interested in politics were women.7 This book thus offers a backdrop against which to understand contemporary women’s participation (or supposed lack of participation) in politics.

The study contended that the relatively low level of interest in politics on the part of contemporary Nicaraguans (both men and women) reflected their disillusionment with contemporary politics and political parties, a narrow definition of politics. Indeed, that 27 percent of all those surveyed said they were interested in politics, despite the extreme levels of political corruption seen in the last decades, offers a sign of hope for democratic forces in Nicaragua.8

The pages that follow document women’s political participation in Nicaragua between 1821 and 1979. The twentieth century birthed four major women’s movements in Nicaragua: first-wave feminism, a Somocista women’s movement, a Sandinista women’s movement, and second-wave feminism. My research documents the first two, the least studied and least understood of these movements. It also touches upon a fifth one, a rather small and perhaps short-lived nonfeminist Liberal women’s movement that arose in the last decade of the twentieth century with a large contingent of neo-Somocistas in its ranks.

I contend that first-wave feminism developed in Nicaragua during the nineteenth century and was eventually co-opted by the Somoza dictatorship in the mid-twentieth century, when women obtained the right to vote. At that point, a nonfeminist Somocista women’s movement flourished, giving the dictatorship badly needed credibility. Women’s support for the Somoza regime helped keep the dictatorship in place. It also allowed thousands of women to become active participants in populist-clientelistic state-building efforts.

Before the Revolution addresses the goals, accomplishments, and motives of first-wave feminists and Somocistas. Before delving directly into the history of these two groups, however, let us review the events that led to the Sandinista revolution, a watershed moment in Nicaraguan history.

Historical Background

Midday on Sunday, February 26, 1978, in the town of Masaya, twenty-seven-year-old Faustina Castro Palacio was at home, breast-feeding her youngest child, when she heard a commotion outside.

I heard bombs go off and saw that a group of people . . . two men and two women, took refuge in my house. . . . The National Guard came after them: . . . The road filled up with military vehicles of all types and two helicopters appeared. . . . There appeared to be about one hundred Guard members, firing without notice. . . . The National Guard machined-gunned the house, starting with the front door. . . . The gunfire lasted an hour and they stopped firing at my house in order to fire at the house next-door. At that point I went out, like a madwoman, with my five kids hanging on to me, the oldest was eleven, and the youngest a year and a half. . . .

The Guard . . . forced me to go into the house next door to mine, on the left, while they followed about five meters behind. . . . In the entrance I saw a dead person lying on his stomach, and throughout the house I saw what appeared to be bundles of clothes drenched in blood. . . . Those bundles were the people who lived in the house. They had wrapped themselves in blankets to protect themselves. . . .

My eight-year-old son Isidro is still psychologically affected. . . . He has war psychosis, feeling terror every time he sees the National Guard. He has nightmares saying that he sees the Guard, hears gunfire, and sees blood. Sometimes he takes his clothes and rips them to shreds.9

Human rights abuses of this type, committed by the Somoza-controlled National Guard, were common in Nicaragua during the late 1970s, and they affected thousands of people in different ways. Witnessing what came to be known as the “Sabogales Massacre” radically changed Faustina Castro Palacio, an ardent Somoza supporter and member of the Somozas’ Nationalist Liberal Party (PLN).10 In her declaration before Nicaragua’s Permanent Commission on Human Rights (CPDH), Castro Palacio noted,

I declare that I am a member of the Liberal Party and that I have worked at the electoral tables on behalf of Somocista Liberals. . . . If I could at this moment speak to General [Anastasio] Somoza [Debayle], I would tell him that I never expected my services to the government and the Liberal Party to be repaid in this way. Since he is in charge, I would ask of him, with tears in my eyes, like I have right now, that even if he puts me in jail, it is better for him to give up power because nobody wants him anymore [nadie lo quiere ya], and it is not fair that honest citizens be suffering. I do not say this out of hatred but because of what has been done to me. I felt so proud with a red flag in my hands during [pro-Somoza] rallies! A few weeks ago I had asked when elections were going to take place, for I was willing to give my vote to the Liberal Party and I had already registered to vote.11

Faustina Castro Palacio’s story was corroborated by her tenant, twenty-one-year-old Norma Castillo de González: “[Faustina] is a . . . Liberal and Somocista. . . . On that day when they did all those things to her, she said she regretted having been a Liberal and having voted all those years for [Somoza] . . . because the Guard did not take into account that she was a Somocista and a Liberal, because she wasn’t just a Liberal, she was completely Somocista [pura somocista].”12 When asked if Castro Palacio had a chance to tell the National Guard that she was a Somocista, Castillo de González responded: “No . . . but I think the Guard found out that she was very Liberal because [in her house] . . . she had posters of Somoza, mirrors with the President’s photo, and she had many Somoza-related papers.”13

