A Review of Women in War: The Micro-Processes of Mobilization in El Salvador

Ordinary People in Extraordinary Times

by | Jan 9, 2014

Women in War: The Micro-Processes of Mobilization in El Salvador By Jocelyn Viterna Oxford University Press, 2013, 304 pages

El Salvador’s history of internal conflict during the Cold War era both parallels and diverges from the experiences of its Latin American neighbors. On the one hand, El Salvador shared in the devastation: its governments, backed materially and politically by the United States over the course of a twelve-year civil war (1980-1992), unleashed ferocious violence upon citizens in the hope of crushing a leftist insurgency. This state-sponsored, scorched-earth campaign killed tens of thousands and drove over a million from their homes. On the other hand, and unlike in most other regional contexts, the insurgents were sufficiently powerful and well organized that they were able to bring the military state to its knees. United under the umbrella of the Farabundo Martí National Liberation Front (FMLN) and with external support from Cuba and Nicaragua—though of a far more limited nature than what the United States provided to the Armed Forces—El Salvador’s revolutionary forces carried out one of the most effective guerrilla insurgencies in recent history.

But while the stereotypical image of a Latin American guerrilla tends to resemble a strapping Che Guevara, Harvard sociologist Jocelyn Viterna demonstrates in her new book, Women in War, that it was, instead, women who made up the “backbone,” as she puts it, of the FMLN. Consequently, she emphasizes that we cannot understand the FMLN’s achievements—or, for that matter, recent Salvadoran history—without understanding why women chose to join the FMLN, what their experiences of guerrilla life were like, and how these women’s varied experiences of FMLN participation influenced their activities and identities in the post-war period. In exploring these questions, Viterna makes important contributions to social movement theory, feminist scholarship, and women’s history; her book, which foregrounds the voices of rank-and-file Salvadoran women insurgents, is a much needed addition to the literature on Central American revolutions.

Viterna’s work seeks to transcend the binary frameworks common to much of the scholarly writing on women’s participation in war and armed movements: that such participation is either emancipatory or limiting, that women participants either smash patriarchal boundaries or are further victimized by them, and that women’s war experiences either expand or constrict social roles for women in the aftermath of violent conflict. Women insurgents’ motivations and experiences were heterogeneous, Viterna explains, and it is necessary to differentiate among them. To do so, she develops a new methodological approach for analyzing how and why individuals decided to join the FMLN, an identity-based analytical framework for accessing what she calls “micro-level mobilization processes.” Put simply, this involves taking Salvadoran women—guerrillas, collaborators, and non-participants—seriously as social actors, accounting for their diverse wartime trajectories by highlighting how they strove to protect their most salient identity markers (as “woman,” “youth,” or “mother,” for example) in the face of extreme social violence.

What persuaded a particular group of women to accept and internalize the identity of “activist” during wartime? Why did some women in a given network mobilize while others did not? Why did the experience of guerrilla mobilization propel some women into activist work in the postwar period and cause others to retreat from politics? These are Viterna’s research questions, and to answer them, she examines the interplay between the FMLN’s highly gendered recruitment narratives, participants’ development of activist identities, and the crucial contextual factors of place and time. Because the FMLN styled itself (and behaved) as the “good guys” in the war, defending the vulnerable and advancing a righteous cause, it was able to strategically leverage commonly shared identities in the service of its military objectives.

The methodological and theoretical insights in Women in War will doubtless be of interest to sociologists of political movements, but the book also holds appeal for more general readers. Its privileging of women guerrillas’ testimonies ensures that a rich human element runs continuously alongside the author’s scholarly apparatus. We learn that while Amanda, who joined the FMLN early in the war as an eager volunteer, “knew that there was a need to fight” and “always had the aspiration that we could make the world a better place,” Lulu, one of many others who joined up out of necessity after army incursions into her village made normal life impossible, noted that “you had to join [the guerrillas] because you didn’t have any other alternative.” The chapter describing everyday life in FMLN guerrilla encampments is particularly compelling, revealing both ex-guerrillas’ fond memories of a shared sense of revolutionary unity and the daily reality of difficult, compartmentalized work that rewarded some women with high-prestige positions (as medics, radio operators, or political organizers) while relegating others to the more typically “female” work of food preparation. Viterna points out the challenges of managing motherhood, companionship, and reproduction in mobile military camps; however, she also notes that the FMLN’s retention rates remained notably high throughout the war, and women’s consistent presence in the camps “made them the stable presence of the organization.”

At war’s end, however, what ultimately predicted whether or not female ex-guerrillas would continue as activists in the post-war period was not the mere fact of having participated in the insurgency. Rather, it mattered whether specific women had held high-prestige positions, had connections to powerful commanders, and/or had received education and skills training in refugee camps during the war. This relates to one of Viterna’s major arguments: that while the FMLN narrated women’s roles in a way that seemed to challenge the existing patriarchal order, it actually failed to meaningfully challenge traditional gender hierarchies—indeed, it was the FMLN’s appeal to standard gender roles that accounted for its recruitment success, and women’s “stable presence” in the camps owed mainly to the fact that male commanders generally resisted sending them into open battle. We therefore cannot, Women in War conclusively shows, assume that women’s participation in armed warfare necessarily bends gender in a lasting way across the board. To understand the impact of war on women’s lives, we must instead listen seriously, as Viterna does, to the hopes and frustrations of these ordinary women caught up in extraordinary times.

Winter 2014Volume XIII, Number 2

Kirsten Weld is Assistant Professor of History at Harvard University. Her book Paper Cadavers: The Archives of Dictatorship in Guatemala, is forthcoming in March 2014.

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