Salvadoran Women Combatants

Against the Current, No. 181, March/April 2016

Diana C. Sierra Becerra

Women in War:
The Micro-processes of Mobilization in El Salvador
By Jocelyn Viterna
New York, NY: Oxford University Press, 2013, 304 pages, $26.95 paperback.

IN WOMEN IN War: The Micro-Processes of Mobilization in El Salvador, sociologist Jocelyn Viterna investigates the wartime experiences of women combatants and the differences in postwar gains between men and women. Her study is based on 230 interviews with former combatants from the Farabundo Martí National Liberation Front (FMLN), a peasant insurgency composed of five distinct guerrilla groups.

Founded in 1980, the FMLN revolted against the Salvadoran state after decades of military repression of non-violent movements. The Civil War (1980-1992) resulted in the deaths of 75,000 people. The postwar U.N. Truth Commission reported that government forces and right-wing death squads committed 85% of acts of violence; guerrillas were accused in 5% of cases. (United Nations, 1993)(1)

Recruitment Avenues

Viterna examines recruitment patterns within the guerrilla ranks over the course of the war. She identifies three major types of recruits: “politicized,” “reluctant,” and “recruited” combatants. Politicized and reluctant recruits mainly joined prior to 1984, while recruited combatants joined after 1985.

Politicized recruits had previously participated within militant mass organizations prior to the outbreak of the war. According to Viterna, politicized recruits were predominantly men. In other words, the politicized path was “the least likely route that women joined the FMLN.” (93)

She explains the discrepancy between the recruitment of men and women during this period as the result of sexism: rural women “were not central players in pre-war protest organizations, so they were not often viewed as ideological adherents worthy of recruitment.” (65) After the war, politicized recruits were “the most likely of former guerrillas to become community leaders.” (93)

In contrast to politicized recruits, “reluctant” combatants did not have previous political experience and joined the FMLN because it increased their chances for survival. Lastly, “recruited” combatants resided within locations that facilitated contact with FMLN combatants and sympathizers, such as refugee camps or repopulated territories under FMLN control.

Recruited combatants tended to be childless young women who learned to read and write within the refugee camps. These skills enabled their participation as radio operators and medics, a point to which I will return.

Gendered Division of Labor

Viterna outlines the gendered division of labor within the guerrilla camps. For example, men dominated the top FMLN command, although some women did rise to the position of commander. Women were over­represented in low-prestige work such as cooking, while men were overrepresented in high-prestige work such as combat.

Viterna recognizes, however, that women also occupied high-prestige positions as medics, radio operators, political organizers and mid-level officers. Women often worked as medics and radio operators during the second half of the war due to their higher levels of education. They had learned to read and write in refugee camps, a space mainly composed of women, children, and the elderly.

Prior to 1984, men had higher levels of education, averaging 2.3 years of education in comparison to 1.6 years among women. By 1984, women averaged 3.4 years, while men averaged 1.8 years of education. Scholars have discussed the importance of popular education in mobilizing peasants (Hammond, 1998). The cited data suggests that popular education efforts may have greatly benefited women, although Viterna does not make that point.

Motherhood also impacted the ranking of women within the FMLN. In her sample, 21 out of 28 women who arrived to the camps without children achieved high-prestige positions. In contrast, all 10 women who arrived to the camps with young children remained in low-prestige positions. This finding underscores the importance of childcare access in enabling the political participation of women.

Why did women accept the gendered division of labor with the camps? For example, the women interviewed forcefully insist that ‘‘women and men performed all jobs equally in the guerrilla camps,’’ which according to them reflected the FMLN’s commitment to women’s equality. (139). But for Viterna their accounts are proof that women have internalized the sexist narrative of the top leadership:

“How could [commanders] bend gender norms enough to get women to fill high-prestige positions, but not so much that they would not want to also occupy the low-prestige ones? The FMLN resolved this dilemma with a narrative of ‘abilities’ or capacidades…Camp commanders were the final judges of how ‘capable’ any one individual might be.” (149)

Women’s Postwar Ranking

Unequal ranking also had consequences after the war. Viterna concludes that women who most challenged gender relations, particularly combatants, were least likely to occupy a “beneficial network position” in the postwar period, impeding their access to key resources such as land, employment and loans. In contrast, women who had personal connections to high-ranking FMLN commanders fared better in the postwar period.