Norma Castillo de González herself came from a Liberal family and, like her friend Faustina, could not understand why the regime was turning on its supporters: “Me, my family, my mother, my grandmother, my grandfather, my father all are very Liberal, because my entire family is Liberal and Somocista, and I don’t know why the president is doing this. I don’t know if he is the one who tells [the Guard to do these things], the one who gives the orders, or if it is the Guard that puts itself against us. . . . I ask the President to please not continue with this.”14 Unfortunately for Castillo de González, her nightmare had just begun on February 26. As a result of her declarations to the CPDH, Castillo was kidnapped on March 20. Although eventually released on May 8, she was tortured by her captors for information on anti-Somocistas in her neighborhood, information she did not have.15

Even National Guard members were outraged by the violence they were being asked to commit in an effort to keep the decades-old dictatorship in place. Carmen Rodríguez Prado, a twenty-one-year-old woman interviewed by Margaret Randall in 1979, recalled in Sandino’s Daughters how she ended up joining the National Guard at age seventeen and how she eventually left to join the FSLN:

There were eleven kids [in my family] and I was the next to last. . . . My father wasn’t living with us anymore and I had to start helping support the family. . . . I was in my third year of high school . . . [and] every job I applied for, except the National Guard, required at least a high school degree . . . [so] I signed up. That was 1975. . . .

I worked at the bureau of investigations. That was where they started ordering me to mistreat people. I couldn’t do it. . . . After people were arrested, the women prisoners were brought to us. We were supposed to make them talk. They said beating was the only way.16

Eventually, Rodríguez Prado began talking to one of the Sandinista women in her custody, Comandante Mónica Baltodano:

She asked me a lot of questions: why was I in the National Guard? Did I like it? Was I aware of the atrocities being committed? I told her why I joined and that I hadn’t realized what it would be like until I started working. . . . Mónica made me see the limitations of what I was doing. . . . Slowly I became aware that I had to do something else. I began to think seriously about joining the FSLN. . . .

Working for the Revolution within the Guard was very dangerous. . . . It was horrible in my family. My father backed Somoza, and one of my brothers was an officer in the Guard. Near the end they realized I was in the FSLN. [My brother] tried to pressure me [to leave the FSLN] but at least he didn’t turn me in.

By 1978 . . . work inside the Guard was getting too dangerous. On May 15, 1978, I . . . joined the [Sandinista] insurrection.17

Like Faustina, Norma, and Carmen, thousands of Nicaraguan women stopped supporting the dictatorship in the late 1970s due to the atrocities committed by the National Guard. Some women, like Carmen, joined the armed struggle against the Somozas led by the Sandinista National Liberation Front. Others simply gave their tacit support to the leftist guerrillas.

Just how many women joined the armed struggle against the Somozas is hard to know. Margaret Randall and Helen Collinson have both argued that women made up 30 percent of the Sandinista guerrilla forces in the late 1970s.18 Carlos Vilas, however, suggests that the figure was more modest, around 6 percent, and that most women who supported the Sandinistas did so in noncombatant roles that required them to carry messages, hide and move arms, and provide safe houses, food, medicines, and clandestine medical care.19 Regardless of how many active female combatants there were, thousands of women were organized in the Association of Nicaraguan Women Confronting the Nation’s Problems (AMPRONAC), a Sandinista women’s organization created in 1977. According to Helen Collinson and colleagues, AMPRONAC had more than 8,000 members by 1979.20

Although the indiscriminate violence carried out by the National Guard made many Nicaraguans oppose the dictatorship, other factors also contributed to Anastasio Somoza Debayle’s defeat in July 1979. Political and economic issues in particular led large segments of the population to seek new leaders, if not a revolution.

Nicaraguans of different social classes and different political persuasions came to support the overthrow of the Somoza dictatorship. For the elites, the Somoza family represented an important ally but also an unfair competitor. According to John Booth, the ambivalence of Nicaragua’s upper classes toward the Somozas turned to opposition in the 1970s, when the dictatorship became “more a liability than an asset to most of the bourgeoisie. . . . The rift between the government and the private sector widened in 1977, when the regime removed certain business tax exemptions and imposed new business taxes.”21 Partly as a result of their economic disagreements with the regime, “one key group of Nicaraguan capitalists . . . established business interest links [that same year] with the FSLN.”22

Different groups of the middle class opposed the Somozas, “more with each passing decade.”23 According to Booth, those who opposed the Somozas included “students from the 1930s on, the Independent Liberals from the 1940s on, the Social Christians in the 1950s and 1960s, and middle-sector unions [representing teachers, private-sector and government employees and health workers] in the troubled 1970s.”24 By contrast, opposition among the lower classes was “never unified.”25 Nonetheless, “the nationwide deterioration of economic conditions and the growing governmental repression in the 1970s turned many of the lower class against the regime by converting their economic grievances into more clearly defined antiregime positions and action.”26

Karen Kampwirth summarizes the impact of Nicaragua’s economic development on the poor from the 1950s to the 1970s:

Starting in the mid-twentieth century, a series of socio-economic changes occurred as Nicaragua (like other countries in the region) became more tightly linked to the global economy. During the course of the Somoza regime, Nicaragua was characterized by a progressively more unequal distribution of resources as peasants were pushed off their land to make room for agro-export production. . . . Increased landlessness had the effect of putting downward pressure on wages, especially as the main cash crops—cotton and coffee—were not very labor intensive, except during the harvest. . . .

While the supply of newly landless workers increased, the demand for workers remained largely fixed, leading to a fall in wages. To make things worse, food prices rose at the same time; as land was concentrated and converted to cash crop production, less land was utilized for food production.27

Two main responses to the increased landlessness in the countryside were migration to urban areas and women’s entry into the labor force. Kampwirth argues that “since there were fewer economic opportunities for women than for men in the countryside, women made up a significant proportion of the hundreds of thousands who migrated to the cities during the second half of the twentieth century.”28 Women, in fact, made up a larger percentage of the urban population than men. In 1950, nearly 56 percent of urban residents were women. Thirty years later, more than 50 percent of urban residents were still women.29

Women participated in a shift toward urbanization that radically changed Nicaragua. Although the country’s urban population was only 35 percent in 1950, by 1979, it had grown to 52 percent, with the largest concentration of urban dwellers located in Managua, the capital.30 Carlos Vilas notes that “between 1950 and 1971 Managua almost quadrupled its population, going from less than 110,000 inhabitants to almost 400,000,”31 while the population of the country as a whole doubled.

Once they arrived in the cities, women entered the labor force in large numbers. By the late 1970s, “women, who made up 30 percent of the economically active population in Managua, . . . constituted 70 percent of the service workers, 55 percent of the sellers and merchants, 37 percent of the office workers, [and] 24 percent of the artisans and operators.”32 As in the countryside, however, employment opportunities in urban areas were limited.33 This was particularly true in Managua after the December 1972 earthquake “leveled about half the city, killed 10,000 and injured 20,000 people, destroyed over 40,000 homes and left over 160,000 people homeless.”34 Managua never fully recovered from the earthquake, which “left almost 52,000 people without work (57 percent of the city’s economically active population) and forced the displacement of some 250,000—60 percent of the total population of Managua.”35 Unemployment would skyrocket a few years later, in the late 1970s, jumping from 13 percent in 1977 to 28 percent in 1979.36

The late 1970s witnessed not only an economic crisis in Nicaragua but a political one as well.37 The Catholic hierarchy strongly criticized the human rights abuses committed by the Somozas’ National Guard, the United States terminated all new U.S. aid to the dictatorship, and the FSLN grew in strength and adherents.38 By late 1978, literally thousands of Nicaraguans took up arms against the Somozas, bringing about the triumph of the Sandinista revolution on July 19, 1979.39

A Revisionist Interpretation

The widespread support that both men and women gave to the overthrow of the Somozas’ forty-three-year-old right-wing dictatorship led sympathetic scholars to maintain that women in Nicaragua first organized politically on the Left, and that their political awakening occurred recently, within the last twenty-five years of the twentieth century.40 Anna Fernández Poncela, for instance, argues that “it was precisely through the anti-Somoza insurrection that women began to assert themselves most visibly in the history of the nation.”41 Scholars have also argued that feminist activism is a recent development in Nicaragua, a by-product even of the Sandinista revolution.42

I propose a radically different, revisionist version of Nicaraguan women’s history. First, I claim that Nicaraguan feminism had roots in the postindependence period (1820s–1840s), although it did not start developing as a distinguishable movement with a coherent set of ideas until the second half of the nineteenth century. Second, I propose that the relationship between feminism and Liberalism from the mid-1800s through 1979—and particularly from the 1930s to the 1950s—is central to the history of Nicaraguan feminism. And, finally, I contend that women’s support for the Somoza dictatorship helped maintain the regime in power between 1955 and 1979.

Nicaraguan women have been politically active for generations and, in fact, as early as 1837, had shown an interest in eliminating the “tyranny” of male domination. This interest grew into full-fledged campaigns for female suffrage and access to education for women in the 1880s. By the 1920s, a small, urban, predominantly middle-class group of Nicaraguan women began to call itself “feminist.” Nicaragua boasted a vibrant feminist movement in the 1920s, 1930s, and 1940s. In the decades that followed, however, early twentieth-century feminism in Nicaragua was erased from the nation’s historical memory. A new generation of women appropriated the goals of the feminist movement, creating a partisan, pro-Somoza, nonfeminist women’s movement. By 1957, the year women first had the opportunity to vote, the Somozas took all the credit for women’s suffrage, ignoring feminist contributions to that struggle.

Thousands of women voluntarily supported the Somozas and their right-wing Liberal Party between 1936 and 1979, but particularly between 1950 and 1979. These women self-identified as supporters of the Somozas and their Liberal Party. As a group, they were Catholic, middle- and working-class urban women who lived on the country’s Pacific Coast and central highlands. The first generation of Somocista women to organize politically as a group was a generation of firsts: it included the nation’s first woman attorney, first woman mayor, and first woman member of Congress. This group of women, born in the mid- to late 1920s, also included a large number of public school teachers. Many were unmarried.