This is an important point, demonstrating how women’s wartime participation does not inevitably lead to postwar gains for women. Viterna contributes to a body of scholarship that emphasizes the continuation or reconfiguration of sexism within leftist movements and the limitations of class-reductionist categories in studies of social movements and labor. (McGee Deutsch, 1991)

Viterna foregrounds the military structure of the FMLN as the primary factor that determined the position of women combatants in the postwar era. But it is important to remember that the FMLN did not win the war, but rather negotiated on unequal terms with the far-right National Republican Alliance (ARENA) party, whose founder established death squads and was responsible for the assassination of Archbishop Oscar Romero, recently beatified in May 2015. (United Nations, 1993: 119; Democracy Now!, 2015)

How did the 1992 Chapultepec Peace Accords determine the overall postwar opportunities for combatants and specifically women? Other studies can perhaps build on Viterna’s contributions about the postwar status of women in order to answer this question.

Political Motivations

The appendix discusses the different recruitment strategies among the five guerrilla groups, which complicates the recruitment model previously outlined. The Popular Liberation Forces (FPL) was the “most likely of the five guerrilla organizations to recruit women who were already active in their communities.” (252)

I would also add that the FPL supported mass organizing and the creation of separate women’s organizations in order to develop the militancy of the working class.(2) The organization often argued that peasant women had more revolutionary potential than men.(3)

The targeted recruitment of women within the FPL, the largest guerrilla group, seems to depart from Viterna’s overall characterization of FMLN recruitment practices as exclusionary of activist women. Therefore, this sociological model may obscure nuance and misrepresent the scale of recruitment practices.

The book’s argument about the low recruitment of politicized women is linked to other claims about the sexist views of FMLN commanders. Viterna argues that the FMLN recruited women for purely practical reasons (i.e. as a tactical response to increased U.S. military aid between 1981 and 1984, and out of the need to fill low-prestige positions), and not due to any real commitment to gender equality.

Contemporary Salvadoran women’s groups add that the FMLN leadership recruited women because “women’s groups were especially adept at funneling international monies into the FMLN war effort.” (147) I would also point out that each group in the FMLN established women’s organizations comprised of civilians and combatants, but Viterna does not list the organizations or examine their goals and practices.(4)

While Viterna and postwar feminists may be right about the motives of many FMLN commanders, the reader is left wondering about the political motivations of women combatants.

How did women understand socialism and how did they respond to sexism? What internal debates existed within the FMLN regarding the role of women within revolutionary struggle? Leaving the argument of “false consciousness” aside, could other factors be informing why former guerrilleras insist on the FMLN’s commitment to gender equality?

Studies that ask how women intervened in leftist debates have fundamentally changed our understanding about social movements. (Tinsman, 2000) Thus the book could have been strengthened through a historical contextualization of the FMLN within the larger debates occurring within the Latin American left. For example, in the 1970s and 1980s leftist Latin American women questioned the separation of women’s liberation from anti-capitalist revolution, giving rise to socialist feminism. (Stoltz Chinchilla, 1991: 302)

The book gives the impression that anti-sexist struggles simply did not exist during the war. Viterna even questions “whether women are attracted by emancipatory goals in the first place.” (11) However, her focus on FMLN sexism may reflect a larger postwar narrative that dates the rise of feminism to the 1990s — the moment when many women abandoned leftist parties and formed self-identified feminist organizations.