Somocista women as a whole backed the Somoza family and its Liberal Party in exchange for suffrage and increased political, educational, and economic opportunities. Most came from Liberal families; they backed the Somozas’ clientelistic system in part because they received goods, services, and, most important, jobs, in exchange for their votes and political support. Many were also attracted to the Somozas’ populist leadership style, their anti-Communism, their economic policies, and the Liberal Party’s long-standing position in favor of women’s secular education and women’s suffrage, a position very much at odds with the Conservative anti-Somocista tradition but typical among Liberals elsewhere in Latin America.43

Somocista women, however, were never a homogeneous group, not even politically, and they were certainly not naive. Most did not support every action the Somozas took. And they supported the Somozas’ patron-clientelistic system only so long as they considered its benefits to be a fair exchange for that support. In the late 1970s, once they felt the system was falling apart, some Somocista women became Sandinista supporters.

Although Somocista women worked hard to secure increased access to employment, education, and public office for women, they were not feminists. Their primary concern was the well-being of their male-dominated party. Women’s issues always took second place, as they did among Sandinista women before 1990. Both groups shared a lack of organizational autonomy within their parties.44 Both were originally mobilized from above, within women’s sections of their parties. Somocistas were organized in the Women’s Wing (Ala Femenina) of the Nationalist Liberal Party from the 1950s through 1979. Sandinistas were organized in AMPRONAC, in the late 1970s, and then in the Luisa Amanda Espinoza Association of Nicaraguan Women (AMNLAE), in the 1980s and 1990s.

To compare Somocista with Sandinista women is heresy in many Sandinista and pro-Sandinista circles. FSLN members and sympathizers find it hard to admit similarities between themselves and the supporters of the bloody dictatorship they so bitterly opposed. Just as controversial is my contention that maternalism (the exaltation of motherhood promoted as policy by many right-wing governments), which played a crucial role in anti-Somocista (and later Sandinista) women’s mobilization, played a relatively minor one in Somocista women’s activism.

The jailing, disappearance, and assassination of thousands of young people by the Somozas’ National Guard forced anti-Somocista women to organize as mothers and to adopt a maternalist discourse rarely seen among Somocista activists.45 Surprisingly perhaps, the Somozas—unlike other right-wing regimes—did not emphasize motherhood as the only appropriate role for women.46 Nonetheless, Somocista women did sometimes mobilize as mothers, especially in their fight against the Sandinista guerrillas (a fight they labeled “a war against Communism”), suggesting that maternalism acquired greater importance in the context of war or when there is a possibility of war. Another instance where maternalism prevailed within Somocismo was in the discourse of individual women looking for jobs or economic assistance within the clientelistic system. It was precisely to fulfill their roles as female heads of households that many working-class women (a group I call “maternal breadwinners”) supported the dictatorship, hoping to advance economically in exchange for their pro-Somoza votes.

Unlike in Chile under right-wing general Augusto Pinochet, where state-sponsored maternalism fueled right-wing women’s activism in Mothers’ Centers,47 in Nicaragua, maternalism did not become an integral part of state policy until the 1980s, when, in response to the Contra war, women throughout the country were encouraged to organize in Sandinista Mothers’ Committees as either mothers of combatants or mothers of heroes and martyrs.48 The Committees of Mothers of Heroes and Martyrs brought together women whose children had died in the struggle against Anastasio Somoza Debayle and in the Contra war financed by the United States. The committees’ purpose was to organize women politically and offer them state assistance in the form of loans, homes, and medical attention. Roser Solà and María Pau Trayner wrote in 1986,

The most important aspect of the mothers’ movement is the channeling of maternal potential in defense of the Revolution. Attention and assistance of any kind given to a mother who lost a child in the struggle is of vital importance to make sure that the enemies of the revolution do not take advantage of her pain. To convince all those mothers of fallen sons who are isolated or resentful of the necessity of joining a group to better confront their problems is also urgent and necessary. In this way, the death of the son is situated in the true revolutionary context: that of giving one’s life for the complete liberty of one’s people. In this way, the mothers also feel inclined to participate in the revolutionary tasks.49

Given the high percentage of female heads of households in Nicaragua (23 percent in 1977 and 25 percent in 1985),50 it should come as no surprise that a large number of mothers of Sandinista heroes and martyrs were single mothers.51 Most important, many of them depended or would depend financially on their children once they reached their fifties,52 a relatively old age in Nicaragua, considering average life expectancy for women was fifty-seven years in the late 1970s and sixty in the early 1980s.53 It was not uncommon for women to have lost several children in battle, making them especially vulnerable in the difficult economic times of the late 1970s and the 1980s.54

Carlos Vilas has made the connection between the status of these women as heads of households and their eventual dependence on the state for assistance in his study of petitions for pensions and subsidies presented by the relatives of Sandinista heroes and martyrs in the early 1980s. Vilas examined the backgrounds of those men and women who died during the late 1970s in the struggle against the Somozas and concluded that “more than half of the participants (54 percent) were children born out of wedlock [and] almost half (47 percent) were raised and lived during their formative years (first 12 years) in families with a single head of household—the mother in the majority of cases. [Moreover,] the head of household . . . had to spend the greater part of the day outside the home, for occupational reasons.”55

Women’s roles as breadwinners and their reliance on their grown children for financial support in their old age motivated many women to join groups such as the Mothers of Heroes and Martyrs in the aftermath of their children’s deaths. It is my contention that, like the Sandinistas, the Somozas also benefited from single mothers’ economic vulnerability. Both regimes were able to obtain the support of female heads of households who were in desperate economic situations. The Sandinistas achieved this in part by financially rewarding middle-aged and elderly mothers who had lost children to the revolutionary cause.56 The Somozas did so by offering relatively young single mothers—and working-age urban women in general—limited employment opportunities, especially after 1950.

In 1950, women made up 14 percent of the nation’s economically active population. That proportion would rise to nearly 29 percent in 1977.57 The increase in women’s employment outside the home was related both to the rise in rural landlessness and urbanization mentioned earlier and to the liberal, populist, patron-clientelistic modern state the Somozas forged while in power.

Historian Knut Walter has noted that Nicaragua was “a late starter” when it came to state formation and that

the Somocista regime laid the foundations of the modern Nicaraguan state by implementing a number of important changes in the Nicaraguan political system. In the first place, it neutralized or co-opted the old caudillo leadership based on regional interest groups and replaced it with a broad coalition of agricultural entrepreneurs, government bureaucrats, and party and labor organizations favorable to the regime. In the second place, it strengthened and specialized the state’s institutional framework as a result of the growing complexity of Nicaraguan society and the need to resolve the issues (social, financial, and legal) that accompanied export-oriented growth. And finally, it used coercion in moments of political crisis during which the basic contradictions and tensions within the state became evident, although the regime did aspire to a level of legitimacy that would allow it to function without constantly having to bring its coercive power into play.58

Women’s employment was crucial in the provision of social services to the Nicaraguan population and in the expansion of the welfare system. Women constituted a low-paid workforce considered especially appropriate for social service tasks. Thus the Somozas offered women state employment as teachers, nurses, secretaries, receptionists, telegraph and telephone operators, bank tellers, social workers, day care workers, dietitians, laboratory technicians, pharmacists, judges, attorneys, cooks, and cleaning personnel in public buildings.

In twentieth-century Latin America, according to Maxine Molyneux, women “were not excluded from the liberal [state-building] project”; indeed, “as time progressed, they became a more visible part of it.”59 Most important, perhaps, the formation of modern states “as envisioned by Latin American elites, was itself premised on the selective incorporation of women into public life.”60 Nicaragua under the Somozas resembled other Liberal twentieth-century Latin American states whose “populist governments sought to establish a more extensive system of welfare, albeit one that was only selectively inclusive and that reproduced the clientelistic structure of corporatist favoritism.”61 These states, Molyneux goes on to say, “sought to mobilize women, and they made direct appeals to women [both] as political subjects” and as “client-citizens.”62

Women’s dual standing as political and economic “clients” and as political “citizens” is crucial to our understanding of the Somocista state and Somocista politics in general. To explain how this dual identity worked, it is important to heed Javier Auyero’s advice and go beyond the “prefabricated and stigmatizing images of the exchange of votes for favors. Clientelism must be approached through its least known and least spectacular side: the everyday dealings of political brokers, the practices and perspectives of so-called clients, and the problem-solving network that links ‘clients,’ brokers, and political patrons.”63

Although Auyero’s research focuses on contemporary Argentina, his insights apply to the Somoza dictatorship as well. Auyero argues that “information hoarding and resource control” are two “equally important practices in the functioning of clientelistic networks.” Moreover, he contends that “engaged participation in . . . problem-solving networks reinforces sociopolitical identities as much as it provides goods and favors.”64 As both voters and state employees, urban, working- and middle-class women were able to participate in Somocista client networks at all but the highest levels, which were usually reserved for men of the Somoza family. Hoarding information and controlling resources, Somocista women, like Somocista men, helped forge a Somocista populist sociopolitical identity.

Jeffrey L. Gould argues that Anastasio Somoza García’s “consolidation of power can only be comprehended in light of the support of broad sectors of the working classes” and that workers expressed a “contradictory acceptance and simultaneous rejection of the dominant exploitative system.”65 Similar dynamics were at play in women’s support for the Somozas, especially in the years after women’s suffrage was won (1955–79). Most Somocista women did not support the regime unconditionally and most were willing to play by certain rules but not by others. This conditional support for the dynasty helps explain why Faustina Castro, a longtime Somocista, could change her mind so quickly about the Somozas after witnessing the massacre of her neighbors at the hands of the National Guard.