This narrative divorces women’s wartime organizing from the history of Salvadoran feminism. The recent record of the FMLN party toward women, and the postwar narratives about the origins of feminism, have helped shape how people understand wartime sexism and struggles against it.(5)

Viterna’s qualitative and quantitative study is accessible to readers who have little or in-depth knowledge about the role of women within the FMLN. The study is important because it illuminates the obstacles that women combatants confronted, and how their armed participation has translated into benefits (or absence thereof) in the postwar period.


  1. Based on 22,000 complaints of “serious acts of violence” committed between January 1980 and July 1991.
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  2. For example, Ana María, the second in FPL command served as the president of the National Association of Salvadoran Educators (ANDES 21 de Junio) during the mid-’60s. The association had a majority women membership and many of its members joined the FPL. FPL members also helped form the Revolutionary Popular Block (BPR) in 1975, a mass coalition between urban and rural workers and students, and the Asociación de Mujeres de El Salvador (Association of Salvadoran Women, AMES) in 1978. During the early ’80s, the FPL helped to establish community councils that democratically coordinated the needs of the community, including women’s participation (Pearce, 1986).
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  3. “Las luchas populares y la mujer campesina,” Campo Rebelde: periódico revolucionario dedicado a los trabajadores del campo no.1, January 1978, 10-11; Compañera, Revista de las FPL dedicada a la Mujer, May 1979, 1. These documents are located within the Centro de Información, Documentación y Apoyo a la Investigación (CIDAI), Universidad Centroamericana José Simeón Cañas (UCA).
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  4. For interviews with women organizers, see (Carter, 1989). In 1975, the Partido Comunista de El Salvador (Communist Party of El Salvador, PC) formed the Asociación de Mujeres Progresistas de El Salvador (Progressive Women’s Association of El Salvador, AMPES) and in 1986 established the Instituto de Investigación, Capacitación y Desarrollo de la Mujer (Institute for the Investigation, Empowerment, and Development of Women, IMU). In 1981, exiled FMLN women in Costa Rica form the Comité Unitario de Mujeres Salvadoreñas (Unitary Committee of Salvadoran Women, CUMS). In 1983, the Partido Revolucionario de los Trabajadores Centroamericanos (Central American Worker’s Party, PRTC) formed the Asociación de Mujeres Salvadoreñas (Association of Salvadoran Women, ASMUSA). In 1987, the Ejército Revolucionario del Pueblo (Revolutionary People’s Army, ERP) established the Asociación Mujer Salvadoreña (Salvadoran Woman Association, AMS).
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  5. In a parallel example, scholars have demonstrated how feminism emerged within the U.S. national liberation movements, thus challenging assumptions about the possible sites in which feminist praxis can emerge (Blackwell, 2015).
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Blackwell, Maylei. 2015. Chicana Power! Contested Histories of Feminism in the Chicano Movement. Austin: University of Texas Press.

Carter, Brenda, Kevan Isnko, David Loeb, and Marlene Tobias, eds. 1989. A Dream Compels Us: Voices of Salvadoran Women. Boston: South End Press.

Democracy Now! 2015. “300,000 Celebrate Beatification of Salvadoran Archbishop Romero, 35 Years After U.S.-Backed Murder.” May 26.

Hammond, John L. 1998. Fighting to Learn: Popular Education and Guerrilla War in El Salvador. News Brunswick: Rutgers University.

McGee Deutsch, Sandra. 1991. “Gender and Sociopolitical Change in 20th Century Latin America.” Hispanic American Historical Review 71 (2): 259-306.

Pearce, Jenny. 1986. Promised Land: Peasant Rebellion in Chalatenango, El Salvador. London: Latin American Bureau.

Stoltz Chinchilla, Norma. 1991. “Marxism, Feminism, and the Struggle for Democracy in Latin America.” Gender and Society 5 (2): 291-310.

Tinsman, Heidi. 2000. Partners in Conflict: The Politics of Gender, Sexuality, and Labor in the Chilean Agrarian Reform, 1950-1973. Durham: Duke University Press.

United Nations. 1993. “From Madness to Hope: the 12-year war in El Salvador: Report of the Commission on the Truth of El Salvador.”

March-April 2016, ATC 181