The belief that “the Somozas were good to those who were good to them”66 summarizes many Somocistas’ understanding of the regime. Women, like men, understood the Somozas’ “goodness” to be the opportunity to work, vote, and participate in a clientelistic network that offered them information and resources. As corruption and unemployment increased within the last Somoza administration, resources became less available and the importance of women’s and men’s citizenship and work diminished, leading some Somocistas to support the Sandinistas. The increased militarization of politics and the increased importance of the National Guard in society also had an impact on the nature of Somocista patron-client relations, leading to the alienation of many Nicaraguans from Somocismo.

Although women’s participation in formal economic sectors was curtailed when Nicaragua’s economy collapsed in the late 1970s, the Somozas had nonetheless succeeded in mobilizing women across different economic sectors, some of which grew even during hard economic times. In addition to targeting women teachers, professionals, and service sector workers, the Somozas made an effort to mobilize the largely female market sellers and prostitutes as well. Members of these two groups would support the regime over the long term.

The figure of the prostitute came to symbolize the moral corruption of the dictatorship for those on the Left. Brothels were among the first buildings to be destroyed during the Sandinista revolution in 1979, and dozens of prostitutes were jailed, to be eventually “rehabilitated” by the Sandinista state.67 The political mobilization of these “women of ill repute” and the Somozas’ institutionalization of prostitution for the economic gain of their National Guard led anti-Somocistas in Nicaragua to equate all Somocista women’s activism with prostitution.68 Three additional factors caused the Somoza period to be remembered—even today—as one of extreme sexual disorder, in which the Somozas’ female supporters are supposed to have been particularly corrupt. State-sponsored sexual violence against anti-Somocista women and the personal role men of the Somoza family played in the sexual torture of their victims outraged Sandinistas and Conservatives alike.69 Some Conservatives were also outraged by the Somozas’ incorporation of urban women into the labor force.

Pedro Joaquín Chamorro, the vocal opposition leader assassinated by the Somozas in 1978, described the Somoza period as “the total inversion of the moral values of Nicaraguan life: prostitutes against mothers, alcohol against civic duty, blackmail against honesty, lowlifes against citizenry.”70 The mothers would triumph against prostitutes after the defeat of the Somozas in 1979. But what about the right-wing political culture that so many Nicaraguan women had embraced under the dictatorship? Did Somocismo simply disappear in 1979? Not at all, as the 2006 political survey of Granada made clear. Ingrained right-wing clientelistic identities and traditions among Nicaraguan women can explain why so many of them voted against the Sandinistas in 1990, why so many voted in favor of a right-wing populist Liberal candidate in 1996, why so many voted for the Liberal Party again in 2001, and why the dictatorship lasted so long in the first place. It can explain, as well, both the eventual disillusionment with the neoliberal policies implemented in Nicaragua after 1990 and Sandinista leader Daniel Ortega’s return to power in January 2007.

The examination of sexual politics under the dictatorship is also crucial to our understanding of recent political developments in Nicaragua. That the Somoza period is still characterized as one of sexual disorder is a political victory for both the FSLN and the Conservative Party, for it means that the official Somocista portrayal of the regime as orderly did not prevail. Ironically, however, the image of sexual disorder was popularized precisely because it reinforced already-established societal restrictions against women in public life, restrictions upheld by a significant sector of anti-Somocistas, including most Conservatives. Heir to the Conservative Party’s tradition extolling women’s maternal and domestic roles in society, Violeta Barrios de Chamorro justified her participation in politics, as she would her presidency (1990–96), by proclaiming herself to be “the Mother of the Nicaraguans.”71 Indeed, “doña Violeta” set about rectifying not only the gender policies of the Sandinistas but also those of the Liberal Somocistas which did not coincide with Conservative views on women.

The links between dictatorship and prostitution had a profound effect on the FSLN leaders, who wasted no time in banning prostitution in the first few months of their rule. As Helen Collinson and colleagues note, “for the Sandinistas, prostitution epitomized all the wrongs of the Somoza regime.”72 The FSLN fashioned its policies on gender in response to the Somozas’ corruption: the revolutionary “New Man” was not to engage in the sexual degradation of women, a characteristic of Somocista masculinity. Against this backdrop, it is not surprising that, when former Sandinista president Daniel Ortega stood accused of rape and sexual abuse by his stepdaughter, Zoilamérica Narváez, in the late 1990s, many FSLN supporters found what Narváez claimed Ortega did unimaginable—sexual abuse had taken place under the Somozas; it was not supposed to occur under the Sandinistas.

Although Narváez’s accusations might lead some to see similarities between the Somoza dictatorship and the Sandinista revolution, they should not obscure the important and very real differences between the experiences of Somocista and Sandinista women. Somocista women had to defend a regime that systematically oppressed women through state-sponsored prostitution rings and the rape of female prisoners. Sandinista women did not. And although both were treated as “mujeres públicas” (loose women or prostitutes) by their enemies for assuming public political and economic roles in society, the mobilization of Sandinista women and their struggle for autonomy from the FSLN eventually led to the emergence of a second wave of feminism in Nicaragua. By contrast, the mobilization of Somocista women and their acceptance of their dependent status effectively co-opted Nicaragua’s first wave of feminism and delayed the reemergence of feminism until the early 1990s


When I began this research project in 1994, I was interested in documenting the history of early twentieth-century feminism in Nicaragua. Thus I gathered as much information as I could on Josefa Toledo de Aguerri (1866–1962), Nicaragua’s most important suffragist, and her generation of feminists. My search led me to interview Toledo de Aguerri’s former students, assistants, and friends, as well as to visit her grave and the few monuments erected in her memory.

My search for Nicaragua’s forgotten feminism also led me to the study of Somocista women, for I soon came to realize that I could not understand early feminism in Nicaragua without understanding the women’s movement that eclipsed it, and vice versa. Moreover, I came to believe that Somocista women’s lives shed light on the experiences of the generations of Nicaraguans who followed them.

The history of first-wave feminists in Nicaragua is thus intrinsically linked to the history of Somocista women. Indeed, without this link, we cannot explain the demise of first-wave feminism, and the Somocista women’s movement seems to appear out of thin air. Moreover, it is by addressing the shift from feminism to Somocismo that we appreciate the continuities and discontinuities in twentieth-century Nicaraguan women’s history. The formation of a Somocista women’s movement and the displacement of feminists also add credence to Knut Walter’s arguments about the formation of the modern Nicaraguan state. Women were part of the “broad coalition . . . favorable to the regime” that the Somozas used to replace the “old caudillo leadership based on regional interest groups.”73 Just as important, women’s support for the regime allowed it “to function without constantly having to bring its coercive power into play.”74

Like many other Nicaraguans, I was more familiar with individual Somocista women’s lives than with the trajectory of Nicaraguan feminism before 1979. This familiarity, in my case, bred curiosity and the knowledge that female Somocistas were a complex and contradictory group of women, who deserved to be studied in their own right. I soon decided that they would be a central focus of my research.

I conducted more than fifty interviews with Somocistas and anti-Somocistas between 1994 and 2009. Most interviews took place between 1997 and 1998 and lasted between fifteen minutes and two hours. A handful however, lasted between six and twenty hours and took place over the course of days or even years.

In my search for informants, I attended three major Liberal political events: a Liberal Party rally in Matagalpa in 1996, a Liberal Women’s assembly in Managua in 1998, and the 1998 Liberal Party Convention in Managua. At these events, I interviewed many women and some men. The rest of my informants I contacted through the snowball method: one informant led me to the next and so on. Some informants I located through friends, the Internet, or the telephone book. Others were acquaintances and family members, an unavoidable situation in a small country. I was surprised to find that one informant, an elderly Somocista woman I had never met or heard of before, was a distant relative. When I called her to request an interview, she asked my full name, my father’s name, and my town of origin. With this information, she was able to figure out that we were related, and she agreed to the interview. I, however, did not know that we were until I showed up at her door and she greeted me with great affection.

Many of my informants wanted to know my father’s name, my hometown in Nicaragua, and my family’s political affiliation before they agreed to be interviewed.75 I told whoever asked that my father had been a longtime member of the Conservative Party and that, like most Nicaraguan families, mine included both Somocistas and non-Somocistas. Hardly anyone wanted to know what my own political persuasion was, but I assured everyone I spoke to that my intent was not to write a partisan history. I assume that my gender, my middle-class appearance, my short stature, my academic credentials, the fact that I was only ten years old in 1979, and the many years I have spent outside Nicaragua put most informants at ease. I cannot help but think that many of the people I contacted agreed to be interviewed because they were curious about my unusual research project. Others simply appreciated a chance to talk to someone who was interested in their lives. Some former Somocista leaders, on the other hand, seemed to relish the attention and being taken seriously again.

Of course, not everyone I contacted agreed to be interviewed. Some Somocistas were clearly afraid or suspicious of me, or both. One man, for instance, asked to see inside my bag as he wondered out loud whether I had a gun there. Others, such as the members of the Alemán administration I attempted to talk to in 1998, when Arnoldo Alemán (1997–2002) was still in power, were too busy to bother with an interview. Given the sensitive nature of the issue, they might have also not wanted to talk about their Somocista pasts.

In searching for Somocista female informants, I looked for “women who had had a long trajectory within the Liberal Party.” With this euphemistic language, I hoped to avoid insulting or alienating potential informants. I also wanted to avoid recent converts to Liberalism. What I hoped to do was to interview women who self-identified as Somocistas during the dictatorship and who continued to do so in the post-Sandinista period. This, in the end, was not hard to do; I was able to interview a total of two dozen Somocista women of varied class and regional backgrounds.

For obvious reasons, most of the women I interviewed were older than fifty. Many, in fact, were in their late sixties, seventies, and eighties. The interviews with members of this older generation are crucial to documenting the transition from feminism to the Somocista women’s movement. They are also important to our understanding of the Ala Femenina and women’s political mobilization as a whole under the Somozas. Many of their stories and points of view are already lost to future generations: several of the women I interviewed have died in recent years.

I also interviewed many Liberal women who were not Somocistas, some Conservative women, some Christian Democratic women, and some Sandinista women. The Liberal, non-Somocista tradition in Nicaragua is often overlooked by academics interested in women’s history. Nonetheless, it is crucial to understanding Nicaraguan women’s political activism. Women like Angélica Balladares, who were born in the 1880s and came of age politically within Liberalism before the Somozas took power, did not become Somocistas. To the contrary, they became critics of the regime.76 This non-Somocista legacy is proudly claimed by many contemporary Liberal women.

Over the course of the late 1990s, I was able to present my findings to groups in three different Nicaraguan cities: Managua, Esteli, and Matagalpa. These public presentations gave me an opportunity to hear the responses of my mostly Sandinista audiences to my research conclusions. As I note in the preface, these responses were initially negative because of the subject matter of my research. Nonetheless, I was eventually able to establish a dialogue with many anti-Somocistas and to incorporate at least some of their concerns into this project. I value our exchange of views greatly and feel it contributed significantly to my thinking on the writing of history.

I interviewed about a dozen men for this project, half of whom were Somocistas and half, anti-Somocistas. I also spoke to dozens of men and women informally about my research results, eliciting many comments. Unfortunately, I was able to conduct only one interview with a woman who practiced prostitution during the Somoza period, and none with male clients. This is clearly a gap in my study, one I hope to fill through future research. Of the handful of Liberal market women I interviewed, most who were active in politics in the late 1990s and early 2000s had not been active during the Somoza period. Most of the female Liberal market activists I encountered were in their thirties, forties, and early fifties. I searched for some in their sixties and seventies but did not find any. This, I presume, is a result of Nicaraguan workingwomen’s short life expectancy, although elderly working-class women might be found at home taking care of their grandchildren.

As noted in the preface, to protect my informants from harm, I promised them I would neither reveal their identity nor any information that would make them easily identifiable. For some informants, anonymity was not an issue because they were public figures and what they told me was not of a sensitive or controversial nature. This was the case, for instance, with interviews of FSLN Comandante Tomás Borge and Conservative politician Miriam Argüello, as well as with interviews of a few non-Somocistas who simply gave me factual information.

<1> Organization

Before the Revolution is divided into six chapters. Chapter 1, “Feminism Before Somoza,” deals with the history of feminism before the Somoza family’s rise to power in the 1930s. Chapter 2, “From Feminism to Partisan Suffragist Politics,” documents the transition, in the 1940 and 1950s, from nonpartisan feminism to a one-issue women’s movement dominated by committed Liberal and Conservative Party members. Chapter 3,“The Aftermath of Women’s Suffrage,” addresses the question of what happened after women won the vote in 1955, first portraying the electoral system that developed under the dictatorship and then discussing in detail the Ala Femenina, the Women’s Wing of the Nationalist Liberal Party, and the role it played in the formation of Somocista populist clientelism. Chapter 4, “Somocista Women’s Lives,” tells Somocista women’s stories in their own words. Chapter 5, “The Activism and Legacy of Nicolasa Sevilla,” tells the story of an alleged prostitute and madam who became the founder and the only female leader of the Somocista Popular Fronts, a clientelistic network of working-class people who engaged in violence against the populace. Chapter 6, “Sex and Somocismo,” deals with sexual politics, prostitution, and maternalism under the dictatorship.

The book does not address in great detail the atrocities committed by the Somozas and their supporters; it does not deal extensively with religious issues or racial differences, nor does it cover the history of women on Nicaragua’s Atlantic Coast, who won the right to vote in 1894.77 Indeed, to my knowledge, no one has studied the history of women on the Atlantic Coast before 1979 in depth.

Instead, my book tells how nonpartisan feminism got erased from history in the 1950s; how the first generation of university-educated women of a small, poor country ended up supporting one of the most abhorrent dictatorships in twentieth-century Latin America; and how a handful of working-class alleged prostitutes got to be highly visible in a right-wing, nonmaternalistic regime. In doing so, it tries to show how all of these issues are related and why all of this matters to the formation of the modern Nicaraguan state and twentieth-century political identities and culture.

Before the Revolution is only one of a growing number of nonpartisan (neither Somocista nor Sandinista) histories of Nicaragua being written by Nicaraguans. My contribution is unique because I am writing about a recent and controversial period without having lived through it either as an adult or even as a teenager. I can only hope that my lack of firsthand experience is made up for by my relative nonpartisanship—and that my book helps to establish a dialogue on Somocismo not only between Somocistas and anti-Somocistas but also across generations.